Saturday, January 15, 2022

The Conversation We Never Seem to Have

Early on Saturday afternoon, we heard the news that an angry man had burst into a synagogue not far from Fort Worth, Texas, and he was holding a rabbi and several other congregants hostage. The man was demanding the release of a convicted Muslim terrorist. In this case, fortunately, the hostages were finally released unharmed, but I can only imagine what their ten-hour ordeal was like.

And no, this frightening incident shouldn't immediately devolve into online comments about Muslims. It wasn't that long ago-- October 27, 2018-- when an avowed white supremacist, whose social media indicated hatred of immigrants and hatred of Jews, attacked a Pittsburgh synagogue. On that day, he murdered eleven worshipers. 

Both incidents share a common thread: an angry guy who decided to take out his anger on a group that had never met him, in a place where he had probably never gone before.  And many of us might ask: Why attack Jews at prayer? Why take out whatever grievances you have on people whose 'crime' seems to be that they attend synagogue? 

These kinds of attacks have become more common in the past few years. We saw Neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017, carrying torches and chanting "Jews will not replace us." And if you spend any time on social media, chances are you've encountered anti-Jewish comments. I've seen this happen on social media more times than I should have to. Yes, it's only words, but it still can hurt.

After an attack on a synagogue, or some other antisemitic incident, politicians issue the usual regrets and offer thoughts and prayers. But here's what usually doesn't happen-- the media rarely refer to antisemitism. It's usually framed like the perpetrator was some disgruntled guy who was angry about Israel (umm, no offense, but what does that have to do with threatening people praying in a synagogue?). Or they say it was some Muslim extremist. Or some white nationalist. In other words, it's often treated like a one-off. An exception. In no way part of any larger trend.

But it IS part of a larger trend. Agreed, many countries are far more tolerant today than they used to be. But let's be honest: many are not.  In too many places, kids are taught antisemitism from childhood-- and no, that's not just true of Muslim countries. Nationalism-- often Christian nationalism-- is on the rise throughout Europe, and there is little tolerance for anyone perceived as "other." Countries that used to welcome the stranger, including Hindu and Buddhist countries, are now treating the stranger as an enemy.

And in America, while most churches no longer teach overt hatred of the Jews, I can speak from first-hand experience that too many people are still learning it somewhere. I still meet lots of folks who only see me as someone who must be converted; or who believe the Jews are going to hell; or, worse yet, who still believe the Jews own the media or run the government or are to blame for [insert social problem here]. 

It would be nice if we could talk about this, rather than downplaying it.  It would be nice if church leaders, mosque leaders, and leaders of other faiths, would take an objective look at what kids are learning about Judaism. It would be nice if politicians would stop making Nazi and Hitler references whenever they disagree with some government policy. And it would be nice if the media would tell the truth about where things are: there really has been a rise in antisemitism in the US, and it needs to be called out. Pretending everything is fine isn't working. Ignoring prejudice doesn't make it go away. It's time to have an honest conversation, and come up with some strategies, so that people can go to synagogue or wear a Star of David or express pride in being Jewish without worrying about whether it's safe.

Friday, December 31, 2021

Saying Goodbye (and Good Riddance) to 2021

I was working on my 2021 retrospective blog post this afternoon when I got the news that Betty White had died. She was nearly 100-- and so healthy that People magazine featured her on the cover with an article about her upcoming birthday. But she passed away in her sleep last night, totally unexpectedly. In some ways, that is just typical of how 2021 was-- just when you thought it was heading in one direction, it headed in another direction entirely.

Frankly, I won't be sorry to see 2021 go. Agreed, it had a few high points, like my 7th anniversary of being cancer-free. But over all, it was a year of frustration and disappointment for so many of us, beginning with the attempted insurrection on January 6th. I never expected to see anything like that in my lifetime. I never expected to see a violent mob try to undo the results of an election. I thought that happened in other countries, but not in ours.  And what made it worse was hearing some people, and some politicians, defend it. But there is no defense for what happened.  We've always had the peaceful transfer of power, whether "our guy" won or lost. Watching the events of January 6th unfold made me afraid for our democracy. It was not a good way to start the year.

I remember how hopeful I was when a vaccine for COVID became more widely available. Having spent most of 2020 indoors, the thought of actually (not virtually) seeing my friends and going out for ice cream with my husband was an encouraging thought. I got the vaccine as soon as it was available, and within a few weeks, I was able to see (and hug) my friend Meg and visit a bookstore and eat at a restaurant. Life seemed like it was returning to some version of normal.

And then it wasn't. There was a new variant, and COVID numbers began to rise again, and people worried that the vaccines wouldn't be able to protect us, and the promise of being free from COVID was postponed. Many schools returned to online classes (and so many of our students were already in a state of crisis, having lost family members to the virus); and everything that seemed so promising was suddenly back to being uncertain. As I said, it was that kind of year.

Congress spent much of 2021 being quarrelsome, although several major pieces of legislation did get passed-- including one that will, hopefully, improve broadband nationwide. It has always mystified me why a country like ours has been okay with such poor quality broadband service for so long -- some parts of the US don't even have access to it at all, which in 2021 is outrageous, especially in a world where so many students need it for school. Like him or hate him, Pres. Biden was able to get the infrastructure bill through, and I applaud him for doing so-- others before him tried, but they did not succeed. He did. And that will benefit a lot of folks. 

In addition to Betty White, we lost a number of good people in 2021-- too many to name, but among them, actor Norman Lloyd died at age 106 (I loved his work in "St. Elsewhere"); and Ed Asner who famously played Lou Grant, died at age 91. Willie Garson, who starred in "White Collar" and "Sex in the City," died way too young, from cancer, at 57; the music industry lost Michael Nesmith of the Monkees, Gerry Marsden of Gerry and the Pacemakers, Jay Black of Jay and the Americans, Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones, Mary Wilson of the Supremes, Dusty Hill of ZZ Top, and Don Everly of the Everly Brothers.  Radio lost the legendary music director Rosalie Trombley, and local Boston media lost Dean Johnson, a friend and colleague and one of the good guys in our industry.

In late 2021, my husband became severely ill with pneumonia; it was a very scary period of time, and now that he is well on his way to a full recovery, I thank God every day for good doctors (and for health insurance). It was another reminder that if you've got your health, you've got everything.    

In 2021, more and more people seemed to think it was okay to be angry and threatening when they disagreed with others: I saw a lot of this on social media, but some folks saw it in stores, on airplanes, and in restaurants. I miss the era when being courteous was the norm.  Meanwhile, schools (and teachers) became the object of outrage too, often unfairly ginned up by politicians. I've said it before and I'll say it again: while every profession has a few bad apples, the vast majority of teachers are hardworking, dedicated, and vastly underpaid. They do not deserve the scorn and insults that many of them received this year. Rather, they deserve our thanks for the work they do educating our kids, under often-difficult circumstances. 

And now, here we are at the end of 2021, and as I said, I won't miss it. I have no idea what 2022 will look like, but I do hope it will be more peaceful, more kind, and more tolerant than 2021 was. And I also hope it will be a year when we all return to good health. Thank you to everyone who read my blog in 2021. I hope I was reasonably interesting. I look forward to whatever 2022 holds, and I'll be here (God willing) to write about it. Wishing you a wonderful new year and sending much love. 

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Facing Down the Future Coming Fast

I was on a Rush Deep Dive webcast several days ago, and the song I was asked to analyze, from the "Hold Your Fire" album, was "Turn the Page." For those who read my blog, you may recall I mentioned it about a year ago, as I was commemorating the passing of Alto Reed, who played that haunting sax solo on Bob Seger's "Turn the Page"-- it's a very different song, but with the same name as the one by Rush. I have always liked them both: two different perspectives on how quickly things can change.

In the Bob Seger song, he sings about his life as a traveling musician, playing in city after city. "Here I am, on the road again, there I am up on the stage; here I go, playing star again, there I go, turn the page." Note how he is "playing" star-- it's not just a musical performance, but it's also a persona, the way he is expected to act. And then, it's time for the next city, and any ties to this one must be cut, and he's on to the next stage and the next performance.  

In the Rush song, Geddy Lee sings, "It's just the age, it's just a stage, we disengage, we turn the page." The stage-- referring, perhaps, to the venue where they play their music, or it could also refer to a stage of development in life.  Neil Peart's lyrics speak of how we are "racing down a river from the past," comparing our lives to "standing in a wind tunnel," or perhaps "standing in a time capsule," but in the end, we can't avoid "facing down the future coming fast." We try to outrun our past, but sooner or later, it catches up to us, and all we can do is either deal with it or try to disengage from it and "turn the page."

But it's not that easy, is it? On Thanksgiving day, my husband took seriously ill and I had to rush him to the hospital. He was diagnosed with pneumonia, and it took many days before he was well enough to come home. I didn't sleep much during that period of time, and no matter how I tried not to worry, I couldn't help feeling afraid. Of course, I tried to seem like I was in control-- I had courses to teach, and responsibilities at my job. So, I performed, as we all do when we have to; but inside, I was terrified.

On the 17th, it will be seven years since I had cancer surgery. I had wonderful doctors, and I am grateful to be alive. But I'd be lying if I said I didn't worry even now. I know logically that if the cancer hasn't come back by this point, it probably isn't going to. But I still lie awake at night sometimes, worrying about whether this story will have a happy ending. So far, it has-- I'm still here (much to the disappointment of my enemies). And so far, my husband's story looks much more promising than it did several weeks ago, and that too is good news. But the uncertainty about what lies ahead is sometimes difficult to avoid, and disengaging from it is hard to do.

On the other hand, I've found great comfort from the folks on social media who have reached out to me-- Rush fans, professional colleagues, educators, folks I knew in radio, friends who have stood by me for many years. Through my husband's illness, through my recovery from cancer, they were there for me. I don't know what the future will hold, but the compassion I've received has helped me to cope with the ups and the downs.  And in a world which at times seems dominated by the loudest voices and the folks who disagree, I find myself once again being thankful for those who brought me their friendship and their kindness-- gifts that matter now more than ever.

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

First Ladies Get No Respect

Well, evidently Jill Biden is a failure, at least according to about 50% of the folks online: her Christmas decorations are boring and ordinary. Her holiday decorating skills pale in comparison to Melania Trump, whose Christmas decorations were elegant and beautiful. Or not. According to about 50% of the folks online, Melania's Christmas decorations were gawdy and ostentatious. "Tacky," said one critic.

I'm Jewish and I don't much care about Christmas decorations, but as a media historian, I do care about what is written or said about First Ladies. And even though it's 2021, it certainly seems like we still hold First Ladies to an impossible standard. People criticize what they wear. People criticize the charities they favor. And if they make a comment about current events, people criticize their opinion-- or say they should keep it to themselves.    

None of this is new, of course. Back in the 1860s, Mary Todd Lincoln was accused by critics of being greedy and selfish, someone who cared more about spending money than setting a good example for thrift and prudence.  As popular as Eleanor Roosevelt was in the 1930s, she had detractors who accused her of trying to get too much attention from the press, rather than staying in the background.  Fast-forward to the 1980s, and accusations of being a big spender were often made about Nancy Reagan (who was also mocked for her belief in astrology). And when Hillary Clinton was First Lady in the 1990s, her critics said she wasn't ladylike, and they accused her of being pushy, manipulative, and dishonest.  

And I notice that Kamala Harris, our first female Vice President, is being subjected to the same kinds of critiques on social media as First Ladies often receive.  She was recently criticized for buying an expensive cooking pot (the same brand, I might add, that I bought a few years ago-- it does a wonderful job). I truly don't recall male vice presidents getting their purchases critiqued. Does anyone know what Mike Pence bought? Did anyone care?  

On the one hand, we have made some progress-- Dr. Jill Biden (who has also been criticized for wanting to use "Dr.," her professional title) is the first First Lady to hold down a paying job in addition to being First Lady. I'm fine about First Ladies working for pay-- there were many in years past who had excellent credentials but were never allowed to choose whether to work or not. The fact that Mrs. Biden still teaches at a community college is not as controversial it might have been as recently as a decade ago.  

And yet, some folks insist on having a debate over whose Christmas decorations are best, and I wonder why that's even a thing worth discussing. Frankly, I don't think it is. Nor do I think comparing which First Lady is "more glamorous" is useful.  I think these social media discussions are simply a proxy for whether some folks prefer Joe Biden or Donald Trump. 

As for me, I just want to see First Ladies get some respect. Theirs is not an easy job: they get all the scrutiny and criticism, yet they aren't elected, they don't make policy, and their own popularity is often tied to their husband's. In this holiday season, I don't care if Melania or Jill or whoever else wears nicer clothes or hangs up nicer decorations. I just want to see people take a break from sniping and criticizing, and focus on helping others and being kind. Historically, First Ladies haven't always been treated with kindness. Maybe this year is a good time to start.

Monday, November 15, 2021

A Place Where We Can Belong

As some of you know, I used to be a chaplain. I was teaching media courses at Emerson College in Boston at the time, and my job was to be a support person for the Jewish students. There was a Catholic chaplain, and a Protestant chaplain, and a Muslim chaplain, and I think there was a Hindu chaplain too. The regular Jewish chaplain needed a semester off due to illness, and since I had a counseling background (and since I was Jewish), I got asked to fill in. 

Our offices were near each other, and we all had a cordial relationship. In fact, there was nothing particularly remarkable about that semester...except for the fact that everyone who came to see me wasn't Jewish. No, it's not that they wanted to convert. In fact, most of the students who reached out didn't seem to care which denomination of chaplain was available-- they just needed someone to talk to, someone who had a spiritual background.  Fortunately, I've taught world religions, and I do understand the basic tenets of most faiths. I hope that I was able to comfort or encourage the students who came to see me. After all, it's the same God, even if each of our traditions recommends different pathways or uses different scriptures.

What brought this to mind is a rather unpleasant trend I've been noticing among some folks on the far right, both in Europe and in the US. There has been a troubling resurgence of anti-Jewish sentiments in Hungary, in Poland, in Lithuania, and elsewhere.  And we even saw examples of it here in 2017, in Charlottesville VA, when Neo-Nazis marched with their torches, chanting "Jews will not replace us"-- reflecting a false belief called "Replacement Theory" that teaches how Jews are allegedly bringing in millions of non-white immigrants, with the goal of changing the culture and destroying all that white Christians built. (Various permutations of this theory have been around for generations, but thanks to social media, bigots have a much easier time spreading it and finding like-minded individuals who will embrace hatred of Jews, or immigrants, or anyone considered "the other.")  

Last week, a conservative provocateur on social media tweeted that it was time for Jews to "assimilate," to prove they were like everyone else by embracing Christian holidays and ceasing to observe Jewish ones. Needless to say, a lot of us were not amused-- I mean, I'm as American as anyone else, thank you very much. I was born here, as were my parents; my father fought for this country, as did most of my male relatives. And if I celebrate Jewish holidays, I'm still an American.  In fact, one reason why my ancestors came here was because we are guaranteed freedom of religion. I don't need to "prove" that I love America by taking on someone else's religion. I am free to be an American, no matter what religious tradition I follow. Or so I was taught.

But then, several days ago, Michael Flynn, an ally and advisor to the former president, spoke at a rally staged by Christian conservatives in Texas, and he stated, to applause from his audience, that "If we are going to have one nation under God, which we must, we have to have one religion. One nation under God and one religion under God, right?"  Umm, no. Wrong. The Founding Fathers didn't ask for one official religion, and even if it's an applause line at certain events, asserting that America needs to establish Christianity and diminish all other faiths is not in the Constitution.

It's also not a belief I want to see again. I wasn't fond of that kind of bigotry when I was growing up in the 1950s, and it isn't a belief that has aged well. And yet, today, there are websites and videos that promote it, and evidently there are some people who think it's a great idea. I'm not one of them. I hope you're not either. America has long benefited from different beliefs and different perspectives. Agreed, finding common ground isn't always easy when it comes to certain theological issues; but just like when I was a chaplain, sometimes the goal should be giving people encouragement and helping them to find their own path. 

There's no right way to do that. But telling some of us we don't belong here, or that our beliefs are inferior (or unwanted), is not a helpful message.  In such a contentious world, having allies is very important: so, even if you're not Jewish, when you hear folks making bigoted remarks, or see them posting those kinds of claims on social media, I hope you'll let them know that you don't accept what they're saying. Maybe you and I don't agree on politics, or religion, or which sports team is the best. But surely we can agree on this: there should be no place for intolerance and religious prejudice in America. Not now. Not ever.     

Sunday, October 31, 2021

Where Politics Doesn't Belong

When I tell my students I'm 74, they're often surprised-- fortunately, I'm still reasonably young-looking, but that's not what surprises them. Many of them don't know (or talk to) a lot of people who grew up in the 1950s.  And for obvious reasons, their picture of that time in our history is somewhat different from mine. Theirs was shaped by the news stories they learned about in history class, along with the iconic figures they studied. Mine was shaped by being there and seeing a lot of it unfold in real time-- although I admit I didn't always understand the importance of it all, because I was not quite in my teens.  

It's no myth to say the fifties were a very conservative and traditional era, where conformity was valued; it was a time when young people used rock music as one of their few forms of rebellion.  Fortunately for me, I had parents who encouraged me to read, and who discussed current issues with me; it made me feel very grown up to do that.  In fact, I still remember watching the evening news and then talking about it, especially with my mother.

But here's what we didn't talk about: politics. Now, I know what you are thinking: "But Donna, if you watched the news, the president (Dwight D. Eisenhower) was a Republican. And the governor of Massachusetts was a Democrat (Foster Furcolo)." That's true-- but I had no idea that one was good and the other was bad. In my house, we focused on what these people did, not what party they were from. I got the impression that my family tended to vote for Democrats, but on the other hand, sometimes, they liked Republicans. And I was a kid, and that was fine with me.

I had no idea what political party our family doctor came from-- I just knew he seemed like a very friendly and trustworthy guy and my parents liked him.  At the synagogue we attended, I had no clue who the rabbi voted for; he mainly spoke about the scriptures and about living an ethical life.  Frankly, it never occurred to me that I should know his political views.  Nor did I know the political views of our dentist or the pharmacist or the Kosher butcher or the milkman (they still delivered milk to your home back then).  Some of them were outgoing, some of them seemed totally focused on business; some seemed to like kids, and others regarded kids as a nuisance. But none of these folks talked about politics with the customers. Ever.

And as for my teachers-- most seemed very traditional and very serious.  They didn't like rock music, and they expected us to conform to whatever the norms were back then. Some were nice, some were strict, but I couldn't tell you who their favorite candidates were. Similarly, my mother would go to PTA and meet with various teachers, but nobody screamed at anyone. Disagreements were handled, but everyone was expected to be polite.  I'm not claiming it was an ideal universe where everyone loved everyone else-- my mother belonged to several volunteer organizations, and I'm sure there was plenty of pettiness and gossiping, as there is in every generation. But again, nobody shouted at the board members, nobody issued threats, nobody stormed out and promised to return with a gun.    

Today, I heard about a Southwest Airlines pilot who made an anti-Joe Biden remark over the loudspeaker. For months, in various states, I've been reading about school board meetings where people have been showing up to express their outrage at one thing or another, shouting at board members and calling them vulgar names.  I've seen videos of high school sporting events where parents are cursing out the referees, or cursing out the coaches. And this has been going on for a while. Some people want to blame the Democrats. Others want to blame the Republicans. Or Facebook. Or Twitter.  Or the pandemic. Fill in your favorite villain. 

But as for me, I blame a shift in the culture. And one problem is the need for some boundaries-- there ought to be spaces where politics doesn't belong, where everything isn't about what tribe you're in and which candidate you support. I absolutely do not miss the conformity or the casual bigotry I saw in the 50s. But I do miss being able to interact with people as people-- not as folks with the right views or folks who supported the right party. I'm tired of the anger, the rudeness, the divisiveness, the blame. And I'm really tired of the pundits who claim it's all the fault of [fill in the blank]. 

No, it's on each of us-- to say enough is enough and stop treating even the slightest disagreement like it's going to lead to World War 3. It's on each of us to model courtesy and show kids they can disagree without hating the "other side." But above all, it's on each of us to stop weaponizing our political differences. I want to be able to go into a store or take a plane ride or attend a ballgame without hearing vulgar political chants.  So yes, by all means, vote for the candidates you believe in, vote for the causes that animate you. But don't go on social media and mock the folks who didn't support "your side."  Let's stop making everything about politics. It's not doing anyone any good... and it's doing our country a lot of harm. 




Friday, October 15, 2021

The People who Inspire Us

The other day, I got some folks on social media upset with me when I said that I never understood the popularity of Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton, who are basically famous for being famous.  A number of fans of Kim K leaped to her defense-- even though I wasn't really attacking her. They told me she has done great work in prison reform, to cite one example. As I understand it, that's a fairly recent cause for her; but no matter how long she has done it, I'm certainly glad she is using her wealth and fame to do some good in the world.  However, that wasn't my point.  I was just musing about how some celebrities (both male and female) have no particular accomplishments other than being well-known, and yet they are adored by millions of folks -- and I can't understand why.  

I am sure that the folks who took me to task for insulting her (or seeming to insult her) are sincere when they say they find her inspirational. But I must admit I don't share their views. I generally don't find most celebrities to be inspirational. Entertaining? Yes. Nice people, in some cases? Yes. But inspirational? Not usually.  I spent four decades in media, as most of you know, and I met my share of famous people-- movie  and TV stars, radio deejays, athletes, and many well-known musicians. I've got lots of great memories and lots of great stories. But very few of the folks that I met were a source of inspiration for me-- even if I was impressed with their achievements.

There were a few exceptions, of course. The three members of Rush are an inspiration to many of us-- these guys worked their way up from nothing, spending long days and nights on the road perfecting their craft, and when they did become famous, they remained the same down-to-earth, kind people as when I first met them. They were charitable before, and they remained charitable-- but they rarely let anyone know. I also found Dolly Parton inspirational for the same reason-- she too worked her way up from nothing, and even after she became a household name, she never really changed who she was.  When I met her, she was remarkably humble; she never acted like someone who takes herself too seriously. 

But for the most part, while there have been a number of celebrities I liked and admired, I've generally found my inspiration from people most of you have never met-- and probably have never heard of.  Last week, I gave a talk for the Antique Wireless Association, about the women of early amateur (and commercial) radio. If you didn't see it, it's here:  Most of these women never became famous. Most never became rich. But their contributions to broadcasting were often groundbreaking. I never forget that I am standing on their shoulders: if they had not had the courage to pursue what was a mostly all-male profession, the industry might never have opened its doors to me years later. 

I find what my grandparents did very inspirational-- imagine the challenges of coming to a new country, where you don't speak the language; escaping prejudice in the old country and trying to create a better future for your children in a land where you don't know anyone and you aren't always welcomed. What my immigrant ancestors did never made them rich or famous or popular. But thanks to their courage, and the determination of my own parents, I'm able to tell this story.

Most of all, I find inspiration in people who have spent their lives trying to make the world a better place: the teachers, the social workers, the folks who advocate for human rights, the first responders... these are people who don't believe it's all about them, who are determined to do their part because it's the right thing to do... even when it seems nobody notices.

SO, that's all I meant. Yes, I applaud the great athletes and the famous performers. But every day, quietly, the good deeds of people who receive far too little appreciation keep our world going. And without any insult intended to your favorite athlete, movie star, or YouTube celebrity, I wonder why as a culture, we often praise the already-famous and ignore the folks who are really doing what matters. So, to all the folks who are making a difference, my thanks and my gratitude. Perhaps you'll never become famous-- but then again, maybe you don't want to be.