Friday, January 8, 2016

In our thirst for revenge, who have we become? A question for my people.

At the place I worship each Saturday, we have kiddush and lunch after the service, which, being Orthodox, is quite long. I enjoy it because it's a way to catch up with members of the community after we pray.

Last week, however, I was horrified by the conversation between the two people I sat next next to.

The man opposite me started the conversation, asking if we'd heard about the latest terrorist attack in Israel. Both the woman next to me and I had. Man starts saying approvingly that the shooter's family and residents of the Arab neighborhood in which he lived were urging him to turn himself in. Indeed, it was his father who recognized his son on the security footage and contacted the authorities.

I know the Man is a rabid hawk. I avoid political conversations with him, because I go to synagogue to get away from the hate and arguments of politics, not to engage in them.

Last Shabbat I listened, in growing disgust and horror, as he and the woman, who I consider a friend, started discussing how they should just arrest the entire family of anyone who conducts a terrorist attack. This despite the fact that the shooter's father in this instance was the one who alerted authorities to his identity, and the fact that his family was urging him to turn himself in.

If you know me in person, you know I'm not afraid of speaking my mind, but I was so upset I just got up and left. I could not believe that civilized educated Jews could think and speak this way. I've been brooding about this conversation all week as I've gone about my work, and decided to make a difficult decision that has been growing for a while.

I am not going back to that congregation for Shabbat services.

Before you go all Tommy Wallach on me and proclaim that this is why religion sucks and we should all be atheists, I look to faith for the guidance on how to become a more understanding and compassionate person, and to connect with the rituals that gave comfort to my forefathers. I view myself as a link in a long chain, one that I'm not willing to be the one to break. Between some of the sermons and now this, I'm heading to the Conservative synagogue that I joined after Mom died instead.

I feel particularly strongly about this because I feel that leadership on conduct at a synagogue has to come from the top, and when I have asked the rabbi to speak out against some horrific anti-Muslim emails that were being circulated in the community he didn't do so - in fact, to my deep horror and disappointment he made a really feeble excuse for them.

Some of his sermons have made me deeply uncomfortable in their characterization of "others" en masse.

I feel yet another bereavement about this decision, because I've worshipped at this congregation since I moved back from the UK in 1999, and I have a deep connection to it. But my view of faith is Franciscan: "Where there is hatred, let me sow love." I can't keep attending a congregation where there are constant messages about the evildoings of others from the pulpit, but no similar condemnation (or even mention) of this.

I'm not a terrorist lover. I'm not weak on National Security (heading off the inevitable comments, which I can predict after 13 years as a political columnist).

What I am is a lifelong student of history and geopolitics.

In 2000, my family spent the summer in France, and we visited the village of Oradour-sur-Glane. If you haven't heard about what happened at Oradour, click on the link above and read this brief history from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. Once you've read it, try to imagine the cognitive dissonance and horror I felt as a Jewish woman listening to another Jewish man and woman (particularly a woman from the former Soviet Union) advocating the "retaliate against the entire family" approach.

As a young girl, I size up pretty much everyone I met to evaluate if they would hide me if another Holocaust happened - one of the reasons I particularly loved this Jill Sobule song.

So many Jews are alive today because someone had the courage to do hide their ancestors - knowing the risk that their own family might be murdered in retaliation if they were discovered for doing so.

 I am in no way comparing shooting people in an cafe to hiding a Jew in your attic, but trying to get to the deeper issue of revenge and retaliation for acts against the ruling authority. (And no, I'm not comparing the Israeli government to the Nazi's either, let's make that clear, just in case anyone tries to go there. My opinion is, however, that the actions of the Netanyahu government have done more to damage Israeli and Jewish safety and security worldwide than to protect it.)

 But think about it, fellow Jews, when you sit around blithely advocating for such an approach. How well did the "retaliate against the entire family" thing work for us?

Let one of the most brilliant opening scenes in the history of film refresh your memory:

INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS.mp4 from Pierre Vella on Vimeo.

Thirst for revenge shouldn't make us engage - or even think about engaging - in the tactics of those who murdered our mishpoche.

Saturday, December 26, 2015


חזק חזק ונתחזק

Chazak, chazak v’nitchazek!

As we conclude the reading of each book of the Torah, it is customary for Jews to say these words, which mean: Be strong, be strong and may we be strengthened!

Today we read Parashah Vayechi, the last in the book of Exodus. Joseph mourns the death of his father, Jacob, and then at the end of the parashah,Joseph himself dies. And then the congregation recites those words, "Chazak, chazak, v'nitchazek."

Ever since my father died in November 2013, I've had a hard time saying and hearing those words without crying. Because I hear my father saying it to me, when I was depressed, or sad, or going through a particularly rough time in my life. Chazak. Be strong.

It's been two years since Dad died. Mom died suddenly and unexpectedly in March of this year. Every time we finish another book of the Torah I think, "Maybe this will be the time I finally hear those words without crying."

Today wasn't that day.

Now, more than ever, I miss my father, because I realize more and more each day I owe who I am to the person he was. How much of my knowledge of and interest in of history and world politics comes from sitting watching documentaries and war movies with him as a young girl. How I heard his voice in my head when I went into New York City two days before Christmas and instead of being distracted by my cell phone made sure I was aware of what was going on around me at all times because of the terrorist threat. Life goes on but be aware. CHAZAK!

I wondered today in synagogue if Dad's parents said that to him. In the picture above we are with my paternal grandparents, Harry and Mollie. I'm in the lower right corner.

2015 has been a tough year. But thanks to the guidance my parents gave me, my family, my friends, and my faith, I am still standing. Chazak. Chazak. V'nitchazek!

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Emotion Regulation - because Life has no "Trigger Warnings"

There's been a lot in the news recently about trigger warnings on college campuses. Depending on who you listen to, they are necessary to protect those who have been through traumatic events and whose PTSD might be triggered by the material to be covered in class, or a symptom of the "PC police" coddling Millennials from true intellectual engagement. As someone who has suffered from PTSD from childhood sexual abuse (wrote about that here) I have stayed quiet on the issue.

Until now.

Last night my daughter and I went to see Spring Awakening. I'd bought her tickets for Hanukkah, but I've been so busy with work and other life issues that I went into the performance knowing absolutely nothing about it other than that people said it was amazing. I didn't read the Playbill beforehand and so the entire story and performance was a complete surprise.



There is a scene where Martha and Ilse sing about the sexual abuse they experience ("The Dark I know Well"). During this scene, I was well and truly triggered. I felt sick to my stomach. I wanted to curl up into a ball. I wanted that song to END. Every second it went on seemed to last a freaking hour. I was deeply, deeply uncomfortable and unhappy and I did not like feeling those feelings or being in that place one little bit, especially since I'd paid no small amount of money for the privilege.

But I took deep breaths, and I told myself I'd get through it, and the song would end, and I'm not the child I was then, and it would be okay, and the song did end, and I felt sick for about another ten minutes, but then I was fine.

During intermission, I told my daughter that scene had been rough for me. She said that she'd wondered if I would have to leave, and I told her that it was okay, because I've learned how to regulate my emotions and breathe through it. I can't stop the feelings from happening, but I can sit with them and know that they will pass.

There were times in my life when I didn't know that, like when I was a teenager. Then, in order to not feel, I would get stoned, or drink. Or when I was an adult, when I would eat and then purge.

And this is why I'm finally saying that I don't think trigger warnings are a good thing. Because there are no trigger warnings in real life. You will be assaulted by these emotions when you least expect them and you have to learn strategies to deal with them. If you're constantly given warnings, you won't get the practice you need for a lifetime of unexpected triggers.

In terms of learning those strategies, what worked best for me was Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, which I did as part of my bulimia treatment.

But whatever you do, learning to regulate those emotions is going to be more useful in the long run than any number of trigger warnings.

Friday, November 20, 2015

You call this progress? Dumbing down our kids in the name of Education Reform

I've been working my tail off the last few weeks revising both of my 2016 novels, CHARMED I'M SURE (S & S Aladdin) and IN CASE YOU MISSED IT (SCHOLASTIC).  ICYMI is the one I told Mom I sold on a three page proposal. She died suddenly and unexpectedly four days later, so I have not only been writing and revising this novel through deep grief while helping my siblings deal with Mom's estate, I've been doing it on an incredibly short deadline. I think that qualifies as "grit" don't you?

In this latest round of revisions on ICYMI, my editor queried if high school students would know what the Rosetta Stone was.

     When something like this comes up, I go on social media and ask teens, HS teachers and media specialists for the answer. I also get answers from my peers who have kids of that age. What I found from this query was that everyone of my generation - ie/ graduated high school in 1980's or before had learned what the Rosetta Stone was in either middle school or high school. 

Today - not so much. A few high schools yes. Most no. Some whose kids had been to London knew it, because they'd been to the British Museum. 

Why is this? 

Well,  this might explain something. 

I've written many, many many times about how the overemphasis on standardized testing is damaging education.  But now, when we see candidates for the PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATE making claims that the pyramids were built by Joseph for grain storage it's all the more important that our kids know about the Rosetta Stone - so they know that it was the key to deciphering hieroglyphics and can use their critical thinking skills to put two and two together to realize "No, Dr. Carson, we know your bizarre theory isn't true because the Egyptians WROTE THIS STUFF DOWN!"

We need to study history so that as we hear all the anti-immigrant rhetoric being bandied about by politicians about Syrian refugees, kids know about the tragic voyage of the SS St Louis, "The Voyage of the Damned", a shipload of Jews trying to escape Hilter's Germany who were refused by country after country and were forced to return to Europe - many to their death. If you haven't read it, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum put out a powerful statement yesterday:

When I write about the overemphasis on standardized testing and STEM, I inevitably get anonymous commenters on my political columns making statements like this with no evidence to back it up:

Except then you look at the evidence:

So we're narrowing the curriculum on the false premise that it pays. And meanwhile, we are taking away the very subjects that provide context and meaning. The subjects that help students develop empathy and theory of mind. The subjects that might prevent us from making the same mistakes we did in the past. 

George Santayana

 Please. Get involved. Lobby your politicians. Lobby your Board of Education members. Fight this. Our country depends on it. Our world depends on it.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

How my writing kids (ages 10-12) would vote to change society

      When I went to meet with my Writopia writing workshop kids this evening, I'd just read that voter turnout in my town was a mere 20%, and that really depressed me. I know it's not a Presidential election year, but municipal elections count. We're electing the people who run our towns and cities and perhaps most importantly, our schools. As it turns out, there was a late burst which brought us up to 33%, but still, that's pathetic.

If you don't vote, folks, you shouldn't complain when things aren't the way you want them to be. Yes, there are problems with the system, and yes, it often feels that our voices don't count nearly as much as the deep pockets of corporate interests, but not voting is an illogical option.

We always do a short writing warmup, and this evening, I spoke to my kids about how sad I was about the low voting turnout and so for the 10 minute warmup, I asked them to think about what issues would be important to them if they had the power to vote.

The answers were worth listening to - particularly for politicians.

  • more subjects in school, such as social studies, chemistry, and much more.
  • more gun safety.
  • more air conditioning, because some schools don’t have any air conditioning.
  • more activities, so kids can learn more, such as music, karate, art, and more.
  • more recycling.
  • more medicines for sick people.
  • more homes for the homeless.
  • no more war.
  • no bullying, not just in school, but everywhere.
  • good education for kids, and parents get paid a good amount of money.
  • healthy food in school cafeterias.
  • more food donations for the poor.
  • food for less money, for poor people that have at least a little money.

  • All guns illegal
  • no homeless people, and everyone has a least a small apartment
  • Things cost less
  • You can drive at age ten, but only in small cars, and you can’t go on main roads or highways
  • School lunches gave real food, and not some horrible mixture of stuff that they call salad.  Also, they have a real menu, and fancy waiters and stuff
  • Everyone gets a phone, at age seven in case of emergencies, but it only calls parents and 911 until they're older
  • no homework, you spend six hours in school why should you spend another hour with mountains of homework
  • no war

  • I would change gun laws. I would make guns illegal all over the world. They don’t solve anything. Except killing people.
  • I would make a law so that people of any race could vote.
  • Cafeteria Lunches. They suck and they aren’t healthy. I would make sure every kid in America would get a healthy lunch.
  • Every kid could get a good education.
  • Every adult could get a good paying job. And they would get paid more than the minimum wage.
  • Make sure that schools are safe for the kids. Make sure that no shootings happen or bomb threats… Make sure there are at least 2 police officers on guard every day.
  • There wouldn’t be as many homeless people. Make sure they have food, water, and a little shelter.
  • People that live in places where a lot of hurricanes, tsunamis… happen. They could have a place where they would be safe. Equipped with food, and water, and most importantly candy… J.K( but candy would be nice)

That 10 minute writing prompt told me so much about kids in city schools.They want more from their education than core curriculum and standardized tests. They want arts and music and the things that other kids have.

Holding class in Stamford on the day after a woman was shot dead in a city park, these kids want gun safety laws.

But most this was the sentence that spoke to me most: "No racism!!! It kills people on the inside!!!"

Out of the mouthes of babes...

Friday, October 9, 2015


I've written about my struggles with depression before. I've also written (and testified at our state capitol) about how private insurers discriminate against mental illness and the need for mental health parity. I've chosen to be open with my struggles, particularly with young people, because I think it's important for them to see that with therapy and medication (and it can take years and a lot of trial and error to find the right combination of medication, because medicating the brain is art as much as it is science) it is possible to lead a productive, fulfilling, purposeful life experiencing a full range of emotions including happiness and joy.

I'm also open with it because adults, who have their own preconceived notions, need to understand that people with mental illness diagnoses are productive, tax paying members of society, who contribute to their communities. For too long, the stigma surrounding mental illness has created a sense of shame for far too many people. I can't tell you how many people have thanked me for being open after I've given a talk, and then whispered to me, tears in their eyes, about their own experiences. Or the number of adult women who have picked up my YA novel PURGE, as if they were going to buy it for teen, and then quietly confessed that they, too, are or were suffering from an eating disorder.

Medication will be a part of my life, forever. I've had well-meaning, but incredibly ignorant people tell me it's "a crutch", that it's "a pharmaceutical conspiracy to keep me enslaved," that I should use exercise, a walk in the woods, music, meditation...... Yeah. Done all of those. In fact, I still exercise, walk in the woods, listen to music, and pray/meditate. But my life as a functional productive human being who has written 14 novels in the last ten years, as well as more political columns than I have time to count right now, raised two kids, dealt with the loss of both my beloved parents, and tried to give back to my community, could not have happened without being on the right cocktail of medication.

For that, I am blessed that I can afford to keep seeing the same psychiatrist out of network for the last 15 years. I made that choice, because she understood me when I got out of the hospital, where they'd put me on lithium, and I said, "I feel like they opened up a door inside me and took away all my creativity." She understood when I told her how when I was in the hospital for the second time in 12/01, I'd watched a documentary about a photo shoot People Magazine did of women who'd been pregnant on 9/11/01 and lost their spouses and since had their babies.  She understood that it was the kind of thing that would normally have me bawling and going through half a box of tissues, but I watched it completely dry eyed with the thought, "Wow, that's sad." She knew such lack of affect and emotion wasn't the real me, and she was willing to try something different to help me come back to myself instead of just telling me to "be a good girl and take my meds."

Together, we found the right combination, which has worked for over a decade. Sometimes we have to tinker, depending on external circumstances, but generally it's been a working formula. I've also been blessed with some great therapists over the years who have helped me work through the day to day struggles. None of this could have happened without insurance and being able to afford it.

How many people are like me, but can't afford it the treatment?  How many of them end up in prison instead of being able to be productive members of society living in the community, because resources and treatment aren't available, or they can't afford their meds copays?

Think about that when you look at the State Budget. Think about that the next time a politician says they're going to scrap ACA as the first thing they do when they get into office. As a self employed person, I used to have to worry every year that my insurance would be rescinded at renewal. ACA protects me from that. I've asked several of the big mouth politicians who say they want to scrap ACA how they will protect people like me (SELF-EMPLOYED ENTREPRENEURS WHO PAY TAXES, I MIGHT ADD)  if they do that and the response I get is *crickets*.  They don't have an answer. They just want to destroy without having a better plan. That isn't acceptable. It's reprehensible.

#IAMSTIGMAFREE And I am angry at people who play politics with the things that allow me to remain that way, and who want to cut the programs that could help others achieve the success that I have.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Why I hate Accelerated Reader - Part II

Last night, I received this email from a reader through my author website:

I've written before about why I'm not a fan of programs like Accelerated Reader.   But getting this email reminded me once again of how a generation of kids is being restricted from developing a love of reading in a way that I, fortunately, was not. Then we wonder why we have problems with literacy, comprehension, writing and critical thinking and inquiry. In my experience, these things are related.

When I was growing up, I had the good fortune to be a free-range reader. I was not restricted by ridiculous programs like AR. Nor was I restricted by parents censoring my choices. I was blessed with parents who encouraged me to read well above my grade level, and librarians who handed me books to keep my habits sated.

If I found an author I liked, I was free to read EVERY SINGLE BOOK THAT AUTHOR WROTE if I wanted. When the librarians at the Marylebone library handed me Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, I subsequently inhaled Journey to the Centre of the Earth, and Around the World in 80 Days.  Or when I got interested in historical fiction and read my first Jean Plaidy novel, I read the rest of them without worrying if they were "in the system." I just read, read read. And while I was reading I was learned history, often looking up things in the encyclopedia to learn more about a certain time period because it fascinated me or because I wanted to see if what was in the novel was the real story.

It enrages me that school systems are spending scare funds on expensive programs like Accelerated Reader which LIMIT kids' reading choices. If we want to encourage a genuine love of reading and creative inquiry, this is the wrong way to go about it.

Fortunately for my correspondent, my book WANT TO GO PRIVATE?  is in Accelerated Reader, but when I wrote back, I said they should discuss with their parents first because it's recommended for 9th grade and up. My parents would have let me read it. I would have let my kids read it with discussion before and after. But it's up individual parents to do the parenting. Each kid is at a different level of maturity and can handle content and situations at a different time.

That's the great thing about books, when kids are allowed to read freely. If they aren't ready, they put them down and move on to the next one.

We don't need Accelerated Reader. We should be spending the money we're spending on AR on certified school librarians. Decades of research show they make a difference.