Friday, September 23, 2016

Why is it acceptable to be ridiculously rude to writers?

Yesterday I attended a literary luncheon for the witty, wonderful Emma Donaghue, whose new book The Wonder I can't wait to read. As Emma spoke I scribbled notes in my bullet journal to share with fellow writers and students. During the lunch, I remarked to a woman sitting at the table that I'd been taking notes because I, too, am a writer.

Rude question number 1: "Have you published anything?"

me: "Yes actually, let me think, FIFTEEN BOOKS."

Rude question number 2: "And you actually make a living from that?"

me: *starting to explode internally but still being my mother's daughter externally* "Well yes. I can't afford to do this without making a living from it. I have a family to support."

Said woman was a career woman herself - finance apparently. It just makes it all the more insulting and infuriating that she would ask me such rude questions.

Of course, as any creative person knows, this isn't the first time I've been subjected to this line of questioning from random strangers at a social event. The same people who wouldn't DREAM of asking a hedge fund person they don't know "Are you beating the indices this year?" or a heart surgeon "What's the survival rate of your patients" in a social setting, feel they are entitled to treat those of us engaged in creative pursuits with absolutely no respect.

I won't pretend that making a living from creativity is easy. It is HARD, HARD work. I wrote ten books in three years - not to mention countless political columns and some essays, and I also taught creative writing to kids and was an adjunct in an MFA program. To put it bluntly, I worked - and continue to work - my freaking ass off. But I am doing what I love and am completely passionate about, and that is what makes the difference. When I worked in Finance, working this hard felt like work. I enjoyed my job, found it interesting, and I learned a great deal, but I wasn't passionate about it.

I'm beyond tired of creatives being the Rodney Dangerfields of the career world.

The next time you open your mouth to ask a writer, artist or singer a rude question, ask yourself if you'd ask it of your investment advisor or orthopedic surgeon. If you wouldn't, please close your mouth.

Monday, September 12, 2016

What is the difference between cultural appropriation vs cross-fertilization? A sincere question.

Recently, the amazing cantor at our synagogue, Magda Fishman (if you get a chance to hear her sing, run don't walk!)encouraged me to join our synagogue choir after a lifetime of thinking I couldn't sing. I've now taken as my motto the line from Florence Foster Jenkins: "People may say I can't sing, but no one can ever say I didn't sing."

I was driving home from rehearsal last night (we're currently on double time rehearsals for the High Holy Days) and one of my favorite cover songs came up on shuffle:

I wasn't a happy teenager, and I listened to a LOT of Pink Floyd. Dark Side of the Moon is still one of my favorite albums of all time, and the necklace I wear around my neck is the "Shine on You Crazy Diamond" I got for my 40th birthday, which I never take off unless I have to for medical or security reasons. One of my first bylines was a review of Pink Floyd's Wall Tour concert in my high school newspaper.

It didn't make me upset when Wyclef Jean did this cover, as it appeared to for some angry commenters on You Tube. I LOVED the fact that the same music that provided me meaning and strength as a disaffected, depressed white female teen in the suburbs did the same for two refugee teens of color in the projects of New York City.

It's the same thing I felt when I went to a Talking Dreads concert at the Fairfield Theater a little while back -

I've always loved the Talking Heads. Went to see them in concert in the 80's a bunch of times - including in Chapel Hill when I was in college. Seeing their music performed by Mystic Bowie with this new and different energy was nothing other than awesome.

One of my favorite Led Zeppelin songs is When the Levee Breaks.

But that was a rock n roll, driving version of Memphis Minnie:

I have them both in my collection. But when the shizzle hits the fan in my life, I tend to listen to the Led Zeppelin version, because it the driving drum beat gives me strength. Maybe that's my inner teen rock chick?

I guess this all got me thinking about the question - where is the line between "cultural appropriation" and "cross fertilization of ideas"? I ask this in a genuine way, as a creative person, who was brought up to learn from and appreciate and respect all cultures.

My late Grandma Dorothy said this:

"We are all part of one humanity. There is no pure group . We are all mixed up through commerce and conquest through the ages."

"How can we trace the influence of one group upon the other...through the arts, through music, through dance, through theatre, and literature!"

So I continue to ponder this, and welcome constructive response.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

"Political Correctness" and The Golden Rule

For years, we've been subjected to people complaining about "political correctness", but in the 2016 election candidate Donald Trump has made it an election issue in itself.

Source: NY Times, Republican Debate Coverage

“I will present the facts plainly and honestly. We cannot afford to be so politically correct anymore. So if you want to hear the corporate spin, the carefully-crafted lies, and the media myths the Democrats are holding their convention next week. But here, at our convention, there will be no lies. We will honor the American people with the truth, and nothing else.” Donald Trump GOP Convention speech

Before I even get into the discussion of why I have such a problem with people who proclaim loudly "I'm not PC", let's just unpack the idea that political correctness means lack of truth, by looking at the Politifact record of non-PC "there will be no lies" Donald Trump and the woman he constantly (and immaturely) refers to as "Crooked Hillary."

Source: Politifact

Well, what do you know? It appears Mr. Straight Talk is more crooked than the person at whom he's hurling the epithet.

What was that childhood phrase? “I’m rubber, you’re glue; Whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you.” Perhaps Mr. Trump never learned that in the school yard?

Now that we've cleared up the idea that being "not PC" doesn't necessarily equate to being honest, I want to talk about what we mean by the idea of political correctness. When I was a child, it wasn't called political correctness. My parents called it "manners." My parents called it "having respect for other people." My parents called it "respecting and learning from other cultures." My parents called it "treating others the way you'd like to be treated."

This last is what we call "The Golden Rule" and it is common to pretty much every faith and spiritual system in the world.


That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, go and learn it." - Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a


All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye so to them; for this is the law and the prophets.
Matthew 7:12 King James Version

"And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise." Luke 6:31, King James Version.


"None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself." Number 13 of Imam "Al-Nawawi's Forty Hadiths." 3

Native American Spirituality

"Respect for all life is the foundation." The Great Law of Peace.
"All things are our relatives; what we do to everything, we do to ourselves. All is really One." Black Elk

"Do not wrong or hate your neighbor. For it is not he who you wrong, but yourself." Pima proverb.


"Try your best to treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself, and you will find that this is the shortest way to benevolence." Mencius VII.A.4

"Tse-kung asked, 'Is there one word that can serve as a principle of conduct for life?' Confucius replied, 'It is the word 'shu' -- reciprocity. Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire.'" Doctrine of the Mean 13.3


Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.
Udana-Varga 5,1


"This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you." Mahabharata 5:1517


"Ascribe not to any soul that which thou wouldst not have ascribed to thee, and say not that which thou doest not." "Blessed is he who preferreth his brother before himself." Baha'u'llah

This is a sampling. You can find more at

My friend Neal Byles draws the excellent webcomic With the Band and you should totally go follow him right this very minute on Facebook and Twitter. Here's his WWJD take on political correctness:

And another great one from Neal:

Remember The Golden Rule: treat others as you yourself would like to be treated. It might just help prevent you from sounding like a bloody idiot.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Eric Trump, Sexism and Misogyny - An Action Call to Men to ASK QUESTIONS instead of TALKING.

With the first woman being confirmed as a candidate for the office of President of the United States, the very same week that the serial sexual predator Roger Ailes was forced to resign from Fox News for allegedly harassing women for decades - enabled by his top staff, it appears, which makes it all the more sinister and revolting, this election is becoming a perfect storm for confronting the sexism and misogyny that most of us women have been facing for our entire lives - in school, in the workplace, in the legal system, in government, on the Internet, in dealing with companies, in advertising, in pretty much every facet of our lives.

Last week, I wrote a piece for CTNewsJunkie after Trump's unsavory campaign manager, Paul Manafort, said that women would vote for his candidate because “They can’t afford their lives. Their husbands can’t afford paying the family bills.”
As a woman who is self-employed, owns my own home, pays my own mortgage and makes my own investment decisions you can imagine I didn't take that very well. I am not alone. But this is the "America" this cave man and his cave man candidate apparently want to "bring back."
This is the "great" America they remember.

Let me tell you, it wasn't so great for women - and what makes me so furious is that I never imagined that the kind of sexism and misogyny that I put up with 30 years ago when I entered the workforce would still be in play - in fact even worse in some cases - when my DAUGHTER would be two years away from graduating college. Thanks to the religious extremists in this country (who ironically, are quick to blame OTHER RELIGIONS for being extremists) women - especially lower income women - in many parts of the country are struggling to find healthcare.

Yesterday, women were "treated" to Eric Trump the young, privileged white son of an older, privileged son, (both men who have got to where they were because they were born into wealth) - say this "Ivanka is a strong, powerful woman. She wouldn’t allow herself to be subjected to it".

Well, she was the boss's daughter and she was subjected to it. Of course, when they found out she was the boss's daughter they apologized. But what about all the women in the world who AREN'T the boss's daughter. What about them, Eric? If your sister, who IS the boss's daughter gets harassed EVEN THOUGH SHE IS THE BOSS's DAUGHTER and she IS a strong woman, how the heck you make such a moronic argument?


I'm issuing a challenge to all the men I know - and even those I don't who might be reading this.

I'd like you to go and ask questions of all the women you know. LISTEN.

Don't talk. ASK them about their experiences. Talk to your mom. Talk to your grandmother. Talk to your peers.

Ask them if they've been harassed. Ask them if they've been abused. Ask them if they've been roofied.

Ask them if they were ever put in a situation that made them deeply uncomfortable.

Ask them if random guys tell them to smile on the street, like it's their obligation to smile just to make a random guy on the street happy even if THEIR MOTHER MIGHT HAVE JUST DIED.

LEARN. I would love to hear back what you find out.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

An open letter to FAIRWAY management regarding your tasteless, puerile, "Juicy Melons" advert

Dear Fairway Management,

Clearly you have issues with managing your company. After all, you recently had to go through Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization, which signals to me that you don't always make the smartest choices.

But for a company trying to emerge from Chapter 11 to send out a sexist advertisement to WOMEN? What the heck are you thinking? I'm not going to post the advert here, because I don't want to give you the viral publicity you were apparently craving. Instead, I'm going to tell you this:

1) I unsubscribed from your email list.
2) I'm informing you that I'm not shopping at any of your stores until you issue an apology to me, my daughter, and to every woman who had to be subjected to that ridiculousness in the year 2016.

But here's the most important part. I'm letting you know just how much money I've spent with your company since you opened in Stamford in October 2010, so you know how much this ridiculous mishegas is costing you:

2010 $1474.44 Store opened in October
2011 $3495.41
2012 $4890.49
2013 $4849.39 includes $559.61 from Fairway Catering for Dad’s shiva
2014 $3965.85
2015 $3799.12 includes $287.15 from Fairway Catering for Mom's shiva
2016 $2088.93

Total $24,563.61

You see, Senior Fairway Management, I know all this because despite having a pair of "juicy melons" attached to my body, I have an MBA in Finance, I own my own house, invest in a financial portfolio, decide what car I'm going to buy, and make many other decisions about my life. I've achieved the success I have in my life while fighting exactly the kind of stupidity, sexism, and discrimination that ridiculous, puerile ad represents on Wall St, in publishing, in agriculture, in journalism, dealing with auto mechanics, dealing with plumbers, dealing with banks, and I never in a million years thought that by the time my daughter would be a few years from entering the workforce, she would STILL being facing this kind of crap.

So I've learned to put my money where my mouth is. When my investment broker disagreed with an instruction I gave him and told me "Ask your father" (even though my father had Alzheimer's at the time and, let me reiterate, I have an MBA in Finance and had worked as a financial analyst) I moved my investments to another firm. And that is what I am doing now.

Firms like yours need to learn that SEXISM DOESN'T PAY. It costs you money.

I hope for your sake all the bros and sexist idiots that liked that ad make up for the dollars you will lose from pissed-off intelligent, fed-up women like myself.

UPDATE: I decided to update with an image of the ad that was retweeted by Fairway Corporate Twitter referencing that women were upset with this ad and making light of it, with a totally disgusting hashtag:

For all of you at home who might not be aware of the more sordid meaning of the reference, allow me to make your stomach turn:

Again I ask: What sentient being in 2016 would think this is a good marketing strategy - particularly for a SUPERMARKET?

Friday, July 15, 2016

The "Malignant Hazard of Privilege"

On the recommendation of my friend Lee Strasburger I'm reading MEMOIRS OF AN ANTI-SEMITE by Gregor Von Rezzori

I haven't even reached Von Rezzori's writing yet, because I've been thinking so much about one of the last paragraphs in Deborah Eisenberg's introduction:

"How many actually evil people does it take to accomplish a genocide and reduce much of a continent to ash? Only a handful, it seems, but that handful requires the passive assistance of many, many other people who glance out of the windows of their secure homes and see a cloudless sky. It's easy enough for most of us to distance ourselves from attitudes of virulent racism, but what about from carelessness, casual snobbery - either social or intellectual - inattentiveness? Rezzori reminds us painfully that the great and malignant hazard of privilege is obtuseness."
"Yes, we wonder, what does it take to be a "decent person"? Maybe the most significant component is luck - the good luck to be born into a place and moment that inflicts minimal cruelty and thus does not require from us the courage to discern and resist its tides."

As another politician, one who has a phD in history says things like this:

and politicians and "nice" people in my extremely privileged town behave like this and people fight over which lives matter in more in slogans (seriously Mike Huckabee? I thought this was the Onion, not the Hill) instead of confronting the real structural inequities that exist in our country, Eisenberg's words resonate.

Last December, I wrote an op-ed entitled: Now is the time for moral courage: Politicians can't be bystanders to hate speech. Sadly, moral courage appears to be in short supply. Is it due to the malignant hazard of privilege?

Friday, July 8, 2016

Now more than ever: DON'T ASSUME ANYTHING

The last 48 hours in our country have been heartbreaking. And frightening. And then infuriating, as people with preconceived notions start making assumptions based on no information and making public statements threatening the life of our President, (looking at you, Rep Joe Walsh)
and staking claim to their sides. Black Lives Matter. Blue Lives Matter. I can believe that Blue Lives matter while simultaneously recognizing that there are grave injustices in our legal system and that there are many, many documented instances where the police have behaved unethically, and innocent black men and women have lost their lives without justice being served.

In our country, "justice" is for white people with the funds to buy it. That's something I learned in my late teens. Lady Justice isn't blind, the way she is portrayed on the courthouse steps. That's the ideal, but sadly, it isn't the reality in our country.

We are at a particularly dangerous time right now. Trust in government institutions is at low ebb. Election rhetoric has divided the country even more.

Now maybe it's because of my upbringing, where I was taught to look at everything from the outside, and very, very critically, but if I were a foreign government looking to destabilize the US even further, getting snipers to fire at police during a Black Lives Matter protest would be the perfect way to achieve that. I mean, look at what's happening this morning. More division. Dallas was on lockdown earlier this morning. It would be a propaganda win for a foreign power.

Has our government has ever taken measures to destabilize other countries? Of course we have.

It could be anyone. Don't assume anything. Remember, assume makes an Ass out of U and Me.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Solving a mystery in a book...

When we were in the process of cleaning out Mom's apartment, I found a book of Churchill quotes on a shelf in one of the closets. I took it home, because I'm a huge fan of Churchill's oratory and writing, and still remember watching Sink the Bismarck! with Dad. My father did a mean Churchill imitation. This family bred love of Churchill shows up in my upcoming Scholastic YA novel, IN CASE YOU MISSED IT.

Inside the flyleaf of the book was a poem, dated 12.4.1955 To Murray Silverstone, my grandfather. It was clearly written by someone very educated and erudite, but the only clue as to who this person was were his or her initials, H.H.B. I have been fascinated by this person, and asked relatives who were old enough to have some idea who H.H.B might be if they could give me clues as to the identity, but to no avail.

Solving this mystery has been on my back burner to do list, because I had to know: Who was this person who could write so beautifully and who shared my love of Winston Churchill's words?

Yesterday morning, my brother and sister and I spent a few hours at the storage unit where we'd moved the stuff we didn't have the time or emotional energy to deal with when cleaning out Mom's apartment. I took a box of archive material relating to my grandfather for us all to go through with my cousin Paul, who is our family historian, and about an hour ago I just opened it to see what was in it. On top was an album of condolence letters from when Grandpa Murray passed away in May 1969.

I was looking through it and all of a sudden my mouth went dry with excitement - because there was a letter from Harold Hotchkiss Bennett - H.H.B.!!!

The writing style is similar, so I'm sure it must be the same person. I was afraid I'd never learn H.H.B's identity - but I'm pretty sure I can now say: MYSTERY SOLVED!!

Trying to learn a bit more about Mr Bennett. He graduated from Harvard, Class of 1904.

He wrote the text for a book of the illustrated postcards of Portsmouth New Hampshire.

That's about it so far. I wish I knew more. He seems like an interesting guy.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Speech: Ferguson Library Friends Literary Awards, April 17 2016

I constantly joke with my kids that you’re never a hero in your own hometown. But after today I’m going to have to stop saying that, because being asked to speak as an author at the Ferguson Library where I spent so many hours growing up, makes me feel like I am a hero. So I’d like to start off by thanking you for this incredible honor and privilege.

I’m a passionate supporter of public libraries, and especially the amazing librarians who work in them. Librarians made me writer. But just as importantly – or perhaps even more importantly, they helped to make me a thinker.

When it comes to literacy I confess that I started life on first base – maybe even on second. That’s because I was born into a family of readers and a home filled with books. But even within my family, I had a voracious appetite for the written word – I was the kid in the family who was kept getting caught under the covers reading with a flashlight when I was supposed to be asleep.

To satisfy my book cravings, Mom brought us to the library every week and I got to pick out a new stack to bring home. One reason why I feel fortunate to have grown up when I did rather than now is that, I never, ever, had a librarian, parent, or teacher say “Sorry, Sarah that book is above your Lexile level.” The grownups in my life just kept handing me interesting, challenging, books and I kept on reading them.

If I didn’t know the meaning of words – and I often didn’t – I learned to figure them out from the context of the sentence or if I really got stuck I’d ask my parents. But Mom and Dad never answered my question directly. Instead they’d point me to the “Shorter” Oxford English Dictionary and tell me to look it up. Now here’s some insight into the way my brain works. As I was writing this I suddenly thought: I wonder how much that thing weighed? So I went and got it off the shelf and put it on my kitchen scale. This sucker weighs almost 9lbs – imagine having to haul that around when you were a little kid wanting to know the meaning of a word.

Living in the social media age, I then felt compelled to tweet how much the Shorter OED weighs because the people who follow me on my author account would probably be interested in that kind of thing. And Robin Powell, a childhood friend of mine from England saw the picture and sent me back a picture of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary my parents had given him for his Bar Mitzvah in January 1973. In the flyleaf was an inscription written by my father: “It’s never winter in the land of HOPE and it’s never dull in a dictionary. Use this book a lot and reap its rewards.”

My father died two and half years ago after a long journey with Alzheimers, so seeing what he’d written 43 years ago made me pretty emotional. But it also made me realize that this apple didn’t fall far from the tree.

I was curious about the phrase “It’s never winter in the land of Hope” and I wondered if it was from a book. So I Googled it and it turns out it’s a Russian proverb. What’s interesting about that is my Grandpa Harry, who died when I was 11, was from the Ukraine, and so I wonder now if it’s a proverb my father heard from his father.

One of the things we lose with e-books is discovering these kinds of gifts from the past in books. But that’s not the only thing we lose with technology. When my parents made me look up a word in the dictionary, in the process I’d inevitably find other interesting words on the page around the word I was looking up, and so I’d end up further developing my vocabulary and love of language. By just entering the one word you don’t know in a web browser and getting the definition in seconds, you lose the magic of doing that.

I was also fortunate because my parents never censored my reading. They put the so-called “inappropriate books” on the top shelf, but they also always had a set of library steps in the room so that we could get to those books on our own when we were old enough to be curious.

I followed this strategy with my own kids. When my daughter Amie was in middle school, the film version of Alice Sebold’s book “The Lovely Bones” came out, and most of her friends were reading it. Amie asked me if we had it – which we did, because I’d read it many years before, and then wanted to know if she could read it.

I didn’t say no. What I did was discuss the book with her. I told her it was a thought provoking book and well written, but the first chapter was very upsetting to read. Because she had nightmares sometimes, I worried that it might be too much for her so my advice would be to wait a year or two. But I told her that I would leave the decision up to her, and if she really felt like she wanted to read it, the book was on the shelf, hers for the taking. She took my advice and waited.

That’s why I get very angry when parents try to censor books for other people’s children or ban books from school libraries. What they are doing is abdicating their own job as parents. It’s all about the conversations we have. Different kids are ready for different books at different times, and that’s why trained librarians are so incredibly important, both in our public libraries and in our public schools.

It’s thanks to librarians that I Journeyed to the Center of the Earth, went 20,000 Leagues under the Sea and Around the World in 80 Days with Jules Verne. It’s thanks to librarians that I solved the mystery of the Hound of the Baskervilles with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Because of librarians I went from wealth to poverty and back again like A Little Princess and discovered a Secret Garden with Francis Hodgson Burnett. Because of librarians I asked G-d if he was there and discovered how to improve my bust with Judy Blume.

Not long after my first book, CONFESSIONS OF A CLOSET CATHOLIC, came out, I met Judy Blume at the memorial service for my mentor, the late Paula Danziger.. I wanted to tell her how much she inspired me, not just because of her writing, but because of her passionate advocacy against censorship. The problem was I literally, couldn’t talk. 12 year old Sarah inside was like: “OMG OMG – I’M STANDING 18 INCHES AWAY FROM JUDY FREAKING BLUME!”

It just goes to show that even middle-aged authors can be utter and complete fangirls.

I knew I wanted to be a writer when I was in high school, but I didn’t try to write a book until I was almost forty. Even thought my parents always acknowledged that I was a talented writer, I was given the same message back in the late 70’s that I hear constantly from politicians and business leaders today: “You’ll never make a living as an English major.” So even though writing was what I loved, and literature was my passion, I majored in political science and got an MBA in Finance. I worked on Wall Street as a financial analyst, until I met my kids’ dad and moved to a small village in Dorset, England where by marrying I doubled the Jewish population (and by having Josh and Amie tripled and quadrupled it). I put my MBA to use by managing the finances of the family’s dairy farming and cheese making enterprise. If you want to know about the lactation yield curve of a dairy cow, I’m your girl, but in the 17 years I’ve lived in Greenwich it’s never once come up at a cocktail party.

But all along, a voice inside kept saying “I want to write.” I ignored it, because I was doing the things that everyone expected me to do: making a living, being a good daughter, a good wife, and a good mother. It wasn’t till I was hospitalized for a nervous breakdown at age 38 that I realized I didn’t want to end up in a nursing home at the end of my life thinking, “What would have happened if?” I was so busy being an overachiever that it took all my bricks falling down to finally give me the clarity I needed to build myself up in a stronger way. I knew then that I had to give myself the chance to pursue my long held dream of being a writer, even if I failed, because I’d rather have tried and failed than never have tried at all.

The good news is that I didn’t fail. Since that hospitalization in 2001, when I finally gave myself permission to write, I’ve written fifteen books, eight in my own name and seven under a pseudonym. I get emails from readers all over the United States and from abroad, too – my books have been translated into German, Greek and soon, Serbian.

When you get emails from teenagers saying: “I really loved your book, like more than I love the world! It felt like you described my whole life” or simply “Thank you for helping me,” - well let’s just say it’s so much more pleasant and rewarding than the comments I get from grown ups on my political columns. The emails I get from my teen readers remind me why it’s worth fighting every day to try to make the world a better place, even on the days when the hateful comments I’m getting from adults make it especially hard to be courageous.

I’m going to finish up with a few pieces of advice based on the things I’ve learned from my long, circuitous and somewhat unconventional journey to doing what I have no doubt is my G-d given purpose in life.

The first is something I learned from my father, and that’s to always be aware of what is going on in the world around you. Inspiration is everywhere, but you have to be paying attention.

The second is something I learned from my mother and that’s to be a good listener. Writers are like sponges – constantly listening to the people and ideas and dialogue, because we never know when something might be useful for a book.

The third is from me – and that’s don’t ever lose your curiosity. Writing is the perfect career for me because it’s lifelong learning. Each of my books begins with a question, which I start off by researching. One of the best parts of my job is that I get to interview really interesting people about what they do as part of the research process. Some people I’ve interviewed include a supervisory special agent at the FBI in New Haven, an emergency room doctor, a talent agent, a Catholic priest, the senior Naturalist and education specialist at Greenwich Audubon, an employment lawyer, and the head of the Special Victims section at Greenwich police. Using the information I learn from my research, I then create situations where my characters can help me work through the answer to the question I want to answer in the book.

But the most important piece of advice if you want to be a writer comes from Jane Yolen, who’s an incredibly prolific and successful author, as well as being the first cousin once removed of Stamford resident and travel writer, Malerie Yolen-Cohen. I heard Jane speak at a writing conference about ten years ago and the best advice she gave was: “Get your butt in the chair and write the damn book.”

Because in the end that’s what makes the difference between me and the people I meet at cocktail parties who tell me “Oh, I’d write a novel if I only had the time.” The difference is that I made the time. I wrote in doctor’s office waiting rooms and carpool lines while waiting to pick up my kids. I wrote late at night after spending the day doing freelance business writing, and early in the morning before I had to take the kids to school. I wrote when I didn’t feel inspired and when I was convinced that what I was writing was total rubbish – and it probably was. But that rubbish helped me write better rubbish and eventually I wrote something good enough to get published.

And now, all these years and fifteen books later, I’m standing here giving a speech in the library where I worked on papers in high school and dreamed about being a writer. Thank you, thank you, from the bottom of my heart for giving me this honor. What I’m really looking forward to is the day in the future, when I’m in the audience listening to one of you giving this speech as the featured author. So make sure you get your butt in the chair and write that book.

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.