Sunday, October 1, 2017

On Ritual

I've spent a great deal of refreshing time off line in the last 10 days while practicing for and singing in the Temple Beth El choir for the High Holy Days. That detox was really needed, especially given how ugly things have become recently.

I'm one of those people who always reads the footnotes and the acknowledgements when I read books, and when I'm in synagogue I'm no different - some of the most interesting stuff about the Torah is found in the commentary. This quote about ritual in the High Holy day machzor really struck a chord with me:

"Ritual fills the human need for completeness. It speaks to the depth of human emotion by giving a specific form to work through diverse emotions."

This resonated with me on so many levels. Firstly, as the parent of a kid who grew up on the autistic spectrum, I know how important ritualistic behavior can be for dealing with emotions like anxiety, anger, insecurity, even happiness.

But it's not just for those on the AS. Go through the experience of losing both of my parents in rapid succession, Dad to the long, slow, painful goodbye of Alzheimer's and Mom to the sudden, unexpected and no change to say goodbye of a DVT, made me appreciate how humane and necessary the rituals of shiva and mourning in the Jewish faith are to dealing with grief. Shiva, while exhausting, reminds you that you are not alone in your grief, that you are loved, and that you have community to support you. In the case of my dad, where I'd only been allowing myself to remember my dad as he was at that very moment during the Alzheimer's descent, because thinking about him as he was before was too painful, shiva was a time where we all could start to reconnect back with "real Dad" - the one we'd started to lose so many years before. We put together a slideshow that played throughout of pictures of him throughout his life and it gave us a chance to talk about him and tell stories and remember the man we missed so much and had been missing so much all through the Alzheimer's journey.

With Mom, her death was so sudden and unexpected, and came so soon on the heels of losing Dad, that the grief felt like it was bottomless and never-ending. But I had children, book deadlines and a mortgage and health insurance to pay. I couldn't let myself give into the grief. I had to get up and persist - as one does. But the grief was there, always. The ritual of going to synagogue to say kaddish for a year was healing because it meant that I wasn't just allowed, but prescribed to recognize that I was still mourning, even though I was still having to pick myself up and get on with life, because that's what you do.

On certain Jewish holidays, there's the Yizkor service, in which we remember those who have passed on before us. In Orthodox Congregations, they ask everyone whose parents are still living to leave. Because I'd been attending an orthodox congregation before my parents died, I'd never been in a Yizkor service until after my father died. I remember the Yom Kippur service very shortly before Dad died. I'd spent Kol Nidre with him instead of going to services, and I knew he wasn't going to make it until the following year. When my son and I went outside for Yizkor, I started crying and I said to my son, "This is the last time I'm going to be outside for Yizkor." And it was.

Now I attend a conservative synagogue and I realized yesterday as I was crying my way through the beautiful Yizkor service that there were young kids in the room and that people hadn't been asked to leave if their parents were alive. I was talking to my husband about it this morning, and we both thought how much healthier it is. Sure, kids might get scared by seeing their parents cry, but they also realize that mourning people you love is natural and part of life - and that it's okay to cry. I remember when I was at Silver Hill, and I told the psychiatrist that I always cried in the shower because I didn't want my kids to see me cry. He said: "What's the matter with letting them see you cry?"

That was one of the "aha" moments when I realized that it was okay to be human, not "perfect".

There are so many different kinds of ritual that can provide comfort - they don't necessarily have to be religious. But there is comfort and meaning in ritual - especially when community is a part of it.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Wonder Woman and Hillel - the super hero we need now.

As a young girl I loved the Lynda Carter series Wonder Woman. Not only was she badass, she had brown hair and wore glasses in her Diana Prince alter ego just like me, instead of being blonde like most other female leads. And she was smart!

When Michael Garofalo from StoryCorps called to ask if they could make the interview between my son Josh and me into an animation, I asked if they could make me look like Wonder Woman. He laughed and didn't make any promises. As you can see, I ended up looking more like Marge Simpson, than Lynda Carter, but it's probably closer my reality as a suburban mom :)

Well, the now 24 year-old Josh and I went to see the Wonder Woman movie on Sunday, and I've been thinking about it ever since. I've been happy to watch sexist headlines about director Patty Jenkins called out, and the brilliant Ms. Jenkins taking on tired old sexist tropes:

For example:

Only men love action movies. I spent the weekend watching war movies and political documentaries. When I wasn't watching, I was reading Michael Hasting's book THE OPERATORS, which is, funnily enough, about the prosecution of the war in Afghanistan. Michael Flynn figures prominently, which makes it particularly interesting reading at this juncture.

Or only men pay for their girlfriends/wives to go to comic book cons/superhero movies:

Or the "white male director is a discovery, woman/person of color director is a 'gamble' trope, as exemplified by The Hollywood Reporter headline:

Think this stereotyping and framing doesn't matter in terms of business and funding in EVERY SINGLE FIELD? It does, folks. It does.
Here's a little bit of research for you from Sweden that was recently published in the Harvard Business Review.

The TL:DR: This chart:

Now pretty much every woman I've talked to who saw the Wonder Woman movie mentions the No Man's Land scene. And pretty much every woman I've talked to cried during that scene. *raises hand* In an interview with Fandango, director Patty Jenkins spoke about how the best scene in the movie almost didn't happen:

The sequence features Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman bravely marching across a stretch of unoccupied land in order to reach a village on the other side and rescue its people from German forces. It’s an incredible scene and perhaps the highlight of the movie, but Jenkins admits it was kind of a hard sell because Wonder Woman wasn’t fighting anyone or anything.

“I think that in superhero movies, they fight other people, they fight villains,” she said. “So when I started to really hunker in on the significance of No Man's Land, there were a couple people who were deeply confused, wondering, like, ‘Well, what is she going to do? How many bullets can she fight?’ And I kept saying, ‘It's not about that. This is a different scene than that. This is a scene about her becoming Wonder Woman.’”

I was thinking about why that scene affected me so much, and the reasons are complex. For one, there's this, which I just read this morning in Adam Grant's book ORIGINALS: How Non-Conformists Move the World

As a woman who has been writing political opinion (often unpopular political opinion) for the last 14 years, I know how it feels to be in that wilderness. Instead of bullets, you get rape threats or hate mail telling you you're unAmerican or unpatriotic or a terrorist lover or you should die, or you need to get laid, or a blatantly misogynist male Greenwich real estate broker writing several pieces calling you mentally unstable, despite his own issues. But you are still there, often feeling totally alone, but knowing you have to be brave enough to take that step despite the intense flak you know you'll face because as Diana says, "Who will I be if I stay?"

Earlier this week, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne wrote about Trump's "Diplomacy of Narcissism" and how it made him look weak, rather than strong. Since the 80's, the U.S.A has been dominated by Gordon Gekko "Greed is Good, greed is pure" propaganda. Anything that smacks of caring about community and other is labeled "socialism." But Dionne reminds us of Rabbi Hillel's questions:

No Man's Land made me cry from the depths of my neshama (soul) because it was the confirmation of what I've always felt - that we cannot keep walking on by when we see injustice. We cannot keep turning a blind eye. I've spent my entire life wondering how the Holocaust could happen, and the last two years have made me realize exactly how. I've seen people I considered friends turn a blind eye to racism, bigotry, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, misogyny, possible treason and any number of egregious things because they want a tax cut, or they are putting party over country, or they want to be able to keep taking their golf vacations four or five times a year while still paying for their employees health insurance, even though it means that 24 million of us will lose health insurance entirely so they can afford to do so. Or, working class friends who for some reason have bought into the narrative that a serial liar who inherited his wealth, has been notoriously corrupt and who has stiffed working class people over and over and over again has miraculously changed and is now their champion in anything other than empty promises.

This is a time when we all have to ask ourselves: "If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?" And have the courage to take that first step into the breach of No Man's Land.