Religion

My Golden Mean: Reflecting on a Year of Religion-Related Ruminations

It was a good question and one that recapped a very confusing year of my life. For 24 years I had been an observant, modern orthodox Jew, always questioning yet accepting that not all my questions would be answered in a way that was clear to me. I was content in my tight-knit community until I felt the community turn on me. At 25, I had met a 30-year-old lawyer and my friends in the orthodox Jewish community of Upper West Side Manhattan did not approve of the match, or the fact that he had previously dated someone else in our circle. My synagogue became an unsettling place and I was the recipient of many dirty looks. I stopped going.

 

When I had first started dating the charming lawyer, I knew he was trouble and literally a “bad boy” but he was hilarious, captivating, intelligent and cultured in a way that the other boys I was meeting were not. Totally under his spell, we began spending a lot of time together. I knew he wasn’t Mr. Right with his inexplicable outbursts from time to time (i.e. getting enraged that I had confused Flushing and Forest Hills) but I was definitely stuck in the Right Now. I also felt trapped: I did not have my old Upper West Side “community” of friends to go back to. Although this new boyfriend was Jewish, he wasn’t at all religious, and slowly, I began to wonder how much I cared about being orthodox, how much of what I had done I believed and how much had to do with routine.

But I was lonely. I had been a part of something for so long and now, it seemed I was out in the world with doubts and no place to go. I found comfort with my family but I was scared to tell them all that I was questioning. I remembered something that I had learned in school about what the Jewish philosopher Maimonides said: The ideal is the Shvil Hazahav, the Golden Mean or optimal middle path. He said that when it comes to character traits, extreme is never the way to go. Growing up as a modern orthodox Jew, my friends and family always referred to people who were “to the left,” “to the right” or “in the middle,” but each person had a different definition of those categories. They were entirely subjective. Maimonides said you needed to be in the middle and that too was open to interpretation.

During Rosh Hashanah, I am thinking about my relationship with the lawyer, my relationship with the community, and my relationship with God. In my own mind, I was now bordering on agnostic and for me personally, that was too far “to the left.” I needed to get to my Golden Mean. It wouldn’t be where I had started, gone was the complacency to accept without question. It also wouldn’t be where I had recently found myself — completely lost.

A week before the high holidays, I decided to sign up for a spiritual retreat where mainly Jews who are looking to become orthodox go. I was a rarity there being an FFB — a Frum (Yiddish for “orthodox”) From Birth — but I went for one reason: to see the beauty in Jewish people, orthodox and non-orthodox alike. I went to see the fire, the passion that I remembered had inspired me in the past, and that had excited me so much about the Jewish people.

And I saw it there. I also learned… and learned. I met orthodox rabbis who embraced Jews of many walks of life, rabbis who didn’t scoff or undermine questions about liberal issues, rabbis who had clear answers to the very questions I had deemed unanswerable. And I met Jews who were eclectic, open-minded and warm, Jews who were straight and Jews who were gay. Everyone was embraced on this retreat. Like me, everybody on this retreat was longing… for a community.

When I got back, the lawyer continued treating me badly but I strengthened my resolve to break up with him. I was not trapped and I did not have to go back to the group that had snubbed me. There were other observant Jewish people that I could associate with who were warm, like girls I had known in high school. There were observant Jews, “Landsmen” who had helped me find Shabbat meals in foreign countries. There were observant Jews — perfect strangers — who had embraced me and welcomed me into their homes. There were others who had taken an interest in me and had set me up on dates. There was so much more that my community had to offer, more than cliquey women in a synagogue who didn’t know me but had decided to hate based on hearsay.

I broke up with the boyfriend and remembered something else that I had heard about the Golden Mean: Sometimes you have to hit the opposite extreme in order to reach the middle.

Had I reached “the opposite extreme?”

Well, it was subjective, but for me, yes, I had. In the back of my mind I had always believed in God, but for the past year, I had been out of touch. As I thought about the concept of Teshuva (repentence), an intrinsic part of Rosh Hashana and the high holidays, I knew what I had to do. I gradually began to pray — not the traditional prayers of the religious Jewish people, but prayers said in my own words. It was strange for me as I had always prayed in Hebrew (and truth be told, hadn’t always understood all of what I was saying). Just like I didn’t necessarily believe that He wore a yarmulke (I had always pictured George Burns laughing down on me), I didn’t think he would not accept my prayers because they were in English. I turned to this God for strength and guidance as I slowly returned to my community and made new friends.

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Bravo TV

The Israeli Star of Bravo’s Imposters, Inbar Lavi

(The following piece ran 02/03/2017 on The Huffington Post before the first season of Imposters began. Season Two premieres Thursday, April 5th at 10/9c on Bravo.)

When I was single and in the Jewish dating scene, Natalie Portman was often cited as the desirable prototype and celebrity crush of my male acquaintances. She was born in Jerusalem – as Meryl Streep may have reminded you – and is on an elite list of hot Jewish Hollywood stunners along with Rachel Weisz and Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman). Now, an arrestingly beautiful and talented Israeli actress named Inbar Lavi is about to take the extended Jewish community by storm – as well as the rest of the world. Lavi is not an unknown, but her fan base is about to increase along with Bravo’s straight male viewership.

She previously was on MTV’s Underemployed and Fox’s Gang Related. Unlike the latter which only lasted a single season, her new chapter on Bravo’s riveting scripted thriller Imposters looks promising. I was lucky enough to screen the first three episodes and can attest to the talent of its star who plays Maddie, an irresistible persona- shifting con artist who is always on the move. When each assignment is completed, she has wiped out savings accounts and left victims blindsided and brokenhearted, not knowing her true identity. Then three of her scorned exes join forces, intent on piecing together clues and tracking her down as she begins her next con job (See Video Below).

 

 

I had the opportunity to chat with Lavi and get to know the actress behind the fictional vixen:

SHW: Hi Inbar, how are you? Or should I say “Mah shlomech? Mah Inyanim?” I actually know Hebrew but not as well as you do! I can understand completely, but speaking is another matter.

IL: (In Hebrew) Good, how are you?!! (Back to English) Your Hebrew is good! The more you practice the better you’ll do (laughs).

SHW: I read about how you had started really watching TV and thereby, studied acting while you took the nebulizer for asthma when you were younger. I know that you grew up in the Ramat Gan neighborhood of Israel. Is that where you trained in acting?

IL: I actually didn’t really train in acting in Israel. I had one class that introduced me to method acting and I knew it was what I wanted to do. But, I wanted to go to school in New York for it so I moved to the States. My upbringing in Israel was actually in dance. I went to an academy for ballet and contemporary dance which really introduced me to the stage and the constant performance for an audience. It taught me a lot of my…Oh how do you say it?

SHW: You can say it in Hebrew.

IL: It just taught me how to work really hard. My work ethic came from my dance background and I owe a lot of what I do today to my upbringing there. Physicality and body movement.

SHW: I detect maybe the slightest accent now although you do sound mostly American. When I watched the preview of Imposters, that fake French accent stood out. Then we see how that is the accent used to con the husband Ezra.

IL: It’s all about conning the audience all season. That’s what we do. I get to play with languages and accents on the show. Full of effect and melodies.

SHW: How were you discovered for TV?

IL: Oh my god, I wish I had just been discovered. That would have been so cool. I think there’s an urban legend that happens to someone like Rianna where they’re on the beach and some talent or model scout discovers them and makes them famous. I had to claw my way (laughs) into Hollywood and I feel like I’m still doing it every day.

SHW: If the first 3 episodes are any indication, I think you’re going to be one of those actresses that is chased around by paparazzi. I also think you’ll be the new desirable celebrity crush for the Jewish boys I know and a sort of ‘It Girl.’

IL: You’re so kind to say so. I do play a character that can also be quite dangerous to both men and women so it’s nice to hear you would feel someone would actually fall for that! I relate to a lot of things about Maddie, her passion for her work and her enthusiasm. She’s also very fun loving and I can relate to struggling with her line of business. It’s very similar to what I do in the sense that I put on a mask every day and pretend to be different characters for a living. Once you do that for a while, you lose a bit of yourself in the journey. I turned 30 this year and there are a lot of inner conflicts that go on. All of a sudden your priorities shift and things you didn’t want before…there’s a hunger for them. I’ve always been sort of a gypsy in my travels and all of a sudden I’m craving normality and having an anchor. These are things that drew me more so than ever before so I can appreciate many things in the journeys that Maddie goes through.

SHW: Do you miss Ramat Gan, Israel?

IL: I was born there but I actually grew up in Cholon, which is outside of Tel Aviv. My parents got divorced and are now living in different parts of Israel. I am Israeli first and foremost – in my blood, veins and my art. Ani po aval halev sheli sham (Translation: I am here but my heart is there.)

SHW: You suffered from asthma as a kid, so was the Israeli army not an option for you? How is your asthma today?

IL: I had childhood asthma so I mostly grew out of it. I was very lucky and I’m completely cured and very healthy. Dance really helped and connected me with my breath. I suffered from many knee injuries so the army wouldn’t take a risk with me due to my bad knees and I ended up not serving in the army.

SHW: I know about bad knees from having been a runner and aerobic jumper myself. You do seem graceful in the dance scenes that I saw on Imposters.

IL: Yes. There’s lots of physicality in this character. You will see through more of her personas how I absolutely use my body, my movements and my breath in every scene. I studied sense memory technique at The Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute. We learned Strasberg’s method and sense memory is one of the tricks you draw from your own experiences. There are different senses to trigger the emotions. You go back to the memory and recreate it. Thank God I have this in the back of my mind because I used it with the different characters.

SHW: Which actors inspired you?

IL: Natalie Portman, like many other female actresses that I admire, is always honest and brave with her choices and she’s absolutely grateful, kind and down to earth. I respect everything about her. I like that she has a long-lasting, respectable career while keeping her private life private and raising a child and having a family. I admire her efforts to make the world a better place. There’s also Ayelet Zurer, an Israeli actress along with Ronit Elkabetz, a wonderful artist who we lost last year to cancer. She was also an incredible filmmaker who was nominated for an award just before she died.

SHW: Where do you see yourself in 10 year?

IL: Oh wow. Wow…Wherever it is I just hope that I’m happy.

SHW: Uma Thurman is one of your co-stars on Imposters and the show reminds me of Pulp Fiction so that was very suiting! How did that come about?

IL: Pulp Fiction was a big inspiration throughout the pilot and it was always on our vision board. We looked at the color scheme, the tone and the dark comedy. When the creator showed Imposters to Uma Thurman, she asked to be in it. It just fit and made total sense to have an actual piece of the Pulp Fiction puzzle. I still can’t believe I got to work with this incredible icon. I haven’t seen the rest of it either, just the first three episodes as you did, so I am just as excited as you are to see episode four…and beyond. It’s like being pregnant forever and I can’t wait to see this baby and birth it and take care of it!

SHW: This show is different than ANYTHING on Bravo. I think it’s going to bring a whole different, new viewership to Bravo like ABC’s Scandal viewing crowd.

IL: B’ezrat Hashem! B’ezrat Hashem! Todah Rabbah Rabbah. (“With the help of God! With the help God!” Thank you greatly, greatly!”)

Imposters is produced by Universal Cable Productions (UCP) with Adam Brooks and Paul Adelstein (Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce) serving as Executive Producers. The show premiered on Bravo in February of 2017 and returns with a second season this April.

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Podcasts

“What’s Your Podcast Pleasure?”

When I asked friends “What are your favorite podcasts?”, I was not expecting Nell Kalter, a teacher and writer, to send over two pages. People really like their podcasts and they’ll tell you exactly why, but then there are those who have never yet listened to one. In my experience, which is thus far limited to informal polling, those people are mainly high school students, Gen Xers and Baby Boomers. Many of my friends in their 40s, who are essentially 9-7 professionals, are just beginning to take an interest in podcasts. Yes, believe it or not. They’re just beginning. Others caught Serial when it was the “not-to-be- missed” sensation, but haven’t listened to another podcast since.

“Do you listen on the computer?” is a question I’ve gotten from a few individuals I shall not name.

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I think it’s a little embarrassing in this day and age post-Serial, but I DO get it. I’ve been told brashly by others “I have a life. I have a job” – only the most insulting thing you can say to someone as they too toil away (with a podcast in the background for good measure, of course).

I’ve also been the recipient of the side-eye from folks who have listened to podcasts since they began cropping up and regard me as a dinosaur. The act of creating podcasts, “podcasting”, was first known as “audioblogging” and its genesis predates to late 2004.

There are currently hundreds of thousands of podcasts (and counting!) to listen to if you are an English speaker. My own interests vary from true crime (i.e. Sword and Scale, Criminal, White Wine True Crime, Suspect Convictions, My Favorite Murder) to reality TV-related interviews and recaps combined with light chitchat that distracts me from national news (Watch What Crappens, Reality Life with Kate Casey, Adderall and Compliments, Realizing Stuff with Kara and Ryan, Emotionally Broken Psychos, Feathers In My Hair ,Everything is Iconic with Danny Pellegrino,  Grants Rants, Things We’re Too Lazy to Blog About, Buttered Pop and so many more).

I also delight in listening to a podcast about politics that is actually more about two funny ladies giving their comedic perspectives on the current presidential administration (Dumb Gay Politics with Julie Goldman and Brandy Howard from Bravo’s The People’s Couch).

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Here is what two of my friends had to say about their own podcast preferences. Nell Kalter is a Gen Xer who helpfully broke hers into categories. Rachel F. is a Millennial who spoke about her favorites (and requested anonymity due to the nature of her profession).

I. NELL KALTER – Gen Xer

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The Reality TV podcasts: The very legitimate need for escapism from the latest news about whatever horrifying thing the ‘head lunatic in charge’ just said on any given day has multiplied recently – much like that creature in Human Centipede 3 – and there’s perhaps no greater escapism than listening to intelligent people yank and pull reality television apart. I’ve written recaps of reality shows for a few years now (Vanderpump Rules, The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, Are You the One?, etc.) and I’ve taught Film and Media for even longer, so the podcasts I gravitate to in this arena are those that explore how manipulated these shows truly are in a manner that I seriously hope every person watching fully understands.

I listen to Reality Life with Kate Casey because she scores timely subjects for interviews and she asks probing questions that often make me appreciate certain participants of reality shows in a way I haven’t before. Shep Rose, a key player on Southern Charm, came off as far wiser and more politically aware than he does on his series when he spoke with Casey, and knowing he has those attributes somehow enhances the show for me. I’m not an avid fan of The Bachelor – I watch the first episode each season before suddenly remembering that seeing a grown woman named Lindzeeee cry in a corner about feeling rejected by a man she met ten minutes ago could potentially stunt my growth – but I have written on Reality Steve’s site for some time and I crazily respect his unparalleled ability to spoil the show. He started a podcast a while ago and I don’t know every person he interviews because I don’t follow The Bachelor closely, but he still manages to pull me in because his interview style is effortless and quite charming. If you haven’t listened to him yet, check out the episode he did with Michelle Money. She exhibits a level of real bravery while discussing the choices she’s made throughout her life that may end up inspiring you.

Kate Casey

The Erudite Pop Culture podcast: How was Your Week with Julie Klausner was the first podcast I ever listened to and she hooked me immediately with her hilarious takes on of subjects as varied as serving on jury duty and the Met Gala. Klausner, the creator, writer, and star of the brilliant and subversive show Difficult People, is sort of my idol; she literally has completed the trajectory of the exact career I’d chant for if I actually believed something like chanting worked. She used to write scathing and hysterical reality TV recaps before she moved on to writing her own television show, and though she hasn’t done as many podcasts as she used to, she came back recently with a brand new episode that is laugh out loud funny. (And I swear I’m not just complimenting her work in the hopes that she’ll send me one of those snack blankets she trotted out on the most recent episode of Difficult People – but should she be reading this, I’d like a Savory Blanket in pale pink.)

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SALON.COM, Julie Klausner

The True Crime podcast: Like everyone else I know, I consumed Serial like it was arsenic-laced candy. I’ve had an interest in the most bizarre crimes that have ever occurred throughout the annals of history since the day I accepted my own double-dog-dare and finally read my sister’s copy of Helter Skelter, a book I’d peek at constantly but shied away from because I feared the stark black and blood red cover and the warning scrawled on the first page that the book I was about to read would scare the hell out of me. The cautionary note was accurate, but I realized that what I found most fascinating about Charles Manson ended up being not the man himself, but his followers.

As someone who is not religious and not fanatical about anything except Springsteen, the devout belief Manson’s followers had in him intrigued me, as did the line within them – the one that grew shadowy and pale after months spent gobbling acid on the dusty terrain of Death Valley – that delineated those once light sides from their growing dark sides. It’s an internal line we all have, and I guess the perverse side of me is drawn to understanding what causes someone to hop over that line in a spectacularly cruel fashion.

After obsessing over Serial, I moved on to the podcast version of one of my favorite shows, 48 Hours. The podcast may not be hip, but the stories are explored in a taut, compassionate, and totally consuming manner.

The Best Interviewer podcast: A friend turned me on to The Tim Ferriss Show a while ago and I’ve perhaps never heard a finer interviewer who has been able to delve into so many subjects with verve and legitimate enthusiasm. This guy examines the life of a Navy Seal in one episode and ponders how to live without limits in the next. His interview with Jamie Foxx made me wish my own name ended with at least one “x” because Foxx was revealed to be patently ambitious, beautifully wise, and wildly funny all in the same breath. My guess is that Ferriss’ podcast would have the greatest mass appeal of all of my favorite podcasts because he examines everything within the zeitgeist exactly as it’s occurring. Want dating advice? Ferriss has you covered. Ever wonder what spiritual fuel Tony Robbins downs instead of Adderall to achieve enlightenment? Ferriss will be your guide as you wade into that crystal water of wisdom. In short, Ferriss manages to instantly relate and form a rapport with every person with whom he speaks and he knows how to hone in on what will interest his listeners the most in each moment – and he keeps those listeners thinking long after each episode ends.

The My-Obsession podcast: Listen, I don’t love anything more than I love Bruce Springsteen. Seriously, I’d give up Twix bars, iced coffees on August mornings, my favorite six-inch heels that make my feet bleed, and several family members just to have a five minute meeting with the man I believe to be the single finest songwriter in the stratosphere – and I’d give up those people and those things without even a smidgen of guilt. I’ve been to countless shows and there were many months when I was in my twenties when I couldn’t afford my rent because my priorities were: 1)Springsteen tickets 2)Huge pretzel at the concert 3)A roof over my head. I appreciate fellow fans who worship him as the deity I believe him to be, and Tramps Like Us is a podcast for Springsteen aficionados. Lee McCormack’s appreciation for Springsteen’s artistry is evident in every single episode, and if you’re a Springsteen fan, I recommend you check it out. And should you snag the tickets to Bruce’s upcoming appearance on Broadway that I feel deep in my soul are MINE, I also recommend that you hire yourself several burly bodyguards.

Nell Kalter teaches Film and Media at a school in New York. She is the author of the books THAT YEAR and STUDENT, both available on amazon.com in paperback and for your Kindle. Her Twitter is @nell_kalter

 

II. RACHEL F. – Millennial

Okay, I thought hard about this because I listen to about 20+ podcasts. Here are my top 5:

 

1. Bowery Boys: New York City History

This was the first podcast I ever listened to. My dad recommended it when I moved to New York 4 years ago. Before I started working, I binged its episodes to get acclimated to the city. I grew to love my new city with every episode. The creators Greg Young and Tom Meyers recently published a book of New York City history and of course, I went to one of their signings. Meeting them was a dream come true and I expressed how appreciative I was for their work.

 

2. The Black Tapes Podcast

This podcast is a serialized horror story about a young reporter teaming up with a paranormal expert to investigate unsolved paranormal activity. The story-line is very compelling, but unfortunately, it is ending after 3 seasons this year. The mystery gives me the creeps, but I cannot stop listening.

 

3. You Must Remember This

This is another history podcast, but it is about old Hollywood. The creator is Karina Longworth, a Hollywood enthusiast, and every few months she posts mini-series about Hollywood’s history. This season she focuses on the parallels between Jane Fonda and Jean Seberg, two contemporary actresses who were investigated by the FBI for their ideologies. Other topics she covered previously were Charles Manson, the Hollywood blacklist, and Joan Crawford. Karina has a wonderful voice to listen to, as well.

 

4. Ronna and Beverly

Well you and I met at their show, so enough said. Jessica Chaffin’s and Jamie Denbo’s Ronna Glickman and Bevery Ginsberg (respectively) make my week! It has been a rough summer without their humor because they are currently on hiatus. But when they release new episodes, I have a hard time focusing on work because I am constantly cracking up at my desk. Impeccable timing, great guests, it is the best comedy podcast out there.

ronna and bev

 

5. My Favorite Murder

When thinking of this list, I thought about what podcasts I cannot wait to download on my phone. My Favorite Murder is one of them. Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark deep dive into high-profile and unknown crimes. I always look forward to their mini-episodes with people’s hometown murders as well as their main episodes. Karen and Georgia have created a community where not only do we like talking about murder, but we also look out for each other in signs of danger. “Stay sexy and don’t get murdered” is a motto more people live by because of the podcast.

 

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Books

‘What’s the Big Deal About: Freedom?’ The Second Book of a Fun & Informative Kids’ Series

Several months ago, I reviewed my former classmate Ruby Shamir’s children’s book What’s the Big Deal About: First Ladies and interviewed her about her experience working with Hillary Clinton. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/whats-the-big-deal-about-first-ladies-an-interview_us_58607c5ce4b068764965bd46 As the first in the What’s the Big Deal series (the publisher is Philomel Books, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group), First Ladies serves as a teaching tool in schools and is also a book for kids to read at home. A bit longer than most children’s books, I found it easiest to break down into different sections and allot them to certain nights of the week for my rambunctious 7 year old twins. With the second in this installment, What’s the Big Deal About: Freedom, one of my twins and I were able to digest everything in a single sitting. It could be due to the passage of time and resulting maturity from one reading to the next, but Freedom is also a shorter read. My son was pretty psyched to share what he already knew about the founding fathers, the Declaration of Independence, The Constitution, voting rights, slavery and emancipation. He couldn’t wait to get to the part in the book about Martin Luther King while we were discussing events of the 1700s.

Having such an enthusiastic reader certainly helped, but What’s the Big Deal About Freedom definitely captures the attention of children and adults alike. I am ashamed to admit that I had never heard of the slave who hid in a box to escape from Virginia to Philadelphia where he could be free. My son, on the other hand, already knew all about this. Reading the book together gave him a chance to show me what he had learned and had really paid attention to in school (it’s possible I had learned all of these things as well, but I may not have paid as much attention or have forgotten a lot from my elementary school days). His twin would pop in and out of the room to state facts such as “the underground railroad wasn’t a real railroad” and give me further detail on how it operated – I laughed thinking about the “Real Housewife” on Bravo TV who thought there was an actual railroad with trains involved while my own grade schooler was easily breaking down the metaphor to me.

 

We also discussed terms like “Abolutionist,” “Emancipation” and “child labor laws.” We delved into the Emoluments Clause of the constitution and how America was once under British rule and citizens had to answer to a monarchy. In relation to today’s presidency, we discussed not only this theme but that of freedom of speech and freedom of the press. All of these themes are mentioned or touched on in the book. Ruby Shamir provides much food for thought for her readers that not only covers history but can be paralleled to current events.

 

My eager reader noted the irony of Thomas Jefferson keeping slaves though “he wrote the words that became the basis of every struggle for freedom in America” as it states in the book. I noted that Frederick Douglas’s story is given in an illustrated corner in this kids’ guide while our current president was recently not even sure if Douglas was alive or dead today. Hours after reading together, my “tester” impressed me with his recall of the timeline of historic events pertaining to U.S. freedoms.

 

What’s the Big Deal About Freedom is a great gift for children from parents, aunts, uncles, godparents and friends. It also makes a terrific end of year treat for any teacher preparing for next year’s students. The book, along with What’s the Big Deal about First Ladies can be purchased in stores or at www.penguinrandomhouse.com.

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Books

What’s The Big Deal About First Ladies? An Interview with Author Ruby Shamir

I originally published this article to The Huffington Post on 12/25/2016. This was before we got to see the current first lady, Melania Trump, in office and assess her capabilities in this new position. How do you think Melania is faring as First Lady? What do you believe she needs to do going forward? What do you think her legacy will be as a United States First Lady?

One of the best new books of 2017 is non-fiction, can be found in the children’s section and is a great pick for adults too. What’s The Big Deal About First Ladies (Philomel Books, January 2017) is the first in a series authored by Ruby Shamir and illustrated by Matt Faulkner, capturing important historic concepts so kids (and grownups!) can understand.

Did you know that Dolley Madison’s favorite ice cream flavor was oyster? Or that Grace Coolidge had a pet raccoon named Rebecca? Were you aware of the first jobs held by first ladies? Many of the answers surprised me. I immediately felt more knowledgeable and a bit ashamed that as a grown woman I didn’t already know these facts.

Ruby, my former elementary school classmate, has worked in public policy and began noting this information while working at the White House during the Clinton administration. She also served in the First Lady’s office for two of her three and half years there. As time went on, she would conduct more historical research and make the shift to Hillary Clinton’s New York Senate office. Subsequently, she became active in Mrs. Clinton’s presidential campaign and wrote her book before the election outcome. The final product, however, reflects that we are about to start a new term with Trump as president and the next chapter with a new first lady. First Ladies is a great teaching tool and an enlightening read. Unsurprisingly, it also covers many things that Ruby and I were not taught in school as Gen Xers.

SHW: How did you come up with the idea for this book?

 

RS: I wanted to offer kids a review of our history. Women have long been kept out of all kinds of things -because of custom or law – and the same is true with our history books which don’t talk about first ladies’ contributions. If they do, they seemed tethered to the executive mansion. There’s nothing wrong with being tethered or working within the White House because it is the people’s house and keeping it welcoming is a very important thing, but I also wanted to convey to kids that first ladies have been ambassadors, advisers, champions…I didn’t see children’s books that did that with respect to first ladies. Having come from my background, I know what first ladies are capable of doing substantively and I got to know this at the White House. With my own kids now, I want them to know that these women made very important contributions and I didn’t want the first ladies to be overlooked anymore.

 

SHW: In the beginning of this book, it seems as if the ladies were party hosts at the White House. Then you see over time that they have more dynamic roles and what one might consider ‘real jobs.’

 

RS: I tried to tackle it somewhat chronologically and thematically in the book. There were fewer things for women to do way back when. One thing I learned from my research was that women were not allowed to attend a party without a female hostess present so the first lady’s role was born out of that etiquette. Even within that context, Abigail Adams and other first ladies pushed the envelope. Many did things we didn’t even know about. Francis Cleveland was popular because she was a pretty, young mom, but something more interesting is that she hosted receptions for women on Saturdays. The reason for that Saturday was that many women were working weekdays. Yes, women were working. So even though she herself was as a woman of privilege, she was still cognizant about the reality around her. Then there was Lou Hoover, a truly modern first lady who had studied geology. Abigail Fillmore taught her husband how to read and write better…I loved thinking about ways to make these facts more interesting. I also wanted to really open this topic up a bit more and air out the truth.

SHW: The timing of publication for this book was interesting because of the election. I’m guessing you couldn’t envision (when you were writing) how women and girls in this country might be impacted by Election Day.

 

RS: My publisher put me on a schedule and the second book I’m writing, What’s the Big Deal about Freedom?, will come out in May. Then there will be more books added to the series. When we talked about this idea, we thought that if this first book came out around the inauguration it would be ideal. I knew it (the election outcome) could go either way so even as I was hoping for a different outcome myself, we planned for things going either way.

 

SHW: Tell us about your political experience.

 

RS: I interned in the first lady’s office during the Clinton administration in the 90’s and that was my first exposure to her (Hillary), her world, the administration…I also worked on the Clinton/Gore reelection campaign in the research office and then on the inaugural committee. After spending some time at a PR firm, I was back in the White House in 1997 under Clinton’s communications director. After two years in that position, I started working in the first lady’s office and I did domestic policy issues for her and for President Clinton. Then I worked with the Chief of Staff and after the Clinton administration, I worked with Hillary on her memoir. After it came out in 2003, my husband and I were planning to moving back to NY and I was given the opportunity to work in Hillary’s senate office which I did until the birth of my oldest son in 2007. I worked on some books after that…(including) with Tom Brokaw. I got my MBA, and then there were some other projects including Chelsea Clinton’s book which came out in September 2015.

 

SHW: So you know the Clintons pretty well!

 

RS: I do. I have a great….sort of Personal-Professional relationship with the family.

 

SHW: How did actually spending time in the White House lend itself to the writing of this book?

 

RS: What I had from my professional experience was a physical and spatial understanding of the mansion, how the White House worked and a personal experience with a very active first lady. I wanted to tell the story of a first lady on a substantive level, but when you’re writing for kids you want to talk about these things in a way that will meet where kids are level-wise. You also want to tell it in a way that is compelling and interesting for them. I read a bunch of books on first ladies and one of them was the book from the Smithsonian Institute. Another was by a professor named Lewis L. Gould. There is also a historian named Allida Black who has written a lot of entries on first ladies, so I consulted with her. Between books that I read and talking to historians and friends from the White House, I was able to remember accounts like when Dolley Madison saved the painting of George Washington (During a fire in the War of 1812 – though the fire actually happened in 1814 when the British invaded Washington). One of my White House friends reminded me of the burn marks you can still see in the mansion from that time. As a former staffer, I could add color from my memories and my working experience. There are stones inside the building that you can see are still charred black today.

 

SHW: I need to go for another tour of the White House. Have any of your colleagues from the White House read the book?

 

RS: It comes out January 3rd, but some of my friends from the White House read it while I was writing to see if it sounded right to them. A bunch of my other friends have pre-ordered it. I have an event in Chelsea on January 8th where I hope to see some of my friends from the White House as well.

 

SHW: You definitely should visit schools with this remarkable book. My twins are in second grade and I can see their classmates being interested.

 

RS: My oldest daughter is also in second grade and I feel like this is for her and her age group – definitely! I’m hoping that this can also be a resource book in a school library.

 

SHW: Why do you think girls specifically need a book like this today?

 

RS: Even if our history books have long ignored contributions of women or excluded them from equal opportunity, women were always contributing, always doing! First ladies were a part of this and a major force in American history. Maybe this book will give kids the opportunity to look beyond the facade of the perfect dress to the brain and the heart of the women who is wearing it. I want them to know what is motivating her and the kinds of things she does with her life.

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Bravo TV

#TimesUp, But Will Men Change How They Speak to Women?

‘Vanderpump’ party planner: I was joking about Katie’s weight

PAGE SIX, Katie Maloney and Kevin Lee

I shouldn’t let a man rattle me with his words or frighten me into this type of paralysis.

I have a severe case of “writer’s block” and it all began with a man’s rant. This was someone I had championed and promoted, whose work I had lauded to others, but with one swift misunderstanding, he lashed out publicly rather than reaching out to chat one-on-one. After clearing up the complete misunderstanding and apologizing, I am left with that residual crummy feeling from the insults hurled my way.

“Nothing to worry about, all’s fine,” he said at the end, to wave a magic wand over it all and make me forget his temper had erupted like Mount Vesuvius. Can you take back that awful jab about my writing? I wanted to ask . He had implied that I do not take what I do seriously, which could not be farther from the truth. Not only do I take everything I do way too seriously, but when I pour myself into work, it is something I put significant time and effort into (There is not only writing, after all. There is also fact-checking, editing, revising…There is waking in the middle of the night as another thought comes to me and rushing to rewrite a portion. I could go on and on). In this case, male bravado was at the center of the storm.  This was someone who was worried that I had inadvertently tarnished his tough guy image. Ire had gotten the best of him and he immediately lashed out impulsively. A couple of comments were issued to me to make me perfectly aware that no woman should ever do that to him and no woman would again.

While I am not the first woman to feel intimidated by a man, I am more attune than ever now to the idea of women who are afraid to speak out. While sexual harassment in particular is a current focus, there are other types of fears women face when it comes to the opposite gender. It is not always about trepidation. Sometimes it’s about hesitation.

A friend of mine is afraid to tell her male boss she is pregnant because of the disparaging remarks she knows he will make. The last time she was pregnant, this same boss gave her hell and spoke derogatorily of her to their colleagues.

“I won’t be disclosing this until my pregnant belly is staring him in the face and it’s impossible to hide,” she tells me, “He will start complaining and laying a major guilt trip on me with regard to what will happen to my position, with the employees I manage, and with our clients. I’m perfectly capable of running this entire corporation and having everything go smoothly through my maternity leave. I know precisely who to delegate tasks to in that period of time…Yet, he was awful the last time I was pregnant. He made me feel as if I had committed the gravest injustice to our company. Otherwise, I love working here. I don’t want to ever feel chased out. I have been dreading how I’ll eventually have to let him know I’m pregnant this time around.”

Despite what we would expect from the Corporate America of 2018, being pregnant or being a mom comes with its own challenges in the workplace. Our kids come first, but having to leave a meeting due to a child’s allergic reaction (this happened with me years ago) can illicit obnoxious remarks from the higher ups. When dealing with male – as opposed to female – bosses, we smack our heads against the wall in frustration. How will this person ever get it? He’s never going to become pregnant or physically give birth to a child.

On the subject of “getting it” and truly understanding women, let’s talk about women’s bodies. Over the years I have been horrified hearing men opine in an unsolicited manner on the female form. Two nights ago, on Bravo’s Vanderpump Rules, Lisa Vanderpump’s party planner Kevin Lee approached server Katie Maloney at an event to express shock over (his perception of ) her weight gain. As it happens, Katie is svelte and absolutely stunning, but not ask stick thin as some of her cast mates are. “What happened to you?” Kevin asked, which immediately took Katie aback. He proceeded to tell her she must take care of her body and that he was “worried” about her.

Publicly castigating a young woman before the cameras about her appearance does not smack of worry to me…but perhaps that’s just me. My personal contention is that Kevin was being catty.

In his non-pology to Page Six https://pagesix.com/2018/02/06/vanderpump-party-planner-i-was-joking-about-katies-weight/, Kevin gave the excuse of being Katie’s “friend” and declared that she’s been so “sensitive” lately. Congratulations, Kevin. Like so many great male deflectors before you, you turned it around to blame the woman you insulted. You expressed that the fault lies in her psychological makeup.

It also pays to note that Kevin is one of those extremely thin men who could consume cheeseburgers for lunch and dinner daily, but still fall over when the wind blows. I have doubts about his understanding of female hormones and related weight fluctuations, the challenges of staying in shape and the unbalanced amount of criticism women (versus men) receive about appearance and physical fitness.

While it might prove inaccurate to state that Katie Maloney was fearful of Kevin Lee, something in her made it impossible to respond with anything other than a quick initial defense. She was essentially rendered speechless and this is not an uncommon response to the shocking things men will say to women. Historically men have felt they have the license to comment on women’s bodies, to let them know they appear fuller than they used to, to suggest they lose weight and imply they aren’t trying — when that most often is so far from the truth. With #MeToo and #TimesUp, men are starting to pause before making sexually suggestive comments to women..so… can we also school them on refraining from commenting on a woman’s weight?

I have been horrified about this for years and I’m hoping that 2018 might finally usher in some progress. I’ve been married for close to two decades, but I remember a blind date from many years ago who stared at my waist. “I normally date women who are a size zero or two,” he told me unabashedly. At the time, I was a slender 4-6 and was appalled, but also incredibly frustrated. I exercised on a daily basis and tried to cut down on junk food..and it seemed all for naught. I was probably even more conscientious of watching my weight then because I was in a brutal Jewish Manhattan dating scene where Natalie Portman was every man’s ideal. While I could not change what my date was attracted to, the fact that a man had actually said this to me, and that I ended up feeling apologetic to him at that time, reflects something that was wrong with society.

When I was pregnant many years later, a guy who happened to be rather portly and disheveled approached me to loudly declare “wow, that’s HUGE!”, pointing to my stomach. I looked at him dead-on and without realizing I was reenacting a scene from Sex and the City, (one that must have been stuck in my subconscious) I replied “I’m pregnant! What’s YOUR excuse?”

The problem we face today is that we, as a society, are still conditioned to men speaking a certain way to women. In Kevin Lee’s mind, it was OK to justify Katie’s hurt as the result her being too sensitive. When our president was accused of making the moves on a female reporter, one of his initial responses was “Have you seen her? I don’t think so.” While two wrongs don’t make a right, my immediate thought was “Donald Trump, have you seen you?!”

But you see, this is not the response that comes to others’ minds. Why? Because wealthy and powerful men “can” make these types of statements and they “can” demand to be flanked by beautiful women. Our society has long rewarded these men throughout history. Luckily now in 2018, women are starting to say that this type of treatment is no longer tolerable.

I saw far fewer people comment on Katie’s physique after Monday night’s episode of Vanderpump Rules than those who lambasted Kevin Lee on social media. If the episode had aired 10…even 5 years ago, I think more people would have chosen to comment on Katie and scathingly scrutinize her body type. I’d like to think we are making progress, that we are getting bolder and speaking up for ourselves. Unfortunately,  I also know firsthand that we still have a long way to go.

 

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Documentary

Holocaust Documentary ‘Four Seasons Lodge’: The Legacy of Survivors

A poignant 2008 Holocaust documentary is now being re-released with an accompanying guidebook for educators. Four Seasons Lodge is a film that captures the summer experience of a group of Holocaust survivors who gather annually at an isolated rural compound in the Catskill Mountains. There, they play poker, dance, sing, listen to music, socialize…with others who understand their unfathomable pain. It is a unique seasonal meetup for those with shared experiences and ties that bind, one that has solidified friendships and even romances over the years.

Throughout the film, we see that the survivors are dealing with a new challenge: They are at risk of losing their beloved lodge of 25 years. The film follows the residents as they grapple with the idea that their summer residence, with all the sentimentality that is attached to Four Seasons Lodge, may be put up for sale.

Focusing on individual survivor stories and past experiences, the producers of Four Seasons Lodge have created a powerful tool for Holocaust education. The newly published handbook, written to accompany the documentary as a teaching tool, offers educators an effective way to engage students in meaningful dialogue.

The film was directed by Andrew Jacobs of The New York Times who discovered the lodge while writing an article for the newspaper.  He decided that a documentary would be the ideal way to capture the atmosphere and magic surrounding Four Seasons Lodge. Jacobs then teamed up with Rainlake Productions to create this emotional and powerful documentary.

Principal Characters in Four Seasons Lodge

HYMIE ABRAMOWITZ is the Lodge godfather, its unpaid handyman, resident misanthrope and an irreverent atheist who takes pleasuring in riling up the faithful. He is also a driving force behind the decision to dissolve the colony — and the only one who can save it.  “They call this place paradise. It’s not a paradise for me. It’s a labor camp.”

TOSHA ABRAMOWITZ is Hymie’s  beleaguered wife and sidekick who, after 55 years of marriage, still finds his off-color jokes unbearable. She often provides a sobering counterpoint to Hymie, who uses humor to deflect questions about his agonizing past. “No matter how hard I try, he doesn’t want to talk about it.”

ARON ADELMAN embodies the raucous spirit of the Lodge. He may be 91 and grievously ill, but Aron drinks scotch like water, stuffs his face with artery-clogging kielbasa and dances the mambo like a young ruffian.   “The best thing in life is to eat, drink and be happy. When you’re finished, you’re finished!”

BASIE ADELMAN is the bracingly frank wife of Aron and a Russian-born rebel who can dispense love and disdain with a single glance.  “He’s going to live like everyone else. Until he dies!”

OLGA BOWMAN travels to the Catskills from her home in El Paso each summer to share a room with Genya Boyman, her life-long companion. Loving and insightful, Olga is the film’s unofficial narrator and a font of philosophical musings about life, aging and the value of friendship.  “Life is not easy for everyone. But life can be beautiful even when it’s not so easy.”

EUGENIA “GENYA” BOYMAN, Olga’s companion, is an occasionally dour but eminently regal presence at the Lodge. She is a straight-shooter who heaps ridicule on those who hide their age, but when it comes to the past, Genya is incapable of talking about her wartime experiences.“One day, one day I’ll tell my story – I suppose it will be on my deathbed.”

TOBIAS BUCHMAN is a former soccer star who was the only Jew on the German team. After the death of his wife, he falls in love with Lola, a fellow lodger whom he first met at a Nazi death camp. Unexpected illness, however, tests the bonds of their blossoming affair.  “To be in love at my age is something I never expected. Somebody must be watching over us.”

CARL POTOK is the president of the lodge and a selfless workhorse who struggles to keep the colony going even as he tends to his ailing wife, Cesia. He is also a pragmatist who has no use for religion.  “I was in concentration camp four years and I never saw no miracles. Luck yes. As far as I’m concerned God is about miracles.”

CESIA POTOK, Carl’s wife, is battling Alzheimer’s disease and confined to a wheelchair. Her haunting cries, which reverberate across the colony, are an unwelcome reminder of mortality. “We were together in one camp. When we were liberated she didn’t have nobody and I didn’t have nobody. Four months later we got married.”

LOLA WENGLIN is the spunky paramour of Tobias Buchman who reluctantly agrees to leave the colony early after he gets sick.   “I’ll run away, find another boyfriend and come back to the country.”

**If you are interested in finding out more about this film and how to screen it in your schools, please send me an email: Sweiss@WeissmediaGroup.com. I am working closely with my friend Kelly Sheehan, the Executive Producer of this film, to arrange screenings nationwide. **

 

 

 

 

 

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