wendy’s serves the bread of affliction

salem at ciw rally

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers rally in New York City on March 3, 2016.

 

 

My fellow Hebrew College rabbinical student Mimi Micner and I wrote this OpEd for the Huffington Post about Passover and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers‘ boycott of Wendy’s. Chag sameach!

prison psych

“I can think of one thing that is worse than being sick and in the prison ward here at the hospital. Being well and at Riker’s.” – CPE supervisor

“The midnight shift here on the prison ward is way better than working during the day at the 23-hour lock-up on the island.” – NYC corrections officer

“I would rather try to kill myself than have to go back to Riker’s.” – prison ward psych patient

Working at the prison psych ward this summer has confirmed for me just how bad Riker’s Island is. And the prison psych ward at Bellevue Hospital, where I am interning this summer as a chaplain, is pretty damn bad.

Almost every day I go through airport-like security to reach the floor. Armed corrections officers abound. Often there are folks in the hideous orange jumpsuits, and in leg chains and handcuffs, and the lucky ones shuffle towards an elevator that will get them to their transportation to court, to Riker’s, upstate to Sing-Sing. The less fortunate are pushed in hospital beds. I wait for one mechanized gate, with its once-white, peeling paint, to slowly slide open. I enter a holding area and wait for it to close. At the end of the hallway, another officer unlocks a door. I enter and wait for her to lock it again. She walks to another white metal gate, with yet another officer sitting on the other side, and opens it. I am finally on one of two prison psych wards.

bellevue hospital gate; photo by salem pearce

bellevue hospital gate; photo by salem pearce

I walk past men — they are all men, and the vast majority men of color — in faded blue scrub tops and gray sweatpants. Milling around the hall. Walking deliberately around the hall, because some days that’s all the exercise they can get. Shouting in the hall. About using the telephone. About getting a clean shirt. About talking to a doctor. About . . . something unintelligible. Sleeping in their rooms. Using the bathrooms that abut the halls with huge picture windows.

There are tons of corrections officers here, too, as many as there are patients. During my first visit to the floor, the chief psychiatrist warns me, “They are not here for your protection.” They sit in chairs, as do staff who are assigned to the patients under “constant watch.” There is a lot of sitting. There is nowhere to go.

I check in at the nurse’s station: Is there any patient I need to avoid today? I walk around the hall — only the main hall; the second hall, ironically with absolutely no corrections officers, is too dangerous — and ask if anyone wants to talk to the chaplain. Sometimes I knock on doors, where there are two to three patients per room. I usually don’t have to walk long to get a taker.

We walk to an interview room. The patient enters first and sits on the opposite side of the table; I am closest to the door. If he is under constant watch, the staff member sits outside. And then the patient and I talk.

Some of them have committed the kinds of crimes that you read about in the Post: Man tries to kill girlfriend and then himself. Man takes [unusual weapon] to co-workers. Man assaults officers on the subway during rush hour. But some of them are simply folks with mental illness whose behavior has been criminalized. Man shouts in an unruly manner on street. Man violates probation. Man pandhandles. And yet others are the result of decompensation in isolation, or not, on Riker’s.

What I have been struck by most is the detail of care afforded patients by the system — and its simultaneous profound inhumaneness.

Several mornings a week I attend a meeting of the unit’s principle staff: psychiatrists, psychiatry interns, social workers, social work interns, nurses, and clerks. The meeting starts with a report from the head night watch clerk. He goes through what happened with each patient the night before in minute detail. Who got what medications, who refused medication, who slept when, who was awake when, who ate what, who was in what mood.

Then they go over new admissions. They discuss discharges (which always means back into some part of the criminal justice system). And then one of the doctors presents presents her patients in detail. She talks about medications, psychological state, progress. The social worker adds information about the criminal case, family, records at Riker’s or other institutions, contact with lawyer. (A different doctor will go the next day.) Then the daily lists are created collaboratively: Who is at what “level” (and therefore has more or fewer privileges); who can get a haircut; who is going to court; who can attend groups. The information is mostly in these professionals’ heads: They are very familiar with their charges. And everyone refers to each as “Mr. So-and-so.”

There are groups: art therapy, music therapy, spirituality, community meetings. I run what’s called a “Healing Circle” once a week. Almost every day there is recreation on the roof. General freedom of movement on the unit. Three meals a day, plus snacks. Several televisions.

And yet.

There are no personal possessions, which is helpful since the patients are (inexplicably, to me) moved almost every day. The lists created include who needs to be forced to shower. The walls echo with clinical phrases like, “irritable upon approach”; “responds to redirection”; “sexually preoccupied”; “displays suicidal ideation”; “exhibits disorganized thinking.” The view of the East River is almost completely obscured behind feet of thick wire screens. There is an almost uniform schedule for their movement through the criminal justice system (“Arraignment on Wednesday means a court date on Monday”). Most of the men can’t tell you why they were arrested, much less how they ended up on a prison psych ward. Very few of them will ever experience life outside of an institution.

Adding to the feeling that these men are utterly lost to us is the fact that they almost all have the most common American names. Johnson, Smith, Brown, Williams. John, Michael, Jeffrey, Kevin. Pick a combination, and they’re probably there.

And then the most crushingly heartbreaking of all: Occasionally there is a patient called simply “Unknown Male.”

We know so much and yet virtually nothing about them.

I don’t doubt the motivations of the staff of the unit. I’ve never heard anyone speak about the men under their care with anything but respect and sympathy (okay, sometimes tinged with frustration, but I think that’s reasonable). But the truth is that this care can only go so far. It inevitably runs up against the fundamental philosophy of a system of mass incarceration: that it is acceptable, even preferable, to put certain human beings in cages. The cages in prison psych encompass the entire unit, instead of individual cells, but that doesn’t make them any less inhumane. And all the pastoral care in the world isn’t going to change that.

guide my steps

I’m a mikveh guide!

Or as my friend Sarah likes to say: I’m a mivkeh lady!

This is not new information; in fact, I completed my training at Mayyim Hayyim at the beginning of May. But since I’ve hardly written in this space since the beginning of the year, I thought I would start to do some catching up.

mayyim hayyim nametag

it’s official!; photo by salem pearce via instagram

In the spring I participated in an eight-week course for new mikveh guides. The group was mostly middle-aged women, save one man, as well as Sarah and I and two other students. We were the ninth cohort of mikveh attendants trained since Mayyim Hayyim opened its doors 10 years ago. The training consisted of history and law of mikveh, most of which I already knew, logistics of facilitating immersions, and general education about the different reasons people might immerse. Mayyim Hayyim is a community mikveh that allows all Jews to immerse for just about any occasion, which makes it unique among most mikva’ot. Folks come to celebrate conversion, marriage, childbirth, gender transition, and cancer remission — as well as to heal from divorce, miscarriage, and sexual abuse, to name a few.

I have written about mikveh in general before in this space. I shared my last two pre-High Holiday immersion experiences, in the fall of 2012 and in the fall of 2013 (both at Mayyim Hayyim) as well as at least a little about my conversion immersion. I also wrote about a powerful play about mikveh I saw at the DCJCC a number of years ago.

As you might imagine, my experiences as an immersee have been quite moving. I was a little nervous about how it would feel to be on the other side, to witness immersions, and indeed, the curtain has been pulled back a little. I can still see the magic of Mayyim Hayyim, especially through the eyes of those who visit, but it’s hard to view as a refuge a place where I’m asked to do laundry. (Keeping the machines cleaning the constant accumulation of sheets and towels and robes and bath mats and wash cloths is part of my job now.) I was able to do my annual pre-holiday dunk last month, but I’ll admit that it felt less special than it had in years past. I did have a really wonderful experience facilitating the immersion of a friend who was preparing for a big life event, and I hope to be able to talk about that in this space soon.

park slope mikvah towel

embroidery on the towels at the park slope mikvah; photo by salem pearce via instagram

What I do want to share is my experience this summer in New York. I did a fair amount of reflection on the ritual of mikveh this summer for a number of reasons — one of which is that my friend Sarah facilitated a series of salon conversations about the practice of niddah as part of her work as a summer fellow with ImmerseNYC, another community mikveh.

Niddah is the term in Hebrew for a menstruating woman, with whom intercourse is forbidden; the metaphorical impurity of menstruation is expunged by immersion in the mikveh some days after the end of her cycle. It’s an ancient practice — still held by many Orthodox communities — most definitely informed by misogyny. However, there is a movement in more liberal Jewish circles to reclaim the practice. Though at first skeptical, I’ve come to believe more in that possibility.

So this summer I twice immersed at the Park Slope Mikvah, which I discovered by accident on a walk around my adopted neighborhood. I scheduled the appointments around my menstrual cycle, but mostly out of respect for the space, which caters to women who practice niddah. I was more interested in exploring a regular practice of mivkeh — and in experiencing a different mikveh.

With all due respect to Mayyim Hayyim, the Park Slope Mikvah is unparalleled in its facilities. It’s brand new (open for less than a year), and it feels like a spa: Beautifully appointed rooms with music and candles and huge bathtubs; embroidered, fluffy white towels, robes, and slippers; gorgeous, shimmering pools; and supplies in a gift-wrapped box, complete with preparation instructions on Park Slope Mikvah stationery. Even more welcoming than all of these creature comforts were the two mikveh ladies that witnessed my immersion.

The mikveh in Park Slope is a project of Chabad, an Orthodox Jewish outreach organization. So the folks associated with it are by profession welcoming. But I don’t present as a typical woman who practices niddah, and the guides still could not have been more kind and helpful. One mikveh lady in particular was effusive in her blessings. And the names of the preparation rooms reflected this expansive feeling: I prepared both times in the hilariously dubbed “Chamber of Chic Simplicity.”

park slope mikvah handwashing sink

park slope mikvah handwashing sink; photo by salem pearce

I don’t know how I would feel about restricting intimate contact with my partner for about half of each month, which is the traditional practice of niddah, but this summer I was struck by the effort it takes to go to the mikveh each month (and I only went two months in a row), and by the appeal that I’m guessing that visit has for many a busy woman. Having the time to take a bath — and being expected to take that time in careful preparation for immersion — seemed even to me, without children or partner, to be a decadent luxury. During my training this spring one of the instructors pointed out that for some women, the time they spend at the mikveh is the only time they will truly have to themselves all month. I feel like I understand the appeal of the mikveh a little more now.

To be sure, the heterocentric focus of the mikveh in Park Slope is procreation. Hence, for instance, the plaque above the ritual handwashing sink:

The unique eggshell shape of this vessel sink in both sculptured and inspirational . . . Just as an egg opens to reveal new life, the mikvah waters breathe new life into our most meaningful relationship. The mikvah has always been — and continues to be — a place of spiritual rebirth and renewal. a mitzvah that celebrates Jewish marriage and family.

As heavy-handed as it’s possible to read this — along with the meditation prayer for fertility that I was handed to read after immersion — I think the fact that the mikveh is clearly engaging in literal hiddur mitzvah (“beautification of the mitzvah”) speaks to the potential power of the use of the ritual for any reason.

One final note: As of this writing on 10/14/14, the D.C. Jewish community (of which I was once a part) is reeling from the news of the recent arrest of Kesher Israel Rabbi Barry Freundel on charges of voyeurism — specifically that there was he installed a hidden camera in the showers of the synagogue’s mikveh. While assuming Rabbi Freundel’s innocence until proven otherwise, I mention this as a way of understanding the vulnerability and intimacy inherent in this ritual.

10/15/14 update: Read Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg’s beautiful response to these allegations here.

solitary confinement is not worthy of us

This is a cross-post from Torah by T’ruah, in which rabbis (and in some cases, rabbinical students!) connect the weekly parashah to human rights issue of our day. I wrote about last week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim-Vayelech.

Parshat Nitzavim, the first of this week’s double parshah, speaks powerfully to our fundamental human need for connection to each other and to Gd —and therefore to the isolation that is an anathema to it.

The covenant of Torah that began with the distant and dramatic display of Gd’s power at Mount Sinai is sealed here as Israel stands before (nitzavim lifnei) Gd. This immediacy of acceptance of Torah is in sharp contrast with the fear and trembling of receiving of Torah.

Indeed, part of that covenant, Moses says, is the ingathering of those who are dispersed, on earth and in heaven —underscoring the importance of physical proximity for this final step. For their part, the Israelites are to love Gd bchol lvavecha uvchol nafshecha, “with all your heart and with all your soul”—a spiritual proximity.

Most vividly of all, the parshah ends with a poetic description of the location of Torah: It is not in heaven, and it is not across the sea. Lo rekhokah hi . . . ki carov eilecha . . . meod: “It is not far off . . . but very close to you.”Torah is inside us, in our mouths and in our hearts.

Significantly, the Israelites stand together “to cleave”to Gd (uldavka bo). A list is actually enumerated: chiefs, elders, men, women, children, strangers. The breadth is staggering, as Gd promises this covenant with those present and with those absent (veit asher einenu bo). This is no individual teshuva: This is a community, everyone and everywhere, reaching out and hanging on to Gd.

And this is the capstone of Gd’s relationship with Gd’s people, whom Gd has been preparing since Abraham heard the call generations earlier. Covenant means relationship, and relationship means intimacy.

At a protest in front of the Bronx DA's office, demanding accountability for the death of a man -- ruled a homicide -- held in solitary at Rikers Island.

At a protest in front of the Bronx DA’s office, demanding accountability for the death of a man — ruled a homicide — held in solitary at Rikers Island.

This summer, as part of my participation in T’ruah’s Rabbinical and Cantorial Fellowship in Human Rights, I interned at the Urban Justice Center’s Mental Health Project, working on its coalition for prison and jail reform in New York.

Currently, one of the main issues for advocates is the use of solitary confinement behind bars. The situation is bleak in New York, where isolation is regularly used as a punitive measure, and at rates above the national average —but the state is not unique in this practice.

Nationwide, there are estimated to be more than 100,000 people in segregation in prisons, jails, detention centers, juvenile facilities, and military installations. Terms can be days, weeks, months, years, or decades.

The U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on Torture has decried solitary confinement in the U.S. as such, and for good reason. People in solitary confinement are usually held in cells the size of a parking space —with no windows and doors with only food slots, through which communication with guards, therapists, and doctors is conducted —for 22 to 24 hours a day. Visits are severely curtailed, and TVs, radios, and books might not be allowed. As a punishment, solitary may be meted out for the most minor of infractions, and there is little oversight or accountability in the process.

Every study of the subject tells us that solitary confinement is an affront to humanity. In isolation, human beings suffer “irreparable emotional damage and extreme mental anguish,”in the words of one expert. After 12 years in solitary, one prisoner noted: “I lost the will to live. I lost hope . . . Day after day all I saw was gray walls, and over time my world became the gray box.”

What we learn in our parshah is that intimacy is required for relationship with Gd and community. What we learn in our prison system is that intimacy with either is impossible in solitary confinement.

Isolation of human beings for extended periods of time is an abomination, with heartbreaking emotional, psychological, and spiritual effects. The Torah calls us, in its final, poignant moments, to move close to Gd and to others. As a community, we must ensure that all of us are able to do so.

Solitary confinement is not worthy of us as a people in relationship with Gd.

Access resources to become involved in the response to solitary confinement through T’ruah or the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.

midnight mass

Early yesterday morning I went to midnight mass at the Church of the Holy Name of Jesus. On Monday, I noticed it right across the street from where I’m staying while I’m in New York this week (for Mechon Hadar’s Singing Communities Intensive). I’ve never been to a Catholic midnight mass, though I think I’ve gone to an Episcopalian one before, and I was curious.

Right before I arrived, I posted on Facebook that I was going to the service. I was a little nervous in doing so. I was comfortable in my decision: I think it’s perfectly fine for me to attend another religion’s services (as long as they also think it is), and my hope is to do interfaith work, which I can’t do unless I’m willing to “border cross” (a term I borrow from the lovely UU folks). But I did wonder how it would look, and, truth be told, that factor is made more complicated by the fact of my conversion. I don’t want my decision to be mistaken for nostalgia (which it couldn’t be, because Catholicism was not my tradition, and indeed was as foreign to me as Judaism when I first came to it) or ambivalence about Judaism (which it absolutely isn’t). Simply put, this was cultural tourism — which I hope I pulled off with sensitivity.

church of the holy name of jesus; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

church of the holy name of jesus; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

The service turned out to be a really powerful experience, and in sharing it with a few of my fellow seminar participants, I realized I wanted to write about it here.

It turns out that I was in no way the only Jew who went to midnight mass on Erev Christmas. A group from my seminar went to St. John the Divine for its late service. And a rabbi who was a mentor to me when I lived in D.C. commented that my post made her miss “her” church, the one she used to go to on Christmas Eve when she lived in New York. As it turns out, in an amazing coincidence, this church *is* her church. And the church itself recognized that outsiders might be in attendance: When he offered the invocation, the pastor welcomed the parishioners, as well as “our friends of other religions who have joined us tonight.”

The service was in English, Spanish, and Haitian Creole, reflecting the diversity of the parish. Indeed, there was a striking variety of race and socio-economic status among the attendees. And the three languages were well-integrated; none was token. Many readings and hymns were only offered in one language, with translations printed in the other two languages. The main reading, the story of the birth of Jesus from the gospel of Luke, was read verse-by-verse in the three languages. It seemed like two of the associate friars were native Spanish and Creole speakers, respectively.

The service was really moving. (My friends said the same thing about the service at St. John the Divine.) The building’s Gothic Revival architecture is strikingly dramatic, and it was decorated with lots of lights and greenery. The music was beautiful, and at the end of the service the choir sang the Hallelujah chorus from Handel’s “Messiah.” (The one odd moment was seeing one of the friars carrying an old plastic doll supposed to represent the baby Jesus during the procession.)

I found myself watching the service through a lens informed by the seminar that I’m participating in this week. The annual program at this egalitarian yeshiva is focusing on the High Holidays; we’re studying Torah related to music and the days’ liturgies, melodies, and nusach. Christmas and Easter, I imagine, are the church’s High Holidays. These are the two times a year when it has an opportunity to reach parishioners who don’t come the rest of year. As with synagogues, there is probably enormous pressure to make the service accessible and engaging.

I especially saw this in the pastor’s homily. He talked about the angels’ injunction to the shepherds, upon announcing the birth of Jesus: “Don’t be afraid.” He addressed some of the most vulnerable members of the congregation, including queer folks and undocumented immigrants, reassuring them of G-d’s love and message to them not to be fearful.

Everyone exited the church joyfully, wishing those around them a merry Christmas. I was very happy I went. (So was my mom, who I views any way that I am Jesus-adjacent as a positive.)

of hookers and crotch shots

This is the second post in this space about a current political issue in as many weeks, which is unusual for me. I was actually thinking about it last week — and then yesterday happened. And I am more pissed than ever about the attempted political comebacks of Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer.

As a reminder: In 2011 Weiner resigned from his congressional seat — he represented New York’s 9th district — after disclosing that he’d exchanged sexual messages and photographs online with six different women over the past three years. In 2008, Spitzer resigned from his post as governor of New York after it was revealed that he had patronized an escort agency for the past several years.

Weiner is now running for mayor of New York City; Spitzer, city comptroller.

And yesterday Weiner held a press conference to address further leaked messages and photos from liaisons that happened AFTER he resigned.

To be honest, I am less annoyed at Spitzer. I don’t think prostitution should be illegal, so in theory, I am philosophically not troubled by Spitzer’s behavior. To the extent that he didn’t tell his wife of his extra-marital sexual relationships and therefore put her at risk — and it seems quite likely that he didn’t, given that they separated shortly after his disclosure and are reportedly still so — his behavior was thoughtless and selfish. More troubling is the fact that Spitzer served as the state’s Attorney General before he was governor, thus directing state law enforcement — an hypocritical role while breaking the law himself, especially since he prosecuted several prostitution rings during his career. Indeed, as Spitzer said when he resigned, “Over the course of my public life, I have insisted — I believe correctly — that people take responsibility for their conduct. I can and will ask no less of myself. For this reason, I am resigning from the office of governor.” But while I am fairly sure that Spitzer’s actions represented a betrayal of his marriage, I can see the argument that they did not represent a betrayal of the public trust — at least as far as I don’t agree with current laws around sex work. (Martha Nussbaum made this argument shortly after Spitzer’s resignation.) I’ll elaborate further on my issues with Spitzer below.

Similarly, I don’t think that Weiner’s actions in and of themselves proved him unfit for public office. He certainly didn’t break any laws. And I don’t necessarily think that “sexting” (or however we’re classifying his behavior) is somehow perverted or sexually deviant, as many have charged. (Amanda Hess makes the case that Weiner’s predilections are downright boring.) And even if it were, it still wouldn’t render Weiner unable to serve his constituents.

As with Spitzer, to the extent that Weiner was not forthright with his wife — and it seems quite likely that he wasn’t, as she shared in a New York Times Magazine article about his journey back to politics — his behavior was thoughtless and selfish. What angered me about Weiner’s actions was his dishonesty after a picture purportedly of his underwear-clad erection was tweeted to a female follower of his account: Weiner initially claimed that he had been hacked and because of his lie let his Democratic House colleagues — and even his friend Jon Stewart — come to his defense. To my way of thinking, lying to your constituents and your colleagues does constitute a betrayal of the public trust. And it is definitely disturbing that at least one instance of his sexting was done without the consent of the recipient.

Many have pointed out that, in the spectrum of politician’s lies, Weiner’s is a mere peccadillo. And I agree. I would rather see politicians held accountable for their votes to send troops into battle; to cut off social safety net funding; to authorize covert operations; to restrict abortion; etc. And I’d especially like to see politicians voted out of office for the lies they tell and perpetuate in service of those votes. Unfortunately, politicians almost never admit these lies, so we’re left to condemn the ones that do confess — which almost always are classified as “sex scandals” (a most unfortunate phrase that is often used inappropriately, as in the Jerry Sandusky case, and that often serves to trivialize what occurred, as in case of the epidemic of military sexual assaults). Plus, Weiner said, when he resigned, that he was doing so because of his behavior and his lie about that behavior — which we found out yesterday that he continued to do after resignation! To say that he is untrustworthy is an understatement.

Principally, my problem with Weiner’s and Spitzer’s attempts at political rehabilitation is that they represent straight white male privilege — and the arrogance that comes with that unexamined privilege. These runs for office are not about a desire to serve the public: They are all about the men themselves, and their desire for power and prestige and second (and third?) chances. I don’t think that they should be doomed to unemployment for the rest of their lives; and indeed, both have found quite lucrative post-resignation jobs. They should stay where they are.

Can you imagine that we would even consider voting again for a gay man who resigned after being found to have engaged in sexting or prostitution? Or a person of color? Or a woman? Homophobia, racism, and sexism would kick in, and their actions would be ascribed to their being gay, or black, or female (or more accurately in some cases, not meeting the puritanical standards which are demanded of these folks). Weiner and Spitzer are given passes because their behavior — even while ill-considered — is thought to be within the bounds of “normal” for straight white men. White America can countenance the sexuality of straight white men in a way that it can’t that of queer folks, people of color, and women, who are expected to be practically asexual — or only sexual within the bounds of monogamous marriage.

Moreover, who are the candidates whose chances and future careers are being jeopardized by Weiner’s and Spitzer’s entering these respective races? I cannot believe that there is such a dearth that these two clowns represent the best options for these positions. Even if there are candidates who are only just as qualified as the two of them, shouldn’t we be supporting those who haven’t already torpedoed careers?

Update: In the September 10 primary, Weiner came in fifth in a five-way race, with less than 5% of the vote. Spitzer suffered a less humiliating loss with 48% of the vote in a two-way race. Let’s hope that these two will now fade quickly away.

a visit from the goon squad

a visit from the goon squadJennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad is the first work of fiction I’ve read since June — and it’s as good as everyone has said it is. I tore through it in about a weekend, and I feel like I can’t say enough good things about it. Read it!

Parts of the book were first written as short stories for various publications (Harper’s, Granta, The New Yorker, etc.), and indeed each chapter could be a stand-alone tale, with minor characters in one story becoming the protagonists of the next. The title is a reference to an observation made by an aged and ailing musician, overruling objections to his idea for a tour to promote his final album: “This is reality, right? You don’t look good anymore twenty years later, especially when you’ve had half your guts removed. Time’s a goon, right? Isn’t that the expression?”

That is expressed in this Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel, about a cast of the characters wondering how they got from point A to point B. (The two parts of the book are in fact “A” and “B,” and the last album of the aforementioned musician is “A to B.”) Amazingly, even while they make, in some cases, horrifying choices, Egan is able to make these characters incredibly sympathetic and compelling. (I will note a trigger warning: There is a short scene of sexual assault, unfortunately told from the perspective of the perpetrator, which survivors may find upsetting.)

The stories center around Bennie Salazar, a washed up former musician and record executive, and his assistant, Sasha Grady. As the setting moves back and forth through time, between the 1960s and the 2020s, we also meet Sasha’s uncle Tim; Alex, a man she dates only once but who will later become one of Bennie’s employees, long after Sasha’s been fired; and Sasha’s college friends, one of whom will eventually become her husband, with whom she’ll have two kids. Then there’s Bennie’s high school friends, one of whom introduces him to Lou Kline, a music mogul who will become Bennie’s mentor; Lou’s many wives and kids; and Bennie’s first wife — and her boss and her brother, whose lives intersect via a has-been (though still young) movie star. In one of the more obscure links, the young Samburu warrior that one of Lou’s kids meets on safari in Kenya grows up to marry Bennie’s ex-wife’s boss’s daughter, who also becomes Bennie’s assistant after he fires Sasha. But the characters can’t see all of these connections, much as they are unable to see their own paths between A and B.

As I began thinking of making this next point, I almost started with: “The novel feels timeless until the last two chapters,” which take place in the 2020s. But that seems patently silly, as the stories, told in a non-linear way and from different perspectives, of necessity are grounded in very specific points in time for the reader’s understanding. I think I was responding to the jarring feeling the chapters in the future inspire. Egan is clearly doing her own connection from point A (2010, when the novel was published) to Point B (2021 and beyond, when the novel’s storyline ends). As with many of the other stories, we as readers are able to see how the characters get there (in this case, to a dystopian future), since that path is based on current events in the post-9/11 world and the security and surveillance state.

But technology predictions always make me stifle a giggle, as they’re hardly ever accurate. (Flying cars are just two years away, according to Back to the Future Part II!) Luckily, Egan’s strong writing and character development carries the day, so even as readers stumble through the completely phonetic language of her future’s quasi-text messages, we can see the significance of the academic work of that same future, where, as one character explains to another, the “ethically perfect state . . . doesn’t exist and never existed”:

Her new book was on the phenomenon of word casing, a term she’d invented for words that no longer had meaning outside quotation marks. English was full of these empty words — “friend” and “real” and “story” and “change” — words that had been sucked of their meanings and reduced to husks.

Despite the assessment that we all go the way of these words, the novel nevertheless ends on a hopeful note. Introduced as a young naïf at the beginning of the book, at its end Alex watches a younger version of himself, also new to New York, fumble with the keys to her apartment.

The goon squad visits us all in time, but in the meantime, we live.

the fourth school

jeremiah

the prophet jeremiah, from fall rabbinical school tour; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

In the fall I visited four rabbinical schools. There are only a handful non-Orthodox institutions (that is, ones that accept women) in the U.S. I ruled out two online/commuter schools, as well as the ones not on the East Coast (per my husband’s request). In early to mid-December, I decided to apply to just three of the schools I had visited — and I began to make plans accordingly: asking for letters of recommendation, sending transcripts, organizing essays, completing forms, etc.

When I took the GRE on December 9, I had to choose the schools to which to send scores, and I included school #4 on that list. I think I just wasn’t quite ready to rule it out. (Plus, I got to send four reports for free, so I thought, “Why not?”)

Five days later, the admissions director at school #4 called to check in. Surprised at his call, I wasn’t ready to have the conversation about why I had decided not to apply, so I only mentioned one reason. But I didn’t feel great about how poorly I had articulated my concerns about the school, so I sent a follow-up email. In it, I explained that I had come to the conclusion that school #4 was just not a good fit for me, for various reasons. I’m not going to be a productive member of the matriculating class — and the school shouldn’t want me — if that’s the case. I didn’t hear back.

Sidebar: I’m not trying to hide the identity of the school in question: In fact, it’s probably easy to figure it out. But I don’t think it’s all that important to this narrative.

Then last week, I did get an email, after he had received my GRE scores; he hoped for an opening to start the conversation again. This unexpected development shook me up probably more than it should have. I started spiraling into a tizzy of questions: Why is he doing this? As a new admissions director, does he just want robust application numbers? Am I letting flattery cloud my judgment? Are the concerns I raised about the school actually not accurate? Is this school actually my destiny?

The last is a bit of an exaggeration. But I did wonder, much to my husband’s chagrin, whether this was a sign from the universe. I’m willing to believe that things happen for a reason. And I think having grown up with an evangelical Christian father makes me more susceptible to doubt in the face of someone else’s certainty. (It could also be reasonably inferred that I am also an over-thinker and an over-worrier.)

I agreed that we should have another conversation; it happened yesterday, and it went really well. I was able to go through with him a list of my concerns. None of them were fully alleviated, which is not what I was expecting anyway. But next I’ll speak with the associate dean, as well as a current student. (Both are women, which may hint at the nature of some of my concerns.) And after a conversation with a rabbi I trust, an alumna of school #4, I’m going to go ahead and apply. What’s one more application, right? I don’t want to close that door quite yet.

the submission

Last week I finished The Submission, by Amy Waldman. The book was a gift from my boss who pronounced it “an amazing read, but not light.” It is certainly compelling — and beautifully written! — if also problematic in significant ways.

The title refers to a proposed design for a memorial for the victims of 9-11, chosen in a blind competition in an re-imagined New York two years after the attack. The plan details a walled, rectangular garden, bisected twice by perpendicular canals, with pathways lined by trees in a grid in each of the quarters. The names of the dead would be inscribed on the garden’s inner walls. The book opens with the contentious deliberations by the jury, composed of mostly artists and other art world professionals plus one representative of “the families,” who is the main proponent of the garden. The other design, preferred by the the most vocal of the artist contingent, is known as “The Void,” a proposal distinctly less comforting or inviting. In a vote largely determined by the emotion of the widow, the garden barely wins, whereupon the identity of the submitter is revealed: an architect named Mohammad Kahn. Dun, dun, DUN.

The freaking out begins with the chairman of the jury embargoing what he now considers to be a tentative decision. The designer’s name is soon leaked to the press, however, and the jury is forced to acknowledge its choice. To mitigate the ensuing controversy, the jury chairman — under pressure from the governor of New York — decides not to finalize the memorial design without a public hearing. The novel details the mobilization of the stakeholders on various sides of the debate over whether it is appropriate for the memorial to victims of a terrorist attack by followers of radical Islam to be designed by an American Muslim.

As expected, the political right opposes the choice. The debate quickly becomes principally about the architect himself instead of his design, which is, however, interpreted as having Islamic influences, then re-interpreted as being the paradise described in the Quran, then re-interpreted again as a heavenly cemetery for martyrs of radical Islam. Other opponents include ad hoc groups formed in response to the jury’s choice, as well as, it seems, the majority of the families of the victims. The governor also falls into the opposition camp. Its proponents include a coalition called the Muslim American Coordinating Council (MACC) as well as, on principle, the artists on the jury who hadn’t advocated for the design in the first place. It’s the widow from the jury and, ultimately, Kahn himself who struggle with their ambivalence.

Simply put, this book was hard to read at times. The extreme opposition in the novel is rooted in reality, which we saw in the debate over the so-called “ground zero mosque.” And Waldman really brings to life one of the victims’ families, whose surviving son acts as spokesperson for that contingent. They are working class family from Brooklyn, and the son is rudderless before and after the attack and becomes increasingly conflicted about his parents’ marching orders to stop the construction of the garden at any cost. At the public hearing, the father of another of the victims is given a particularly sympathetic portrayal; calling the choice “insensitive” and citing the example of the pope’s decision to move a proposed convent from Auschwitz, he notes, “We, who have carried the weight of the loss, are now being asked to carry the weight of proving America’s tolerance.”

The motivations of MACC are fairly easy to understand, and Waldman does a great job of portraying the difficulties of that coalition, coalesced around a shared identity as Muslim Americans which is nevertheless interpreted very differently by its members, religious and secular.

Hard to understand was the character of Claire Burwell, the jury’s widow. Her reaction to discovering the identity of the creator of the garden she loves and fights for is initially unchanged. But upon meeting and getting to know Kahn, she becomes increasingly doubtful of her ability to continue to support the design — mostly, it seems, because Kahn won’t say whether his proposal is “an Islamic garden” and won’t say that he condemns the 9-11 attack. As he says to her when they finally sit down together towards the end of the novel, “‘What is the principle behind demanding that I say it, when your six-year-old son can tell you its wrong? Wouldn’t you assume that any non-Muslim who entered the competition thinks the attack was wrong?'” She is extremely wealthy from her husband’s money, and although great pains are taken to establish her discomfort with the lifestyle she married into, her assertion of her privilege is off-putting. She thinks herself the gatekeeper to design approval, that she represents all of the families — as she goes, so go they, she implies — and that she is entitled to answers from Kahn. The novel is supposed to be about her internal journey towards her true self during this emotional time in her life, but ultimately it’s simply not compelling or sympathy-inducing.

It is Mohammed Kahn who is the standout in the novel. Raised in Virginia by parents who only get involved in a local mosque after the attacks, Mo, as he is known, is Muslim by birth alone. He wrestles with ritual observance during his time in the spotlight, but he is characterized by his talent, drive, and ambition in his field. He is above all supremely rational (and stubborn) and finds completely confounding that he is collapsed into identification with a religion that he hardly knows. His is the experience of many Americans in the post-9-11 world, starting with the scene that introduces him to readers in which he is detained at LAX for flying while Muslim. He is complex, frustrated, principled, lost by the situation he finds himself in, and honestly struggling to make sense of it however he can, all in the center of the extreme pressure cooker of the national debate into which he is thrust.

Missing from the novel are significant contributions from evangelical Christians and Jews of any kind, both of which would have to factor into this situation. And the thought that a memorial design could have been chosen a mere two years after the attacks strains credulity (especially as the actual memorial barely managed to open ten years later). The end of the story is rather puzzling as well; after the protagonists have expended unknowable time and energy panicking about the “source” of the garden — which question is set up to come across as unfounded paranoia — the final scene shows that Kahn did indeed draw his inspiration from a garden he happened across in Afghanistan. The horror! (And it seems clear that this inspiration is purely aesthetic, not religious.) This frustrating development, its placement at the end of the story making it function as a big “reveal,” undermines the narrative argument that Kahn suffered a great injustice in his treatment as the memorial’s creator.

The reader is left with a dull disappointment with Waldman’s America, at the very least for the fact that human prejudice is shown to have vanquished human-made beauty. It is not worthy of the novel’s honest attempts to grapple with how we honor the dead of 9-11.