Posts in Susan’s Musings

Memories and Unanswered Questions

July 11th, 2019 Posted by Susan's Musings 32 comments

This has been an unsettling week for me. A number of years ago, my mother’s sister passed away, the last of the five siblings. This month, her children sold my aunt’s house and one of my cousins had the unenviable job of cleaning it out. In the garage she found a few boxes that had been moved there from our grandparents’ apartment over forty years ago when my grandmother died. It became a running joke that each summer my mother, her sister and sisters-in-law would say they were going to sort through things, and as each summer ended, the boxes remained untouched.

Untouched they are no longer. My cousin sent some of the contents to me including postcards exchanged when my grandparents were courting, photos that span decades and a meticulously kept address book.

All these things have thrown me for a loop. I was very close to my grandparents; to this day I can instantaneously recall their phone number. My grandmother died shortly after I graduated college and my grandfather a few years later, so they were an important and loving presence through my growing up years. Now, decades later, I am seeing them in ways I never did before.

In my mind’s eye my grandmother, in particular, had one occupation— waiting for me to come visit. I never thought of what she did when I wasn’t with her, unless it was to cook my favorite foods so that they would be on hand when needed.  In fact, I found it irritating that some of my cousins had the ridiculous idea that she loved them as much as she loved me. In the self-absorption of youth (that may have only ended this week) I didn’t really see a need for her to have an identity separate from me.

Both my maternal grandparents came to the United States from Europe before World War I. While my grandfather was escaping the draft of an army that despised Jews, my grandmother told me that she came on a trip and was trapped here by the war. (Surely, I now think, there was a lot more to that story. Religious Jewish girls did not generally cross the ocean by themselves on a lark.) By the time the conflict ended, they were married and building a life in their new country. Neither ever spoke (to me at least) about the families and lives they left behind.

I never thought of what it was like for them to marry without the presence of parents or siblings, or, a few decades later, what it meant to lose almost every family member in the Holocaust. The exception was one brother each that they managed to bring over as Hitler’s evil spread. I knew that I was named for a murdered sister, but only this week have I begun to think of the depth of pain that kept my grandmother from ever talking about the parents and six siblings, their spouses and children, that she never saw again or how my grandfather felt knowing he had left his parents and sister behind.

In those old albums and ancient address book now on my dining room table, I see names and faces I do not know. Who are these people who cared enough to send photos to my grandparents and about whom my grandparents cared enough  to label and preserve their pictures? I have had trouble concentrating this week as I Google names, look up the history of towns whose Jews were overwhelmingly massacred and try to picture a young couple on their own, learning a new language, building a life and maintaining a deep connection with their faith.  They became the grandparents I knew, whose bottomless love for God, for me, for the rest of their family and for the United States was the bedrock of my childhood.

There is nothing new under the sun – the only choice we have is to respond similarly or differently than those before us.

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Listening with Someone Else’s Ears

July 4th, 2019 Posted by Susan's Musings 37 comments

Do you have words that serve as a form of shorthand when used among your family and friends? Yet, heard by those not in-the-know, those words are easily misinterpreted.

As fans of Arthur Ransome’s charming book, Swallows and Amazons, our family adopted a sentence that appears early in the story. On summer holiday in the early days of the 20th century, Mrs. Walker is unsure whether to let her four children head out on a boating/camping trip in the nearby lakes. She sends a letter asking her deployed husband’s advice. The Royal Navy officer responds, “BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WON’T DROWN.”

Never for an instant did we or our children think that the father didn’t care if his children drowned. He was conveying his confidence that they were capable and responsible. However, when our thirteen-year-old boat-owning son invited a young friend to accompany him on an overnight sailing trip on Lake Washington, my husband’s use of that sentence almost sabotaged the trip. When the friend’s father came over to discuss our son’s skills and the seaworthiness of his boat, my husband blithely said, “Better drowned than duffers; if not duffers won’t drown.” Having no inkling that this was a meaningful quote rather than a callous dismissal, the father retorted rather strongly that he did actually care if his son drowned. (The boys did go and had a wonderful—and safe—time.)

I thought of this story after reading an opinion piece by a college teacher that appeared in the Wall Street Journal. Crispin Sartwell raised an interesting idea, that the inability to hear an opposing point of view and the demonization of anyone whose opinions don’t mirror one’s own is a result of the self-esteem movement. It is an idea worth discussing, but that isn’t the part of his article on which I want to focus.

In what I assume is an attempt to show balance, Mr. Sartwell opens his piece by mentioning how the knitting site Ravelry has banned anything, including knitting patterns, that suggests support for President Trump. He then cites how preacher Paula White spoke of breaking “every demonic network” working against the president in a prayer preceding the kick-off of President Trump’s re-election campaign. In other words, both those on the left and on the right believe that if you think differently than I do, you need to be silenced.

I’m going to speak very plainly  now. It is possible that you think that  I am way off base and, if so, I expect you to tell  me. Maybe I only have part of the story and you can fill in more. But, I do want to share my thoughts.

I have probably spent more time with various leaders and members of Evangelical churches than most non-Evangelicals. I include in this group not only Jews, but Catholics, the unaffiliated, atheists, members of other Protestant denominations and of other religions. My husband and I appear at dozens of Evangelical churches every year.  From my vantage point, I heard Paula White very differently from how Crispin Sartwell heard her. Let me explain.

I sometimes hear a rabbi whose views should parallel mine as we share a belief in the written and oral Torah.  Like my husband and me, he also restricts his diet to that which is kosher and like us he also  observes the Sabbath  and he conducts himself similarly to how we do in other important ways. Yet I hear him speak in a way that mortifies me. I consider his words to be a desecration of God’s name. I think his words or actions are so mistaken that they misrepresent the God I know and drive people away from wanting a relationship with Him. That is embarrassing, but it shouldn’t be shocking. No group is composed only of those who always make other members of the group proud or who reliably represent the correct path. The words may not even accurately represent the speaker’s views. 

Yet, there are other times when I agree with a Jewish religious leader’s words but cringe at his lack of awareness of how those words will sound to a crowd that has no background with which to make sense of what is being said. If he (or she) said those words to students or peers who will put them in context the words would be fine, but speaking in a format where his words will be public for even people with no background to hear is a different case.

When I read Paula White’s words, I understood her use of the words praying for the crushing of a  “demonic network” and “enemy” to refer, not to individuals who don’t support President Trump, but to evil  spiritual forces at work. I have heard words like that used when my Evangelical friends are praying for a relative who has cancer. There it is obvious that  the reference is not to an individual, but to a force with which they are grappling. If Pastor White was speaking in her church, everyone would understand the context. But she wasn’t. She was speaking at a political event.

I don’t believe that those of us who are religious should change our views or pander to those who don’t share our faith. But we should accord them respect. Retaining integrity in what one says while being aware that the crowd is diverse and of different faiths and backgrounds is a challenge that I think that we can, and must, meet.

If you haven’t looked at the Flood through the lens of ancient Jewish wisdom,
you are missing much of its impact for today and for your life. 

The Gathering Storm: Decoding the Secrets of Noah

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Information is Optional

June 26th, 2019 Posted by Susan's Musings 43 comments

The air in Brooklyn, New York, is rarely fresh and invigorating. Between the exhaust from vehicles and often-muggy weather, it is frequently malodorous. Nevertheless, when my friend Sharon and I stepped onto the local college campus, a slightly sweet and sickening odor that we had never previously met assaulted us.

We were high school seniors taking part in a program allowing us to attend classes at a local college. We quickly discovered that the smell of marijuana was as ubiquitous as blue jeans. We just as quickly discovered that we had been leading a blessedly sheltered life at our Jewish school.

Fast forward a few decades and the legalization of marijuana is spreading across the country. Many of the Democrats vying to be president include federal legalization as part of their platform. They cite data showing that states that have legalized marijuana have seen a reduced rate of deaths from opioid addiction.

That information intrigued me. A few minutes research revealed that states with legal medical marijuana did, indeed, see a substantial reduction in opioid use. Isn’t the next reasonable step making it legal on a federal level?

This is a great example of a broken political system catering to an ill-informed electorate. Over the past few years states have leap-frogged over the issue of medical marijuana to legalize the substance entirely, for any use at all. The negative consequences of legalizing medical marijuana that were noted in the same studies cited above were simply ignored. Extrapolating from medical marijuana to general legalization is treated as a minor, irrelevant detail.

How many articles have you read recently about the percentage of the population who develop psychosis from smoking marijuana, making them a threat to themselves and others? How many articles have you read about overwhelmed hospital emergency rooms dealing with repeat visits from people having bad reactions to marijuana use? How about studies exploring the damage to developing teenage brains or the increased potency of what’s available?

On so many issues, politicians present only the information that supports their own inclinations. The press has overwhelmingly opted out of the business of honest reporting. Voters only hear one side of a story. Nuance, honesty and reality are increasingly absent.

There are rational arguments for making marijuana legal on a federal level. At the same time, there are rational reasons for not doing so. Pretending that state legalization has been an unqualified success is foolish and foolhardy.

On the list of problems facing Americans, marijuana legalization is in the junior league. If we can’t have fact-based discussion and debate on an issue like this, if decent, well-intentioned people can’t admit that there are two sides that must be balanced, then we shouldn’t be surprised to find ourselves completely incapable of doing anything other than screaming at each other when it comes to more difficult and contentious topics. It should give us all pause that while marijuana is still widely found on college campuses, too often intellectual openness, debate, thinking skills and factual inquiry are not.

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Dads and Diapers Don’t Mix

June 20th, 2019 Posted by Susan's Musings 42 comments

‘Dads and Diapers Don’t Mix,’ sounds like a terrible rallying cry. One can hardly imagine anyone willing to wear a T-shirt with that mantra. Nonetheless, I’m going to give a shot at explaining why I think it might be a necessary one.

Like many slogans, the sentiment expressed is meant to be attention-getting rather than being a complete and erudite explanation of an issue. For the record, I think it perfectly fine for fathers to change their babies’ diapers. What I oppose is the thinking that often goes along with publicly promoting the idea that dads should be more involved in their infants’ lives.

As Fathers’ Day and the anniversary of D-Day both move into the rear-view mirror, I can’t help noticing the difference in what we expect and laud in men. Some men of the Greatest Generation were wonderful dads; some were lousy ones. The rest ran the gamut in between. As individuals, depending on their personalities, some shot baskets with their sons, taught their daughters to change a flat tire and offered wise counsel. Conversely, others were silent backdrops to their children’s lives, unskilled as they were in relationship building. As a group, they felt a responsibility to defend civilization, providing a safe world for their wives and children. As a group, they prided themselves on being providers, giving their families food on the table and a home in which to live.

Today, we seem to focus on husbands and dads morphing into wives and mothers. The most praised dads wear baby carriers and walk the floor at 2 A.M with crying babies. They pitch in equally with household chores and let five-year-old daughters paint their fathers’ toenails pink. I don’t necessarily object to all the items on that list, but I do think that it makes an unhealthy presumption. That is, that both sexes should be equally responsible for everything, whether we are speaking of financial or household responsibility.

Some of my daughters will probably tell me that this is the new reality. Since families cannot meet their basic obligations, let alone afford anything extra on one income alone, both spouses need to work. In that case, I can well understand why child-raising duties need to be equally shared as well. But, perhaps, instead of making paternity leave as ubiquitous as maternity leave and agitating to increase both those leaves as well as mandating government-sponsored day care, maybe, just maybe, we should think of changing policies so that devoting oneself to raising a family and running a home becomes, once again, a respected and doable option.

Let me give one example. I know that men are capable of feeding bottles to babies. Very often, that bottle is filled with milk that their wives expressed in the break room at work or in the car as they drove to their jobs. Of course, the job of feeding breast milk just became more time-consuming. Pumping takes time and feeding takes additional time. A naturally brilliantly efficient system has become cumbersome. However, that isn’t the worst aspect. While the nutritional value of breast milk is undeniable, that is only one of its benefits. The skin-to-skin contact, the gaze of pure adoration from a baby at one’s breast, the hormonally inspired bonding and the spiritual dimension of breast-feeding are sacrificed when mothers cannot stay home. As someone who believes that God created both male and female bodies, it isn’t incidental that mother’ bodies, not fathers’, are made for breast-feeding. When, for whatever reason, the best option isn’t available, the number two choice becomes the best choice. What we shouldn’t do is make the first choice less attainable.

I probably changed five hundred diapers for each one my husband changed.  I read 500 stories for each one he read and tied 500 shoelaces for each one he tied. For which I am grateful. His shouldering of the financial responsibility for our household allowed me to be a full-time mother. My being a full-time mother allowed him to focus on building a business. We each supported the other and our children, but we each did more by giving 90% of our attention to one area, rather than 50%. I think that benefitted each of us individually and our marriage and family as a whole.

It is wonderful for fathers to feel close to their children. It is less wonderful when we promote the fallacy that mothers and fathers should be identical. Cultivating a healthy family is more than an economic calculation. If, as a culture we truly thought it was important, we would be more concerned with making policies to further that aim rather than focusing specifically on policies that encourage women to flourish in the workplace.

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Take My Advice?

June 13th, 2019 Posted by Susan's Musings 22 comments

Let me go out on a limb and suggest that you not run your life based on the experiences of, or advice given by, Bill Callahan, Paul Dolan or Ann Landers. Like some of you, the only one of the three whose name was familiar to me before today was advice columnist Ann Landers (actual name Eppie Lederer). She, along with her twin sister of Dear Abby  fame, had an outsized influence on Americans in the second half of the twentieth century.

However, recently two reviews crossed my desk. The first was of musician Bill Callahan’s latest album where I was intrigued by the discussion of the evolution of his music. According to reviewer, Mark Richardson, Mr. Callahan’s earlier 15 albums share a theme of alienation. Mr. Richardson shares one of the musician’s quotes from an interview in 2009. “I’m not afraid to die lately. I don’t have any kids to look after. I don’t hold any great worth for humanity.”

While neither Mr. Callahan nor I believe that the only way to have worth to humanity is to have children, his current music is different. His latest work, produced after he bought a home, married and had a child, reveals his feelings on being needed.

The second review I saw was of a book by Professor Paul Dolan. He argues that studies show that women, in particular, are happier and better off without spouses and children. This seems to echo a much circulated Ann Landers’ column from 1975 where she asked readers if they would choose to have children again, if they had the opportunity to change their pasts. At the time, the results caused quite a stir when about 70% of respondents said they would not. While her poll was debunked as unscientific and follow-up surveys produced completely conflicting totals, Professor Dolan (whose book I have not read) suggests that intellectually rigorous studies would support Ann Landers’ conclusions. I register my skepticism.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Professor Dolan’s book becomes standard reading in Women’s Studies courses. It echoes the Left’s prejudice against marriage and family. I, too, am not objective, though my own biases suggest that both women and men are happier when devoted to a spouse and children. Singer Bill Callahan’s experience rings far more true to me.

In today’s fractured, false, and corrupt society, many social and political arguments are stated as “proven”. Yet, as our culture moves away from timeless truths and abandons the compass of morality, we become easy prey for ephemeral fads and passing whims. That portends much regret and disillusionment down the road for those who follow the crowd rather than seeking the truth. ‘Question authority’ may have been a rebellious slogan of liberals in the Sixties, but it should be the mantra of every independent-minded person today.


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What a Burden!

June 5th, 2019 Posted by Susan's Musings 12 comments

When the word “burden” appears three times in an article (with an additional showing in the subtitle) and the word “privilege” is nowhere to be seen, it isn’t hard to detect a bias. That was my first impression after reading Wall Street Journal food columnist, Bee Wilson’s essay entitled, “Feeding a Family Isn’t a Job for Mothers Alone.” 

I don’t want to talk about the premise of the article, though I do (surprise, surprise) have some thoughts on it. The subtitle: “In an era of processed foods, wholesome home cooking is more important than ever—and men need to share that burden,” pretty much lays out the author’s views. For my part, I was more struck by a sentiment underlying the whole article that is rather common today. I speak of the sentiment that life should be pleasurable and easy.


When Divorce Wasn’t an Option

May 30th, 2019 Posted by Susan's Musings 14 comments

Department stores continue to disappear and the crowds in the remaining ones are increasingly poorly behaved.  Just about anything you want is available online.  I find myself  rarely stepping foot in a mall. Yet, there is one category of store that I still enjoy visiting in person. Second-hand book stores get my heart racing. I have difficulty walking away empty-handed.

And what gems I have found! One of my favorite discoveries was a copy of Pink and White Tyranny. While Harriet Beecher Stowe is universally known for Uncle Tom’s Cabin, she was a prolific author with other volumes to her credit. Pink and White Tyranny tells the tale of a New England man accustomed to competent, intelligent, God-fearing, principled and diligent women such as his sister. On vacation he meets and marries a different type of girl, one whose entire life training has been to catch a husband; she is a bit of mindless pink and white fluff.  The book is sad and humorous; depicting his arrival home with his new wife and his slowly growing comprehension that he has made a disastrous choice in his life partner.


Who Are You Calling Names? by Judy Gruen

May 23rd, 2019 Posted by Susan's Musings 26 comments

I am delighted to share this platform today with my good friend, Judy Gruen. I think it’s a great reminder that each of us can choose to add kindness to the world with a simple act. 

Recently, I attended a memorial tribute for an elderly friend named Maurice. I had met Maurice and his wife, Mildred, back in the late 1980’s, when my husband, Jeff, and I had joined Pacific Jewish Center in Venice, the “Shul on the Beach.” We had been drawn there by the teachings of Rabbi Daniel Lapin and his wife, Susan, and their dynamic leadership that had begun to revitalize a once-thriving Jewish congregation.

Now, Maurice was a big man with a big personality, brash and bluntly opinionated. A strong baritone, Maurice usually seized the opportunity to begin prayers and hymns with his melodies of choice. His commanding voice and musical selections helped define the spiritual atmosphere of the synagogue for nearly 40 years.

Maurice was a colorful character, yet as people reminisced and eulogized him, it was clear that he had touched people by always remembering synagogue members’ full names, bellowing out his greetings: “Jacob Israel!” Or, “Leah Emunah!” His loud acknowledgement became one of his trademarks, but it didn’t end there.

He also remembered the names of extended family members, and he also remembered what troubles or issues they were dealing with.


For Your Own Good

May 16th, 2019 Posted by Susan's Musings 30 comments

I appreciate warnings. When I’m a guest at a meal and my hostess tells us that one of the dips is super spicy, I appreciate knowing that before setting my mouth on fire. When a friend suggests that I skip reading a popular book because it is filled with profanity, I appreciate taking it off my reading list. When my phone alerts me about an accident up ahead and re-routes me, I appreciate saving the time I would have sat motionless on the freeway.

But what happens if I find out that the dip wasn’t actually spicy at all. There simply wasn’t enough to go around and my hostess wanted to save it for her other guests. Or my friend knew that I would love the book which was actually unobjectionable, but wanted to write about it on her blog before I wrote about it on mine. What if the developers of my traffic app only wanted to route me so that I would pass a certain coffee shop that was giving them a kickback on each beverage sold?

I no longer appreciate the warnings. Instead I feel manipulated.


Dis-Connecting in the Caribbean

May 8th, 2019 Posted by Susan's Musings 9 comments

It is time for re-entry to reality. I have been off-line for over a week and only now do I realize how “connected” I usually am.

For many years, during our summer boating trips, we were out of touch in a way that today’s youth can’t imagine. When we sailed from California to Hawaii one of our friends and crew was a ham radio operator. Every few days he would hail some radio pal, who then, as a courtesy, phoned our parents to tell them that we were fine. Aside from that sporadic crackly contact we spent twenty-two days isolated from the world on our sailing boat in a small world of our own.

Even during our trips along the British Columbia coast, we were often incredibly isolated. My husband vividly remembers taking the dinghy ashore to call his parents from the phone booth on a dock on Quadra Island, BC. When his father asked him what he thought of the war, his response was, “What war?” (The first Iraq War had broken out a few days earlier.)