Posts tagged " Susan Lapin "

Hidden Neighbors

June 14th, 2011 Posted by Susan's Musings 5 comments

About a year ago, my friend Judy recommended a book to me, which I finally got around to reading. It is the story of an Egyptian Jewish family forced to leave their, multi-generational, extremely comfortable life in Egypt when Nassar came to power. (One family among the thousands of Jewish refugees from Moslem countries who are never mentioned because the world-wide Jewish community took responsibility to resettle them rather than move them to camps where they could be kept in abject poverty and taught terrorism skills.) For most of the book the story gave intriguing, though sometimes disturbing, insights into a culture that was tremendously different from the one in which I was raised, despite that fact that on the surface both were observant Jewish families.

Over the centuries, Jews have been scattered to the four corners of the earth. While some communities shrivel or vanish through assimilation, expulsion or murder, the survivors who move on to new places bring with them myriad cultural nuances. If they stay faithful to the Torah (which unfortunately most do not), core observances remain, but with ‘twists’. While you would get kosher food whether you dined with a family whose roots over the past centuries were in Hungary, Egypt or India, the dishes at the Shabbat table would be completely different. The types of meat or fish featured, whether the dishes are spiced with paprika or cardamom and many rituals would reflect the family’s background. While everyone would know Hebrew prayers, the conversational language of the immigrant generation might be Yiddish or Ladino, Arabic or Farsi. Strikingly, each community’s religious values and social ethics would be a conglomeration of Torah-directed conduct intertwined with, and frequently distorted by, their host country’s general culture. Since the protagonists of my book immigrated to New York, a city where most previous refugees had been from Europe, they were a minority within a minority.

I had quite a shock when the author, a child at the time the family fled Egypt, spoke about the neighborhood to which her family relocated. The street names, train stations and landmarks were all very familiar. It turns out that we grew up a few blocks from each other. Since feet and buses were the main forms of transportation, we likely passed each other more than once. She even went to the same high school as my best friend.

Not only did we not meet, but I was never aware that there was a community of Egyptian Jewish refugees in the neighborhood. I had Italian-Catholic friends and Jewish friends of all levels of observance including those whose parents had come from Syria, but somehow this author’s family and compatriots’ journey never registered. It was quite an uncomfortable discovery to realize that I was completely blind to an entire group living –and struggling- so near to me.

So often, we, as individuals, as a nation, as human beings, step forward to help victims of natural disasters, terrorism or illness.  But the prerequisite to helping is awareness. Some people or events get a great deal of publicity, and good people respond. But this book reminded me that there are always those in our immediate vicinity whose travails don’t have the numbers or timing or ‘allure’ that forces their plight to our attention. They may suffer no less than others, but the onus is on us to search for them rather than wait for them to be thrust upon us as they make headline news.











Out of Tune

May 17th, 2011 Posted by Susan's Musings No Comment yet

My youngest daughter is pragmatically deciding whether to continue college or rather to get certified in an area that interests her. She is part of a generation that knows that college attendance and education are not necessarily synonymous. In her experience and that of her siblings, they are frequently polar opposites. For this reason, she is weighing student debt vs. the repercussions of not getting a B.A., rather than knowledge vs. ignorance.

My tongue-in-cheek career suggestion this weekend is that she set herself up as a political advisor. After both Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich gave speeches which pretty much shot themselves in the ballot box immediately after announcing their candidacies, it is clear that there is a need for wise guidance. Being out of touch with voters is a bipartisan failing. Did no one suggest to the Obamas that many Americans find certain lyrics offensive and that perhaps kicking off a campaign season by inviting the rapper, Common, to the White House was not going to endear them to swing voters?

I have never been invited to be part of a political focus group but I have noticed that no presidential Republican candidate who has not won my support has won an election. While I admired some of them, such as Bob Dole, as individuals, I thought that he and a number of more recent candidates would not make good presidents. Unfortunately for the Republican party, I don’t find that the fact that their opponents will do more damage to the country a compelling reason to donate to, canvass for, or even vote for their nominee.

So far, certain music titles seem to fit this election cycle. President Obama personifies singer Toby Keith’s, “I Want to Talk About Me,” and the Republican side is dominated by those who can share as their own slogan Dierks Bentley’s, “What Was I Thinking?” Surely, there’s someone who can strike a more inspiring note, perhaps Train’s song title, “I’m About to Come Alive.”


Five Minutes

May 10th, 2011 Posted by Susan's Musings 3 comments

In five minutes I can write a warm note to a friend letting them know that I am thinking of them. In five minutes, I can check if my bank and I have the same balance for my account. In five minutes I can recite a chapter or two of Psalms or unload the dishwasher or do any number of other grand or trivial actions. Or in five minutes I can play an inane game on my cell phone. Guess which activity has been most common lately?

My obsession started innocently enough. On one of our business trips, by the time our flight landed I was tired and benumbed. My job was to wait with the luggage while my husband set off to claim our rental car. It seemed a good time to become more familiar with my newly acquired BlackBerry (see BlackBerry Bamboozlement) and quickly enough I stumbled upon the ‘games’ icon. That probably wasn’t exactly what my husband had in mind when he wanted me to explore my new phone, but the next fifteen minutes allowed me to get the hang of one game and begin to master the first three levels. That left 31 levels to conquer.

Having a healthy dose of competitive spirit – even if I’m competing with myself – I continued to enjoy a close relationship with my phone when faced with odd moments of empty time. My husband needed to run into the post office to pick up a parcel? No problem. My computer didn’t shut down properly and needed to run a check before restarting? Hooray!

However, as my proficiency increased and I notched more levels on my belt, playing the game took longer and longer. That was the point where I found myself rationalizing that I needed some down time during my work day or that I would run an errand just as soon as I had a successful few game rounds. While clearly minor as far as vices go, it still became clear to me that devoting swathes of time to increasing thumb dexterity was not admirable. A crack-down with definite parameters was clearly in order. Was I becoming an addict?

There is something both spoiled and embarrassing about patting myself on the back for limiting a pure time-wasting diversion. Yet the lure of an activity which demands complete attention (thereby blocking out all “I should,” “I need to,” and “Do I think…” thoughts) with no consequence for failure is quite real.

I don’t think I am alone in finding that technology has made it ever so much easier to waste time. Unlike my game which is easy to classify as frivolous, many online links can truthfully be classified as educational and informative. The sheer number of them, however, is overwhelming. One could easily spend hours a day watching worthwhile video clips, reading valuable articles and communicating with people important in one’s life. No matter how fascinating and awe-inspiring it is to watch newly hatched eagle chicks via a web cam placed in their nest or to see the birth of a baby giraffe, the bottom line is that these are diversions from what one should be doing.

In response to so much instantly-available material, some of my friends have self-imposed web-surfing blackouts or allow themselves to check personal email only once a day. For many of us, time-guzzling activities are the latest frontier needing a “just say no” policy.



Here Comes the Promotion; There Goes the Marriage

May 3rd, 2011 Posted by Susan's Musings 1 comment

All right. That wasn’t exactly what the large letters at the top of April 28’s Wall Street Journal declared, enticing one to read the related article in the Personal Journal section. It was actually “Here Come the Baby; There Goes the Marriage.” But wouldn’t my suggested title work as well? How about any of the following:

 Here Comes the Mortgage; There Goes the Marriage

Here Comes the Illness; There Goes the Marriage

Here Comes Real Life; There Goes the Marriage

 Statistics cited in the article claim that, “About two-thirds of couples see the quality of their relationship drop within three years of the birth of a child.”  Counseling services, psychotherapists and classes are stepping up to help married couples keep the lines of communication open during this stressful period. 

I don’t know many people who buy a car based only on how the car performs in good weather and great roadway conditions. We want to know how the car holds up in stop and go traffic, on pot-holed roads and in a collision. When we buy clothing we want assurances that our new dress won’t look good only when it is new but also after repeated laundering. A teacher’s mettle is tested around children who aren’t ideal students and a doctor who handles strep throat flawlessly but who falls apart when a patient has more complex symptoms isn’t a very good doctor. 

Why are we surprised when couples who are happy before their marriages hit the inevitable bumps in the road, struggle once complicated and messy real life kicks in? Until the marriage is tested, whether by negative occurrences such as job loss or the death of a parent, or by joyous occasions like the birth of a child, getting a job promotion or a monetary windfall, the marriage is still in the show room or on the hanger. Taxing events do stress marriages, but they often reveal fault lines which up till then were camouflaged. 

I’m not minimizing the upheaval that arrives with a new baby, particularly the first-born. But I question how out of touch with reality young couples are if they need to spend hundreds of dollars to be taught that keeping lines of communication open and making sure to have non-child-focused time together is important.  Could it be that the base assumption so many bring into their marriages – this marriage is about making me happy – is wrong? 

In college, I took a course on the immigrant experience in America. Our term project included interviewing an immigrant, and I took the opportunity to chat with my grandmother. At that point, she and my grandfather had celebrated close to sixty years of marriage and in my eyes their relationship was as solid as the heavy, wooden armoire in their guest room.  The atmosphere in their home was peaceful and joyful.  With the self-centeredness of youth, I assumed it was naturally that way. 

As my grandmother answered my questions, I remember being dumb-founded as she uncovered memories from years long past. At one point, she recalled how, early in their marriage, her father-in-law arrived from Europe to stay with them. He was a difficult man, and almost as an aside, my grandmother said something which granted me marriage wisdom I never forgot.  She said, “That was a difficult year. I guess if it was today, we would just have gotten divorced. But who knew from that then?” 

While my great-grandfather went back to Europe, the years that followed were full of different challenges.  Intense poverty during the Depression and my mother’s contracting polio were among other trials they faced. My grandparents watched three sons go to war and while they rejoiced in their safe return, the end of the war brought with it the knowledge that their parents, siblings, nieces and nephews in Europe had been murdered by the Nazis. 

I’m sure there were extended periods of time when there wasn’t one ounce of energy to give to the relationship. There certainly wasn’t the 1920’s equivalent of $500 for six sessions of pre and post baby counseling. There was, however, something more than divorce just not being common. There was commitment, a long-term view and an attitude that stressed the marriage rather than self. There was faith in God, belief in family, and gratitude for what one had rather than yearning for what was missing. There was a maturity that understood that some days, months and even years were going to be hard and that asking oneself constantly, “Am I happy?” was a foolish thing to do. Paradoxically, over the course of a long marriage where the basics of commitment and responsibility were sacrosanct no matter what one’s feelings, the joyous times far outweighed the tough ones.

I’m a big believer in actively working on one’s marriage (see my husband and my audio CD, Madam, I’m Adam) and while it would be best to work on it consistently from day one, if a life-changing event spurs effort, that’s great.  Could it be though, that too many marriages fail not because they are fatally flawed, but because constantly taking the temperature of one’s happiness is an exercise that encourages dissatisfaction and short-term thinking? 

I wasn’t surprised when the article noted that, while the decline in marital satisfaction in the five years after a baby’s arrival was lower in those who had pre-baby couples counseling, the divorce rate among those who underwent counseling and those who didn’t was the same.  Counseling that is geared to facilitating a healthy relationship is wonderful, but if it reinforces the unrealistic expectation that you can eliminate the tough periods and  that constant smooth sailing is possible it just might make more problems than it solves.





Beatrice Fairfax to the Rescue

April 26th, 2011 Posted by Susan's Musings 1 comment

Leaving aside human needs like oxygen and water, there are a host of other human wants as well. We crave affection and achievement; yearn for stability and companionship. I’ve noticed one more ubiquitous desire – a longing, particularly from women, for advice in our personal lives. While the boomer generation grew up reading Dear Abby and most modern women’s magazines have advice columns, this is not a recent phenomenon.

Just after the Exodus, the Israelites swamped Moses, turning to him for guidance. It is fair to assume that females triggered a fair number of those requests. Now, if Moses was available to answer questions today I’d also get in line, but leaping ahead a few millennia, the traditional newspaper women’s advice column goes back to 1898. The concept is credited to the New York Evening Journal editor, William Brisbane. The popularity of the column written by his protégée, Marie Manning under the name of Beatrice Fairfax, must have exceeded any expectations. Thousands of women wrote in with questions ranging from the heart-breaking to the mundane, mostly revolving around love, marriage and family. The column became so iconic that it was referenced in books, plays and songs. In 1943 in the movie Girl Crazy, Judy Garland sang the following lyrics written by Ira Gershwin in a song composed in 1930 by his brother, George:

Beatrice Fairfax – don’t you dare
Ever tell me he will care;

Beatrice certainly had staying power and name recognition!

What is the appeal of asking a stranger for potentially life-changing advice through a medium designed to be impersonal and limited? Perhaps that is precisely the attraction. In some ways, writing to an advice column is similar to buying a lottery ticket. There’s a very small chance of being noticed but the action itself fills one with hope – maybe all my problems will be easily solved! And while ‘Miss Fairfax’ and her spiritual descendants down to today’s Dr. Phil could be firm and no-nonsense in their answers, writing the letter in itself can be quite cathartic.  Certainly, utilizing the advice column venue saves the embarrassment of sharing one’s woes with someone with whom you come face to face. And sadly, not everyone has wise counsel in her life to whom she can turn.

The other day, I read a question in a Jewish women’s magazine which was answered by three columnists whom I know and respect. Each individual’s piece of advice was thoughtful, reasonable and wise yet the three responses were contradictory. How can that be?

Honestly, how can it not be? Faced with an anonymous questioner presenting a major life dilemma in a few hundred words with no opportunity for clarification, none of the respondents gave an unequivocal answer. Rather, each supplied food for thought.

Why do so many of us read these columns? Because whether the questions resonate in their specifics, all of us face confusing options in life.  The broad spectrum of answers one gleans from these columns are sometimes validating and other times challenging.

The columnists’ responses (and I include my husband and my responses in our own ‘Ask the Rabbi’ column) are not meant to tell someone what to do, with the occasional exception of directing the writer to seek professional, in-person advice. At best, they give perspective, add some useful insights and suggest avenues to explore.  They also provide a form of virtual support, reminding us that others wish us well and share similar predicaments. 

It is tantalizing to think that clear-cut solutions exist to all problems. With the possible exception of Moses, who was in a category of his own with a direct pipeline to The Advice Counselor, Beatrice Fairfax and those who follow her may be helpful, but the duty of choosing a course of action remains an individual responsibility.




He, Me and We?

March 22nd, 2011 Posted by Susan's Musings 1 comment

Last week my husband asked me to pick up some yogurt for him. While this news will leave most of you unmoved, I expect that our children and close friends are gasping in astonishment. To put it mildly, my husband is not a yogurt person. Not only does he not eat it; he recoils at the idea of eating it. Until last week, that is.

His newly acquired food tastes are part of a scary phenomenon that has been taking place in our home lately. We have been partners in many ventures since our marriage, but we each had our distinct areas of expertise. While we shared educational philosophies regarding our children, the bulk of day to day homeschooling fell in my domain. While we shared the mission of providing access to Torah knowledge, my husband assumed the majority of the teaching. Sharing a longing for Shabbat tables filled with guests, I planned and executed the cooking while he accepted responsibility for planning and guiding the table conversation. This distribution of tasks worked well for us over a prolonged period.

When we started our publishing enterprise a few years ago, we became full-fledged business partners as well. Our skills complemented one another’s. My spouse had grand ideas and vision; I was detail and reality oriented. He barreled through obstacles; I preferred to bypass them. He viewed deadlines as suggestions; I saw them as cast in stone. As our venture grew we both came to see that each of our ways was needed at different times. Accompanying that understanding was a flexibility and recognition of the value of the other’s proclivities. At this point, we sometimes find ourselves arguing for each other’s position rather for than our own instinctive one.

This collaboration of minds is leading to some weird experiences.  Once, during a family boating adventure, we found ourselves in a small, coastal village. As a special treat that evening, we attended the local movie theater’s showing of the movie Freaky Friday. In it, a mother and daughter switch bodies while retaining their individual personalities, completely befuddling those around them (as well as terrifying themselves). At the time, the premise of the movie seemed fanciful.  After the yogurt episode I expect our children will be wondering if, rather than being a fictional plot, that old movie was instead a peek into the future. 




Glossophobia – originally posted July 9, 2009

March 6th, 2011 Posted by Susan's Musings No Comment yet

According to the intensive .16 second long research I just did on the web, we humans are full of phobias. Ranking relatively high – though quite below fear of spiders – is glossophobia, fear of public speaking.

In general, this one passed me by. While I certainly get nervous before teaching a class or giving a public address, I love speaking before a group. And so it came about that when my husband was going to miss his weekly radio show (KSFO, Sundays 1-4) because they have not yet rigged commercial airplanes to accommodate traveling hosts, I agreed to fill in for him. After all, how hard could it be to chatter for three hours? My daughters and I have been known to keep conversations going for far longer than that, often with four or five of us chiming in at the same moment. (This has the side effect of terrifying young husbands who have grown up with only one sister.)

For anyone who is thinking of a career in radio, let me share some hard earned wisdom. When you are talking into a studio microphone, the microphone doesn’t smile, nod its head or respond in any other way. There is zero immediate feedback telling you whether you are being witty and wise or interminably dull and dim-witted. This is most unnerving.

Despite having diligently prepared my opening remarks and having timed them to get me to the first commercial break, I was acutely uncomfortable. For all I knew, I could just as well be reciting Longfellow ballads into the air and indeed might be reduced to doing so by the third hour.

Fortunately, just after the first break the lines began to ring with callers commenting on my thoughts. You can be quite sure that I was heaping blessings on their heads and getting a particular thrill from the homeschooling mom who is a Musings reader, at the same time that I was worrying if the calls would continue. All in all, the three hours were a combination of enjoyable stretches punctuated by moments of terror.

Since marrying my husband, I have done innumerable new and unusual things. Whether it was crossing the Pacific in a sailboat or sitting in Barbra Streisand’s house while she asked my opinion of a new song, or eating a kosher meal in Arkansas with Governor and Mrs. Huckabee, my life has taken some unanticipated paths. Who knew that even something that I thought I knew how to do, like talking, would get a different and out of the ordinary twist?





You Owe $36.52 More or Less – originally posted July 29, 2009

February 27th, 2011 Posted by Susan's Musings No Comment yet

My bank and I rarely agree on how much money is in my account. This is a circuitous way of saying that despite the fact that I do know how to add and subtract as well as use a calculator, I can’t seem to reconcile my bank statements accurately.

As long as the bank thinks I have more money than I do, I figure that I’m safe. But recently, there has been a new development in the monthly “by how much am I off?” game.

About a month ago, while checking to see which checks cleared I noticed that the bank paid out fifteen dollars less than the amount on the check I had written. The payment was to a small family business that did some work for me, so I sent them fifteen dollars, explaining that it was to straighten things out. It seemed odd at the time, but easy to fix.

Then this month, I noticed that the bank had, on my behalf, paid my supermarket almost ten dollars more than the cost of my groceries. This time, I visited my bank’s local branch to ask what was going on. While I admit that my handwriting is not the most legible, I could view the check on-line and it just didn’t wash that either the digits or the written out amount looked anything like the amount deducted.

I was a bit taken aback when the bank representative didn’t seem to be at all surprised by what had happened. Instead, he told me that the misreading of checks was an increasing occurrence. This wasn’t as a result of new technology; it was escalating human error.

I know that I am looking only at the experiences of one person among the millions of daily transactions, but it does strike me as odd that as the government is getting more involved in the day to day operations of banks, I’m noticing that the level of reliability, responsibility and attention to detail is plummeting. Just a coincidence – or not?



Trial by Mouth – originally published Jan. 28, 2009

February 13th, 2011 Posted by Susan's Musings No Comment yet

Celebrity endorsements can mean a great deal to a company. So we thought it a tremendous coup when Illinois Governor (though probably not for long) Blagojevich give an unsolicited plug for our audio CD, Perils of Profanity: You Are What You Speak.

After all, while the governor is not being impeached for his vulgar language, I have to think that it impedes his attempt to portray himself as an innocent, wronged victim when the tapes that (allegedly) implicate him in criminal activity have every second word bleeped out. Fair or not, I know that I am less likely to give the benefit of the doubt to someone whose mouth needs a good scrubbing.

 While neglecting to mention the name of the product – you get what you pay for, as Governor Blagojevich well knows- he made a very strong case for our teaching. In interviews this week, he acknowledged that his foul language harmed his wife as well as noting how difficult it is to control such a loathsome habit.

So, some companies employ athletes like Michael Phelps to represent them while others prefer Hollywood stars like Jennifer Anniston. As for Rabbi Daniel Lapin productions, we think that Governor Blagojevich is an outstanding case study of why everyone needs to hear Perils of Profanity, and proof of the good you can do by giving it to any young adult you care about.
Rather than paying a celebrity endorsement fee, we’d like to offer the governor some advice. In one interview he said:

“Had I known somebody was listening, I wouldn’t have used language like that.”

Well governor, in the future you would do well knowing that somebody is hearing each word you utter, for He is always listening.



It’s the Genes, Stupid – originally posted Feb. 2007

February 8th, 2011 Posted by Susan's Musings 2 comments

February. An often bleak, cold and dark month. This may be the reason why, aside from the obvious commercial implications, cheerful, bright, pink and red valentines endlessly bombard us as soon as February approaches. For women’s magazines the theme of the month’s issue is pre-ordained – romance. Generally this means that even more clap trap than usual will be disseminated. Hollywood couples who have made it past the five week mark will be lauded as proof that enduring love still exists and “experts” will step forward to explain the new, advanced methods for attracting and holding on to a mate.

Right on track, in a statement so absurd that one knows without checking that the author is an academician, comes a quote from Melvin Konner, MD, professor of anthropology and behavioral biology at Emory University. Commenting on a study of rodents which suggested that injecting male meadow voles with the chemical vasopressin increased their likelihood of linking up with female meadow voles, the doctor states,

“There’s something at work with a couple that stays together for 50 years, bad years included. It’s hard to imagine that it’s just a question of compatible personalities or strict beliefs.”

Imagine. If we only had universal health insurance we could have a nation of young couples streaming to the nearest chapel and we could assure them that divorce is no longer a threat. A regimen of injections would turn us into a nation of long term, happily married couples.

I don’t mean to pick on Dr. Konner, who after all sounds like he was simply wondering out loud rather than recommending a policy. Later on, in the same magazine that featured his quote, is an article highlighting committed couples, including one who has passed the fifty year mark. It is clear that indeed they were initially attracted by compatibility but weathered and continue to weather difficult times through shared beliefs and views.

But in today’s cynical and bruising world thousands of young people are reaching marriageable age as products of broken homes; probably just as many as products of unfulfilled ones. It is easy for them to believe various academics who proclaim that marriages were never meant to last for fifty years. It seems sensible to them that as the expected life span increases it is only normal for couples to divorce and pair up with new spouses, or that marriage itself is obsolete and meaningless.

Studies such as the one that made the cover of news weeklies a number of years ago suggesting that there is an “adultery gene” or ones that suggest that commitment is biologically driven advance the argument that people are helpless beings who can only act as we are programmed. As such we are not responsible for or capable of controlling our behavior.

What a dismal message to send. And how different it is from the message that God gave to Adam and Eve in Eden (when life spans were even longer than they are today). As my husband and I have been preparing the newest volume in our Genesis Journeys  series, focusing precisely on what that message is, I can’t help recalling a February event that I was privileged to attend two years ago. Hosted by then Governor and Mrs. Huckabee of Arkansas, the focus was on promoting commitment in marriage and it had nothing to do with a magic pill or monthly injection.

The highlight of the evening (aside from my husband’s speech) was a moving video of the president of a respected Bible college announcing his resignation in order to stay at his wife’s side while she dealt with the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease. Like the thousands of other women in the room, my eyes were overflowing as he explained how his wife had supported him in all his endeavors and now she was in need of his company. Although she didn’t seem to recognize him, his presence calmed her down and gave her peace, and so he was choosing to free himself of other obligations to be with her. Not because he thought it was “only fair” or as a “payback” but because it filled him with joy to ease her distress.

I imagine that this man and his wife probably felt they were compatible when they embarked on their marriage many years earlier. But I doubt if it was hormones that led them to stay together. My guess is that there was a constant recognition that communication, hard work and common goals were needed to keep them compatible and, indeed, that strict beliefs laid the foundation for and built the protective fence around their relationship.

I don’t think there was anyone in the Altel Arena in Arkansas, male or female, who didn’t say a silent prayer asking for a marriage as blessed as that one. And I also don’t think there was anyone there who thought that achieving that kind of marriage was a function of winning a genetic lottery or having access to new drugs rather than of making a constant and sustained effort, through good times and bad, to attain it.


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