Thursday, July 7, 2016

My Dad

RONALD NEUWIRTH – tribute, 6/30/2016

Dad intensely loved life. I’m certain that was the message he would have wanted us to take away today as we remember his life.

With his soft voice and gentle manner, Dad sought out strong, life-affirming moments.

Sometimes they were about nature. I don’t think many people knew this side of him, but every time we were in Long Island, Dad would insist on going to the ocean, even if only for a few minutes. I don’t think I understood at the time, but as I’ve remembered over the last days, I appreciate that Dad really sought out awe. He would walk along the sand, looking at the powerful Atlantic waves, the wilder, the better.

He dreamed of going to the Hebrides, the lonely islands off of England. The closest we got was Nova Scotia, on a father-daughter trip for his 70th birthday. He loved the bed and breakfasts, the quaint restaurants, the farmland, but what he was most excited about was the untamed landscapes and the whales.

He looked for excitement in New York too and he knew all the best places, from Sardi’s to the Algonquin to McSorley’s. He showed me a speakeasy once in the Village and for the life of me I can’t remember the name or the location anymore – he was certainly my ticket. 

Dad was a romantic, he was a poet. The editor of the Southampton Press was kind enough to put together some of the poetry he published in that paper for us, and my son will read one poem after this. His favorite story was J.D. Salinger’s – For Esme with Love and Squalor, about a little girl with grown up words and loving ways, who reminds me of our daughter.

He loved folk music – it hit all of his registers – words, melodies, social conscience. As a kid he used to take me to concerts all the time, and I remember finding them nice but vaguely embarrassing. When I got older, I realized of course that seeing Arlo Guthrie or Pete Seeger perform wasn’t that uncool at all.

Dad loved words – the way they were able to capture and hold still a moment, the way they sounded, their multiple meanings. By the way, that was the basis of all his jokes – the double meanings of words, and it’s not a skill he passed on to me. Last night, my son was telling joke after joke from one of my dad’s books and had to stop and explain each and every one to his mom. So maybe it has skipped a generation. Let’s hope so.

He had a lot of stories- this was one about words. When he was Business Editor at the NYU paper, he was in charge of selling advertising. In order to encourage people to look at the ads, he had a creative idea -- starting a misspelled word contest in the paper; if you found the word, you’d get a prize. Hundreds of people responded, so it was a great success, just one problem. There wasn’t just one misspelled word, there were a whole bunch of them, so it turned out not that economical - they had to give out a lot of prizes.

And of course, Dad loved what words – and stories, and games – do – which is to help us to find our way to other people. In this day of distractions, multitasking, omnipresent phones, Dad was like an antidote. He was all about making the most of those moments we have together.

It didn’t matter if Dad was with people of totally different ages, backgrounds, interests… he had an incredible ability to connect. I have spoken with many people who knew him in recent days, and I’ve been so moved to understand how much even peripheral relationships he had were meaningful and mattered. Even if he only had a few minutes with someone, those were really human moments and they helped make people’s days and also lit up his life.

Of course, I was so fortunate to have  – along with my children – his most intense love, his worry and care and dreams. One of the things I liked most was watching him watch my kids. He had that uncanny ability to just sit back and enjoy, appreciate, to feel with them, find them beautiful and funny and amazing.

I want to thank you all so much for being here. In Jewish tradition, Tikkun Olan is the gathering together of pieces of shattered holiness in an effort to repair the world. Over these last intense days, I feel like I have been so lucky to glimpse pieces of my father that reside in many of you, it has been a great comfort to collect them and to hope that they at the same time stay with you too, and in that way, though I miss him dearly, he is still here, connecting us.

Thank you – my colleagues and friends – so many people from JDC. It means so much that you are here and that I can share this with you. 

To my Dad’s friends at Habonim and CBST, to family friends, to his very dear friends and our family  – I am so grateful for your care for Dad, for the long talks, the beers, and the memories. To Rabbi Kleinbaum – Dad was so inspired by you and I am so thankful that you are with us through this time.

To Karsten, my mom, and my children – your love was sustaining for him and it is for me.

May his memory be a blessing. 

POEM
Joy Personified
No recession could erode the strong silken ocean waves,
Lovely, shining, dancing powers that be.
As we skipped securely along a still vibrant universe's edge.
My 4-year-old grandson; joy personified- (& me) along the sea.
- Ron Neuwirth, September 3, 2009, in The Southampton Press

Monday, May 2, 2016

Pet-sharing

I want to take a departure from some serious topics to extol the virtues of pet-sharing.

Now I know apartment sharing (Airbnb) and car sharing (VIA, Lift) are having a moment in the sun. And of course there is no greater cheerleader for bike sharing (the fabulous Citibikes that have added immense amounts of joy to my regular commute for nearly three years now) than I am, and for community/ie shared local dinners. And I hope and trust these wonderful reinventions are here to stay.

But no one has mentioned Pet-sharing and I would like to propose it now.

Spiced up a bit, this might be the foundational story of a major new trend:

I joined the Board of Penn South Social Services about half a year ago because I wanted to get more involved in my local community and come up with better ways for different generations and individuals to work together.

My fellow new Board member and upstairs neighbor started a FB page for the organization. Since we are among the youngest and most familiar with social media, we talked about what we might use it for.

And I had this idea: my family would love to have a pet, but our schedules are too crazy and we are away too often for that to be a wise choice. 

Aren't there people who have pets and don't want to pay outrageous sums to have them looked after? 

We would be willing- no thrilled - to pet-sit for a period. That would give us a chance to have an animal in our lives in a meaningful and manageable way. And we would offer genuine rather than paid care.

Forget FB, a conversation was enough. My fellow Board member was heading to Italy for 10 days and asked me then and there if we might take care of her cat. Best of all, "Kimmy" would come to us, she suggested, so she would not be alone for so long.

We are on day 9. What a wonderful time! Kimmy did take a while to get used to us. At the beginning, she hid so thoroughly that I wondered if she might have dis-apparated Harry Potter style and I imagined with horror having to tell my neighbor, just landing in Tuscany, what had happened. And on the first day, Kimmy's lack of appetite was cause for concern. 

But she is prowling around now, sleeping at the foot of my bed and choosing the rooms we are in rather than those we are not. My son is feeding her regularly, in fact, we need to make sure not to both feed her unwittingly as her appetite is immense, as if to make up for lost time. 

It's been good to see the kids accepting responsibility to care for Kimmy and learning to appreciate the sensibilities of a cat, who cannot be forced into friendship. We have even experienced a certain self-imposed mellowing as our loud noises and occasional craziness scare the cat and we are often thinking about her.  And last, but not least, we've had some warm pet snuggles and marveled at what a beautiful, nimble and communicative creature she is.

So- pet sitting. A serious responsibility but I'm a huge fan.

And ready to do it again. Anyone?



Thursday, April 21, 2016

Passover this year- ecstatic liberation and revisited imagination

Several years ago, the meaning of Passover crystallized for me on the idea of gratitude.

Why should we revisit a story of enslavement, why should we not only tell it, but actually eat it and act it out?

I've come to think that there is no other way to truly appreciate the state of freedom in which we live now. 

For years, I obsessed about this question: how can I appreciate or even truly comprehend the plentiful food and safety that I have, my rights as a woman, the rule of law under which I live, even the caring of those near me, if that is all I have ever known? Of course in some dry theory I may understand that these circumstances are privileged. But how can I genuinely enjoy them, how can I know what is worth prizing and defending, if I don't know anything else? 

The Passover Seder addresses the issue head on with the most convincing solution I've seen yet. To enjoy our freedom, we need to empathize with the plight of those who lived before us (the sweat, the bitterness, the horror), and then we need to physically make ourselves enjoy (the four cups of wine, question #4 about reclining, the entire long ritual family meal). 

There are three new elements for me to contemplate this year:

1. The importance of the threshold between slavery and freedom, the liberation moment. In a lesson with Rabbi Michael Paley today, he discussed the Passover aim of achieving an elevated, almost ecstatic, state at the Seder, which gives visceral meaning to the idea of liberation. This adds the passion to "gratitude." 

To feel true, meaningful, alive gratitude, and not the dry sanctimonious sort, that moment of liberation needs to be experienced, even if it must be play acted or story-told, and experienced again and again lest it fade.

2. The notion that gratitude gives us the power we need to not just sit on our laurels and float, but to do something with what we have. Our security, health, well-being, love are all gifts that supply us with strength for something - something bigger than passive entertainment, even bigger than understanding and happiness- fine though they are. An active gratitude should drive us to passion, and passion should drive us to ... What exactly? The method would be acting to our fullest on the strengths we have. But the goal? That's #3.

3. I've focused on the need to see the contours of history to appreciate the comfort of what we have now, and how this gives us passion to act. To where does this passion drive?

Just as the comparison between the past and present gives more weight to both- so too we need to compare a future worth aspiring toward with the present we have. And if we can do this- we will have our direction. 

To do it, we need a prodigious and expansive imagination.

I'd like to dedicate the next part of this blog to that-- to dreaming about what I and we might have that is better than what we do now, that is not entitled and disconnected from the past, but builds upon it.

I'd like to exercise the imagination side of my brain, revisit some naive hopes, check in on quelled idealism. 

That's a Passover message this year....

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Diversity

A friend of mine cited a study (I never verified, but it makes a good point and I sure hope it's true) in Sweden in which children in classrooms that integrated a number of disabled peers performed better than children in non-integrated, fully non-disabled, "normal" classes.

Why? Because as the kids in the integrated classroom interacted and helped their disabled classmates, they processed the materials they were learning in a different way (something like teaching vs more passive absorbing). It's good to be exposed and challenged with different ways of thinking, and to have to explain yourself differently too; really a key component to understanding who you are and that you can choose to change.

Integration is different from diversity of course. With integration, there is a clear majority perspective that is normative and  the minority tries to fit in. An embrace of diversity implies that there may be no generally accepted norms at all, a less comfortable proposition for everyone, a sort of anarchy of values. It's worth spending some time on that distinction- I think it puts into question traditional liberal values and explains a lot today-  from fights on campus to issues with immigration in Europe. For another blog though....

In any case, the opposite of both concepts is when everyone is largely of the same background, a monolithic culture. And that's often a disaster, even when it is done out of charitable intent or, the opposite, selfish or self-protective. Here are three examples:

Housing that separates low income people and pushes them together has been largely discredited in favor of integrated strategies that put low or middle income housing together with more high end housing. One of my favorite stories is from high end housing in Florida- so called gated communities, created in large part to maintain exclusivity and keep crime out... Until it became clear that the children and grandchildren of original owners, within the gates, were stealing and turning to criminal activities. There may be a lot of points here, but the key one is that also upper income housing doesn't seem to "work."

Public schools that have poor populations have clearly not done well. Interestingly, wealthy private schools, while academically performing, have been criticized for social environments that are unrealistic and unhealthy-- not only entitlement, but also loaded stress and mental health issues abound. Unfortunately, in spite of all of this, NY has some of the most segregated schools, not only an embarrassment but a real loss for everyone. So many educational initiatives focus on how to improve poor schools, a laudable goal; but one wonders whether old fashioned integration isn't the most natural and best answer. 

And then I'm loving the studies of companies that show teams of leaders with more diversity create better, more successful companies. The reason- it boils down to assumptions being challenged. I've seen it framed both in terms of men-women and in terms of ethnic diversity.

Of course diversity is relative- and nothing is really ever truly monolithic. But increasing diversity generally increases quality. 

We are lucky to live in such a truly diverse city- only sorry we don't take more advantage of that.




Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Gratitude as apathy or activism?

A recent NYT article criticized the current focus on gratitude, taping into a concern I've had about this writing project.

Does the practice of gratitude redirect what might be productive outrage aimed at injustice in the world-- a potential positive catalyst for change -- into a self-satisfied posture aimed inward and a source of apathy?

I can see where it might. But there are a number of ways in which gratitude can be understood and play out....

I'm grateful to have enough to eat, I'm grateful to be safe, I'm grateful to enjoy good health... A grateful list like that sounds mildly distasteful, gloating, boasting even. (Can I add here - to have a beautiful new outfit, a great hairdo, trophy family....) I've really tried to avoid this posture. In fact, the blog has not documented much of my personal situation, though I am indeed grateful for it on my own personal count.

On deeper reflection, a similar grateful list might point to the delicacy of good fortune. And the recognition that it is fortune and not intention or hard work that leads in large part to the situation in which we find ourselves, can be a very philosophical moment, even a religious one. Fortune is fickle after all, and can easily change. To value what one has in the moment is to be cognizant that the winds of change may come very quickly, in fact, they most definitely will. Unlike gloating, this type of gratitude is the ultimate in humility, the recognition that we are small ourselves and our joy is fleeting. I could get very poetic on this front, but this attitude, which is deeply personal, has also not been my main intention with this Grateful blog, and it too results in a turn inward.

The gratitude that I have tried to encourage in this blog was inspired by an idea that is almost diametrically opposed.

It was a political idea - a very outward rather than a personal set of reflections: the idea that I needed to appreciate the rights and social norms that I have in order to not take them for granted, and be willing to fight for them if they are drilled back or not applied equally for all, as I see happening today.

The idea is to understand that I have cause to be grateful because of certain political realities that I need to safeguard or fight for: I have enough to eat because I was born in a country that has peace and plenty -- unlike so many; I'm grateful to be safe because we have rule of law and also because I am the child of many privileges that are not doled out equally; I'm grateful to enjoy good health and I  appreciate the fact that my employer supplements a fine health insurance plan.

And of course I had the idea that this was not just applicable to me, but much more broadly - that's why I wanted this to be a public reflection.

Finally, although this was political in nature, I didn't want it to be theoretical. I am interested in connecting emotion to activism in a thoughtful way.

My favorite holiday is the one where we remember the story of the biblical escape from Egypt - from slavery into freedom - and my favorite ritual is the Seder, when we try to re-enact that story in order to simulate the experience of attaining freedom. That's an effort, as I see it, to drill the lessons of one era into the very different realities of another, since all of us have been born into a life of freedom. The point? To create not just a theoretical but actually a visceral dislike of the application of power over others. 

I wanted to try to re-insert this visceral sense into our political discussion. I'm grateful that my income is sufficient-- how unfair to be born by no fault of one's own in a place where hunger is the norm. I'm grateful to be assumed innocent in almost all situations-- how horrendous to be subject to constant suspicion. And I'm grateful to have healthcare and the right to choice- how is it possible that this shouldn't be afforded to all when we have the means available?

We've seen a lot of outrage in politics, but it has not been tempered by a recognition of our own good fortune and personal humility and gratitude. Instead, it's a race to claim victimhood... which brings out fear and the worst in us. The idea of my gratitude blog was to inspire activism from a place of strength and appreciation.

Does that type of gratitude resonate? If you've gotten to this point, please leave a comment and let me know!

And with this in mind, I'll try to write some upcoming posts about specific issues at hand.

Monday, November 2, 2015

A human instinct for joy?

I just finished a wonderful book- Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann. In a postscript he writes about "the human instinct for recovery and joy."

It reminded me of something I've thought often about kids.... That they are fun-makers, literally looking to turn everything into fun, as if their natural state is laughter or at least smiles, which is something that must be shared. 

And if you don't laugh along, if you start getting all serious and needing earnestly to get things done-- that's when they'll butt up against you and be stubborn and whiny and difficult. 

If you can make things fun, you can also get things done. 

Sometimes I think that's the "purpose" of children in the world, to remind us to lighten up and connect with each other and get some perspective. I suppose that's why older people, at least the nice ones, like kids so much too-- they appreciate the incredible tight-packed essence of life and energy in their little frames, and they see how that drains with age, without us even realizing it....

So if there is a human instinct for recovery and joy, it is a primal one from earliest childhood. It's the child in us, ironically, that can keep going, that can take loss and disappointment in stride.

I think there are a few other forces at work in all of us too. Of course the force of fear-- which is the opposing force of fun in every way. If fun gets us to try new things, to be curious and connecting, fear causes us to draw back, to doubt ourselves, to turn inward.

Perhaps deriving from this basic dichotomy, there comes from that feeling of fun a drive to create and be productive, to work (if the work is right, "unalienated" I suppose). And from fear, there comes a drive to destroy. 

Where does boredom come in, I wonder, another truly elemental state. I suppose it can lead either way-- thrill seeking can be destructive or generative.

I'm grateful for the book for making me feel so much while staying so safe -- without real danger or heartache. It was such a poignant reminder to appreciate.


Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Germany

Over the past month, I've been amazed to see Germany accept tens of thousands of refugees and to hear Chancellor Merkel promise that the country will take up to 1,000,000 within the year. It's truly mind boggling that families fleeing across the world consider Germany the destination of choice.

Even those voices that criticize Germany's generous policy as indirectly encouraging more people to flee and raising their hopes about entry to Europe, and who forecast bad things ahead for Germany and other European countries that accept refugees on the assumption that they will surely fail to integrate them-- should admit that the resolution to open the country's doors to people in dire need is laudatory.

Germany, the country that started two world wars? The country that invented industrialized mass murder and committed the worst crimes of humanity during the Holocaust? The country that until recently seemed to have utterly failed to attract the high skilled engineers and technicians from abroad that it had sought to bolster its workforce because it was not seen as hospitable?

It’s a surprise to me to witness this new Germany, but not a shock. There has been a gradual but very real shift in Germany's identity over the last generations and even during the last decade. 

How did this happen?

It is the direct result of a long and slow process of self-examination following World War II – the Nazi era and all its crimes. A second generation of Germans famously asked their parents and grandparents what they had done during the war and tried to hold Germany accountable for its sins. Universities took up the calls, so did political parties, the media – books and movies, and a special relationship developed between Germany and Israel.

The lessons of the past – to shun anti-Semitism and all forms of xenophobia and nationalism, to question political violence  – were taught to apply very directly to the present. A slate of monuments, large and small, in central symbolic places and in small alleys in front of people’s home, were built not only to make the point that Germany should never forget its role as perpetrators, but also that it needed to live with that past and translate its lessons in very real ways today. 

And the message was taken up by real people. Groups like Action Reconciliation Service for Peace has sent thousands of post- high school volunteers over decades to work with Jewish organizations, Holocaust survivors and others who suffered under Naziism in Germany, the United States, Israel, Poland and beyond. Many Germans I met during my studies in Berlin and those who visited AJC seeking a more formal dialogue when I worked there, talked very seriously about moral issues and responsibilities. Finally, Germany's leadership tried to set the tone at the top. 

Germany is a far cry from a tolerant ideal. Discrimination still exists and sometimes rears its very ugly head, as in the racist-led populist marches being held in Dresden. But the debate is lively: even in Dresden, the counter marchers turn out in impressive force. Regular debates about school integration, circumcision and multiculturalism come up with strong voices all around, but Germany has not enacted laws against mosque height, as Switzerland has, or the wearing of head scarves. The outcomes of these discussions may be unresolved; they generally do not end with further polarizing decisions. Perhaps one can even argue that it's good to keep some of the tensions above surface and to engage in regular national arguments.

It would of course be naive to think that Germany’s new found hospitality is an ethical issue alone. As Brecht famously wrote in The Three Penny Opera: “first food, then morality.” Germany has a strong economy, an anomaly in a struggling Europe. A generous refugee policy is enabled by the country’s economic position, which allows it to even consider the high cost of absorbing refugees.

There is also the demographic issue that has haunted Germany for over a decade – too few young people, too many pensioners on the horizon. New immigrants, many young, offer an answer for an aging population. And the people fleeing Syria are often well educated. So there is self-interest involved as well.

Finally, while the country’s leadership is in favor, and the hospitality of many citizens is undeniable, there remain right wing elements, some of them extreme. It's scary to see those skinheads and their supporters, whose more civilized clothes hide even more pernicious threats, and who have before and may again strike out violently against refugees. They are relatively few, but they can do substantial damage. 

Even short of violence, there is no chance that a mass immigration of this nature will move forward without problems. After the initial euphoria, we can expect real concerns about the pressure this will put on housing, the economy, schools. There will certainly be some radicals among the refugees themselves. The decision to accept people is a far cry from being able to successfully integrate them. The United States may have some lessons to offer here, though our own present backlash is not encouraging. 

And with all this, the Germany that is accepting refugees, no – welcoming them in the full knowledge that it will have to deal with problems and that this immigration will change the face of the country– is a Germany that is worth noticing and for which I am quite grateful.


And there is one other thing to mention here. I believe that the outcome of this decision is not set and sealed. Will integration be possible or will it fail miserably? Yes, there are historical precedents, but they are not determinants. Decisions that are made now, in small, people-to-people ways and in large, political ones -- will influence the result. So I'd rather cheer than sit on the sidelines and predict the worst. I'd like to think that we can encourage the amazing Germans, young and older, who want to do the right things and that their engagement in this process will bode well for a positive resolution of this courageous action.