Category Archives: family
August 11 was the 50th anniversary of the Watts Riots, and my Facebook was silent. Same for the death of Julian Bond the other day, who was a civil rights activist alongside Dr. King, a calm and quiet man who fought against inequality until his very last breath.
I didn’t see articles or anything about these things. Just the silence that creeps under my skin and makes me wonder about my world, and why we can’t get recognize our evils and try to find the goodness to repair the problems. And my mind goes back to my afternoon in Watts. Back to the towers.
Simon Rodia, a construction worker and tile mason, spent over 33 years building the Watts towers with steel rebar, concrete and wire mesh. He embedded it with pieces of porcelain, tile and glass, making a mosaic of spectacular artistry with everyday pieces such as Canada Dry bottles.
He left his masterpiece behind in 1955, ten years before his towers became the epicenter of a battleground. The home of the infamous Watts Riots of August 11, 1965, that forever marked this neighborhood in the Los Angeles lexicon as dangerous.
In late August 1965, a 23-year-old college student with black hair got into a Volkswagen bus with a bunch of his fellow theater buddies. His friend Peggy was in the back in a green suit to play Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, of which they were going to perform a selection of scenes from the play. The rest of the actors, including James Whitmore, had already donned their Shakespearean costumes in the back. There were jugglers and entertainers, various innocents of 1960s mischief and merriment, who were driving straight into a war zone.
The student didn’t tell his parents where they were going. After all, there were still policemen on the street corners in riot gear and broken glass from looted storefronts. All they knew was that they were heading to a recreation center in Watts, where children were being kept safe from the horrors outside.
Now that student is 73-year-old man with graying hair and two daughters. I am one of them.
“We sat around for weeks, wanting to do something,” my father said to me when I asked him about that time his life. “This is all we could think of. A distraction, something worthwhile. Art.”
It was the story I thought of as I got out of my friend Audra’s car on a muggy Sunday in Los Angeles, as I saw them up close for the first time. The Watts Towers, reaching as high as 99 feet in the air. Images that I had seen in quiet, wood floored galleries and art books were now alive, right in front of me.
As an Angelino, Watts is mentioned in hushed whispers of fear. You don’t go there at night, you don’t walk around alone, you don’t, you don’t, you don’t. Gangs are often referred to as vengeful spirits and ghosts, anger brushed over with horror reserved for a slasher film. Yet every time I would see the towers when I took the Blue Line metro rail down to Long Beach, my curiosity had always been piqued. I wanted to see the towers up close, just once. I wanted to know the art that can last through the fires with my own eyes.
We had missed the tours of the towers for the day we arrived, but my breath was stolen from my body even from afar. There was magic and an unearthly set of wonder in the presence of these structures, with its brightly colored mosaics and cement drawings. The muggy air seemed to be sprinkled with bits of heaven. That’s one of the many feelings that only good art can create.
We were in an oasis in the middle of one of the harshest neighborhoods in Los Angeles. Steel bars lay in front of every tiny little house nearby, the storefronts bright colors of orange and teal against the gritty gray sidewalks. People didn’t walk around that much on the streets. It was an unearthly quiet. The riots were more than 50 years ago, and the war that was waged on these streets still seem to haunt the people who live there.
As Audra and I wandered the grounds, we were greeted by friendly staff members who showed us around with bright smiles despite the harrowing neighborhood. They were consumed by love of this place, and it was intoxicatingly contagious. It swept over me like an ocean, consuming every part of my being that not only loved art, but loved Los Angeles.
One of the ladies led me into a small gallery with breathtaking art. Cartoons, surrealist paintings, sculptures and photographic collages of African-American art greeted my eyes. They were stunning, better than even some of the pieces I had seen in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and probably even more haunting than anything I had ever viewed on Wilshire Boulevard.
I stood over a tabletop structure, made of blackboard, of a man struggling as if on a cross. Next to him in chalk were names. Most were young men, although some women and older men were peppered in there. Some I recognized, such as Oscar Grant, 2009. But many I had never known. Wish I knew. They were all victims of police brutality. As a Jew, it made me think of the names of Holocaust victims, of the families that have to carry on without them and hope to preserve their legacy. To not fall into the abyss of forgetfulness.
It made my mind drift back to a friend of my dad’s, Richard, from college. He was 6’4 with a shaved bald head and the most beautiful cocoa brown skin I had ever seen. My dad had been very active with him in black theater in the 1960s, which was odd for a very pale Jewish boy. So I asked Richard how it came to pass.
“I remember some of my Black Panther buddies asked him that too,” he laughed. “Got rather pissed at him, confrontational. But then your father stood there and explained the history of the Jewish people, about the Holocaust and pogroms. Made us understand that our struggle is the same against hatred. And every person in that room immediately respected him.”
Can it be too much to ask for someone like me to take up the fight against racism and hatred, even in the tiniest ways? To remember what had happened and try to figure out what we need to do now to solve it, whether through combating income inequality or general stereotypes? I am not a great politician and can only do so much. But I have words, fingers and a mind. Can’t I dedicate them to creating hope for my people, all the ones that make up this great human race?
Fifty years after Watts, we haven’t finished this racism struggle in America when it should have been dead and buried forever ago. We were standing in Los Angeles, a city of haves and have nots, where it is more often those of minority upbringings who suffer the plagues of poverty and other societal-soul-sucking forces. It is them who are forced into corners of the city where other Angelinos whisper they shouldn’t go there. Who are trying to find a better life when they are finding a harder struggle for the American dream, which is currently comatose.
No matter how much I love my home city, where I was born, this is the darkest truth about it: That we live in a city of both insane, bright shiny wealth of BMWs and $10,000 watches, and the people who wish they could afford simple pleasures, like a bike for their children to ride around on and the safety of a place without steel bars. There is no in between, no where else to go, and there is no excuse for it.
As I stood over that sculpture, I thought about that night my dad drove a bus down to Watts to comfort, fight and build again in the only way he knew how: Through art. As I came home, I began to research that night, trying to find information, but it was limited at best, and it upset me more. There was more focus on the events and looting, not the people who were trying to heal the world, even with menial band-aids. It focused more on what had happened and analyzing it, and less on what we are going to do to solve it.
Although I had steered away from it in the course of my career, my inner journalist was hungry again. I had to tell the world that that night existed, that in Los Angeles somewhere in 1965 a bunch of theater kids drove in a bus to try to do the slightest bit of right in a crazy, messed up world in the shadow of the Watts towers. To help infuse art, fun and life in a dangerous area, no matter how futile it was. To fulfill what Simon Rodia did, which is give a dark place a beacon of hope.
Maybe this is the start.
That apartment in Beverly Hills was unusually quiet 11 years ago. My grandmother had made soup despite the heat of that March, and she, my cousin Amy and my Aunt Esther were eating quietly as they could. My body couldn’t even digest the silence as the nurse was in the bedroom with my grandfather. My beloved Papu was sleeping peacefully, the morphine coursing through his veins to diminish the pain of his oncoming death.
The sound of Joseph Amira’s shuffling feet was gone from the white carpet, the roughness of which would announce his arrival. I would hear it as I was drifting off to sleep in my grandparents’ spare bedroom whenever I would come over during college and take a nap there. I would then hear the door creak open just a little bit, just to check in, and then hear the sound diminishing as he would shuffle away.
The small round table in my grandparents’ kitchen seemed empty without Papu. At this hour, he would always drink his coffee with a splash of mocha mix from a mug with little blue flowers. Eating cereal for lunch because he was always told that it was the healthiest thing for him. His big smile would light up his face, topped with the whitened hair would be slightly slicked back in that 1930s style. It was the one that made my young grandmother try to bet her sister that if she spit on his head, the spit would come right off, long before they started dating.
For someone who was relatively so quiet and humble, he had unusual stories: My grandfather was one of the rare people in Brooklyn with a car, which made him a particular favorite for mafia members there so he could run errands and numbers for them. He was probably one of the only Jews under the employ of notorious anti-Semite Howard Hughes at TWA during the war, probably because the last name Amira sounded Italian and he had worked on cars. Then, after moving to Los Angeles and working three jobs to keep his family afloat, he found fortune as Joseph Amira and several of his co-workers invested in orange groves down in Orange County, California.
Yet this was the end of his life. I would never see him again after this day. I headed down the crisp white hall to the bedroom, the second of his three granddaughters, who was named after his beloved wife of 66 years. She sat in the kitchen, trying to pretend like she wasn’t about to become a widow. But we all knew deep down that we were in death’s house now.
As I walked into view of the bed where Papu laid sleeping on the bright orange comforter, I carried a much darker secret that he would never know: That two months previous to this, his 21-year-old granddaughter laid in a hospital bed dying. I almost died before his time to go. If age didn’t kill him, that knowledge probably would have. Somewhere in me, my ability to cheat death came with an odd sense of relief. He had a long enough life without any pain I carelessly brought in.
Watching him breathe ever so slightly, my eyes darted around the room. It was the place where three little girls once jumped on the bed and watched Batman and danced to Madonna on Friday nights after dinners together. He would probably call us from the bedside where he laid now to wish my sister and me “Shabbat Shalom” over the phone so that both he and my grandmother could talk to us at the same time.
My mind wanted to take him away from this place to the one where I liked him best, at the head of the dining room table, a yamulke on his head as browned hard-boiled eggs were passed around. He would sit upright, quietly joyous in his family surrounding him and content in where he was. In a family structure filled with women, he was the patriarch; the man who showed me, alongside my father, what a man should be in relation to the world and his family.
I couldn’t flash forward to the days to come: The men trying to honor him by volunteering to watch my grandfather’s body before the burial, a traditional Jewish practice. Standing next to my tiny grandmother in her black dress during services, her graying hair flat along her face and her eyes in shock. Sitting at the huevo, or reception afterwards, eating browned eggs and already feeling the missing piece in the wooden-paneled room. The people who would hug and kiss me at the Sephardic Temple, where he had been president of the temple, and tell me stories about “a good man.” They ranged from close friends telling me how he would try to pretend that they were actually blood related or how, when they first came to this country, the first stop after the synagogue was at Joseph Amira’s home, at a long dining room table with his family. In the years after, I didn’t realize how hard the days would when I wished he was by me, and how surprisingly shameful it would be when the days came where I was glad he wasn’t alive to see them.
All I knew in that moment was that head chair in the dining room table would be empty now, and no one would fill it the exact same way. My heart longed for the shuffling of shoes along the carpet, the sound of his voice. I would have even been happy to even hear another one of his diatribes against Howard Hughes (he was the only person I ever heard Papu get angry over, in the rare instances he came up). I wished I could ask him questions and hear him tell stories. But our time together in life was now over.
I decided to sit next to him on the other side of the bed, raising my head to G-d. I wasn’t going to tell Hashem not to take Joseph Amira, not when he had been given so much in his life that would leave him content. In this moment, my heart began to reach out in prayer for those of us left behind in his absence: my mother, father, grandmother and sister. I whispered in his ear all my love, without tears or pain, as he had never given me any. Just his love.
As I left the bed, about to walk out of the room, I heard something: His voice. It wasn’t words; he couldn’t speak anymore. He began to hiccup. It wasn’t just a bodily reaction. The struggle of his soul, lingering somewhere between heaven and earth, was coming back to try to find me one last time. I witnessed how the body can wither away, yet how love is stronger than death ever hopes to be.
I stood in the doorway of the bedroom, looking at him, thinking of my then three-year-old cousin Sam several days before, as he shouted his love so loud that “Uncle Joe” could hear him in the limbo where his mind residing now. And somewhere, deep in the corners of my mind, I heard my grandfather’s voice as if he could still speak with me, excitedly saying, “You know, Sammy came by the other day…”
Sam wouldn’t remember that moment of his life, but I would remember this one, even as now Papu was slipping away from me. All I could hope, as I walked away from my grandfather’s bedside, was that we would find strength from his love in the days to come.
Rosh Hashana is my favorite time of year, as the summer fades and my family comes together again for hugs and smiles of the Jewish New Year. I called my mom in excitement and asked her if she was making apple jelly. It’s traditional in my family to have it with our round challahs over Rosh Hashana dinner and lunch.
“I can’t this year, honey,” she said with that somber tone. “It’s just such a long process, and I get tired so easily.”
“Well, why don’t I do all the work?” I said. “You can sit there and tell me what to do. And I need to learn anyway.”
“Yes. Yes you do.”
It was the tone of voice in that phrase that caught me. In the Jewish year of 5774, my mother was confronted with her mortality. I sat in her hospital rooms and kissed her bald head, watched her go from doctor to doctor and forced myself to see her mastectomy scars. Even though her hair was growing back in a soft peach fuzz and her tests looked positive, she was now thinking of a time that she wouldn’t be here to make apple jelly for Rosh Hashana. And remembering how that every day for almost six months, she thought she was experiencing a series of last events in her life.
“Mom, you’re not dying,” I said. “You’re getting better. The doctors have told you that.”
“I know, but I have to pass these things on,” she said.
“You will.” But deep inside of me, my heart started ticking like a clock, wondering how long the countdown would be until death finally had his way took her away from me.
How could one year make everything so different? I stood in front of G-d on Rosh Hashana last year by myself, not knowing how the days after would change me. How that call in the chill of February shook me, her voice wavering as she said, “I have breast cancer.”
It crashed on me like a fast car, shifting everything in my body. I took up freelancing in fear of being tied to an office, not knowing where my mother’s treatment would end up, putting myself in serious financial danger later on. I left evening plans and my friends behind, rushing back to Thousand Oaks with an overnight bag whenever my mom had go back to the hospital due to complications. I couldn’t date or have a relationship with anyone; after all, how would I introduce a guy to my family and say, “Hey, this is my mom. She’s got cancer, you can tell by her bald head”?
In July, six months after her diagnosis, we were told that my mom was much better but not in remission, because her type of cancer was the type that could only be kept at bay, not go away entirely. But even as results looked positive, the fears washed over her, the mortality constantly questioned. The friends asking about my mother’s condition dwindled, hearing that she was improving. But then the problems begin, because even after the bad event is over, you have to live with all the ramifications of what just happened to you. And in my mother’s case, the fact her breasts were gone and she was taking a hormone pill that may be less difficult than chemo, but still gives her good and bad days.
And then there was the rest of us: My father, who had put aside all of his job searching to be my mother’s caretaker, who had shown tremendous strength of character that he always had but my mother possibly couldn’t see; what was to become of them as a couple, and him as a man who had plenty of his own issues to take care of? My sister, who lived at home and had to see my mother nauseated and broken, changed my her wound dressings and gave her antibiotics twice a day through a port; could she find the strength to grow despite the circumstances? My cousin, who had lost her mother and her father in less than two years, and now whose aunt, who was the closest relative to her, was sick; how could she hold on as all the people she loved were suffering or dead? And then me, who was somehow removed in living away yet in pain and angry as hell, having to hear about the issues later and having the excuse of “you’re not here” used; how could I keep my independence that I love so desperately while being tied to my family that made me feel like they didn’t want me?
As I got off the phone with my mother, I saw the flash of my phone’s wallpaper: Jerusalem, overlooking the Western Wall. My sweet, beautiful Yerushalim. I took that picture in March as the stones echoed the Muslim call to prayer, the church bells rang and the men sang at the Kotel loudly. I stood with my friend Brad as he told me how he came out there the previous Rosh Hashana, seeking meaning beyond his regular existence. Finding what he was looking for.
In the chilled wind whipping at my black dress and sweatshirt, I found my redemption. Torn away 15 years previously as a child, now standing in the Holy Land as a free woman. Never thinking I would see it again, not until I was old and gray, experiencing pure joy that took two years of suffering to achieve. Yet for the two Friday nights I was in the country, lighting five candles on Shabbat instead of the traditional two: For my father’s strength, my mother’s health, my sister’s compassion, my cousin’s innocence and my inner peace. Carrying them with me wherever I traveled, dragging them along in my heart like the bright pink suitcase I stored my baggage in. Hoping my prayers would get closer to G-d now that I was in his kingdom.
Each struggle rushes over us, but it’s amazing what we pick up sometimes. I saw my mother let go of a lot of anger holding her back. My cousin grew closer and truly became our sister, which is what I hoped for her after her mother died. My sister shifted and found a new voice for herself beyond the day-to-day doldrums of a seven-year hellhole job. My father rekindled his love of theater and Shakespeare. And I claimed my humor as an outlet for the creativity and insanity inside of me that needed an outlet.
So this year I will stand before G-d next to my family in temple, as the Cohanim, the descendants of the Jewish priests of old, call out their blessings and I embrace my family under my father’s talit. It will be tinged with remembering how we thought we might not have it again; how it felt to hear it at the Western Wall on Shabbat, echoing 2,000 years of my ancestors; and how Rosh Hashana is more than my mom’s apple jelly and round challahs. It’s the fact that we never know what life will deliver us tomorrow, but we will face it head on, together.
“Once upon a time, there were two brave princesses…”
When we were little, right before bedtime, my dad would sit my sister and me in her room overlooking that suburban block in Northern California and begin these tall tales. Those nights I would gaze wide-eyed at this giant of a man as he told stories about these princesses and their loved ones being trapped, followed by them journeying over deserts and seas to save the day.
He stood high at 6’2, although he’s slightly shorter now due to age; when I stand next to him today at 5’11, he’ll try to stand up straighter to prove a point. He has walked with a cane my whole life, struggling with chronic pain yet adding to a persona of wisdom. His once stark black hair is now wispy white and thinning, both he attributes to raising children, particularly those who tease about his bald spot (that would be me). His moustache is so distinctive that, when he shaved it off on his 50th birthday, as a 10-year-old I began to cry and scream, “You’re not my daddy!”
He loves Shakespeare and the theater, a former flower child who used his talents for activism in the 1960s. He’s thoughtful and intellectual but can be a goofball, particularly when he’s shuffling around with a deck of cards. He’s not religious, but is passionate about Jewish life and dreams of visiting Israel; this is despite the fact he has traveled the world for work. And he always loves a good story. Having worked in the entertainment industry most of his life, he can you tell tales of hanging out with Alice Cooper and being buddies with Sidney Lumet to a two-hour conversation he had with George C. Scott. Alan Alda once made him a spaghetti dinner and Stanley Kubrick and him worked on editing pieces for Full Metal Jacket.
The greatest pride my father has is having two daughters (he would tell you, “There is only one letter difference between ‘daughter’ and ‘laughter’”). All throughout my life, whether it was trying to shoot a basketball into a hoop or doing my Spanish homework, he would always say to me, “You can do it.” He would watch me sit at the computer for hours writing, and told me that if I was smart and worked hard enough, I could do anything.
Until I was 12, he traveled almost nonstop, to the point where I was convinced from a young age dad lived at the airport. He was untouchable — but not always in a good way. He missed hospital visits, speech therapy, choir concerts and other events while he was supporting us. In many ways my mother was a single mom looking out for us due to this nomadic nature. For years I would hear him say how painful that was for him and what a cause of strife that was not only for him, but also for his relationship with my mom.
His passion for work made him an amazing teacher, his actions and words talking loudly. He once said to me, “Reina, if I were willing to take advantage of people and screw people over, I could have made so much more money. But I would have gotten a lot less sleep.” His sharp laugh and wit endeared him to janitors and CEOs alike. I helped proofread projects he dreamed would be big; a few were, many weren’t. But he moved on when it didn’t work, embracing creativity and believing in impossibly large yet beautiful things. My father’s nickname, Pragmatic Sage, seems only right yet doesn’t fit. This quiet but loud, strong yet weak man was someone I always sensed was an anomaly. But he’s dad.
I thought every dad with girls was like mine, but as I grew up I found my friends’ fathers were rather stark contrasts. Some were domineering, seeking his daughters to fill certain cultural roles. Others were more interested in other things or absent and left their daughters behind. And some were just plain mean. I would never forget the night one of my friends disowned her father due to his negligent behavior, and then turned to mine and said, “You’re my dad now.”
I am no longer a child. Dad is different and so am I. He is no longer that entertainment industry guy rushing off to his industry networking events or various lunches and dinners with associates. Instead he is a caretaker to my ailing mother who struggles with cancer, repairing old wounds and doing what he needs to do to make things right. He was invited to work, but refused to leave her side. In these times of strife I’m left dreaming that I’m one of those strong princesses in my dad’s stories: His tales where women can save the day just as well as anyone, where we are tough and competent.
I recently journeyed to Israel without him and walked through the Old City of Jerusalem. One night I saw a small stone right in the middle of my path; an unusual sight if you know the city. But my father’s face floated to my mind and I knew it was meant for him. I picked it up from the ground and hid it in my bag, carrying it from there all the way back to Los Angeles. Sitting in dad’s car after I got off the plane, I now told him a story. It was a parable I once heard:
Once upon a time, two men arrived in Israel to spend two weeks each. One was in a rush to see the entire country, journeying everywhere and buying little trinkets and souvenirs along the way. The other, so in awe, journeyed to Jerusalem and stayed there, exploring the city and understanding spirituality. But as he left, he realized he forgot gifts for his family. He stuffed his pockets with dirt, and when he got home, he emptied them. He told them that he brought back Israel itself for them.
“Until you get there, dad,” I said, slipping the stone in into his fingers, “I brought Jerusalem to you.”
His arthritic hands moved around its edges as the tears streamed from his cheeks as divine prayer and in utter gratitude as he turned out from LAX. My heart swelled in joy for him; his princess traveled the world, and somehow, she had found a way to save the king.