We were in the underground parking lot below the synagogue several years back. A group of us had just gotten out of Torah study. I was wearing one of my favorite outfits, with my knee high boots and a long denim tunic. I wore my leather jacket over it; it made me feel strong and tough.
I always sensed he liked me. He was overly flirty, and I brushed off his advances. He was pushy, bragging about his family’s money, how much they donated to the temple. He was a board member for the young professionals chapter there, and now a group of us were standing in the parking lot, him being one of them.
He knew I was looking for work. He said to me that he could walk me to my car, telling me he might have a job for me. I couldn’t say no. I needed the work.
We walked up the ramp to where my silver Saturn was. “What are your skills?” he asked me.
“Well, I write and edit blog content, work with HTML and SEO…”
“Are you a good kisser?”
What? What was he talking about?
“Um, I don’t know how that applies to my job skills,” I replied awkwardly. “But I’d like to think I’m a good kisser.”
“Because I’d really like to kiss you right now.”
Alarmed, my feet moved faster. My mouth became dry, because I realized how he manipulated the situation. I eventually was stuck by the front door of my car, but he had cornered me next to it. I couldn’t run; where would I go?
I told him that I didn’t want to kiss him, tried to steer the conversation back to work, but it was to no avail.
“I know you want me,” he said.
“No, not really,” I replied.
“Look me in the eye and tell me you’re not attracted to me!”
Looking him square in the eye, I said loudly, enunciating every word, “I am not attracted to you.”
There was a pause as if to register what I just said. Then, as if he hadn’t heard it, “C’mon, just one kiss.”
I kept saying no, and he kept trying to negotiate. Eventually, he asked for a kiss on the cheek. I agreed tepidly, hoping it would satiate him. But then he tried to move into my denim tunic — the v-neck on it was a little low, and I am rather busty. I pulled away as best as I could, but he kept kissing my cheeks, trying to get me to change my mind. It didn’t work.
Eventually he walked away, and I sped from the parking lot. A part of me was so angry that I wanted to run him over, but instead I just sped back to my then-apartment in Culver City.
When I got home, I realized several things about that interaction, like how it wasn’t my first inappropriate encounter, not even at this temple (that came from a middle-aged drunken gentleman one Shabbat dinner asking me to sit on his lap). It wouldn’t be my last. Also this guy was so powerful at this temple that I immediately knew there was no way in hell the men in charge would believe me. I stopped going to this organization’s events for the most part, unless I had friends who would be there to protect me.
My story isn’t rare; in fact, it’s more common than you think. When you have a community structure full of organizations that are dependent on the money of wealthy individuals to function, those individuals are dealt a hand of power. There are many who use it lovingly, but then there are those who use that power to use others and then make their transgressions disappear.
When I read in the Jewish Journal about Danielle Barrin’s story, I was happy about her courage, but slightly angry. She was explaining a story that happened in Los Angeles, but her assailant wasn’t from here; he was from Israel. The guy from my story above lives in the greater Los Angeles area, probably not far from the guesthouse in Beverly Hills that I call my home now. That temple isn’t far away either.
In many ways, it’s easy to dismiss it. Jews are usually upper middle class, owning homes and nice cars, donating money to charities and temples. There are many issues that we see as “over there” problems, particularly with social issues such as domestic violence and sexual harassment and assault. They’re so heinous we think that they can’t happen here, or we’re too scared to report it when it’s in our backyards.
Yet the first place that I can argue I was groped was at a Jewish day camp. I had just turned 12. The boys wouldn’t leave me alone, grabbing at me in the swimming pool and jumping so they could try to kiss my cheeks due to my height. I told my counselors. The result? “Well, they’re just doing that because they like you.” It was normal for boys to treat girls like a jungle gym; they weren’t reprimanded and I had to learn it was a “thing” and live with my isolation.
I never talked about that summer until very recently. I blocked it out of my memory almost completely, until therapy brought it back to life again. It colored my life and relationships even from a young age — that I was a plaything, not worthy of my voice, opinions or objections.
Up until recently, I felt alone. But in the age of social media we have become more open, particularly about our experiences with abuse and sexual assault. Sure, the social media age has given us some not-so-great things, but when it came to sharing our truths, it was an amazing place to be. It let us know that this wasn’t just an isolated problem, but an epidemic.
When the Trump assaults came up, I saw the echoes of my womanhood past, where we were forced to pretend it didn’t exist or, “that’s what men do.” There were many people who stood up against it. I saw people who were confused, and that’s okay too. But then there were those who excused it away, as if it didn’t happen. Not here. Not right in front of our eyes where we could see it and then pretend it wasn’t real.
Now these stories have a national voice, and hopefully it trickles down and gives hope to others going through those situations. I feel more confident coming forward with my story because of the one in the Jewish Journal, and maybe another woman will become comfortable coming forward from mine. There’s a reason why when a public figure is accused of sexual assault they come forward in groups; because when one person comes forward, it gives strength to others. I want to share my voice.
As for my story above, it came with somewhat of a happy ending. A friend of mine was on that same young professionals board of that temple, and he asked me why I didn’t attend events. As a close friend I confided in him, and as a decent human being he was absolutely livid.
“You know, I always sensed something off about him,” he told me. “I couldn’t put my finger on it. But I think I know what it is now.”
I swore him to secrecy; I was afraid of the backlash. I loved my Jewish community and wanted to still be involved; there was no way to do it if I was saying I was sexually assaulted in any way, especially by someone who had more power than me.
The months passed, and at one point I was in the elevator with that male friend and a girl friend. Apparently the same guy did that to her, and several other girls. That male friend then reported him, to which my parking lot assailant was reprimanded immediately. I attended one of the organization’s events recently, and he was nowhere to be found.
That ending was only somewhat happy. I felt shamed into not reporting due to the power that person in their organization had, and that is a place no one should be. Then I wondered if the only reason why it might have been taken seriously was because a man with power reported it. And when I spoke to a friend of mine the other day, I realized he continued to be friends with him only until recently, knowing two of his female friends had been groped by this guy. The reason why the friendship ended? Ironically, it was because the guy supported Donald Trump.
It was in this moment that I realized the power of patriarchy: not only does it not trust women or dismiss their claims, but it also silences women from the men who care about us, who want to be our allies. I tell the stories above, stories I told to my mother and female friends. Then I look at my father, and realized he doesn’t know them.
My father is as decent of a man that ever was, lovable, sweet and fair. He is truly the definition of a feminist ally, but I never told him about what the boys did to us. We shared it with our mothers and sisters, but not our fathers and brothers.
So one day, I took my dad to brunch. And it’s wasn’t about what I told him; it was what he taught me.
In the past almost five years I’ve been single, online dating has been the norm. I’ve done them all — swiped left, right and in between, shoved myself into various dating algorithms and marketing ploys. I’ve downloaded a variety of dating apps, ranging from the Hinge to Tinder, or the dating app known as John Oliver puts it, “A barrage of unwanted d**ks.”
But this Sunday, I was done. Seriously done.
I’ve said that phrase quite a few times. I have uninstalled and installed, disabled accounts and bitched plenty of times over coffee with both girl and guy friends. But I never gave up on the potential of finding a lifelong connection online. After all, several of my friends have ended up with partners from OKCupid. I have several friends who have met on Coffee Meets Bagel. One friend even met her guy on JSwipe.
Yet within the past several weeks, I realized that the modern dating atmosphere wasn’t fitting me. My criteria isn’t crazy — I’m looking for a guy who isn’t an a-hole, is semi-stable, fun, has good values, a great personality, can hold an intellectual conversation and preferably smells nice (you’d be shocked how important this is). I’m not looking for a guy to sweep me off my feet; rather, I’m seeking my best friend… who I just so happen to have sex and will live with, and is most likely male.
The longest I’ve ever dated anyone in these past five years is two months. On average, I go about three dates with any one guy. I have my share of horror stories like everyone else. Yet after experiencing the equivalent of dating whiplash, where I went from receiving flowers and making plans for ten zillion future dates to being dumped in a week, I was tired. I couldn’t do it anymore.
Although I have turned off my dating profiles in the past, the constant pressure of, “You need to find someone,” rings in your ears to where you feel forced to turn them back on. But after this past deleting, I decided to take a look at current dating culture, including my place in it. Why did I feel so miserable? Why wasn’t it working for me? And it seemed to boil down to five different categories:
Us In a Nutshell
We are walking, talking collections of various human experiences, from nights up until 1:30 in the morning drunkenly making pancakes to the loving bonds we share with our family members and friends. Each of us has something special that we contribute to the universe, and many great things that we can give to others in our relationships.
Yet online dating is telling us, “Please reduce yourself to a short description with a few emojis, as well as several selfies that show off your body, but not your spirit. Then everyone can play a game of hot or not with you.” How depressing is that? And how can you even think about forming a loving connection with anyone based on that type of mentality?
The online dating world doesn’t give a lot of room for bonding and getting to know another person, and we can be dismissed with the swipe of a finger. It’s not a great place to be. We deserve better.
Let Me Upgrade You
At one point, a guy online asked me if I was into interracial dating. I was alarmed by the question, as race never factors into it. And yet I realized that I am a strange breed, because many of my friends will veto a guy by any variety of things (including race), or hold out for that one that fits their exact type. After falling in love with a guy that was shorter than me. brown-eyed and bald when I prefer tall, light eyes and a luxurious dark head of hair, I’ve learned better.
Online dating makes it worse because both the computer and us don’t think of the person behind the profile. This includes those algorithms sites set up with “personality questions.” Some will show me a 90 percent and he’s boring as hell. Meanwhile, I have met people who were given 65 percent and we had lots of fun.
There is such a thing as too picky, and the online dating world makes us think that there are so many fish in the sea we can get exactly what we want without compromises, which is what dating and relationships are founded on. It’s comparable to ordering a pizza. And speaking of…
Sex or Pizza?
At one point, I had a guy try to get me to come to his house. No coffee, no nothing, just me walking to his door at 10 p.m. My response? “I don’t come hot and fresh to your door in 30 minutes or less, I’m not a pizza.” And yet, that’s what we seem to expect from many of our apps.
Due to the anonymity of online courtship, we treat people as afterthoughts, like what we’re having for dinner tonight. I can’t even begin to count the number of times the opening message I got from a guy was “DTF?” That guy saw me as a place to put his penis, not a person. Otherwise, he would remember that meeting in a public place first is ideal not only for common courtesy, but also for my safety as a woman.
As mentioned before, we are human beings with complex inner worlds. Trying to reduce us into tools for others’ pleasure makes us into commodities, and that’s not right. If you want to hook up from there, I’m not judging — trust me, I have used them for that, too. But with any human encounter, including sex, respect should come with the territory.
The Accountability Dilemma
Usually the best way to find someone is being set up by friends — except in my case, where I hear, “He’s socially awkward/slightly autistic, but he’s really nice!” (Not a joke. Those actually happened.) There is a sense of accountability and shared values with friends. And if he does anything stupid, that friend can promptly yell at him.
Online dating has none of this. There’s a reason why you see so many articles about girls who send horrible text messages from guys to their mothers: because for the first time, these guys are being held accountable. We can feel degraded, or even worse, threatened. And while some sites have moderators to take inappropriate people out, many times we don’t report — or worse, they are the moderators.
When we are strangers on the Internet or with phones in between us, we feel like we can get away with a lot more that we would never do in person. Dating is hard enough without any extra problems.
Fear of FOMO
Several times, I’ve been with a guy where everything seems to be perfect: Solid chemistry and lots of fun. Everything falls into place very, very quickly, as if it was always meant to be there. They were amazing human beings, treating me like a goddess when they were dating me.
Yet all of these times, I have been left because “the one who got away” shows up and they want to try to make it work with them. And almost every time, these guys try to come back into my life after the other one doesn’t take. It never works; the spark is gone and any potential trust has disappeared.
Sometimes we think so much about what else is out there that we don’t see the potential in front of us; it’s called FOMO, or fear of missing out. The online dating world makes it easy jump from person to person, because look at all the people we might be missing if we “settle” for someone. As a result, we are left unsatisfied yet again.
My swearing off of online dating may be all for naught, because let’s face it: When was the last time someone picked you up in a bar or approached you at an event? Or you were the subject of mixed signals from a person to the point where you just assumed they weren’t interested? Sometimes the only way to even date is by going online; at least you know where the intentions are.
I can count the number of times on one hand that I’ve actually dated someone from a bar or event. Hell, it’s pretty rare when a guy openly hits on me or buys me a drink. (Unless my friend Justin is around. For some odd reason, if he’s there I’m getting hit on like mad.) We have grown so adjusted to a screen between us that the idea of courting someone in person is downright antiquated, and the idea of potential, face-forward rejection poisons our minds. And it’s not only with guys — I’m horrible at approaching guys for dating.
There is this great desperation for me to give up online dating, to let go of the toxic culture we have built. It seems like any solid relationship that I could have has to be built organically, not digitally. And yet I’m not sure if I can; the indirectness of online dating has been programmed into our generation’s mind to the point where we can barely talk to people on the phone anymore, sending everything via text.
There has to be another way. We all deserve love if we seek it, finding our match and building great connections. That shouldn’t mean dodging various pictures of guys’ junk, feeling disrespected, devalued or threatened. It should mean building the foundations of trust that come with any solid relationship with a person who wants to break through the bonds that hold us back from one another.
When you figure out how to do this, could you tell me how?
I have to ask about privilege. I have to ask.
My mind has been restless, turning over and over. Images from the news circle through my head: Convicted rapist Brock Turner in a button-down shirt exiting prison; opinion columns about Nate Parker’s rape accusations and the idea of consent; having an accused rapist in the NFL say that the most horrible thing that could happen is one of their players not standing for the national anthem.
You see why I have to ask. I can’t leave this question unasked anymore. There is too much at stake.
It’s because the question lingers in the back of my mind as I am sitting with her — at a dinner table, on her couch, over the phone, in a Laundromat. My dear friends, amongst so many, who tells me a story that might only be her story, that I wish could say was unique. I have heard her story before. One in five women have it.
I think about the night where I stood in a synagogue parking lot, or the one where I was lying in his bed in Marina Del Rey. One tricked me into letting him walk me to my car because he said he had a job for me, and I was looking for work; the other told me that he loved me before I forced myself to gather all my strength to throw him off of me while he was forcing me. In both cases, how I desperately tried to escape, and felt scared.
Then I watched how it disappeared so fast. The money was too powerful in both those cases. A flash of cash, and it all goes away.
Yet is it that alone? Nate Parker was the recipient of the largest distribution deal to come out of Sundance — $17 million. Yet in the wake of his rape allegations members of the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences swear they won’t see his movie. Yet they don’t blink for Woody Allen and his numerous cases. They gave an Oscar to Roman Polanski, who can’t even come back into the country. So maybe it’s not money after all.
The question lingers in the air. I have to ask about privilege. I have to because it’s been there my whole life.
Even as a young girl, as my body matured into womanhood and my libido starting racing faster than I could, we were told to BE for men. Wear this makeup to impress boys. Wear this perfume to entice. Lose that weight, no man will find you attractive if you don’t. Men were the ones who told us what beauty was, and we had to follow.
But not too much, though — you don’t want to rile them up. As Britney Spears proclaimed her virginity, we were expected to be chaste too. The purity culture was overwhelming. It tore us apart, and it made us question, but in secret.
We couldn’t wear midriff shirts in school because they would tempt men, yet they could change their shirts in the parking lot. I asked this as a freshman in my newspaper class in a corner. One of the editors decided to publish it into my high school paper; as a result I almost got beat up by the football team. You weren’t supposed to say anything; why couldn’t I be quiet like the other girls?
It was the same school where the wrestling team got suspended my sophomore year for raping several boys with a broomstick lovingly known as Pedro. It took months for the school officials to find out, but the girls all knew; we were threatened with Pedro by some of the boys with a twinkle in their eyes. We were the victims, and in many ways the perpetrators; our silence, unknowingly, betrayed others.
I think of those boys, of the ones who took advantage. They felt like they could, it was their right. The need to feel powerful in weak-kneed adolescence was overwhelming, so they took an option those in charge allowed them to take. In many ways, whether it was through words or the actions and inactions of others, they were told that it was okay. It wasn’t. It still isn’t.
It’s the privilege that creates the world we live in, with rape culture, racism and income inequality taking their tolls. However, the privilege also lives in the silence, because we don’t feel pressured enough to speak out. We talk in corners, but not openly with each other and not as often as we should. We live in a world where rape victims feel the need to hide because they are told that it’s all in their heads and not to accuse falsely while very few rapists get punished for their crimes. And in some parts of the world, there is rape that is legal.
So I have to ask about privilege. I have to ask because I refuse to stay silent anymore.
Privilege gives others the right to tell you what to wear on my body, whether it’s a bikini or a burkini, when in truth it doesn’t belong to you. It gives others the permission to say what you should do with your uterus when they don’t have one. And there is no room for questions or consent; it’s “my way.” Privilege means taking freedom that doesn’t belong to you. It means enforcing silence.
Yet I am standing here. I am asking because I have a voice that refuses to listen to regulations on my body that have no foundation in reason. Who sees the suffering of my friends, from warped body images, racism and rape, and told to “get over it.” Who are told that we have to be what the world tells us to. We don’t. And we won’t.
So as long as my voice is clear, I’m going to keep asking about privilege. And you won’t shut me up.
Tisha B’av is considered to be one of the saddest days in Judaism, commemorating the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem amongst other countless tragedies in our faith. For me, it commemorates several other tragedies that I think about today. So I decided to write a Tisha B’Av meditation/HOWL for it, in partnership with East LA Jews’ #24HourWail. Theme: Grief/Loved Ones.
Once upon a time, I told you I loved you. You were about to slip through my fingers down the river of time, lost to me forever. I watched you flow away without me, or maybe you were on the shore and I was the one sailing on. Either way, you are lost to me. Lost and never coming back.
I felt every drop flowing away from my eyes as I laid on my back, their salt feeding the earth underneath me as I stared at the ceiling. My zombie self was coming to life in the ruins of the temple we built together, categorizing the days of my existence into two piles: Days with you. Days without you. There is nothing else anymore.
Many people have come and gone. The past is littered with empty cups of coffee, clean plates where food once was and forced mealtime conversations; kisses of hope and comfort left me behind while the quiet crept in. Yet somewhere in between the seconds, hours, days, years we spent together, you carved yourself into my soul, a mirror reflection in myself. You are etched in permanence, merging into my drifting insanity and hopeless dreams, sneaking up on me in the dark corners of my world.
There in the night before sleep takes me, I wrestle with your legacy, because despite my missing you I refuse to idolize you. I cannot see you with the childlike wonder that once consumed me. Although we are in different places, we are both past the point where innocence can touch us. You are imperfection personified. Even in my love for you, inside me I hate you too.
Hate is love’s constant houseguest, and love is hate’s companion through everything the world has to offer. They live together on this great spectrum of the universe, and one cannot exist without the other. I used to say I could never hate anyone. But I also never knew how deep love could go.
Because hate is the anger residing in the holes where love doesn’t live, manifested into words, phrases, courses of action that, if left to its own devices, can destroy. Only love can fill those empty spaces, reverse it in its own manifestation of words and actions. Whether you want to call it happiness, empathy or even sacrifice is entirely up to you.
I miss your beaming joy, which I so rarely see in photographs. Your very skin could glow with warmth, your eyes bringing me in for the warmest hugs even without hands, but when you looked at me you told me you loved me without the actual phrase. When I walked away, I always sensed you wanted one more word. The last word. The words that I will ache to have every day, but you will never know it.
There are no more words left. You are now far away, in some other part of the universe where my reality doesn’t cross with yours. Left behind or leaving. Love or hate. They mesh together inside of me as I rend my garments over and over again, because the pain is still that deep.
We needed more time. That’s all I ever wanted. Time. The days are ticking away from us now, along with months and years. Echoes of you haunt my life, tiny little parts of the world where you come back to me in a split second, and then just as quickly go away. I stand in halls of walls full of clocks that would physically give me more, yet all while still clinging to the desperation, the hope that time will stand still. And love cannot stop it. Love is powerful, but often not enough.
In slumber I dream of parallel universes where we are together again, where our great monuments of faith still stand before the heathens crumble them to the ground and send us into exodus yet again. There we stand in the dark deserts of the world, separate from each other, crying to the heavens, “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem…”
If I forget thee… my soul awakens as I look out to the water once again. Here I refuse the darkness, because it’s a new day. I turn back and head inland, letting the wind take me as I watch the last flower fall from the jacaranda trees, the innocence gone as the seasons change once again.
There is no forgetting you, but there is also the refusal to be held back by ghosts. You are gone, you cannot come back. And yet we live on, not as whole as we once were, but adjusting to the new way. Thinking of a new life, and knowing we must never give in.
We do not forget. Instead we build again. There are new temples to construct, peace to be found in the universe. We cry in our beds, but we stand in the mourning, walking our feet forward into the uncharted world.
Today remember the patch of ground where we laid in grief; tomorrow, it will be consumed with new memories. Today we sit in the silence, tomorrow we will sing a new song and dance to the music, stomping our feet with joyful noise. Today we are sackcloth and ashes. Tomorrow we will rise.
When I was 10 years old, on a chilly day in January, my mother sat us down at the kitchen table and made us write letters to our elected officials. Although I was too young to really understand what I was doing, one of those letters was to your husband, then president Bill Clinton. I haven’t written another one since then, but feel that now is the time.
You have to understand something about my mother: She loved this country. She was a Democrat, but proudly displayed the American flag on national holidays and put up a green light outside for veterans. When I challenged this country in my writings, she would write comments and say this country meant more to her and should mean more to me, to us and the future generation.
I was the rebellious one, taller than almost all the boys; the headstrong granddaughter of Turkish Jews blessed with my grandmother’s name, her bubbliness, savvy and sneaky sense of humor. The matriarch of our family who could have easily been a CEO if the times permitted, she could never have imagined America as it is today.
All my life, I heard things from outside my family structure; things that I can never shake out of my head, no matter how I try.
“Don’t be so bossy.”
“Sit still and be quiet!”
“Boys will never like a girl with so many opinions.”
“You don’t have to be so loud!”
As I got older, they morphed into other words, like “weird” and “strange.” And then there were my ex’s favorites: “You’re out of touch with reality” and “You f**ing b*tch.”
(As I am addressing what will hopefully be my future commander-in-chief, I hope you’ll forgive the language above.)
I’m sure you’ve heard all of these and worse. I’m sure my mother heard them too. We get them as strong women trying to break the mold. My mother, who was told “nice girls don’t go to college” in the early ’60s, worked part-time in packing at an ant farm factory to pay tuition at UCLA while her mother worried about her finding a husband. Fortunately for her, she found my father, a uniquely compassionate and feminist man.
My mom wanted to be a doctor, but “girls don’t become doctors.” Her brother did, and my mom worked in his office. She was wife to a theater artist and eventual entertainment tech executive, helping him type his MBA papers while enormously pregnant with my older sister. He encouraged her to finish her bachelor’s degree and her master’s, but at the end of the day my mother was the support for her ailing parents, two daughters and one niece, who had lost both her parents before she turned 30. She was the backbone of our family.
Growing up, while the world told me to stop being stubborn, she loved my resilience in disappointment. When I never gave up while others told me to quit, she was inspired. I made her laugh so much she nicknamed me, “the human Xanax.” Sure, as mothers and daughters go, we fought quite a bit. Although she was an active second wave feminist before I was born, we often disagreed about the ideas of men versus women. But at the end of the day, she was my strong, dutiful mother, with a dash of silly whenever she put on her light-up Mickey Mouse ears while working in her home office.
Meanwhile, I got my degree and married a man who was strongly and abusively conservative. I was too scared to speak up with my liberal leanings in fear of his rage. When the day came where I realized that he was too mentally unstable for the future, I fought my way out. My mother was there that terrifying night I left, calling me practically every five seconds to advise me, with my aunt giving me resources I needed to get out safely and legally protected and my friend offering me a safe house. In your own words, it took a village to get me out. I was broken, but determined to put myself back together.
Free of the constraints of marital censorship, the fight of feminism was mine to take on as a part of the younger generation, to shape how I wanted my future: Living independently and on my own terms, eventually working freelance in communications and obtaining national-level clients. Hoping for a full-time job to help pay off my student loans, but even when I didn’t get there, to keep applying. Keep moving. Be strong. Not necessarily with a man, but seeking one who longs to be my partner in family and the fight for equality. We as women can be the backbones, but we can be also the hands that hold tight to our dreams and work for them every day. The fight morphs and changes from generation to generation. And for many of those days, there was my mother, not always understanding but respecting.
I’m writing this letter to you because in April I cried at her hospital bedside because her face was so jaundiced and she was struggling to breathe. Her fingernails were the lightest shade of pink and she was running them through my hair. She told me she was proud of me and glad she got to know me as an adult. Less than two days later, I was wailing at the bedside, sitting on the hard floor holding that same hand, cold as ice while whimpering like a child, “I want my mommy.”
For two years, we fought the battle of breast cancer with her, sacrificing almost everything for her care. She died of a lung complication that took numerous doctors, plenty of “I don’t knows,” and eventually her life. It has been three months since then and there are still bills coming in that scare my father, her partner of almost 50 years, wondering how he’ll survive without his love. I think of your fight for health care and how my mother wanted to see it come full circle. How she cared about women’s health, teaching us at a young age that our bodies were not a place of shame but of pride. That being a woman was, in so many ways, an incredible thing.
And tonight, how I long for her to see you at this moment of your life, when “girls don’t become doctors” becomes “girls can become President of the United States.” It’s because she loved this country with her whole heart. And tonight, for the first time in a long time, I can say the same.
There are people out there who don’t trust you; many of them are women. It’s easy to throw labels around, toss words like they’re playthings: Corrupt. Criminal. Crooked. For almost 24 years, since you have come into the national spotlight as First Lady, you have heard them all yet remain stronger than Wonder Woman. You aren’t perfect, but as my mother used to say, you remembered who you are and kept moving. That is an incredible feat.
But the bigger task is at hand. The future of this country needs you: Allowing us to obtain quality educations without spending years in debt. Helping Planned Parenthood stay open and strong alongside access to birth control across the board. Making sure there are not only jobs for us, but equal pay for equal work. Letting us live without the fear of someone grabbing a gun and killing us. Allowing our parents to be comfortable in retirement, not scared of insane prescription and medical costs. Making sure that America is safe for all of us, no matter the color of skins we wear, those who we love and the places we pray. Yet still being someone who will be able to reach across the aisle, avoiding the dogged partisan politics of the past.
We, as the younger generation, need you to do this for us. We know what’s at stake in this election as you do. You have served as both Secretary of State and in Congress. You are beyond being a woman in this race; you are utterly qualified, and I put my faith in you.
One of my favorite stories is that, when you were a girl, you wanted to be an astronaut and you were told, “NASA doesn’t hire girls.” Well, guess what? I want to hire a woman for my president, and I have to believe that the rest of this country will too, for the sake of democracy. I hope you take that torch all the way to the White House for the memory of my mother, Jacqueline Amira Slutske, whose smile I saw reflected in yours Wednesday night after President Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention. So let’s get out there and show them what we’ve got.
Reina V. Slutske
Everyday I’m counting. Today it’s 71 days. When my mom first died, I started counting minutes. Then hours. Time stood still, and now it’s slithering slowly across the floor, hissing like a constant reminder of what has happened.
Yet it is invisible. No one else hears it but the ones who have been hit the hardest. Sometimes it’s quiet and there is laughter that echoes through the house. Sometimes it’s loud and there’s nothing we can do to fight it but cry and scream loudly about how we wished it would go away.
I don’t believe this has happened. The hallways are empty, and I expect to hear her voice coming across the floors. It never comes. It will never come again. My father swears he sees shadows through the house. But I’m not sure if it’s her. I’m not sure of much of anything anymore.
I’m trying to transition to counting weeks — ten weeks. I’m just beginning to transition into counting months. It’s almost like with every step it should be less difficult, but it’s not. There were over 33 years with her. Now there’s only 71 days without. My father’s lost. My sister and cousin are both lost. I’m lost, and no matter how strong they tell me I am, it’s not something I can navigate my way out of.
The crowds of people who shuffled through the rooms here are gone. The deli trays that were delivered have disappeared, the flowers have wilted and the consolation cards from people ranging from beloved family members to my ex-husband are stocked away in a box somewhere. There is a fear that creeps in with the silence, and you try to shoo it away. But the future is uncertain, and while it is there is no way to kick the fear out of your realm.
Some days I’m completely normal. I can tell the stories about how creepy it was for the mortician to keep smiling and winking at me during our consultation the day after, not to mention my inner monologue (“Knock it off, buddy. I’m not that pretty today and I don’t have the credit cards”). I can talk about how he showed me the bonnet that he wanted my mother to wear, and I started making jokes, becoming hysterical (“She’s Sephardic, not straight out of shtetl”). My friends and I drank wine, played trivia or hopped around flea markets laughing over the weeks. These were great days.
But in this time there are even exchanges. For every good day there is a day where my body feels like it’s been kicked and dragged on the ground, soreness popping up in different places due to stress. There is an endless list of things to do, hard tasks that must be completed but still make you feel like vomiting. There are enough tears to raise the oceans. And as you try to collect the pieces, the heat rises and the vultures begin to circle. They don’t care about the pain, and can never hear the desperation.
They hold pieces of paper with long columns of numbers about the big decisions you have to make RIGHT NOW in the midst of crisis. Or they hold up the words you write as indictments, yelling you down as you look over your mother’s autopsy reports, the tears flowing from your eyes as they abruptly hang up on you because you’re too emotional.
They don’t believe either. And if they do, they believe you should be over it by now. It’s just a death, after all.
I made promises to myself during this time of mourning that I would take care of myself. I broke almost all of them. I promised myself I would observe shloshim, or the Jewish customary 30 days of mourning. It meant refusing to shave my legs and go on massive job interviews, yet doing so anyway because you felt like there was nothing else to do, and the thought of not moving made you want to scream. It meant not celebrating birthdays, yet putting on a brunch for my father’s.
I made mistakes. I became overly emotional. I did things I wouldn’t normally do, ignored people who normally would never be ignored. You want to stop feeling this way, feel like you’re not acting completely out of selfishness. There’s something inside of you that believes that you are better than the rest of the world when it comes to mourning, when in truth you’re not.
You hear the voices from those around you — buck up, get going, get moving. The quiet is setting in and all you can hear is the ticking of a clock, tick tock, you’re running out of time because the only thing that’s really certain in life is death and the pile of taxes and bills that have been left behind.
It’s time to grow up. Find a job, find your path, find everything right now. Move on, but keep your chin up. Now, when the world has taken away your normal and has given you a new reality, act like a human. But you’re still crawling across the floor like a child. You’re a ship without a captain, with no sense of direction and no sense of future.
You want to believe that this will end. All of it. But yet there is no end of the tunnel in sight.
There were calls never made, errands never run, things that I left open ended when I shouldn’t have, like my dating profiles. I wasn’t ready for it. Wasn’t ready for the life changes when I already had enough. And yet, as I believed even before my mother died, I believe that fate sometimes intervenes.
When he contacted me on my OK Cupid, I thought he was cute so I indulged it. After everything that happened, the emptiness of my life was consuming me. Two years of obsessions with medical tests and hospital visits were catching up with me. I was lonely and just really wanted to get laid. I had been through enough without having to deal with dating.
We started talking, and the conversations switched from minutes to hours and playing footsie under restaurant tables. We went out several times. I almost ran out on him for ghosting me for a short period; instead, there I was, standing my ground, confronting him. He apologized for his behavior, offering to take me to a nice dinner. We began talking again, with the sex put off to the side at his request.
“I really want to get to know you, the real you,” he said. “I want to see if we can hang out and be together normally, without sex in the way.”
It was a whirlwind. I danced with him across courtyards and ventured through art museums and bookstores with his hand in mine. We lamented about Maureen Dowd’s insanity and discussed Charlie Parker’s genius sitting on benches. I kissed him on subway cars and laid my head on his chest as he ran his fingers through my hair told me stories of late nights discussing Nietzsche. We would lie on his bed, but coupled with the standard fooling around were intimate details shared and a unique sensuality of the mind.
I love looking into his soft brown eyes that were shining behind his glasses and smiling at him with a giant goofy grin. If I was getting sad, he would call me sweetheart and kiss my forehead. I’d continue talking for a little while longer, but when it got to be too much, he would then cup my face, press his sweet lips against mine and tell me that I’m beautiful. No one I’ve dated has ever told me that. And when I look at him, I know he’s not lying to me.
He listened to me as I described what it was like to read my mother’s autopsy, heard me lament about the piles of temporary tattoos she left behind and how horrible I felt for my cousin. I cried and he cried with me, not even imagining the pain. I told him of the past two years and the present mourning. And yet he didn’t run like the others. He grasped my hands tighter instead.
“You’re a treasure,” he said to me one night standing under fluorescent lights in his kitchen, looking me in the eyes. “You know that, right?”
It’s something I was unable to believe, even though I know that he says what he believes and doesn’t hide. Yet in mourning, sometimes you feel like you’re suffocating under the same dirt that buried the person you love. That soil that you tossed in their grave lives inside of you and you’re fighting it every day to just breathe. The anxiety can be all consuming, and I’m confident he has felt some of it in dating me, rubbing against his own fights with the universe.
Yet in those moments where we were quiet together, with no one else around, I wasn’t a mourner. I was a shimmering diamond, just happy and twinkling in its natural state, at peace in a way that my heart hadn’t known in a long time.
“I don’t know where this is going,” I said to him one evening as we were driving from dinner into the setting sun. “But you’re the best thing that has happened to me in a long time.”
He nodded in agreement and clasped my hand as we moved forward along a path towards G-d knows where. In mourning, you never know where you’re going to land, just that the days are laid out before you and they will be challenges. He can’t solve everything, but even if it is just for a little while, the comfort will be something that I hold on to forever.
I have to believe that things will get better, that I won’t be incapacitated from mourning for the rest of my existence. The belief that there will be joyful occasions and more happy days than sad ones has to be my driving force; otherwise I will feel the madness creeping in. Yet somewhere in these 71 days I’m discovering hope again.
In the darkest moments, I have to remember the sun in the sky, and that every day goes from sunrise to sunset just as it did before. That the phone calls and constant text messages aren’t just imagination, but love in words. Although they can’t completely repair the hole in my heart, they can help me patch it up, brick by brick. And right now, that’s all you can ask for. I believe that.
Once upon a time, we were girls.
We clomped in our mother’s high-heeled shoes around the house and tried on her makeup, wondering what it was like to get older. We watched television shows with adventurous, curious and confident female characters, whether we wanted to slay with Buffy, fight evil with Sailor Moon or even be smart like Penny from Inspector Gadget.
We drew hearts around boy’s initials with ours on our middle school binders and dreamed about our various superstar crushes. We dreamed of falling in love, not knowing of the consequences.
We developed our own styles. Some of us put on red lipstick and vintage prints, wanting to be Gwen Stefani. There were the girls who dreamed of being Courtney Love, wearing baby doll dresses and grunge flannel shirts. Others wore cute little plaid skirts and danced, hoping to transform into Britney Spears. But we loved being girls.
We then got older, and our bodies started growing. And that’s when the talking began.
“Girls don’t say that! Girls shouldn’t do that! Girls can’t wear that!” they growled.
“Why not?” we asked.
“Boys will get distracted!”
We wanted to argue it wasn’t true, and our education was just as valuable as boys. Yet there we were, being groped in the hallways and pressured into things we didn’t want to do. When we tried to tell, the administration told us it was our imaginations. That doesn’t happen here. Yet tell that to the boy at my high school who was assaulted with the end of a broom. It made girls scared; if boys could do that to each other, what could they do to us?
There were also the lecherous teachers who purposefully sat the girls in miniskirts in the first row or paid particular attention to certain girls in their classes. We knew who they were. They were adults and we were “children.” They would fight for their own, not for us. We were sexualized long before we were ready to have sex, and the code was silence. If you were smart, loud and stood up for what you believed in, like I did, you were punished.
We were girls. We deserved better.
And these were the girls who were sent off to colleges across the United States. A lot of them rebelled from the mentality of “sit still, look pretty,” or at least I hope they did. They probably learned more about themselves during these days than they did during puberty’s grip. But unfortunately, as these girls turned into women, some of them turned into victims of rape, which according to most statistics are one in five women (there are very few statistics on men, but there are estimates of one in 71).
A lot of these victims have no name. In the Stanford rape case against Brock Turner, she is only identified as “Emily Doe.” On my college campus, she was known as a Jane Doe assaulted in the hallway of the business building my senior year. In fact, in journalism one of the first lessons I was taught in reporting was that you name everyone in relation to any crime — except for rape and sexual assault victims.
To this day many of them still have no names. It’s sometimes because they are one of the over 80 percent of rapes that are never reported to police, or they are victims who refuse to tell anyone, even their own families. Perhaps it’s because of the idea that they might be told it was all in their heads and targeted as false accusers. Maybe it’s worse than that.
I wish I could say rape stopped in college and as soon as we left we were safe. But we weren’t. We still aren’t. I hear the story about my cousin finding out she had been drugged at a party, and telling her friends so they could get her out before it’s too late. The sobs from my friend when she woke up the at a friend’s house blacked out with her pants off still ring in my ears. Another woman is on her couch passionately talking about her own rape on a fourth date as I talk about the boy that told me he loved me, and about an hour later I threw off of me when he tried to force me to have sex with him. When I told my mother a year ago, she told me a similar story from when she was dating.
We became a part of a never-ending rape culture, so we began to follow a survival creed, whether we were single or with someone. Instead of adventurous and curious, we had to be cautious. Watch your drink. Be careful how you dress when you go out, don’t wear too much makeup. Don’t go out by yourself, particularly at night. Feel free to drink, but don’t drink too much. And for heaven’s sake, don’t be easy, because who would believe you if something happened?
We had to stop being girls, because being girls meant being naïve and possibly becoming prey. We had to become women to take responsibility for our own safety. But then we’d hear the calls throughout out lives: “Well, boys will be boys!” Boys never had to stop being boys. They can be boys for as long as they feel like, even into adulthood because it was “cute” or “fixable.”
On the playground, boys could hurt girls until they cried and then have the girls be told, “Well, that just means he likes you.” It meant boys trying to act more aggressive, screaming obscenities at those whom they thought to be less manly. And yes, that sometimes included showing their junk off, whether flashing or sending that sexually harassing text with an inappropriate picture in it.
There were fewer limitations. They were expected to be rowdy and act like wild ruffians. They were allowed to be dominant. There was no one judging what they wore to class or whether they spoke up too much. They were boys.
Even though they didn’t have to stop being boys, most of them wanted to be men, too. The pressure for obtaining masculinity was high. They had to be physically strong and fit a mold. Don’t cry, be tough, don’t show that you feel anything other than anger. The goal was to be so powerful that they dominated others, including other boys who were “different” — gay, brown, black, Asian or even differently abled. This was called patriarchy.
They were also told about being men was that, in order to be good enough, you needed to get two things: money and girls. In that mentality, we were not people. We were things to be possessed, purchased, conquered. And if you had enough money and privilege, you could.
A lot of boys hated it. They were the boys who never made the football team, never got the girls, couldn’t get the fancy jobs that were supposed to bring them everything they could ever want. Quite a few got smart, seeing that there was another way to be men, and they found that there was often a great power in respect for others.
But others began blaming, finding anyone to target, often hurting women because they felt slighted by them or there was no other way to obtain them. On both sides of the spectrum, whether rebelling against traditional masculinity or embracing it, it was all about dominating women and girls, being stronger than us. We were surrounded, harassed with open threats of rape online and subtle hints of it in real life. Women couldn’t stop looking over our shoulders, sometimes wondering if we could trust our male friends, as often the perpetrators of rape are people we know.
We were girls. So is every woman who is a victim of rape or has to thwart an attempt. We rally together to take back the night and help protect each other in bars. Yet there is something lacking in those conversations: The men aren’t there. They don’t hear the stories we tell one another about rapes and sexual assault. But if we talked as openly with the men in our lives about it as we do the women, they would.
It’s time to change the conversation. We are better than this, both men and women, and the power of sisterhood and brotherhood means we should act as one human family. We are partners in making this world not only better but also safer. And it’s time that we act like it.
We need to talk about what rape means, what male to female relationships boil down to. There have to be discussions about the over-sexualization of our society. We need for them to understand that our friendships with one another don’t mean the other owes us anything. We need to teach boys that it is not having girls, money or privilege that makes them powerful, but their own individual contributions to this world that do. That it’s okay to feel. That women count just as much as men, and in order to dismantle the roles that society has given us and let go of rape culture we have to do it together. It’s because rape culture began when we were children and grew into a weed wrapping us up with it, and we need to kill it now.
There is a new generation of boys and girls, watching new shows that tell them all the amazing things they can be, with fashion icons and crushes to draw hearts around. But what are we telling them about each other when we can’t figure out as adults how we relate to one another? They deserve to have a safe world, to know that the way of adulthood is not where men and women become enemies on a battlefield. It’s where we become partners in figuring it out, because somewhere inside of us we are still the children on the playground before the world told us what we should and shouldn’t be.
We are women and men. But we are also boys. We are also girls. And at the end of it all, we are people, so it’s time to start acting like it.
This post was previously published on LinkedIn in October 2015.
As a marketer, I have seen trends come and go in terms of my industry. Things that are hot one minute completely fade into oblivion into the next. But as October has begun, I have seen a backlash that I never thought I would see as openly: One against Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
For as long as I can remember, this month has been explicitly that of the infamous Pink Ribbon, the one that decorates various sundry items in stores. They are on water bottles with cancer-causing BPA, makeup products known to interfere with breast cancer treatments, even foods that patients shouldn’t eat, like buckets of fried chicken.
Since 1991, the pink ribbon has been a rallying point for breast cancer, starting with the Susan G. Komen Foundation distributing them during their famous walks, taking a page from AIDS’ red ribbon. Since then, other ribbons have come up, but the pink ribbon has surpassed them all in the pop culture lexicon, from “Save the ta-tas” t-shits to commemorative coins. The whole idea was that pink was a feminine color, and by displaying the ribbon it was a goodwill call to women that the company or organization that displays it supposedly cares about its non-Y chromosome carrying customers.
I never liked it. You think I would have changed my tune when my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer a year and a half ago. Yet several months back, when I walked alongside her into a fundraiser to speak about her experience to a fundraising event, we were forced into a room strewn with pink balloons, bandanas and all sorts of blush-hued doodads dotted across the white clothed tables. Surrounded by these items, I realized my disdain has gotten worse, and reject the idea of claiming pink because my mom doesn’t have breasts anymore.
I felt society’s pressure to display that pink color from the beginning, right down to the pink Converse sneakers I wore to the hospital the day of my mother’s double mastectomy. However, the hours spend pretending that everything’s okay does not equal a color on the Pantone wheel. It can’t describe how my breath caught in my throat when my mother called me and told me she has cancer. It wasn’t saying every word that I was thinking as doctors bungled her treatment and I would rush to sit in her stark hospital rooms, kissing her balding chemo head. A ribbon doesn’t detail the sacrifices made. There was the fear that you might miss out on the rest of your mother’s life while working late hours for a full-time job, instead opting for a freelancer’s life. And then there was the reluctance of bringing a romantic interest into the picture, because you didn’t want pity from anyone.
I’m not the only one who felt this way. While going through her own cancer treatment, my friend Katie is rebelling against pink as she goes through treatment. She understands where it has stood in the cause marketing movement, how it has become the symbol for a fight against a deadly disease. However, try telling her that as her insurance bills accumulate and she goes through radiation.
I look at breast cancer awareness from two different angles. One is as the daughter of a breast cancer survivor, whose treatment and recovery has occupied my life for a good chunk of time. The other is as a savvy marketer in business who sees how messages are delivered to various audiences, not to mention a former journalist who loves researching and breaking down an argument piece by piece. So that is exactly what I’m going to do.
Breast cancer is not that unusual — it’s the second most common cancer for women after skin cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, over 230,000 women year are diagnosed every year (men are also breast cancer victims, though, although it’s much more rare). Approximately one in eight women will have breast cancer in her lifetime, and there are an estimated 2.8 million breast cancer survivors in this country. The statistics prove the fact that most of us in this country either know someone or are related to someone who has or had breast cancer. That ribbon represents breast cancer awareness, but if you’re not aware of breast cancer by now, you might not be alive.
Meanwhile, the Susan G. Komen Foundation has been under fire in recent years, particularly given its defunding of grants to Planned Parenthood in 2012. Its change to the funding of the one of the leading breast cancer screeners in the country caused the founder and CEO to step down, although it was reported the year after that she received a 64 percent increase in salary. Alongside reports of the lack of money put into actual breast cancer research in the same year (only 20 percent of its money, which 50 percent went to “education,” whatever that means), its amount of donations and respectability both took a dive.
The pink ribbon has become so ubiquitous that it’s almost become invisible, and not necessarily a gesture with any meaning behind it — just look at the NFL and its pink shoes come October. Sure, they “support” breast cancer awareness, but domestic violence is also a vital women’s issue and October is also Domestic Violence Awareness Month, symbolized by a purple ribbon. Yet I don’t see a swarm of purple ribbons anywhere near the NFL commissioner, and when domestic violence happens in their own ranks, it’s swept under the rug. With friends like these, it’s no wonder that that shade of blush, that colored ribbon to end all cause marketing ribbons, has taken a dive in terms of market value.
Of course, the nail in the coffin isn’t only these factors, but it’s the current state of American life. Right now the federal defunding push of Planned Parenthood, where a huge chunk of breast cancer screenings in this country takes place, is a serious issue that might force the government to shut down again. Beyond Planned Parenthood, healthcare in the United States is still a tremendous issue and no closer to being fixed than it was when the Affordable Care Act was passed, with patients accumulating hundreds of thousands of dollars in hospital debt. The current lack of the middle class allows for very little wiggle room if a person is diagnosed with cancer, with some having to resort to GoFundMe campaigns for their treatments. Now try putting a pink ribbon on that. I dare you.
Cause marketing like this can only work so far in the current state of the world. In this information age, this rising younger generation knows more and is far more educated about a variety of issues. This means we can see the holes clearly in simplistic marketing plans — the pink ribbon, after all, is a marketing plan no matter who claims it. Also, when we see our mothers, sisters, aunts, cousins and friends go through cancer, it’s a lot harder to tell us that a pink ribbon will make everything better, because we don’t see it coming for us in our time of need. It doesn’t say anything about the human experience of going through cancer.
What does work is this: My mother standing at a podium and speaking about her breast cancer experience. Talking about my father’s best friend Bill, who he has known for 35 years and is also a breast cancer survivor. Reading Katie’s blogs and hearing her tell her stories. Seeing that it’s people, not just pairs of boobs, going through breast cancer.
Then, in turn, you need to show the ripples in the water from that person — the circles of loved ones, professionals and other people who cancer hits just as hard. It shows how we link to each other as humans. The reason why posts are shared on social media and we rally around causes is because we as humans are moved by the content that talks about it. You can’t move people with a pink water bottle anymore. That way of human life is over.
The stories we tell about our struggles have now become the marketing tools that help us realize the potential we have to experience life as human beings. In turn it allows us to support organizations that go beyond ribbons and corporate sponsors to really help cancer patients, survivors and families — places like the Cancer Support Community and the City of Hope. In turn, it can also go into the vital research that can hopefully prevent the rise of breast cancer in the next generation of women.
The pink ribbon is choking us, preventing us from seeing the real story behind breast cancer, which is what worthy charities need in order to get those fundraising dollars. It’s time to take away the pink and focus on what matters.
For everyone who has been there this week, for the love that surrounds me, and of course for my mother on Mother’s Day. This is my last gift to you, mom. Thank you.
Sometimes I feel I have lost my words. I lost my words because she gave all of them to me. Every word out of my lips my mother bestowed on me, because she was there for the days when I had no voice.
She sat patiently and fed words to me through speech therapy as a child, every little victory coming with the reward of a wind-up toy. It was so that, as I grew up, I could detail every rush of life, catalog the love and dreams engulfing the universe, and note the turning of the world as it came crashing into us. It was her biggest gift to me.
Even without speech, Jacqueline Amira Slutske taught me through her actions how to become a woman: Be fearless. Smart. Stubborn as hell. Take the lead when it’s your time. Laugh a lot, even when the situation doesn’t call for it; that’s when you need it most. Take care of your own. And never forget where you came from.
In her pursuit of my speech therapy as a child, a doctor told her, “Stop being such a Jewish mother.” She was mad as hell at that statement, but don’t let that fool you: She was definitely a Jewish mother. I butted heads with her regularly, because I learned at her knee to be strong, bold and brave, a commander of your realm. But you could always count on her. That’s what Jewish mothers do: They’re always there, whether to kiss your childhood skinned knees or help you fight the adult-sized demons lying next to you, causing you to scream into the night.
Jackie carried on the name of Jack Arouty, her uncle who was killed during World War II. His mother insisted that my pregnant grandmother and my great aunt, in their desperation and grief, would name Regina Amira’s child after her son. Mom’s birth in Los Angeles was followed by a telegram to her father, who was working on planes at La Guardia. It said, “Hi Dad, I’m here!”
She was the apple of Joseph Amira’s eye. When he would get home from work, she’d hide and he’d always ask aloud, “Where’s Jackie?” She would then jump out of the closet and say, “Here me is!” Mind you, her grammar got a lot better as she got older, particularly because she read so many books. You would never see her without one, whether it was on tape or a paperback. Public libraries were her favorite places, and her passion was learning.
She adored her brother Victor with every fiber of her being, along with her large multi-generational family. Her friend Rachel taught her to sew, and she made so many of her clothes, even her wedding dress. She looked forward to phone calls with her cousin Lorrie on Wednesdays. She played numerous card games with my father and supported him in every way, whether moving across the country several times, typing a master’s thesis while pregnant or cursing a man in Honolulu who was causing him trouble at the community theater. Word to the wise from that: Do not mess with Amira women and those they love, whether it’s her man, her children or even the dogs.
In our childhood, she gave Shoshana and me a wild sense of imagination, knowledge and creativity. She was our teacher, but also the keeper of dreams. Bedtime stories were her specialty, where we would lie there and she would tell us about the wardrobe to Narnia or the night Max wore his wolf suit and journeyed to where the wild things are.
Wherever we moved to, she created a family for us. Our friends weren’t really friends, but rather warmly received relatives who were adopted over time. We shared with our neighbors and mom showed us the joys of a multicultural world. Yet she also taught us to remember who we are: We are Jewish women, Sephardic Jews descended from a proud tradition that carries responsibilities. Be proud of your heritage and share it while remaining respectful and in the modern world. But don’t eat the gefilte fish.
As with our friends who became our family, every kid that came into her house was one of hers too. So much so that my friend Allison would walk into the house, look at my parents and say, “Hi mom, hi dad.” My mother loved it. She yearned to make soup for Remy, who seemed to show up whenever it was on the stove; glowed when Gary sent “Mama Slutske” flowers on Mother’s Day; and relished in sewing baby clothes for Eve’s little girl Jorry, gushing about how cute she was in pictures. And when Victor became ill, she stepped up and became a mom for her niece, Amy, too.
My mother had particular tastes: She adored Motown, Carly Simon and home repair shows. She loved chocolate with caramel, tongue sandwiches and lamb chops; if we were feeling particularly carnivorous on any given night, we turned to each other and said, “Meat,” and laugh when others tried to say it that way and failed. The only thing she really didn’t like was the movie The Sound of Music. This, however, did not stop her from singing the parody version of “My Favorite Things” at our Seder every year.
Every holiday was a labor of love, but particularly Passover. She would spend weeks preparing all the foods and sometimes things wouldn’t go to plan — although I can’t pretend that she wasn’t secretly thrilled that our dog Lucy had no taste for people food except for the novias she made. When Seder came, my mother would read the Haggadah she wrote and her voice would break, because in her own words, she cried at supermarket openings. In the days after her death, the first words to comfort me were her own words about Passover: “I am never alone when I am cooking. Generations of women of my family are encouraging me and smiling.”
I have said so many words, and can keep saying them. But words can’t describe the sound of her laugh that would redden her cheeks and send her smile up to the sky, a lot of which was my doing. You’ll never hear how wicked her sense of humor was, or see the childlike wonder consume her in receiving precious little gifts, like a pinwheel pen or a tea infuser shaped like a manatee.
The last gift I got from mom was one more conversation with her in the hospital on Monday. It was where we could say the words that needed to be said in that tiny little sliver of time, when one life is standing at the edge of glory and the other has many more steps to take. We said we loved each other and she told how proud she was and how she loved getting to know me as an adult. She ran her fingers through my hair one last time with her perfect pink nails as I sobbed at her bedside, and looked into her big brown eyes before kissing her forehead.
And, in the end, the words weren’t there anymore. I was left howling on the floor, holding her hand one last time, crying for my mommy like a five year old child while trying to be a grown up, thanking her for everything she gave me, gave all of us, when the grief was too overwhelming to bear.
There were very few words left at that moment. Yet at the end of it all, it was enough.