Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A Failure of Empathy

I don’t know if you had a chance to read Thomas Friedman’s piece in the New York Times on August 7th. The column entitled “Steal this Movie” was about a new Israeli documentary, “Precious Life,” by the Gaza reporter for Israel’s TV Channel 10 news, Shlomi Eldar. It tells the story of a 4 month old Palestinian baby suffering from a rare immune deficiency who is treated successfully in an Israeli hospital. The child’s surgery which cost $55,000 was paid for by an Israeli Jew whose own son was killed during military service. What makes this a story different from the expected heart-felt tale is the Palestinian mother’s proclamation after the surgery that she hopes the baby will grow up to be a suicide bomber to help recover Jerusalem. This statement at first discouraged the director Eldar from completing the movie, but then against the backdrop of the war in Gaza he decided to complete the movie as an account of not only mutual hatred, but also the less visible substrate of compassion in both lands.

Friedman’s column reminded me of the HBO documentary “To Die in Jerusalem” directed by the Israeli filmmaker Hilla Medalia. This film provides a compelling look at two mothers who both became victims of hatred, but were unable to reconcile in their grief. The film is an attempt to bring the two together. One is the mother of 17 year old Israeli Rachel Levy killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber. The other is the mother of 18 year old Ayat al-Akhras who was the bomber and who also died during this act. The mothers who live only four miles apart could not be brought together physically, and had to talk with each other via satellite TV. They never bridge the physical distance or the emotion that keeps them apart. In watching the film you want the mothers to understand each other’s loss and grief, but they can never quite achieve this.

The notion that it is human empathy that allows us to live together is tested in these two stories. The failure of this empathy has been demonstrated all too often in history; from the many holocausts and genocides to the meaning of acts in war, as in the case of Hiroshima. As a psychologist, one reads many articles about the importance of empathy in psychotherapy, but many fewer works on re-building empathy across societies so that people different from ourselves are not just regarded as “the other.” It sets a challenging, but important goal for those us who work in human services.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Is There a Dystopia in your Future?

There was an absorbing article in the June 14th New Yorker, Fresh Hell by Laura Hill. The article deals with “dystopian fiction for young readers.” I had certainly heard of utopian literature, but not dystopian writing. Wikipedia describes dystopian literature in these terms: “The utopia and its offshoot, the dystopia, are genres of literature that explore social and political structures. Utopian fiction is the creation of an ideal world, or utopia, as the setting for a novel. Dystopian fiction is the opposite: creation of a nightmare world, or dystopia. We have all read dystopian novels, although we didn’t know it at the time. Nineteen Eighty-four and Brave New World are good examples. They portray a negative view of the world in which a totalitarian government controls every level of human behavior. Hill describes a number of examples of young adult dystopian books; Uglies, The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, etc. Although she identifies one main purpose of adult dystopian books as a warning of dangerous trends in current society, she believes current dystopian fiction for teens to be, in part, a reflection of adolescent disaffection. She wonders if this literature may be so present because kids are feeling over-supervised and over-scrutinized. It did strike me that a more obvious cause might be that we are all becoming more pessimistic about the future. It has become a frequent prophecy that our children’s futures will not have the abundance of  opportunities that ours had. The truism that the next generation is always better off than the previous may no longer be accurate. It is not hard to become convinced that all we have to look forward to is global warming, terrorism, and economic catastrophe. Not a pretty sight, or vision for that matter. A totalitarian dictatorship probably winds up being a relief in this kind of scenario. This new kids' literature may be reflecting our current attitude, if not a new reality.

So what can we as adults do? We could steer our kids to Grimm’s scariest fairy tales. At least they reveal a frightening past rather than a horrific future. There are always books like Pippi Longstocking. However, some have identified her as the source of Lizbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. There may not be a lot of solutions in literature. Maybe we will just have to rely on attitude, outlook, and that old polarity of optimism-pessimism.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Love Unlimited Orchestra

Someone recently gave me a copy of a CD that featured famous hits by Barry White and The Love Unlimited Orchestra. Although I quickly wrapped it in plain brown paper, I have to admit that I love this music. I am a big fan of R&B. I am pretty self-conscious about the fact that in music I tend toward the promiscuous. I like Lou Rawls as much as I like Puccini. After all, they are both not embarrassed about being supremely sincere and passionate. If you think about it, how different is Barry White singing “Can’t get enough of your love, Babe” from Luciano Pavarotti pouring out his heart in the duet “In Questa Reggia” from Turandot? If you knew Italian you would see the similarity immediately. My son Josh once told me that he didn’t like Van Morrison because every song was different from the others. We differ on this because you never know what to expect from Van who can go from ballad to gospel as if one was a chorus for the other. It’s like having ten albums in one!

Anyway, back to the Love Unlimited Orchestra. Their biggest hit, probably never repeated, was Love’s Theme. So put it on your Ipod, close your eyes and you will be back in the 70’s with scenes from Shaft or Super Fly raising your adrenalin level. Take a break and be Isaac Hayes for a few minutes, or even Placido Domingo.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

A Peaceful afternoon at the Mt. Auburn Cemetery

There is a major advantage in living ( I stress "living" ) near Mt. Auburn Cemetery. You can visit the Cemetery no matter what mood you are in. Depressed - look at the flowers left at the crypts. Manic - run around the monumental tombs. Artistic - gaze on the Monet-like reflections in the small ponds. Poetic - read the inscriptions on the Victorian headstones. It is all there; the entire canvas of life and emotion. Here are some pictures I took today.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

How laughter, Cameron, and Clegg ruined my day

There was an interesting article on the Guardian website about the body language between David Cameron, the new British Prime Minister, and his coalition partner and political rival Nick Clegg. With Clegg now deputy to Cameron, he was clearly in the "one down" position. Much of the article was a demonstration of how their body language revealed this dominance hierarchy. I was particularly struck by one paragraph:

"One of the litmus tests of power relations is who laughs at whom. That's because laughter serves to elevate the status of the person who manages to elicit laughter, while it reduces the status of the person who does the laughing. During the press conference Clegg made a bold attempt to be amusing when he feigned hurt and pretended to be leaving. Cameron responded with a show of embarrassment, but he didn't laugh. But when Cameron made an amusing remark, Clegg cracked up. On the surface it all looked very jolly, but the underlying purpose of the levity was to sort out their status positions."

I had not known this behavioral observation. In fact, I became less Jolly when I started to think about who had laughed at my jokes, and who had broken me up. I became really chagrined when I remembered that the other day I had laughed uproariously at a joke made by the guy who was painting my house. On the other hand, the person at the supermarket deli counter never laughs at my jokes about cutting meat thin. Not only were status positions not getting sorted out, they were instead in chaos. The timing on this was bad because I was due to give remarks the next day at an event with more than two hundred people. Should I risk it and leave my jokes in? Of course, I would be too distracted by peering into the audience to see who was laughing and who was not. There was the nagging question of how to respond to the various other speakers who I was sure would make an attempt at humor. The right laugh  for the wrong person could clearly send a bad message. If only Cameron and Clegg were speaking at the event. They had this behavior signaling down pat.

Before paralysis set in, I turned quickly to a comforting article about the oil spill in the Gulf.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Avatar comes to Iran

When I first saw this picture of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the President of Iran, fixed up in dark glasses I had thought that Avatar in 3-D had come to Iran. In a burst of optimism I believed that Western culture had pierced one of the “Axis of Evil” and that we would now all be saved. Unfortunately, it turned out that the President was just observing some new technology. Given recent news, probably a nuclear reactor. But, it made me realize that we have a strong belief that Western culture can save the world. If only the people in Damascus could enjoy the The Office, we would have a more peaceful Middle East. In the Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, Samuel P. Huntington tell us that “Somewhere in the Middle East a half-dozen young men could well be dressed in jeans, drinking Coke, listening to rap, and between bows to Mecca, putting together a bomb to blow up an American airline.” I know when I travel I find myself being comforted by all those signs for Coca-Cola and Dentyne. Being part of a minority group and the child of immigrants, I always think of myself as superbly multi-cultural. But it is easy to become ethnocentric and believe that your own movies, books, and food have transformative qualities. Hopefully, my mistake in viewing the picture will make me more aware. Although, I am hoping that all those Kenyan runners in the Boston Marathon will start wearing Nikes when they get back home.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Bintel Brief and the Tea Party Movement

You’ve probably never hear of the Bintel Brief. Wikipedia defines it as a ‘…Yiddish advice column printed without the sender's name, with answers meant to help others also. Started by the editor of Der Forvertz ("The Forward"), Abraham Cahan in 1906. The title means "a bundle of letters". In Yiddish, bintel means "bundle" and brief means a "letter" or "letters".’ It was a way for Jewish immigrants to become Americanized. You could learn what to bring if you were invited to dinner and how to address a possible suitor. In many ways, it was part of the process of shedding the culture of one country and adopting that of another.

The Jewish Daily the Forward continues the Bintel Brief as a blog and real people do write in. The advice-givers are now well-known writers such as Ariel Levy who writes for the New Yorker, or Rob Kutner who has written for “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” and “The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien,” It is still based on anonymous letters seeking advice. Many times, the writer is despondent about changes that the modern world has brought. The letters are often touching in that regard and frequently funny from a Woody Allen perspective. A recent inquiry was entitled “How Do I Get My Son's Family To Eat Dinner Together?” It was written by “A Concerned Bubbe.” Her opening paragraph is priceless in many ways: “I’m very upset. My son, daughter-in-law and their four children NEVER sit down together at the dinner table. One child works at Abercrombie & Fitch; another is being tutored for the SAT (Sheer Agony Test); another is on a traveling soccer team; the fourth child belongs to a Jewish motorcycle club called “Chai Riders.” This could be the premise for at least two novels, a movie, and a New Yorker article. The inquiry was answered by Joan Nathan, a well-known writer on Jewish cooking, who skillfully suggested ways of arranging a meal that would draw everyone together. It is fascinating, because the upset is about how to undo some of this Americanization and return to a sweeter and simpler time.

So what has this to do with the Tea Party movement? I recently read an article explaining that this phenomenon stems from a concern that the “real America” is being taken away by a lot of strangers and newcomers. The anger is an expression of frustration over the disappearance of what is familiar and comfortable. I am not suggesting that Concerned Bubbe is a “Tea-partier” but they do seem to share some of the same disappointment. Bubbes never really get angry, but they do get disappointed. I was hoping that writing this would lead me to some solution for the great division in America and the great political tensions that confront us, but for the moment that eludes me. But, I really did like going back to an earlier time and place.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Gotterdammerung, Billy Collins, and Alvin Ailey

This has been quite a cultural week for me. It started this past Sunday with Wagner’s opera Gotterdammerung at the L.A. Opera, then onto hearing America’s Poet Laureate Billy Collins at the MFA, and finally the Alvin Ailey Dance Group at the Wang Center (I refuse to call it the Citi Center). I have been trying to figure out how these all go together. They are all visual except for Billy Collins? None of them has been nominated for an Emmy or Golden Globe? They are all pretty different when you come down to it. I was beginning to feel that I was getting either indiscriminate or too universal in my tastes. After only a small amount of self-rebuke I came to the conclusion that they were all “playful.” Don’t worry, this will not be a discourse on my inner child, but more about what can catch your breath and attention. As the L.A. Times review tells you this is an unusual production of Gotterdammerung that is more like Star Wars than Wagner. Light Swords, a floating top hat, and a phalanx of dwarfs in funky masks and costumes all shout out “PLAYFUL.” Then again how can the poet laureate be playful? Billy Collins is wonderful, and even more amazing he is a clone of Bob Newhart, the 80’s comedian. In voice, delivery, and timing this could have been a monologue on the Smothers Brothers. He has a wonderful ability to play with words, ideas, and metaphors. Just like Bob Newhart. Finally, the Alvin Ailey Dancers – you can’t get more playful than most contemporary dance. It is beautiful and tongue-in-cheek at the same time. Whether it is a look at the Harlem Renaissance, the African roots of Jazz and dance, or the images of the old south, it is a playful and original way of presenting material that has become too iconic and stereotyped. Ok – maybe this is all too profound or even pretentious. I will try to compensate in my next post which will be about shopping for drapes.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Reality and Planning

“I’m not really crazy about reality, but it’s still the best place to get a decent meal”

                                                                      Groucho Marx

We are embarking on a new strategic planning process in my organization. One that hopefully will look out ten years into the future. In a recent meeting I found myself arguing for not paying much attention to the current reality. In fact, I wasn’t too excited about trying to gauge future reality (if that isn’t a contradiction). For me the goal was to come up with compelling vision of what our role could be in an unpredictable future. Maybe my assumption was that “belief” is an important part of success. If you have a good narrative about yourself and your organization, it will give you a road map that will provide enough direction to ensure achievement. It is an interesting question about how much that narrative must be based on “reality.” There are myths that we all know to be “unrealistic” but yet impact our thinking in useful ways. How many times has a work of fiction caused you to change your perceptions or reform your view of the world? Which are more powerful facts or ideas? Of course, it is always difficult to mount a full assault on reality. I will probably eventually succumb to competitor analyses, demographic studies, and regression equations that might reveal trend-lines. But there is something that is tempting about relying on faith, as billions of people do each day. Not blind faith – because that is always true of someone else. But instead the kind of belief that results in things happening that we thought would never happen. Perhaps Joseph Campbell said it best, “You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don't know what was in the newspapers that morning... a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. “

Friday, April 2, 2010

Marshmallow Chicks and Matzoh

So today is Good Friday. It does seem odd to be in my sixties and still associate Good Friday with having the next week off from school. But, that must be the way memories are laid down and the infrastructure of expectation is built. This year Easter coincides with Passover. I have an ecumenical association to the two holidays; Marshmallow chicks and Matzoh. My father owned a candy store in Brooklyn and the spring holidays were heralded by those little puffy soft chicks in the candy case, and matzoh crumbs on the floor. My sister brought a package of Peeps Brand marshmallow chicks to the Seder. I love the fact that Peeps puts the word "Brand" after its name so that you can distinguish it from the many other manufacturers of marshmallow chicks that you can choose from. Although I have to admit that they seem to have perfected the placement of those little block dots that make up the eyes of those cute birds. Making matzoh cute would be much more of a challenge. So what does this have to do with my current life? I wondered about that too. Even though I run an organization with "Jewish" in its name, I have always been sensitive to make sure that we have a culture that responds to all people in need. After all, "repairing the world" is part of our creed. JF&CS deals with people from every religion and ethnic group. Is it possible that growing up with those fluffy chicks and that tough matzoh is the source of the importance I place on diversity? It would not be a bad explanation. Have a great holiday - whichever you celebrate.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Milan and Lake Como, March 2010

This is a shot of the roof of the original "Galleria" in Milan. I know it looks a lot like the Galleria in Cambridge, but they differ in lots of ways. This galleria doesn't have a Macy's, but does have gelato. It does share one characteristic with the American mall - McDonalds. It is as ornate as the Galleria and features hostesses in fashionable uniforms. Very Italian. It also has a Borsalino Shop which is the source of the large black hats worn by ultra-orthodox Jews. Clearly multicultural despite being a couple of hundred years old. If you would like to view a slide show of my photos of Milan and Lake Como click on ITALY

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Slide Show of Uganda

These are photos I shot on my trip to Uganda in July, 2009. I had gone to Uganda because I had become involved in a wonderful organization there, Uganda Rural Development and Training Programme (URDT). URDT is in the very rural district of Kabaale in central Uganda. A friend of mine has gotten involved in their newest project, the African Rural Univerisity. Much of the work of URDT is focused on girls and the University is designed to train women in rural development. URDT does everything; agriculural development, teaching industrial crafts, providing a residential girls school for 200 students, and teaching people about their legal rights through a popular radio station. Besides visiting URDT in Kagadi, I also went to see the Abayudaya in Mbale which is in the eastern part of Uganda. The Abayudaya are the Jews of Uganda, a group dating back only to about 1919 who converted on their own. To hear some of their songs click on MUSIC. My travel in Uganda took me to Kampala, the capital city, and to Murchison National Park. There I stayed in the very colonial Paraa Lodge and went out each day to look at animals on the savannah. It was an adventure. The photos cover my whole journey. Click HERE to view them in a slide show from Flickr