Thursday, April 17, 2014

What were they thinking?

I just received copies of my novel DAY AFTER NIGHT in Russian.

I believe this is the first of my books translated into the language of Dostoyevsky.

I wonder if the designers or editors even glanced at what's inside because this image is so profoundly odd.

Sure, the sky is ominous but four happy gals striding into the future dressed like they're going on vacation or maybe applying for jobs in the advertising industry?

The book tells the stories of four young women who have survived the Holocaust in Europe and in 1945 end up in an internment camp in Palestine.

I wonder what readers will think when they open the book and find a world of pain -- ultimately redeemed, but still...

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

On the first anniversary of the Boston Marathon Bombings

In the long, sad run-up to the 2014 running of the Boston Marathon, I’ve been thinking about the families of the four people who died. The youngest was a baby, only eight years old, standing near the finish line with his family. The oldest was a twenty-nine-year-old woman with an impish smile and a reputation for kindness.

For the families and friends of the four who died, this has been a year of heartbreaking firsts: the first Thanksgiving without her at the table, the first uncelebrated birthday of all the birthdays he was owed.

The coming marathon will be a public commemoration of their deaths. In Jewish tradition this is called a Yahrzeit, a year’s time, the annual remembrance that includes lighting a twenty-four hour candle and saying Kaddish, a prayer that requires the presence of at least ten other people, because grief is even more unbearable if you’re standing alone.

The first anniversary is the most painful and the first Yahrzeit is the most difficult, not only because the wound is still so raw and the absence so vivid, but because they signify another ending.

Anyone who has ever lost a loved one knows that grief is more than an emotion -- it’s a place, a parallel universe in which “the valley of the shadow” is not a metaphor but an address. It is important and necessary to spend time in that shadow, to cry and wail. But it is unhealthy to stay too long.  The first Yarhzeit is kind of an eviction notice. Time to turn away from the darkness.

This doesn’t mean “getting over it” or forgetting. The first anniversary might be the end of one kind of grief, but it is the beginning of the next stage. From then on, there may be visits to the grave, candles, prayers, memory, charity, and tears. But death cannot have the last word.

And this is where the public has a meaningful and valid part to play.

We are here to provide a tangible form of sympathy to the bereaved, like the quorum of ten who assemble so that Jewish mourners can recite Kaddish.

Those of us who will line the racecourse on April 21 will be standing with the bereaved and with the wounded. Cheering for the runners doesn’t mean that we’ve forgotten the dead or the bereaved, the injured or their loved ones. In fact, we will be cheering in solidarity with those who mourn, in memory of those died and in honor of those who are wounded and hurt.

We will cheer for the nurses and firefighters who ran toward the explosions and not away from them because of their commitment to life.

We will cheer for the impromptu memorials that cropped up around Boston and all over the world, monuments of sympathy made of shoes and flowers.

We will cheer for the generosity of the hundreds of thousands who gave millions of dollars.

We will cheer for the ways that human goodness trumps human evil.

The restaurants reopen, the memorials are digitized and the money is given where it will help. Life is relentless. Thank goodness, or if you prefer, thank God.

 For audio version:

Monday, March 17, 2014

Finishing the Hat

I’m close to finishing the book. I think so. No, really, I am. Maybe. It looks good. I don't know. I think I can, I think I can. Somebody shoot me. Or get me some uppers.

I had an anxiety dream a few nights ago. I was onstage in the final moments of a big musical (that was being played in a gym/auditorium filled with my friends from all over the country including Joe Biden and the senator from Massachusetts, which one remains unspecified.)  I had to sing the last song, an anthem, a cross between “Staying Alive” by Sondheim and “I Am What I Am” from La Cage aux Folles. Oh, and I am playing a gay man in my pajamas singing about the lost/dead love of my life.

Here’s the anxiety part: I know the song pretty well but not all the words 

Curtain up and somehow there is a record player (old school) playing the song I am supposed to sing. I am sitting on the bed, my head in my hands, and slowly I join the recording, faking/remembering the lyrics.  I get through the whole song but I have no idea if I got away with it, which is to say if I’d managed to put one over on the audience. I can’t recall if there was any applause.

This is my life as a writer.

Whenever I speak in public there are inevitably questions about the “process.” I usually say something about walking the dog and drinking coffee and now that I’m of a certain age, I may add something about taking a hit of Advil. I say the process is like watching paint dry. I really don’t know what to say. It would be too pretentious to say, “It’s a mystery.” (Favorite line from “Shakespeare in Love,” when all seems lost and the play must go on.)  When asked if I “channel” my characters I say, “Not really. It’s work.” I try to sound cheerful but inside I'm seething. “Channeling? Are you kidding me?"

I think I can.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Boston: My Home Town. Sort of.

I have to admit that I felt a little bit like a wedding crasher at the inaugural ceremony for Mayor Marty Walsh on January 6. You see, I live in Newton, a city that only shares a border with Boston proper — and apparently, a small portion of Boston College.
But I wanted to be there for the historic changing of the guard, to get a look at the new mayor for myself, and to celebrate with my city. And even though I don’t vote or pay taxes there, it is my city, too.
Even though I don’t vote or pay taxes there, it is my city, too.
Whenever I travel outside the Commonwealth and am asked where I’m from, I say “Boston.” This is not only because everyone knows where Boston is and Newton, not so much. And it’s certainly not because I’m ashamed of Newton, which is a wonderful place and I will rise to its defense against anyone who would sneer at my leafy green town.
But for me, one of Newton’s primary charms is its proximity to Boston, the Hub of this local universe, the sun that illuminates and nourishes life in its satellite cities and towns.
Boston — like other cities — is the source of great art, music and arguments; a destination with a million reasons to visit and live in, including an abundance of restaurants, hospitals, parks, cobblestones and church spires, architecture and universities. And in the 38 years I’ve lived in and near Boston, the city has gotten better in countless ways, from the replacement of the miserable Central Artery with the unfolding potential of the Rose Kennedy Greenway, to an Irish mayor who repudiates discrimination based on race, religion or sexual identity and whose first meeting addressed the murder of young African-Americans in the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Maybe this is the new definition of “world class city,” Boston Strong and the Red Sox, notwithstanding,
The inauguration of Marty Walsh was pure Boston. There was a little high-flown rhetoric (John Winthrop’s “city on the hill” got a workout, cited by no fewer than four speakers) but there was a lot more plain talk about what’s good in Beantown and even more about what needs fixing — and nearly all of it was delivered in real Boston accents, which continue to confound even Academy Award-winning actors.
It was a civic pageant with a touch of pomp but virtually no pomposity. It was serious but didn’t take itself seriously. It was real.
Gov. Deval Patrick was brief, warm and funny. Suffolk County Clerk Michael Donovan (he made a joke of his own obscurity) was like the uncle whose wedding toast goes on three minutes too long but is forgiven because the guy has a heart of gold.
Mayor Walsh’s inauguration was also wicked Irish. It kicked off with the Boston Fire Gaelic Pipe and Drum Band, Yo-Yo Ma’s set included a traditional Irish melody, and it closed with “God Bless America,” sung by the Irish tenor Ronan Tynan, who said, “It’s a good day to be Irish.” Sure, and it was, but there was also enough racial and ethnic diversity sitting on the platform and acknowledged in the mayor’s inaugural address that the rest of us didn’t feel we’d stumbled into a party at the Hibernian Hall.
Boston is ascendant but not arrogant, as demonstrated by the election of Mayor Marty “one-day-at-a-time” Walsh. This is a hard working man with a moving life-story, but did you ever see a less charismatic politician? Okay, not counting Tom Menino.
I went to the inauguration because even though my zip code does not begin “021,” Boston is my hometown and I felt like cheering.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Call me Schnorrer

The Yiddish word, schnorrer has more than one meaning. It can be used to describe a habitual moocher, someone who never picks up the check, or a low-level jerk, a no-goodnik. However, the first definition in most dictionaries is “beggar.”

There are all kinds of schnorrers: panhandlers on the street, the kid who knocks on your door collecting for UNICEF, and me, too.

In December I become a big schnorrer for Mayyim Hayyim -- the mikveh and education I helped found more than ten years ago.

This is not easy for me. Asking friends, acquaintances and blog readers for donations can feel presumptuous – like I’m trying to cash in on our relationship.

On the other hand, when my friends ask me to support good causes and organizations they care about, I am happy to give what I can. I also applaud them for asking because I know it’s not easy for them either.  

A professional fundraiser once told me that asking for money gives him joy because he is providing others the opportunity to do something that will make them feel good.

I hope that my schnorrring for Mayyim Hayyim calls up a vision of the kind of Jewish world we all want to build -- fully inclusive, beautiful, intellectually honest, spiritually alive and joyful. I hope that giving to Mayyim Hayyim makes people feel good knowing they are helping to make that vision a reality. 

(If you don't know what Mayyim Hayyim is, explore our website by clicking here: )

It has been said (a million times) that people only give if they are asked.

It has also been said (as often) that people tend to give when asked by people they know and care about. So I am asking.

In fact, I’m asking you. Now. Click here to give:

Donating will make you feel good about sustaining Mayyim Hayyim so we can continue to comfort and celebrate, teach and inspire, flourish and lead in 2014.

Thank you for giving me the chance to do the mitzvah (the sacred deed) of asking.

Thank you for doing the mitzvah of giving.

Wishing you all good things in 2014.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Nelson Mandela

He was a big talker, the driver who drove my husband and me from the airport in Port Elizabeth, South Africa to an inland game reserve.

He told us that he was originally from Zimbabwe but moved to South Africa many years prior when things got bad for whites under the Mugabe regime. We exchanged a horrified glance at the prospect of a two-hour-drive with a rambling racist at the wheel.

But on our way out of the city, he pointed to a plot of land and said the community planned to build the world’s largest statue of Nelson Mandela right there, and he thought that was a fine idea. He proceeded to tell us that Nelson Mandela was the reason South Africa was not in shambles. He spoke with respect and affection for the first black president of his country, the great fighter and martyr of apartheid. Our driver called him a hero, and the rest of his commentary was that of a tour-guide, proud of the beauty of his adopted country and of the progress it was making against great odds.
This was 2007 and we were visiting South Africa as guests of the Cape Town Jewish community, where I had been invited to lecture.

It seemed that Nelson Mandela was everywhere; in conversation, on billboards, on postcards, plaques, busts; all sorts of souvenirs and merchandise bore his likeness. He was also present in conversations I had with people of all descriptions – and they spoke of him lovingly -- not with reverence for a distant leader, but with fondness as for a grandfather.
Jim and I made the pilgrimage to the prison on Robben Island, where he persevered for 27 years and never lost hope. I remember the quarry, where the glare of the white rock did permanent damage to Mandela’s eyes. I looked out the window where the city of Cape Town was visible and cruelly unattainable.

On Feb 2, 1990, the date of his release from prison, I was in my living room in Newton. It was early morning and I sat my five-year-old daughter down to watch the live feed with me. She remembers me telling her that this was important and the white haired man was a very good person who had been locked up unfairly.

Nelson Mandela’s death is a global event, an opportunity to honor and reflect on a great soul and -- I hope -- a source of inspiration and rededication to his commitment to justice and reconciliation.

His death – at home, surrounded by family, of natural causes -- is a kind of triumph in itself.  

Thousands of candles will be lit in honor of Nelson Mandela who leaves the world a brighter place. But you and I – all of us -- are simply bereft.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

The words to say it


with the night falling we are saying thank you 
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings 
we are running out of the glass rooms 
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky 
and say thank you 
we are standing by the water thanking it 
smiling by the windows looking out 
in our directions 


This is today's offering from the Poem-a-Day feature of the American Academy of Poets. 
Sign up to read the rest of Merwin's poem today.

Some days, the poem makes me shrug. 
Some days, it changes my whole day
That's the point

Wishing you many reasons to give thanks.