Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Barbie's Boobs and Other Atrocities

When my niece, Rachel was four and my daughter, Liora was three, I had the privilege of overhearing one of their conversations:
"Liora, do you have Barbies?"
"No, I"m not allowed Barbies."
"Why not?"
"My mom says Barbies make girls feel bad about their bodies."
It was a glorious moment in my life as a mother. All I could think was, "wow, they really DO listen to what I say!"
Fast forward, a week ago I heard my next daughter, now 15, say to a friend, "there's nothing wrong with being fat!"
I nearly fell off my chair. Not because I haven't said that a million times, but I know the enemy I am fighting has unlimited power and a reach that extends deeply into the hearts of teenage girls. I know this enemy, I spent many years in battle against its ugly, insidious army.
This, readers, will not be the end of this topic, but merely the beginning. I have more to say about size-ism, body image and eating disorders than possibly any other topic I write about. So, hang in there.
Now, before my mom gets her knickers in a twist, I am not advocating an unhealthy lifestyle. Everyone should eat a healthy, balanced, whole food diet and exercise regularly. That goes for everyone, no exceptions. That said, let's get back to business. And that business is FAT!
Statistics show that 95% of all diets fail, meaning that nearly all dieters regain any weight loss over an average of one to five years. In most cases, as both fat and muscle are lost through dieting, only fat is regained, leaving the dieter essentially, well, fatter. And yet, the diet industry is huge. Bigger than huge. Obese, grotesque in its multi-billion dollar profits. I am not embarrassed to say I have done my share of spending on worthless products, starvation diets and my old friend, Weight Watchers. Now, I'm not saying none of these things work. Diets do work. And work, and work and work. Weight Watchers thrives on recidivism. Maybe it would work better if it were free. Nah, never mind. Here is the real truth: there is no scientifically proven method of permanently changing one body type into another. You just have to work with what you have.
I have been deeply affected over the years by a few lone voices of reason in this fight. My favorite so far is a book called, "Fat!So?" by Marilyn Wann. I loved the title. The book challenges many myths about fat and health as laid out in undigestible form by medicine-in-bed-with-pharmaceuticals Inc. A few years ago there was a great article in Scientific American which challenged the knee-jerk link between obesity and heart disease. In fact there are cultures with more obesity and less heart disease than America, and I see that this article is conspicuously absent from the magazine's online archives. Hunh.
So what can we do about all of this? I, for one, say we stop accepting the lies, half-truths and destructive thinking which cause so many of us to dislike what we see in the mirror. Throw out your bathroom scale, it's just a barrier to self-acceptance. Give away the clothes you wore before you had kids, Kate Moss needs them. Embrace and love the body you have. Take care of it, fuel it, tone it, keep it strong and active. Now I invite you to join the army of "why on earth do you think I want to be something I'm not?"
Once we empower ourselves to reject Barbie as our cultural icon we can start teaching our daughters to love themselves and our sons to love real women, not dolls.
(Next time: my cousin Amy who cut off Barbie's hair and glued it to various body parts...)

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Real Abomination

When I was in fourth grade, I had a friend with two mothers. I never once thought there was anything amiss about this. My parents were divorced, which was equally peculiar. I saw "two mothers" as another variation on "possible parenting scenarios." This folks, was 1971. When I went to Brandeis ten years later I recall hearing about the gay/lesbian/bisexual alliance. I remember thinking, "why do they need an alliance?" I was not even aware there was a stigma attached to these lifestyles. Oh, how things have changed in my world.
Yeshiva University recently held a panel on the subject of homosexuality and treatment of homosexuals at YU. Without treading on any Halachic toes, speakers encouraged students and faculty to approach gay students with more openness and acceptance. Wow, I'm thinking, groundbreaking. Unfortunately, for many this is news.
When my daughter was in sixth grade and learning Judo, her friend told her she wasn't allowed to go to Judo because the teacher "might marry a woman and everyone knows." Liora came home to talk to me about this. "But I don't get it, why can't she go to Judo?" asks naturally curious 11-year-old. "Well, some people think homosexuality is contagious, " answers hoping-she's-saying-the-right-thing mother. "Well, I would think being with someone who's violating shabbas is much more contagious," she says. She starts to walk away, then adds, "and since when is it ok to talk about what someone does in their bedroom? It's really not tzanua (modest)." Right on.
It so happens that said Judo teacher is a close family friend, and my children have never expressed discomfort with her or her choice of partner. I think partly, as demonstrated above, it is simply not in a child's nature to think too much about these things. They accept and love whoever loves and accepts them, and that's about it.
How, then, does a 16-year-old boy from a religious home end up in the emergency room, barely escaping death at his own hand, because he is gay? Over the twenty years I have been in practice I have seen dozens of religious gay and lesbian teenagers cross my office threshold. They are not all suicidal, but they are all in terrible pain. By witnessing this pain I have become convinced that homosexuality is not a choice. I do not believe any person would make a choice this painful.
I know I will catch hell for this, but I place blame squarely on the shoulders of those religious leaders who preach rejection, intolerance and hatred of gay and lesbian Jews. As far as I understand, we are commanded to love each other. There are no exceptions.
I had the opportunity to learn just how much my opinion is in the minority while serving as musical director for the Israeli premier of RENT. (The play features gay, lesbian, bisexual and straight characters.) A friend and neighbor, a rav whom I greatly respect told me he did not feel his student's participation in this play was in service of Hashem. I disagree. I told him I know we can't change the world by putting on one play, but perhaps we can stimulate respectful dialogue. And if through a gentle raising of awareness we can be a voice for change, if we can open one heart, if we can ease the pain of one suffering Jew, then we have done something incredibly holy.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

On Not Raising Racists

My son, Elisha, age eight, was called a "racist" a few days ago. He was so upset by this he stayed home from school the following day. I asked him if he knows what a racist is, and he in fact came up with with a pretty accurate definition. It turns out that he passed on a comment made in our home by a close family friend, who also happens to be African-American-Israeli. Elisha didn't realize that when a white person suggests that the mistake in the picture on the Cheerios box is the black person next to the swimming pool, well, that's racist. He's right, Marvin said it first. That was confusing, but a lesson in the importance of avoiding all stereotyping, even of the self.
The following day my eldest daughter, Liora, age 18, had a shouting match with an employee at the hospital where she volunteers about the random hatred of Arabs. This is routinely practiced, albeit quietly, by some of the hospital staff. One woman even asked her, "don't you hate Arabs, too?" She tried at first to explain the difference between hating terrorism, hating war, hating oppression, hating an attitude, hating an untenable situation, and hating people. She gave that up after seeing the lack of sophistication in her opponent and simply answered that she was not raised to hate. Thank God.
In fact both of my daughters have had some blind test cases which have proven to support our efforts in raising without hate. Both Liora, cellist and Adina, violinist have spent many years participating in "Mat'an," the National Youth Orchestra program. One summer Liora served as principal cellist, seated opposite Nadim, concert master. I saw this as a stunning moment in the history of my child; national religious girl from the west bank seated across from Israeli Arab from northern village. Playing Haydn. Sharing the language of music. Perhaps less stunning yet equally impactful, this was the summer six religious boys woke up four secular boys every morning at 7 to make their minyan. And Adina spent the entire session explaining that yes, she is religious and yes, she is wearing pants. Craziness.
It begs the question, why are we a nation of knee-jerk racists? Why are we so quick to judge each other, and is this fact contributing anything positive to the formation of an advanced, sophisticated society? As an issue of security and survival there is no question. I am in favor of racial profiling, and would appreciate a separate line at the road block for Palestinian plates. But I would also like these things to become unnecessary and I will work towards that end, by teaching my children that they do not need to learn hate in order to protect themselves or our country.
A few years ago I gave a paper on psychodrama at Yad VaShem's International Conference on Teaching the Holocaust to Future Generations. The conference was attended by hundreds of educators from around the world. I became very friendly with a German woman who teaches at the University of Berlin. Her grandparents, she tells me, were Nazis. She remembers seeing their paraphernalia around the house. She made a conscious decision to pick herself up out of their mindset and dedicate her life to healing. I was awestruck by her courage and devotion.
At the same conference I met an Israeli, a teacher from the Tel Aviv area. She asked me in English where I was from, and I answered in Hebrew that I live in Efrat. She did not respond, but turned on her heels and walked away from me. I went out for dinner with my German friend whose grandparents were Nazis, a journalist from South Africa and the sign language interpreter. Am I missing something?

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Uncovering My Hair

I ditched my hair covering two weeks ago. Most people have noticed something different about me, but either they are too polite to say, "OMG your hair!" Or they really haven't noticed. I started wearing a head covering for religious reasons when we moved to Israel in 1998. We lived in a religious neighborhood and I had no misgivings about taking on the local custom. It took my husband some time to get used to looking at me with a hat or scarf, but it wasn't a tragedy. I liked the idea of downplaying physical beauty, of reining in my energy a bit (which can be pretty outrageous, I admit), of creating a barrier between my sexuality and men who are not my husband. The idea appealed to me. The look I got used to.
Now, a bit about my background. I'm not your typical religious woman. I didn't go to Stern College, didn't marry a YU guy, never lived in New York, or even the tri-state area. I was raised by a single mother of five children in rural Massachusetts. My mother, a close friend and classmate of Gloria Steinam raised us with a healthy disregard for rules (other than hers) and a huge poster which said "Fuck Housework" in the kitchen. No kidding, my sisters have confirmed this. Our home was traditionally Jewish and very spiritual, if not necessarily religious. My mother created her own religion, based on Jewish holidays, feminism, punctuality, doing the right thing and orthodontics for all.
I was always attracted to religion and to spiritual practices of every sort, from Buddhist meditation to Hindu burial parades. I came to Orthodoxy by being immersed in it, and I still respect and admire the solid ground of many Orthodox communities worldwide. But I no longer call myself Orthodox, though my lifestyle, other than the hair, has not changed.
What did change was how I was treated by some terribly misled men who have the gall to call themselves rabbis. Following a painful yet thankfully short-lived falling out with a close friend, these "rabbis" took it upon themselves to demonize me, threaten me and attempt to ruin me professionally. Well, I look askance at such behavior, as my mother's religion clearly dictates.
So I feel I have no choice. I need to distance myself in every way possible from this type of thinking and behavior. I can not tolerate the thought that someone could look at my manner of dress and assume things about the way I think. It has simply become unbearable. So, now when I walk down the street, an amazing thing happens; people look me in the eye. Ahh that feels good.