Archive | March 2011

Swirls of Color or Standardized Dots? Keep Arts in Schools

What picture inspires you more.


Or this?

If public school budgets continue to shave and slash away at the arts, the black and white dots of those “No Child Left Behind” standardized tests are all that will be left of our children’s public school education. Teaching to the test leaves no room for imagination, creativity, real thinking or problem solving.  What it has resulted in is burned-out stressed-out teachers and students.

This is according to an independent documentary called “Race To Nowhere” that is sparking a grassroots movement to reshape how we educate our public school students. I look forward to seeing a screening of this independent movie in Rochester, NY, at Nazareth College on April 4.  The movie screening is being sponsored in part by a private Jewish day school, Hillel Community Day School.

The film challenges parents, educators, and policy makers with this question: Are we doing right by our children? Is the pressure to succeed in standardized tests really preparing our children to become capable, inspired and motivated individuals ready to tackle college or the workforce?

When school budgets get tight, the arts are the first to get cut. In fact, schools in the Rochester area are seeking to reduce some of their arts budgets by 50 percent.

Is music, art and sculpture really that expendable?  Is painting, singing, and playing an instrument such a frivolous part of a child’s education that it should be considered a fluffy extra that can be easily eliminated from  his academic career?  

Absolutely not, according to Americans for the Arts.  Young people who consistently participate in comprehensive, sequential, and rigorous arts programs are:

  • 4 times more likely to be recognized for academic achievement
  • 3 times more likely to be elected to class office within their schools
  • 4 times more likely to participate in a math and science fair
  • 3 times more likely to win an award for school attendance
  • 4 times more likely to win an award for writing an essay or poem*

When was the last time your child stood at an easel and held a brush full of paint? Or perhaps, in the spirit of abandoning everything for creativity’s sake, she ditched the brush and instead joyfully found herself up to her elbows in paint, as her hands and fingers glided across the paper.  

Indeed, art is messy. When was the last time you let your kid get messy at home with some paint or clay? Overheard once in  a preschool hallway: “I’m so glad they paint here at school, because at home, we don’t let him do that.”

Might as well draw a dagger through a teacher’s heart.

Video games and television are not messy. But they don’t do much to fire up the brain neurons either.

Art on the other hand unlocks creativity in children that leads to story telling, pattern recognition, and understanding other cultures. It is simply the expression of life that makes life enjoyable.  Art enables quiet kids to tell stories. Art calms and centers otherwise boisterious kids.  It is a positive way for them to control the environment around them.  A blank piece of paper or a lump of play dough can become a whole universe that they can master.

The above picture was created by a very precocious preschooler who patiently sat, cut and created a composition. Imagine what that same child can do when she gets older in an art class?

If a child is not going to be exposed to the earts in their earliest school years, then where will they get the opportunities? If arts are cut in public schools, there are private arts classes that parents can enroll their chilren in most towns and communities. But they cost money. So, cut the arts in public schools, and access to arts will only be possible to the families who can afford them.

And the rest? GThe only drawing less priveleged kids are going to do in school are the dots and circles they create on a standardized test.

Under the Purim Moon in Israel – 2008

It was just St. Patrick’s Day in America this week.  I couldn’t help but notice all the people decked out in green, so publicly and outwardly showing their Irish pride. People were wearing the green and donning shamrocks in schools and restaurants and supermarkets.

Strangely enough, this visible expression of pride in one’s ethnic identity reminded me of the revelry and costumes of the people of Israel as they celebrate Purim.  Purim is a story of kings, queens, and villans. A holiday of reversals. A holiday of masks, costumes, and feasting. And like St. Patrick’s Day, there is some drinking involved too!

In America, Jewish holiday celebrations take place mainly inside synagogues and Jewish community centers. But in Israel, the planet’s only country with a Jewish majority, all Jewish holidays spill onto the streets and shops. And Purim in Israel is one big nationwide party.  A party celebrating a victory over wickedness that could hold true today. There was a wicked man in Persia back then that we defeated. There is a wicked man in modern-day Persia, or Iran now. Both of these men pledged to destroy the Jewish people. One wicked man defeated. Many more to go.

What could have been a day of great sadness for the Jews turned out to be a day of great joy. And, we are commanded to be joyous, intoxicated even, on Purim.  So drunk in fact, that on Purim in Israel there are special parades called Ad Lo Yada, meaning in English, “That you Shouldn’t know,” meaning on Purim you should be so happy (drunk) you should not be able to distinguish between Mordechi or Haman (boooooo!). Friend or Foe.

Last night I looked up and saw the Supermoon.  While this moon was indeed one of the fullest full moons I had ever seen, it did not surprise me that there was a full moon. Purim,  always falls under a full moon in March. Or, more precisely, the 15 of the Hebrew month of Adar.

As I gazed at this body of luminescence, I took a deep sigh and reminisced about where I saw it three years ago. This was the moon I saw hovering over Jerusalem’s Yemin Moshe neighborhood. Okay, from my amateur photo, it was not as big as the supermoon, but it was special all the same.

I thought about all I saw and ate and felt when I was in Israel. I thought about the people who opened their homes and families  to me who hardly knew me. I thought about waving the American flag in a Purim Parade and listening to the cheers from the people along the route. I thought about the traffic jam I got caught in. The reason for the traffic jam? Israelis were clogging the streets because they were delivering baskets of Purim food to their neighbors. That’s the kind of country Israel is – one big family.

Then, I caught a bit of CNN’s Piers Morgan’s interview with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.  During commercial breaks, the same old images were shown to the world of Israel: The Kotel, The Dome of the Rock.

Excuse me, Piers, but you were in Israel during PURIM!

Are these tired images all you really can show about Israel? Must Israel always be covered with conflict in the backdrop?  If you got out on the streets of Tel Aviv or Modi’in or Jerusalem, if you could do one sidebar story, you would have wandered the streets and been treated to the following faces:

Halvah for sale for the Purim Feast

my friend's brother, decked out for Purim, celebrating with a feast at his home

teen girls dressing up and having fun in Tel Aviv

mom and kids wait for bus outside of old city, Jerusalem

Will showing these images make Israelis seem just too normal, too human for media coverage? Would it portray Israel too much for what Israelis are, a people who love to live, who love to celebrate?

Until the media in America show photos like this of Israel, I’ll just have to share my own. And I’ll be taking more. Because we just booked our next trip for this December. Even though it is the first day of spring, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I can’t wait until the winter.

It’s March Madness … Baby!

My husband is a really big college basketball fan. Make that a Syracuse Orange basketball fan. I can watch a game but I refuse to get so emotionally invested in a team.  And I admire, but I admit feel intimidated by, women who are big sports fans. I cannot understand my husband’s addiction to checking scores and talking stats the same way he cannot understand my addiction to watching news coverage of natural disasters  – or checking my blog stats.   But we have lived with our differences for over 17 years now. And, to prove that love rules above all were married on March 12, smack in the middle of March Madness.

I should have known what I was getting into back when we were dating. I remember going over to his house when he was home from grad school.  It seemed his whole extended family was over to watch a Syracuse basketball game. I was not allowed to talk until the commercial breaks.  I remember going to some Cal basketball games with his grad school buddies when we lived out in California.  Back when Jason Kidd was their Center. He and his friends talked basketball stats the whole way home on the BART. They may as well have been speaking in Chinese, I didn’t understand any of it.

How does my husband want to leave this world? He has told me that when his time comes, and I hope that’s 100 years from now, it will most likely be in his Lazy Boy chair watching Syracuse play UConn in double overtime during the NCAA tournament.

Ever since graduate school, he and his lab buddies, no matter what corner of the country they live in, keep a bracket going this time of year over a small wager. Now, I don’t remember him being concerned about his bracket picks at our wedding. I don’t think he had a small transistor radio in his ear as we stood under the chuppah, or wedding canopy.  And among our vows was one where he vowed that during our Maui honeymoon, he would not stay in our honeymoon suite watching the games. I’m just kidding.

Except one.

His alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania played against Nebraska that year and we watched that one game over Mai Tais by the poolside bar. It was the one game he said he really wanted to watch. Who was I to say no to my new husband’s one sports diversion – no obsession –  on our honeymoon?

Years have gone by and I still don’t share this passion for watching sports. I just don’t understand how he can get so completely riveted in a game that in the scheme of the world will not change his life. Except maybe for the few dollars he will win on his grad school bracket.

But I do enjoy watching my husband watching these games. I will even tolerate him flipping between one of my shows so he can check the score.

To give you an idea of the excessive celebration that goes on around here during March Madness … our first child was born in December.  You do the math.

Did you see any U.S. news coverage on the massacre in Israel?

I know it’s been a busy news week.

In Japan, an earthquake, tsunami and now a possible nuclear meltdown. I know that newsrooms are shrinking and international news bureaus are disappearing. But, still there was time and a news hole big enough to give coverage to March Madness, the unrest in Libya and a story on NPR of a man who returned to Calcutta to take care of his aging mother.

But what about covering the murders of five Israeli family members, including three small children who were murdered in their sleep? Nothing.

There only seems to be a need to cover Israel in the media when Israel faces worldwide condemnation for building an apartment building in Jerusalem.  And the coverage of this apparent terrorist attack? Nothing. And the worldwide reaction? Silence. Why is this?

Here is a photo the surviving members of this family wanted the world to see. It is a brutal photo.

I was listening to the news and not one second of coverage was devoted to this story. Not on CNN. Or NPR. Not that I heard. Correct me if I am wrong, but did any American news outlet pick up this story?

The Courage of the Bat Mitzvah Girl

If you live a spiritual or religious life, there are times when sad, untimely events strike you so hard you want to throw up your hands in rage and ask WHY? But if you live a spiritual or religious life, you are given the coping tools that make you realize that sometimes we don’t have the luxury to question and mope, but instead answer through acts of kindness through the community.

And how do we respond as a community? We mourn. We sing. We dance.

A Bar or Bat mitzvah is a major milestone in a Jewish 12 or 13 year old’s life. It is the first day they are counted by the community as a Jewish man or woman, even if by contemporary standards they are still too young to vote or drive.   And in the joy of planning and all the silly details – the guest list, the centerpieces –  it’s easy to lose sight of the meaning of the day.   But in these silly little details, there is so much joy in planning your child’s coming-of-age occasion for moms and dads. This is how it’s supposed to be.

But life doesn’t always go as it is supposed to be.

We got Stephanie’s simple yet stylish pink and brown Bat Mitzvah invitation in the mail.  Though her parents were long divorced, though her mother was not Jewish, mom and dad’s names were both on the invitation. Their names stood together for the first time in perhaps many years in celebration of the daughter they raised who was now about to become a Jewish woman.

Just days later, we learned that the Bat Mitzvah girl’s mother died of cancer.

How does a community come together? We do so in mourning.

How do you enter the house of a girl who is supposed to be excited about her upcoming Bat Mitzvah instead of mourning the death of her mother? You enter it very quietly, brushing off your shoes as best as you can from the latest Western New York snowstorm. You nod but don’t smile to the people in the crowded living room, some of them there to mourn the passing of their own parents. Parents who died when they were in their 50’s and 60’s. Not at age 12. 

Stephanie sat quietly near her father and the rabbi, but was soon accompanied by her friends, my daughter among them.  My daughter had become a Bat Mitzvah just the year before. I thought about what I was doing five weeks before her Bat Mitzvah. I thought about the unfairness of it all.

Then, the rabbi began the service. When it was time to recite Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of the mourner, it was not the time to shake our heads and ask why. Sometimes there are no answers or explanations. There is not the question “why” but “what are you going to do about it?”  And almost telepathically, we just knew.  Instead of one voice, many voices uttered these ancient words. Voices of her teen friends who stood by her, to put arms around her.  Voices of the older members of the congregation,  who carried her small mourner voice in theirs.

After kaddish was over, there was silence. And then,

“Hey, well, we have a lot of coffee and cake, so can I offer anyone some?”

Stephanie managed a cheerful voice, trying to break the sadness in the room with an offer of coffee and cake. A child who had just lost her mom was not crying but offering us the good deed, or the mitzvah of hospitality.

How do we act as a community? We sing.

Five weeks later, Stephanie sat poised and beautiful on the bimah, (pulpit)  on her big day. I had the honor of sitting next to her for a bit as I waited for my turn to read from the Torah.

“I’m really nervous,” She whispered.

“It’s okay. That’s perfectly natural,” I said, trying to still my own fluttering heart.  “Do you know I get nervous every time I read too?  Just take deep breaths and know that everyone in this room loves you….. And by the way I just love your earrings!”

One compliment on the tiny blue rose earrings that adorned her lobes got a smile, and then she was ready.

She did her Torah reading and it went off without a hitch.  Then, it was time for the reading of the prophets, or the Haftarah. This is usually a much longer, solo chanting. Unlike being surrounded by clergy and congregants when reading from the Torah, reading the Haftarah can seem like  a long, lonely walk.

Stephanie’s sweet voice held through until about the last few sentences. Then, as she anticipated that the hard work was almost over, she slipped. A slight mispronunciation of a word. A wrong note. If you have ever missed a line in a play or forgotten the lyrics of a song you are singing during the performance, you know that feeling of absolute unraveling. But under the circumstances, it was a completely normal and almost healthy unraveling.

Perhaps it was the slight error that threw her. Or perhaps it was the knowledge that her mom was looking down on her from heaven instead of with her on Earth from here on in that finally caught up with her, but it all seemed to come to a head. At that very moment, before the whole congregation, Stephanie dissolved into tears.  And there were still a few paragraphs to go, the blessings after reciting the Haftarah.

Sometimes people say they don’t like going to church or synagogue because they don’t know how or what to feel. Or, they don’t understand the Hebrew. But on that Shabbat (sabbath) morning, there wasn’t one dry-eyed soul there that didn’t know what to feel. Or what to do.

We were not going to let this young lady falter. Not on her first day of being a Jewish adult. So, one by one, we stopped our own crying enough to give her our voices. We sang those final blessings right along with her. Without a cue from the rabbi. Without the consensus or a vote or a ritual committee meeting. We just knew what to do. And it was perhaps the most powerful moment – more powerful than any rabbi’s sermon or cantor’s reciting of the Yom Kippur prayers – this sanctuary had witnessed in a very long time.

How do we act as a community? We dance?

When you are a guest at a Jewish party, you have a job to do. You have to add joy to that room to increase the joy of the Bar or Bat Mitzvah kid, or a bride and groom. And you do it by dancing. That night, we whirled and danced as much as we could. Because we were truly happy for Stephanie and so grateful for the lesson she taught us that day about courage and community.

Mazal Tov!

*the names of those who I mentioned in my blog have been changed.

I’ve been a newsaper columnist for over a year. Can you please spring for some business cards?

Some exciting news in my tiny little newspaper career. I have new towns to cover! One of them is Webster, NY. Their town motto: “Webster, where life is worth living.” Webster is 20 minutes from my house. And in the Rochester area, that may as well be another planet. So off I went last night to explore my new town, which rests on the shores of Lake Ontario.

 I was invited to a mixer held by the Webster Chamber of Commerce. It was held at the town’s local branch of HSBC Bank It was hopping! Only 20 people registered in advance, but the headcount was over 60, according to the event organizer.

So many great people in one room to meet, introduce myself to and dig up new story ideas.

Until one embarrassing question came up. And it came up time and time again each time I circulated the room.

“Can I have your business card?”

“Errr, well, to tell you the truth, I don’t have a business card, but the paper is working on it!”

So, instead I came home with a stack of business cards which I will now send out my contact information, with a link to my column.

Yes, it was embarrassing, and perhaps a bit penny wise and pound foolish of the newspaper for not providing me with a business card after doing this column for over a year now. When I meet new people, unless I carry around a copy of my latest column with my mugshot on it, where is the proof that I really am who I say I am?

My editors should know how I delight in writing each column, and they know I do it for a paltry sum of money. They should know how my spine tingled just walking into a real, live newsroom when I met with my editors this week. They should know that someone from the Webster chamber said to me “heck, send me your information and I’ll cough up the $20 to make you a set of business cards.”

Even in this age of Blackberries and social networking, there is still a viable reason for carrying a business card when one is doing real networking.

So, kind businesspeople of Webster, thank you for trusting me when I said who I said I was. And I will be getting my box of those old-school business cards any day. I promise.

A Fashion Statement I Regret Making

As I write this, I am watching the academy awards. No, my biggest fashion blunder thankfully wasn’t televised, nor was it as bad as Bjork’s Swan dress from 2001. But, in a time when one should try to act as cool as possible – the first day of high school – I truly missed the mark.

My 25th high school reunion is coming up. Now, I don’t remember what I wore my very last day as a high school student, but I sure remember what I wore the first day.

No, the picture below is not actually my legs. Thankfully, I dont think there is a photograph to document my first day of Freshman year of high school.

My mom had just started a subscription of Seventeen Magazine for me. The preppy look was totally “in” for the fall, according to Seventeen’s big, thick back-to-school August issue. Maybe if you went to a prep school in New Hampshire, but back in Staten Island, not so much.

So there I was, high school freshman, which is cause enough to get egged or suffer a head full of shaving cream the first day of high school. But no, I had to draw further attention to myself with khaki knickers, argyle socks and penny loafers.

I just got it all wrong.

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