Busy Week

This past week I was very busy. As I wrote last week, Saturday was the first night of Passover. We had  a great time with my sons and daughter-in-law. Next year I hope we can have even more family attend our seder.

Passover is one of my favorite holidays ,but eating just matzah for a week is tough. The change in diet gave me some minor health issues, primarily the stomach kind. Regularity begets regularity, if you get what I mean.

Because at the end of last week, I was getting ready for Passover, I fell behind on some routine tasks, such as mail, email (the bane of my existence) and bills. This week I had to play catch up.

As a result, I spent most of the week not actually writing anything. I did finish reading and taking notes on two books that had to go back to the library.  Although I didn’t write much, I had writing experiences due to the two groups I am involved with.

This was week was the first meeting of a new ten week session from Nerissa Nields’ Writing It Up in the Garden. I switched from her group that meets Wednesday evenings back to the group I was in last year, Tuesday midday. I like the people and I got good feedback on some pages I read from the chapter I am currently working on.

One of the people in the group read something about ALS, which was hard for me to listen to. I have known several people, including my brother Fred, who have died from that terrible disease and my first cousin, Lowell, is living with it.

The other writing  experience involved the year long Pioneer Valley Writers Workshop Creative Nonfiction Group that I am participating in. The first meeting was at the beginning of last month. One part of the program is having a different accountability buddy each month. I really enjoyed my first buddy, Jennifer. We have a lot in common and are working on similar topics. It was great to talk about my book to a fellow historian.

Although the week had hard parts and was busy, I did do some enjoyable things. Last week  was the World Figure Skating Championships. I couldn’t watch them in real time so, starting this past Monday, I watched repeats of all the events. It ended last night with the ice dancing. It was a pleasure to watch the superb skating of all the athletes. I love skating and, in fact, I am going skating today. The week is ending on a good note.

 

 

 

Meghan Markle and Me

I didn’t watch the Oprah Winfrey interview with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. That doesn’t stop me from having an opinion on the subject. At first, when I read about Meghan’s claim that she hadn’t googled anything about Harry or royal life, I was incredulous. Hadn’t she ever read or saw anything about Princess Diana?

Yesterday I read The Anti-Racism Daily  entitled, “Believe Black Woman.” The Daily is a newsletter curated by Nicole Cardoza. She started it in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. One of her points was about colorism. “Colorism is the reason why Meghan Markle was likely even able to marry Prince Harry and be considered part of the family to begin with. She experienced this violence because she was ‘white enough’ to be included and still ‘too black’ to be loved, respected and projected.

The part of the Meghan-Harry interview that has been the most sensational is Meghan’s claim that members of the extended Royal Family were concerned that Archie, their child, might be too dark. I recently read Nella Larsen’s Passing. One of the most heartbreaking scenes in the book occurs when three light skinned African American women are discussing giving birth. Two of the women are passing; both had deep anxiety about what color their children would be.

If you take away the fact that Meghan was marrying into royalty and instead look at the situation as a case of a woman marrying for love and putting the man’s interests ahead of her own, you have a typical story of the choices women usually make.

When I got married and moved to Massachusetts, that act seemed like a no-brainer to me. After all my husband had secured a teaching position and we were married. I never thought about how much I would be defined as a wife and how badly that would make me feel.

Nicole’s newsletter made me think about Meghan in that light, leading to an increase in empathy and understanding from me. Women often make life choices based on their husband or partner’s needs. It is not that the reverse never happens, but it is not that frequent.

When I was looking for academic positions, my husband always said he would move with me. The further I got in my job search, the more I thought that wouldn’t really work. By the end of my time trying to get an academic position, I not only had a husband, but I also had two children. I didn’t think that he could handle not having a job while I had one. Eventually I gave up, went back to school, and became a nurse.

Maybe Meghan loves Harry, knew his family and position were important to him, so she made her choice with that in mind. I am glad she is now in a position where her needs can also be met.

 

 

Sepsis

On January 5, news broke that the actress Tanya Roberts died from sepsis following a urinary tract infection. Roberts was sixty-five; she had been both a Bond girl and a Charlie’s Angel. She collapsed on December 25th, 2020. Roberts was hospitalized and put on a ventilator. Before her collapse she had not appeared ill.

Over thirty percent of UTIs lead to sepsis; this is 2.8-9.8 million cases in the United States and Europe. These result in as many as 1.6 million fatalities. Sepsis occurs when the immune system, in response to a perceived threat in one’s blood stream, goes into overdrive and starts attacking the body.

UTI’s are usually contained within the bladder and antibiotics easily cure them. If a UTI goes untreated, it can progress to a kidney infection which in turn can became sepsis. Tanya Roberts death resonated with me for two different reasons. The first is that my paternal grandfather, Frank, died in 1937, following a sinus infection. Antibiotics were not widely available; his infection went unchecked and he died. My father was eighteen; his older brother twenty and his younger brother eleven.

The other reason I felt deeply about Roberts’ death was that I had a similar, although obviously not fatal, experience. From December 2011 to the beginning of January 2012, I had a urinary tract infection that went untreated for as long as four weeks. (The reasons for my lack of treatment is another story for another day).

By January 2, 2012, I had a very high fever, was chilled to the bone, and was ashen in color. I had a raging kidney infection and my doctor sent me to the hospital. One of the ER nurses said my white blood cell count was the highest she had ever seen. If the infection had continued to go untreated, it is likely I would have developed sepsis. Once sepsis sets in, there is a very high rate of mortality.

As women age, they are more susceptible to UTIs and often the infection does not generate any symptoms. That certainly could have been true for Roberts since she did not seem ill before she collapsed. As with most illnesses that occur more frequently for women, the progression from a urinary tract infection to sepsis is not well studied.

Tanya Roberts’ story is very sad, and I wish she could have received treatment before she became septic. My kidney infection was the sickest I have ever been but I am glad that I did get treated and did not become septic.

 

Human Rights Shabbat D’Var Torah – Part 3.

This is the final part of the talk I gave, December 12th,  at the Jewish Community of Amherst in honor of Human Rights Shabbat.

The law (Civil Rights Act, 1965) restored the rights the 14th and 15th  Amendments had originally granted to the newly freed slaves. The 1965 Voting Rights Act prohibited literacy tests and required federal oversight of voter registration in areas where less than 50 percent of the non-white population had not registered to vote. The law greatly increased black voting in Southern States. In Mississippi, participation went from 6 percent in 1964 to 59 percent in 1969. The Voting Rights Act provided both the federal courts and the federal government a variety of resources to ensure that there would be no discrimination in voting access.

A 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby County vs. Holder ruled section 4b of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional. This section contained a formula to determine which states required federal preclearance before making changes to their voting laws. This ruling led many southern states that had previously required the preclearance to change their voting laws, making them more restrictive. Several states engaged in mass purging of voter rolls, increased identification requirements and reduced the number of polling places. In the last election cycle, we saw many pictures of mostly black and brown people waiting on long lines to vote. One observer has called long voting lines the new poll tax.

As many of you may know there are currently two runoff Senate races in Georgia. The primary and runoff system in that state is itself the product of racist desires to keep black s from voting as a bloc and therefore gaining electoral power.  From 1917 to 1963, George had a county unit system for primaries. This system privileged, in a similar way to the electoral college, rural areas where most black did not live.

In 1963, the Supreme Court ruled this system unconstitutional. A Georgia Congressmen, Denmark Groover, a committed segregationist, stated that he supported the creation of runoff system for elections because it “would again provide protection which … was removed with the death of the county unit system.”

Groover believed the runoff would “prevent the Negro bloc vote from controlling the elections.” Georgia recently announced it was reducing the number of polling places for early voting for the election on Jan. 5. Georgia has never elected an African American Governor, lieutenant governor, senator, or Secretary of State. The first African American Attorney General was elected in 1998. Of course, if the Democrats win, a black man, and a Jew will both become Georgia Senators.  (I know that sounds like the beginning of a joke) Reverend Raphael Warnock would be the first African-American Democratic Senator from the South.

When I read the Joseph story, I wondered why it is in the Torah?  What purpose does his story serve? Joseph’s story gets us to Exodus and places the Israelites in Egypt where the legacy of his accomplishments has disappeared. The sense of fragility that the story conveys has greatly increased among American Jews in the past four years. Although, as an aggregate, wildly successful, American Jews have wondered if that success could be taken away. Could the rise of white nationalism lead to more anti-Semitism and an increase in hate crimes? The short answer is yes.

One of the goals of both the Tikkun Olam Committee and the Tzedek Initiative is to join learning and study with action. The action I am proposing in connection with Human Rights Shabbat is for the JCA to give its support to Fair Fight, one of Stacy Abrams’ voting rights organizations. According to their website, Fair Fight promotes “fair elections in Georgia and around the country, encourages voter participation in elections, and educates voters about elections and their voting rights. Fair Fight brings awareness to the public on election reform, advocates for election reform at all levels, and engages in other voter education programs and communications.”

I recently made calls with Fair Fight. They strictly enforce their non-partisan status and neither of the candidates are mentioned in the call script. We can support them through donations and by helping in their efforts to expand voting access in Georgia and across the county.

************************************************

There are  six days left before the Jan 5th election in Georgia. if you have time, please try to make some calls to get out the vote.

Next week, I will provide a review of 2020. Happy New Year!

 

Human Rights Shabbat D’Var Torah – Part2

This is the second part of the talk I gave on Dec. 12 for Human Rights Shabbat. Lunch and Learn is a weekly group at the synagogue where I lead discussions, based on texts, centered around relationships between African Americans and Jews. We focus on ways for us, as Jewish Americans, to become more actively  and consciously anti-Racist.

In Lunch and Learn, we often discuss the gradual process by which Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants and their descendants became white. In the area of citizenship and voting, the process was more immediate. Once any immigrant naturalized, they could vote. Before 1920, this meant fathers and sons. After passage of the 19th Amendment naturalized female immigrants could vote, making them more fully citizens. An untold story of the suffragist fight for the franchise was the role of black women. Their involvement in expanding American freedom continues to this day. In 2020, the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, I believe black women saved our democracy.

Southern whites, in enacting Jim Crow, to replace slavery as a means of enforcing racial separation and hierarchy, used a variety of methods to prevent African Americans from voting. Southern legislators placed the poll tax at a high enough rate that it was effectively out of reach for all poor people, black and white. The rigidly hierarchical nature of post-Civil War Southern society meant most blacks and many poor whites did not own property which was another Jim Crow requirement for voting. Southern states also had literacy requirements which were difficult for poorly educated blacks and many poor whites to pass.  Again, naturalized Jews, living in mostly Northern urban areas faced none of these hurdles when going to vote.

Many of the current requirements in various states around voting which we probably take for granted and assume they have always existed include voter registration which often ends as early as a month before election day and identification requirements. Most of these were enacted in the Progressive Era of the late 19th and early 20th century by both white Jim Crow Southerners and white northern reformers to limit voting access for blacks, immigrants including Jews and Italians and poor whites.

In 1948, when the UN adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, President Truman, a Democrat, proposed a suite of legislation that would have made a significant dent in the Jim Crow edifice. He advocated the creation of a permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission, an anti-lynching law, anti-poll tax legislation and the prohibition of discrimination in inter-state transportation facilities.

Today’s parsha ends with Joseph in jail. He has been falsely accused of attempting to sleep with his master’s wife. In the Jim Crow South black men were routinely accused of trespassing with white women and were frequently lynched for this supposed crime. Lynching was the underpinning of a system of ongoing and daily intimidation by whites of black people. This continuous intimidation served as another barrier to voting.

Truman’s Civil Rights program went nowhere because southern senators and congressmen, overwhelmingly Democratic, vehemently opposed it. Progress towards dismantling Jim Crow would have to wait for almost 20 more years. One of the first cracks in Jim Crow disenfranchisement of African Americans came, in 1964 when the 24th Amendment, prohibiting poll taxes in federal election was ratified.

On August 6, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson, with Martin Luther King, Jr. by his side, signed the Voting Rights Act. This deeply significant piece of legislation was enacted after the longest filibuster in American history. People, marching from Selma to Montgomery endured great violence and sometime death to help secure passage of the Act. Demonstrations in other places, such as St. Augustine, Florida also convinced the nation that it was time to make the Jim Crow system of segregation illegal.

Next week, I will post the final  part of the D’Var. Happy Holidays!

Kamala Harris and Black Sororities

Kamala Harris is the presumptive Democratic vice presidential nominee[. The first African American and South Asian American nominee of a major political party, Harris is a graduate of Howard University, a historically black university, and a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, the oldest African American sorority in the country.

Here is an article about AKA today and Kamala Harris.

In one of one chapters of my book on faculty wives, I discussed the founding of AKA, at Howard in 1908.

Here is an excerpt:

Lucy Diggs Slowe was the first Dean of Women at Howard University from 1922 to 1937. Although she was not a faculty wife, Slowe’s involvement in national organizations connected her to that first generation of nationally involved African- American wives. Slowe was a graduate of Howard and in 1908 one of the founders of the first national Black sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha.

Norma Boyd, a 1910 graduate of Howard was also a founding member of AKA. Boyd, a native of Washington, D.C. attended Armstrong High School and then went on to attend college at Howard in 1906. She described Washington as “the intellectual center for Negroes in the United States. Mrs. Mary Church Terrell was on the Board of Education. When I was a child about ten years old, I decided I wanted to be like Mary Church Terrell.”

Boyd was a sophomore when the senior students including Lucy Slowe founded the sorority. She described how she became involved. “You see, this the oldest colored sorority. … The very first. So, they decided to have a sorority but who was going to carry it on after they left. There were seven girls in my class – six or seven – and they asked us to come in. Now you were expected to have scholarship and the idea of service to be a member. So, they asked us to come in and we did. They called us founders because, although it was not our idea, we were in on the ground floor. It was not incorporated until 1913 and then I was one of the incorporators”

Although Alpha Kappa Alpha was a sorority based at Howard, it was unusual because it had graduate members. Because many of the African American sororities had adult members, they functioned more like the national club associations. Like NACW, the Tuskegee Woman’s Club and the Atlanta Union, AKA also had a social activist agenda. The organization pursued projects in health care and sponsored fellowships.

By the time Slowe became Dean of Women Students at Howard, there were three sororities, AKA, Delta Sigma Theta, and Zeta Phi Beta. Delta Sigma Theta grew out of AKA due to a desire for some members in the early years to expand beyond Howard. Five female students founded Zeta Phi Beta in 1920. These organizations still exist. Most of the prominent Afro-American women of the mid and late twentieth century belonged to one of these sororities.

©AmyMittelman 2020

 

Retreat

Last week I attended a virtual four day Jewish Women’s silent retreat. It was sponsored by Awakened Heart Project and Or HaLev. The  leaders were Sheila Katz, Rebecca Schisler and Rabbi Batsheva Meiri. Paige Lincenberg was the retreat manager.

Because it was a mindfulness retreat, there were many opportunities for meditation throughout the day. You can do a formal mindful practice in a variety of postures including walking, sitting, lying down and standing. Yoga can also be a mindful activity. The last day of the retreat, Rebecca led us in a practice, The Five Rhythms, which is contemplative dance. I really enjoyed that.

During the retreat I mostly sat which I found difficult. When one of the leaders guided us and we were all sitting together (via Zoom), I could calm my mind for a more extended period of time. It was harder to sit by myself without any guidance. Now that I am “home”, I am trying to sit for thirty minutes, first thing in the morning.

Overall, the retreat made me want to be more mindful and less reactive in my relationships and in how I lead my life. One of the most liberating  and revelatory aspects of the retreat was how it felt to not look at my phone or anywhere on the Internet, except for Zoom for four full days. It was a tremendous relief to not have to deal with email for that period of time.

The sense of relief and ease I experienced not being connected to my phone, the Web or social media has made me rethink my relationship to those platforms. For the first time in over three years, this past month I did not tweet every day. You won’t be surprised to learn the world didn’t fall apart.

Connected to cutting the cord is another aspect of the retreat I am trying to bring into my daily life. A meal should just be a meal without any multitasking, looking up things  on the internet or reading  things on the phone. Eating silently is actually a lovely way to concentrate. I enjoyed the silence of the retreat and I hope to have more quiet, peaceful time in my day.

My favorite parts of the retreat were the ones with Jewish content. Every morning at 9:30, there was a chanting service which was a beautiful blend of traditional Jewish ritual and contemplative practice. Wednesday night into Thursday was the Jewish holiday Tisha B’Av, the low point of the Jewish year. It commemorates the sacking of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Second Temple. Over the years, the holiday has also become associated with other Jewish tragedies including the Holocaust.

To observe Tisha B’Av, we chant from Lamentations, one of the books of the Jewish bible. Rabbi Batsheva led the service and Paige, who is a rabbinical student, chanted. Her chanting was beautiful and deeply soulful. I had never really read Lamentations before. It is a raw expression of acute pain and sorrow. The complete bewilderment of the Jewish people about what would come next following the tragedy evoked in me the feeling I have about the pandemic and the situation our country is in.

Observing Jewish rituals throughout the retreat made me grateful that I am a Jew. I came away with a commitment to be more Jewish, which feels like a funny thing to say. The retreat ended on Thursday; I was really excited that the next evening was Shabbat. Built into the Jewish religion is a time every week to be more contemplative and peaceful. Attending a four day silent retreat was a very powerful experience; the power is actually increasing as I process and live with the experience.

Shirtless Men

This summer, partly because of Covid-19, I have been walking a lot. Sometimes I walk with my husband, sometimes by myself. Recently, we were walking in our neighborhood when a shirtless male in a Speedo style bottom ran past us. My reaction to this somewhat startling sight was that woman could never expose herself in the same way. It seemed a revealing example of the way society polices women’s bodies.

The man was neither young or particularly fit. A woman of similar age and fitness, maybe me, would never go out looking like that because she would think that she was too fat. Of course, women cannot or do not run topless down your average street. I guarantee you if I were walking or running with no shirt on and a bikini bottom, somebody would be notice and the police might get called. Women can probably get away with wearing a sports bra and shirt – the kind of uniform female beach volleyball players wear.

However, in most cities, a scantily dressed woman would be subjected to catcalls. I don’t know if most men, in any stage of dress or undress, ever face that. In response to this eye opening display of male privilege and patriarchy, I have decided to stop shaving my legs. This is a fairly easy act of resistance since, because of Covid-19, waxing salons are not open. Not that I would go right now anyway. Both men and women have hair on their legs. Why are men allowed men to have their hairy legs while standards of female beauty require women to be clean shaven? It is another example of the policing of women’s bodies.

In another context, I have been reading about forms of oppression which can be institutional, ideological, interpersonal, and internalized. Many women including me have internalized patriarchal notions of female beauty. It can be tough to try to change such ingrained misogynistic habits. The test will be whether or not I shave my legs for my son’s wedding next month.

 

Book Review: Such A Fun Age

I recently read Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid. The reason I read it is because I had seen an excerpt of a review of the book by JoJo Moyes which said “An amazing debut…A sort of modern Austen-esque take on racism and modern liberal sensibilities…except that description makes it sound far more serious and less clever than it is. [Kiley Reid] has a forensic eye.” 

Because I am a sucker for anything to do with Jane Austen, I decided to read the book. The joke was on me because Such a Fun Age has nothing to do with Jane Austen, neither the style of writing nor the topic of the book.

Such A Fun Age is, on one level, the story of a clash between a 35-year-old white woman, Alix, and a 25-year-old  black woman, Emira. Alix is an influencer, although the writer doesn’t use that word about her, while Emira is, to some extent, the stereotypical aimless college graduate. Emira works for Alix as a babysitter.

The author portrays the differences between the two women as stemming from class and race. Alix is established in her career, with a book deal, a husband, a home and two children. Emira has no idea what she wants to do and is worried about losing her health insurance when she turns 26.

One evening while Emira is at a party, Alix calls her to take her older daughter out of the house because there has been an incident and the police are coming. Emira and a friend go and get the child and bring her to a local convenience store. A white woman, a Karen, thinks it is odd that Emira, all dressed up, is with a white child and alerts security.

A confrontation ensues, a bystander is filming it and it is only resolved when the child’s father, Peter, appears and vouches for Emira. This is the beginning of the book and it is certainly a timely scene.

Once Alix heards of this incident she is determined to show Emira that she is a good person. She does not articulate to herself that she wants it proven that she is not a racist. Alix becomes almost obsessive about Emira.

Emira, on the other hand is disinterested in Alix and her life. She doesn’t even google Alix to find out about her. Peter is a local tv news anchor but Emira seems unaware of this as well. She is not savvy about social media or the internet. This seemed implausible, given her age.

Although the book had nothing to do with Austen, I enjoyed reading it, especially in these fraught times. For me, the book reveals how problematic transactional relations in intimate settings can be, especially when there is disparity between the two parties involving race and class.

 

 

Memories

A few weeks ago, in my writing group, Nerissa, the group leader, read, as a prompt, a portion of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, where she talked about the execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, in 1953. Being a red diaper baby, I grew up believing that the couple killed could have just as easily been my parents. Of course, the Rosenbergs were innocent; for my parents and their friends there was no other truth.

March 6, 2020 was the fiftieth anniversary of a townhouse in Greenwich Village, New York City, blowing up, killing three members of the Weather Underground. I knew one of the people killed – Ted Gold. I grew up with him. He was the youngest son of one of my mother’s closest friends.

The chapter of my book on faculty wives that I am currently working is about activism in the 1950s and 60s. I focus on two women – Sarah Patton Boyle and Anne Bennett. Boyle was an early white supporter of civil rights in Virginia while Bennett worked to end the Vietnam War.

My mother was a part of this activist history. As a baby, I was wheeled to Ban the Bomb demonstrations. She was a member of Women Strike for Peace. In the chapter, I describe a demonstration in Washington, DC that WSP organized. It is very possible that my mother was there.

The arc of history from the Rosenbergs to the Weather Underground is, in a simple way, the story of the Old Left morphing into the New Left; a generational shift that I was a part of. I have often wondered what my politics would have been if I had grown up in a different household. In my house, noisy discussion about politics were an everyday occurrence. Most of my parent’s friends had also been in the Communist Party. Whenever they came over, it got even louder. Being on the left is probably in my DNA.