You Broke Your Back So I May Stand (For My Mother)

Women working at sewing machines with stacks of fabric and finished garments piled around them, 1970 
Photo of female sewing machine workers (1970) by Kheel Center, Cornell University via Flickr

At the Bat Mitzvah
She parted the
Ark of the Covenant

She, not yet old enough to drive
To vote
To drink

Gently she lifted the Torah scrolls
And placed them in the arms of the proud aunt
Who didn’t know that in Orthodox shuls

Women don’t do that sort of thing.

Like an innocent child the aunt grinned
And as the joy spilled across her face like sunlight
I stood there, horrified

As I heard a childhood voice whisper -
"If you drop the Torah you must fast for forty days
Did anybody tell her that?"

And then the girl came back
She took the velvet scrolls as if taking a baby
Laying them over her left shoulder
Siddur in her right

Gingerly she stepped forward
So that the women on the aisle
Could raise their books for a symbolic kiss.

It was theater-style seating and we watched the show
To welcome this child to tradition
We gathered together. Older women, younger, infant
Mostly women, men in the back
Some in hats befitting Orthodox tradition
Others bareheaded, or with obligatory doily

Holding yawning babies, squirming babies
Running out as impatient toddlers
Announced loudly they had had enough.

A clowning around boy runs in, holding his shoes up
His horrified mother claps one hand over her mouth
Laughing behind it as she shoos him out the door.

All the women gathered, in the women’s chapel
Ugly and beautiful
Skinny and fat
Young and old
Our skins melded together, a rainbow of colors
And even faiths.

All are welcome here.

A woman reads from the Torah – no she sings -
And it sounds like opera, or something
I can’t exactly name.
A foreign language in a foreign voice
Because the women are supposed to be silent.
And I’m incredulous that this is allowed

It’s decades ago, and I’m as young as this girl
A rabbi bangs his fist on the desk
 “What is this outrage! Stop it now!”

Then a prayer-shawled man runs in meekly to get his wife
It’s the women’s service, but there’s a hum of  “We understand”
The baby needs her.

She returns, swishing quietly down the aisle
Allowing the newcomers in to the service
Somebody says, “Make way, make way”
And the row stands up as one to allow the people in.

No questions asked.

At the bimah the service continues
Run by a gaggle of women, helping each other along
A woman’s hat slides forward as she looks down at the Torah
Then back as she gestures to the open door
With her hands, “Close it close it, the noise is too loud.” Repeat.
The door is closed.

My eyes well up with see-through blood
Tears of I-can’t-believe-this
As my daughter, to the left, shoulders shrugging
Asks me with her eyes
"What has happened? What is wrong?"

I envision that shrieking headline, “HILLARY HAS NO MAKEUP”
Remembering that she looked good as she actually was.

And turn back to my daughter.
“Nothing is wrong.” (Only that it’s a miracle)

The ordinary of that scene
Extraordinary in the making.

Back in time, now it’s thirty years ago
The old fashioned film is playing
As the grownups argue at the Shabbos table
While Grandma (O”H) brings in food,

“That’s crazy, women cannot hold the Torah.”
“They’re impure.”
“They’re holier than men, they don’t need it.”
“They have children to watch and can’t be bound by time.”

Quietly my mother ignored the back-and-forthing
A nurse, she knew how to bandage the pain
And her focus was on getting through it.

Ma had reached the end of her personal bridge
And held out her hands, knitted
Full of violin lessons, piano, drama classes, voice classes, what didn't she....

Where her life was only "gonna" go so far
The children would be stars, covered in glitter.

To stand me up straight
My mother bent her neck
And broke her back
She did what it took
So that I may stand.

My mother doesn’t know it. I can never pay her back.
So she sits there in my brain, everywhere
I want her to see the fruits of her labor.
The Bat Mitzvah girl steps forward
Hesitantly, breathy, gasping
She ekes the blessing out

A hush.
And then the crowd goes wild
Hollering and clapping
Mazel Tov! It’s done!
An army of Tootsie rolls and sour candies and gummies wrapped in plastic
Flying all at once from the women towards her head

(Miss, of course, and hit a kid two rows in front of me. She turns her head, and so do I
Pretending it’s the lady an aisle back.)

We mothers throw our love to this girl, together
Standing straight, but with our backs outstretched
Praying, silently
That she doesn’t have to cross the bridge of broken flowers

As did our mothers, and their mothers before them.

Silently I am thanking G-d.

This most ordinary of scenes – to my daughter, that is
Is the miracle I prayed for all these years
It is my personal giving of the Torah
The parting of the Red Sea

And when we leave the synagogue
The scene, as if from a movie
Is branded iron-red inside my mind.

“If you can break, you can fix,” said Rabbi Nachman

And he rose from his grave this Shabbos to prove it. 

~~Happy Mother's Day~~


So you want to know why people don't trust authority anymore? Why the promises of leaders have no essential meaning?
  • Because authorities routinely make promises and lie.
  • Or mess up and blame someone else.
  • Or know about a victim's plight, but cover up for the victimizer instead.
In pre-Internet times such things were relatively easy to cover up. After all - how would somebody know about something unless they saw it, read it in a newspaper somebody else printed, heard it on a radio or TV station somebody else owned, or had it told to them directly from a witness?

Now the curtain is open - flung open - and all of us can see backstage. Victims are using the social media microphone to speak out. And they are finding solace, camaraderie, encouragement and advocates online.

And they refuse to be "suckers" anymore.

Consider Maslow's hierarchy of needs. The deepest yearning a person has, is to be moral.
This is especially true of children, who absorb what grownups tell them like a sponge.

Unfortunately too many children have been exploited from the youngest age. And consequently they have learned to mistrust just about everyone.

For example, religious teachers, who are in a position to take a child to the highest spiritual heights, sometimes are spiritually sick abusers. Who specifically work with children so as to target their innocent, yearning souls.

Who abuse children and then tell them they deserve the punishment.

These people are not the norm. But they exist. And unfortunately, they use their status to get respectable people to cover for them. So the child comes to hate themselves while trying to preserve the belief that their superiors (parents, teachers, religious leaders) are good and right.

Because how can everybody else be wrong?

Meanwhile the innocent souls are literally tossed out like so much trash:
"When Yoelly (pseudonym) started eighth grade, his new teacher seemed to take an immediate dislike to him, striking him almost every morning....Six months into the year, his teacher...raped the little boy (emphasis added).

"A few months later, he found the courage to tell his father what had happened. His father slapped him and told him never to mention such immodest things again."

"'That day was the worst day of my life,'" Yoelly says. 'I realized that I was all alone. There was nobody to keep me safe.'

"The teacher who raped Yoelly still teaches at that school. 

"As an adult...Yoelly sought a private audience with the grand Rebbe, or leader, of his Hasidic sect, to discuss the issue....the Rebbe said...'Get him out of here.'"

- Leah Vincent, "Victims Protest: Rabbis, Protect Our Children"
Let's count the number of betrayers here: 1) Teacher 2) Father 3) Grand Rabbi.

The story above is only one of many. It is thanks to the Internet that I know about it. The same Internet that the ultra-Orthodox rabbis want to shut down ("responsibly regulate???"), to the extent that they are willing to spend millions of dollars to protest it at Citifield in New York this May.

The (men-only) stadium event is an attempt to institutionalize censorship, as it's apparently been slow going thus far. Reports the Wall Street Journal:
"Earlier attempts by Orthodox religious leaders to ban the Internet in congregants' households have largely failed....But efforts to restrict it continue, including contracts at some religious schools requiring parents to promise that their children won't be allowed Internet access, under threat of expulsion."
One wonders why, if the rabbis are so worried about people accessing pornography online, they don't stop the sexual crimes committed right inside the boiler rooms of their own yeshivas. Which has led a number of sane Jewish people to organize in response. WSJ continues:
"'The Internet Is Not the Problem'...accuses Jewish leadership of scapegoating the Internet while avoiding a more pressing problem: child abuse. 'You can spend all the time and money protesting the Internet and you can't get worked up about child molestation?' said Ari Mandel....(who) organized the counterprotest after learning last week that a young family member had been molested."
I can rattle off a list of Jewish blogs that routinely raise people's consciousness about what's going on. Failed Messiah. Frum Satire. Unpious. And books - Unorthodox. Hush.

And this is only in a tiny little corner of the world.

Back to the bigger picture. Where distrust of (and anger at) government and even the Supreme Court have reached historic highs.
The mistrust is a reflection of what is going on across the board - where people are fed up with the "ordinary" and "extraordinary" betrayals of authority that take place every day at work, in the hospital, in the military, in the press, in the academy, in synagogue or church or mosque or Buddhist temple.

You would think that with all this mistrust, and with all this awareness of social media, that leaders would shift strategies accordingly. But no.

In today's day and age, one-way, self-promotional communication strategies are still the norm. In alignment with failure to take responsibility for things that are going wrong, and to fix them.

The unpunished rape of a child is such an unspeakably horrible crime that it's offensive even to compare it with the ordinary doublespeak of social institutions. I know that. But there is a common thread here that most organization's don't seem to get, fully and internally:

Communication has to actually reflect credible action on the ground.

It is offensive that:
  • Good people, from youth onward, who want to serve the institutions of which they are a part, get victimized so frequently by abusive people in power.
  • People who should be removed from power due to incompetence or corruption or both, are not. And that they squander the trust of the stakeholders who have invested in them.
It is not necessarily offensive, but it is surprising, that the vast majority of institutions and authorities today still take people for suckers. When they should know better.

The reality is - they are not. They're thinking, and reading. And they're sharing what they care about - instantly and virally.

Even the quietest person today has a smartphone in their pocket. And they're watching and listening to every word.

It's an impossibly high standard to keep, but you have to try anyway.  

That is the essence of successful communication today - an integrity in action that speaks far louder than words.

Have a good weekend everyone, and if you ever have the opportunity, please stand up for those who can't speak up for themselves.

Good luck.

Real-Speak vs. Government-Speak

"Bueller? Bueller?" Screenshot from Ferris Bueller's Day Off - bored student listens to Ben Stein as teacher. Via YouTomb

Today we saw either the coolest or most unsightly thing.

A deer tried to jump an iron fence and ended up hanging on a spike by his neck.

My daughter grabbed her phone, took a photo, and posted it to Facebook.. So many comments!

·      Some people thought it was funny.
·      Others, tragic that anybody thought it was funny.
·      Yet other people coolly assessed that they thought the whole spectacle was cool.

Maybe you think that dead impaled deers are disgusting. And that it’s sad.

But what’s undeniable about the aftermath is the ALIVENESS of the Facebook conversation.

It was how people sound when they talk in real life. It made me want to read more.

Contrast this with the majority of government writing.

It is written to pass muster with a panoply of specialists.

·      Lawyers
·      Policy experts
·      Subject matter experts
·      Public affairs specialists
·      Somebody’s friend who just happens to be there

Everybody wants to weigh in, and does that make the end product readable? Engaging?

Add to that the fact that you can speak in plain English sometimes, and still say nothing.

Many a communicator has thrown her hands up in frustration at the beautiful prose they penned, turned muddy and un-engaging by a committee.

Personally I’d like to see more direct government-to-public conversation.

·      Transparency means – you share.
·      Social media means – you engage.
·      Real writing is not just read, but understood and responded to, if only internally – from person to person.

Right now authentic communication, let alone conversation, is not at all the government norm. Nor in most institutions—except perhaps the most incredibly advanced ones, like Google.

Many are the communication classes I’ve taken. Many.

But the best teacher of all has been my mother. (She always tells me, “Write the book. Write it!”)

When the writing is good my mother says, “Great.”

When it’s turgid she says, “I don’t get it.”

If my mother can’t understand the stuff I write, then it isn’t really writing.

As Jim Carrey said to Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,

“Constant talking doesn’t mean you’re communicating.”

Good writing reflects good thinking. It’s straight like a pin, direct. And it’s hard to create a good second impression.

It’s not that government is any different from the rest of the world; it is that there is so much more at stake.

The lives of its citizens, the functioning of the social order – is that enough?

Good luck!

A Leader Like You

Snow Day! Central London 02/02/2009

The first year I joined the government my boss decided to bring the daily morning news clips into the 21st century.
Because everyone was so concerned about the impending change, we actually had to hold FOCUS GROUPS. 

To discuss our FEELINGS about getting THE EXACT SAME news downloaded from the Internet rather than PHYSICALLY SCISSORED from a print newspaper.

In the end the process went online. And if not for that supervisor the government would still be using taxpayer money to pay a GS-13 to waste hours of time and reams of paper shredding the Wall Street Journal and New York Times looking for news.

Do you think you are too low on the totem pole to be a leader?

Somebody else is an administrative professional. Every request gets a response, usually within 10 minutes. And a follow-up, even if the answer is no.

Every person can lead.

Yet another person I know worked at a medical facility for decades, in a non-management position. Eventually new management took over. They cut corners. My friend reported safety issues – and got fired.

Sometimes there are people who just want the power. They are happy to be leaders. But they are not the kind of people who you think should be in charge.

If you don't step up, then how can you complain?

Here's somebody else. Somebody you will never meet.

This one counsels ultra-Orthodox Jewish people about entering the workforce. She grew up poor. And she sees a poverty mindset at work in some parts of the community. I defy any lazy loafer hiding in yeshiva to ignore her finger wagging in his face.
Yet another person is a parenting coach. I wish she’d been around when mine were born.

Even if you don’t see yourself as a leader, you are.

Given all the responsibilities most people have, it’s not clear to me why they don’t see themselves as leaders. 

Maybe it's the mindset we have, the stereotypes we carry - leaders must look like "this" or sound like "that" or dress "that way."
At the end of the day those stereotypes hurt all of us.

If you can take charge of something, do it. Even if you take charge of a core group of dedicated followers.
Everyone can make a difference. The only power we really have is the power to try.
Have a good day everyone, and good luck!

Branding Is Over. Move On.

Friends on The Stoop - Labor Day 1983 80s

"Word of mouth is the primary factor behind 20-50% of all purchasing decisions." - MIncite, McKinsey/Nielsen

Not long ago I realized once and for all that branding, as a profession and as a goal, was completely finished.

I was in a meeting and someone asked:

"Are you sure that information (content other than theirs) belongs with our information?"

A pause.

And then, "Because our information is not propaganda."
In the olden days the "P-word" would never have been used. But now everything that isn't straight data is suspect.

The willingness to be so critical of corporate communication, and the bluntness with which we confront it, is directly linked to the rise of social media.

Social media has become so important that it is no longer an "accessory" to communication. It is in fact dominant over that portion of mind-space previously reserved for advertising and marketing.

Real social media - regular people talking to each other without corporate interference (see the Cluetrain Manifesto) - is so much more powerful than ads that ads now turn people off.

Even on the hub of social media, Facebook, it's not clear that advertising has much value - in my view precisely because it is professional-communication-speak. Accordingly, marketers question value of the company itself as a vehicle for influencing people to buy things through advertising:
According to one marketer who works for an auto company: “The question with Facebook and many of the social media sites is, What are we getting for our dollars? If a consumer sees my ad, [does that] ultimately lead to a new vehicle sale?” - Bloomberg BusinessWeek, May 3, 2012
The reality is that the "prosumer," or "proactive consumer," is here to stay and they are not content with the stuff Madison Avenue churns out for them.

My former boss at Young & Rubicam, Marian Salzman, popularized this term for marketers, though it was first coined by Alvin Toffler in 1980.  (Actually Toffler was building on the work of McLuhan and Nevitt, whose book Take Today predicted that "with electric technology, the consumer would become a producer." - via Wikipedia.)

In her view the prosumer is the person you need to reach with a product - not the entire world. She explains the three functions of the prosumer, briefly, as follows:
"There’s a certain set of consumers who don’t just passively consume goods and services; they proactively seek them out, help to produce them and help to propagate them."-

Briefly, this person:
  1. Actively looks for the hottest new products
  2. Co-creates the product, either directly or through feedback
  3. Enjoys popularizing them through word of mouth, social media, etc.
The purpose of this post is not to suggest a solution for reaching the prosumer. That's one for another day.

Rather the intention is to point out that McLuhan, Nevitt, Toffler, Salzman and the Cluetrain group are correct: Prosumers now dominate the discourse of advertising and marketing. Yet we are ignoring this reality. Preferring instead to talk to ordinary people in a propagandish way.

Real people want plain speak.

They want to talk to their friends.

And the future of communication is to create the friendship effect for the purpose of producing desired business results.

Think about it - have a good day - and good luck!

Search This Blog