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Movie Review: "Mendy"

I had low hopes for this movie but was instantly shocked at just how good it was. "Mendy" isn't a movie for everyone, but if you are familiar with the Chasidish community and Williamsburg in particular, you will instantly recognize what is going on here and why it matters. I've been out of New York for about fifteen years now, and what's happening in this movie post-dates me; I've only read about it from a distance. What we are looking at is the "Off The Derech" situation, where a young person in a very religious community has somehow fallen from grace. In this case the problem is that Mendy is heterosexual (!) which may not seem like a trespass to ordinary people but in the ultra-insular sphere of Williamsburg, any display of sexuality is considered gross, taboo and strictly forbidden.

What's so great about this movie, and what earns it five stars in my book, is that the characters are so finely drawn. Unlike most depictions of religion in Hollywood (with the exception of Christian independent film), "Mendy" doesn't portray a religious upbringing or a religious community as "bad." As Mendy himself says, in so many words, you have to look at the world in shades of gray and not in black and white, and the film successfully does this. Instead of preaching about the right way to live by having a single character espouse it, the film shows us a small group of complicated people, some better, some worse, but all of them trying to get by.

The portrayal of the Israeli drug smuggler was frightening and I could easily imagine this scheme playing out across the lives of many young people who exist in an underworld where drugs and prostitution have become ordinary. It was laughable and sadly recognizable when the Israeli and the Chasidim needed to get their business done before Shabbos, as illegal as their business was. Like - they didn't see any contradiction there, nothing to even talk about.

My favorite scene of all, and the one that makes the entire show worth watching all by itself, is the Shabbos dinner where the excommunicated Chasidim (Satmar and Lubavitch alike), the transvestites, and OTDers sit around and trade cholent, challah, gefilte fish and insults.

I can't help but note how frequently Black people are characterized as the spiritual soul of a Jewish movie, and this one was no exception, as Bianca saves Mendy from a life of "constantly playing a part" by putting him in touch with his body and his self. Oddly, the body is the very thing that ultra-Orthodox Judaism cannot reconcile with spirituality...but it is the key to bringing Mendy back.

Really an amazing movie, again not for everyone, but I found it profound and disturbing and beautiful.

All opinions my own.

i4i (Bible Rapper)

I have a sixth sense for up and coming talent: was one of the first bloggers at GovLoop, acquired by GovDelivery, just acquired for $153m. Spotted Chloe Valdary whose career is only just taking off. Lipa Schmeltzer landed Pepsi commercial. Get ready for i4i (Bible Rapper).

(All opinions my own.)

Government Communication Will Not Regulate Itself

I'm sure by now you've seen a headline attacking the amount of money the government spends each year on "public relations." These are coming from a report published by the Government Accountability Office just this week which noted that "public relations" experts employed by the government make about $500 million in total a year.

The study is misleading for a few reasons, which I've noted on my blog, but its central point is well-taken. We spend a lot of money reaching out to the public. Is that money well-spent?

Let's leave aside for the moment the issue of political communication, meaning words intended to convince you that everything is hunky-dory when it comes to the Administration's policies, staff, and goals.

Let's not talk about foreign propaganda right now.

Forget the methodological vagueness of a report that on the one hand outlines numerous legitimate informational uses of government communication, but somehow only counts the dollars spent on communication that attempts to persuade.

Finally, forget the fact that the Department of Defense spends the lion's share of the money described in the study, so much so that it could really have been the subject of a report all by itself.

Is the government spending wisely on the straightforward stuff - what most of us would call "plain vanilla," highly acceptable forms of communication, like creating forms and then telling you where to find them?

The answer to that question, unfortunately, is no.

For at least 5 reasons.

1) Overwhelmingly, it is not career communicators who lead the communication function. Rather, these positions are often given to political appointees, or to professionals whose experience - while impressive - is not geared to the kind of work communicators do.

2) The government has not clearly defined or systematized the career specializations associated with its own communication. There are numerous job series into which communicators may fall - not just "public affairs specialist" but also "writer-editor," "management and program analyst," "correspondence analyst," "technical writer-editor," "web content specialist," and so on.

3) There is no accredited Bachelor's or Master's degree program specifically geared toward training people to serve as government communicators. There is no career development path recognized by the government that is specifically aimed at government communicators.

4) The government has not defined what communication is, what a communication program should look like, or who should be doing the communicating. It further does not spell out agencies' communication authorities as based on their appropriations for the year. Some have a recognized need to market their products and services to the public (for example, to prevent fraud) - others do not. And in the United States, there is no annual plan or strategy for government communication, as there is for example in the UK.

5) Finally, from a procurement (contracting) perspective there are no clear and universally defined "buckets" to encompass all forms of communication and how they are defined. There is no independent authority in the government whose job it is to regularly audit communication spending. This is necessary not only because the government tends to overspend or spend inappropriately on some campaigns, but also because it underspends or spends in a non-strategic way on others.

They say "what isn't measured isn't managed." With all the self congratulation that goes on in Washington, the pet projects, and the general bloat that happens when money is available so freely and unguardedly - self regulation is not going to happen.

We can look to the "plain language" movement (there was a law signed in 2010 requiring its use) for some traction. But its limitation is that it leaves the "superstructure" unchallenged - garbage in, garbage out.

Someone has to write the rules, and enforce them.

In the world we live in -- fraught as it is with ignorance, hate, and mischief -- the government can never go wrong investing in communication best practices. The problem, however, is that this very powerful tool has for too long operated under the radar.

A more disciplined approach-- a standardized approach -- to planning, monitoring and reporting on government communication is what's needed.


All opinions are my own. Photo by Ben Chun via Flickr (Creative Commons)

About "Parnassah"

It's weird how ideas get embedded in your subconscious. The younger you are the more I think this is likely to happen, because your brain is not developed enough to think critically.
Such was the case, I think, with the Jewish term "parnassah," meaning "to earn a living," as it was used in my orbit.
Keep in mind as you read this that I grew up in an unusual world, with parents who were "intermarried." Both are Orthodox Jewish, but my mom is Ashkenazic and my dad Chasidish.
If you don't know what that means, to simplify and overgeneralize:
  • Ashkenazim, being Talmudically oriented, are "by the book" -- a rule is a rule, regardless of the bigger picture.
  • Chasidim, being Rebbe-oriented, are "by the heart" -- the ends justify the means, even if you have to break a rule to get there.
Obviously culture is not something you can argue about, even though everybody (not just Ashkenaz or Chasidic but Sephardic, Israeli, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and every combination and variation thereof) thinks that they are "right."

But I wanted to talk about "parnassah" and some related terms as they became an axis of conflict in my family of origin.

Particularly in my mother's parents' (may they rest in peace) home, we used to debate ethical issues surrounding "parnassah" with my grandparents expressing anger that people would use "earning a living" as an excuse for behaving in ways that were rude, bad for the family, unethical and even downright illegal. (Like Chasidim abusing government welfare programs.)

But from my father's parents' point of view (may they rest in peace), non-Jews were frequently anti-Semitic and did unscrupulous things, including abusing the law, to hurt Jews. (My Zayde was a military officer in Romania before the Holocaust and was put into a labor camp where he hid Jews beneath the freezing hay). There were other things too that happened after the war, anti-Semitic things my Zayde would not want me to talk about. He was able to overcome them by the grace of G-d. But I think my Zayde would have cast a skeptical eye upon the argument that law is equally applied to everyone.

There's the rub. Ashkenazim like living in the American, secular world, and they believe in fighting for a fairer legal system. Chasidim believe that the system is inherently biased against Jews. They don't like living in a secular world, but they do what they have to do to survive. They will partner with non-Jews, but they are deeply conscious of the memory of the six million (the Holocaust). It is never a partnership of trust.

I grew up in both worlds and have a foot in both worlds. I understand how Chasidim think, and I understand how Ashkenazim do as well. I tend to be one of those people who wants to work within the system for change, but I also understand that behind closed doors people absolutely hate Jews, and that is true whether they are on the left or the right of the political spectrum.

You still have to follow the law. If it is anti-Semitic, we have to say so; if we can't live within a system of law that's biased against Jews, we have to go to a country where the laws don't operate against us.

I tend to think that Ashkenazic Jews like being part of the non-Jewish world so very much, that they are afraid to call anti-Semitism out for what it is.


All opinions my own.

Recruiting A Marketer? 5 Mistakes To Avoid

1. Showing Contempt for the Consumer:
The best marketers are the ones who are in touch with your audience. So look for people who genuinely like the kind of people who buy your product - or who you're trying to reach. You can have the "best," "most qualified" candidate in the world, but if they think they're better than your customer, don't bother.

2. Screening for Industry Experience: You are trying to break the mold. Why are you looking for people who were born and raised on that mold? Who think the same way as everybody else does? Who don’t dare to question the conventional wisdom? Your subject matter experts are not marketers; the creatives can consult them when such expertise is needed. So stop looking for the same people everybody knows from the trade shows. Start looking where nobody dares to go, for people who can connect with your customer in ways nobody from your industry has ever dared to before.

3. Looking for a Drinking Buddy:
People tend to hire people they like and feel comfortable with. But the truth is, great marketers have a talent that makes them diametrically different from you and from most people. They may be highly introverted, even antisocial, picky and fussy and obsessed with their own ideas. Good! They are there to make you money - not to serve as your substitute therapist. Similarly, don’t mistake “drinking the Kool Aid” for cultural fit. You want a candidate who will work well with your team. But this is not the same as hiring a yes-person.

4. Falling Victim to Fear of Change: If you had all the answers already, you won't need any help, would you? The point of the marketer is precisely to bring in new ideas, new approaches, to overturn the applecart in your favor. But then they show up and you’re "just not comfortable" with what they're saying; "that's sacrilege," you proclaim. Don’t do that: Take advantage of the gift of their talent.

5. Overemphasis on Education: Let's be honest: MBA's are overrated. Sure you would "feel better" if your candidate were a “perfect package,” with many years of education and training precisely geared to marketing your product or service. The reality however is that you are better off with a real-world professional. This is a person who comes across, who delivers, and who doesn't lean on a puffed-up resume to do it. Meeting them in person is how you will know if they have the kind of experience that supersedes an ivory-tower degree. You can't find this out on the telephone or on Skype.


All opinions my own. Photo by Andrea Black via Flickr (Creative Commons)

GAO's Confusing Conclusions About Federal Communications

This report just came out ( Here is some information provided that concerns me, because it is confusing at best and misleading at worst.
  • The GAO refers to “public affairs” series staff (GS-1035) as “public relations” staff. Employees who are employed as communicators, but not within this series, are not counted in the report. So by default all federal communicators are now PR folks. Which is not “bad” but is not what the public is expecting taxpayer money to be spent on either, because this sounds very close to “spin,” or propaganda.
  • The authors admit that they haven’t defined their terms. They use: “advertising” defined as either “community relations,” “image,” “messages intended to persuade”; public relations as “an effort to develop and disseminate information to explain the activities of and the issues facing an organization”; and “public communications” as “agency communications that are directed to the public.” (p. 4). 
  • There is no distinction made in the report between what federal employees do and what contractors do (e.g. information vs. advertising; education vs. persuasion). 
  • Most examples of “federal advertising and public relations activities” will be recognizable to federal communication experts as politically neutral and neutral in terms of providing information as versus persuasion, but the report never clarifies how it is that individuals who are supposedly employed to persuade are more likely to be disseminators of information. (p. 3)
  • The report’s authors concede that they’re not sure if they got the numbers on contract spending right (they only selected certain categories in the Federal Procurement Data System). The total is almost $1 billion in FY2015 alone (pp. 11-12), but given the methodology it is probably under-counted. It is not difficult to see that if you have very few empowered federal communicators, and you don’t coordinate communication across agencies or even departments, you’ll need to spend a lot of money to get the word out.
  • There are very few federal communicators, at least in the GS-1035 series. With ~5,000 employees across the federal government, GS-1035s only make up ~.3% of the total federal civilian workforce. However, the amount of spending on their salaries per year (~$500 million). That is a very click-worthy amount, but it’s also misleading.
  • The Department of Defense spends by far the most money on staff (2,123 in FY2014 and $160 million per year in salary on average), as well as contract obligations ($590,800 in FY2015); most of the remainder of the federal government pales in comparison. Again, it’s very easy to lump everybody in together, but the conclusion is inappropriate when you consider the average agency.

All opinions are my own.

The Truth About Religion At Work

We live in a time of terrible strife. This is not the fault of religion. It is the fault of religious fundamentalists and in particular those who use religion to gain power and money.
I want to talk about my own personal experiences with religion at work. This is not to argue in favor of religion, against religion, to subtly proselytize etc. etc. If anything I would like to show that it's complicated.
Oddly for a Jew I find my most influential religious teachers have been Muslims at work. How about that? I started covering my hair for awhile when I saw a devout Muslim woman on her way to work, praying. I confronted my workaholism when a Muslim employee inquired about the logic of sending emails at 3 a.m. I learned about what really matters at work when a Muslim colleague offered money to help another colleague who was struck with terrible personal luck. (Nobody else lifted a finger.)
How about that?
A long time ago another colleague of mine, a Christian, started a weekly prayer service in a room they made available at work. It was actually called "Wednesday's Word" (interestingly, today is Wednesday). No I never went, because as a Jew I'm not allowed to go. But I remember how she had this beautiful poster of an angel against a blue sky. The bubble of the lettering. She had a boring job, but her eyes lit up to talk about faith.
It's funny. Once I went to Chop't with a different peer at the same agency and we had a three-hour debate about Jesus. Or, at least it felt like three hours because time just seemed to stop altogether that day. At the end of the conversation, she just had to walk out the elevator and let it close. On that subject we could find no beginning, nor reach a logical end.
I think my atheist and agnostic colleagues are some of the most respectful people around when it comes to religion. Or maybe they feel sorry for me. But never once have they engaged me in any kind of debate over whether G-d exists.
Of course I've worked with Jewish colleagues. I'm not sure exactly what it is that we share in common half the time, since our backgrounds are usually so different. But if there is any cultural characteristic about us that stands out, I'd say we'll argue over principles till our dying breath. Not only do we seem to have strong opinions, but we strongly disagree even more than average people seem to. (You haven't lived until you've argued as to whether cholent is more of a Jewish heritage food than sushi.)
My best friend of all time, at work, has retired. She is Jewish by lineage but introduced me to Buddhism, to the Dalai Lama. I can still remember her handing me Becoming Enlightened. The whole philosophy of it, the ideas - I remember thinking "this is an amazing system," and though I frankly couldn't absorb all of it in depth, the central points made so much sense to me: We are all suffering here. What matters is compassion for one another.
Of course religion is a personal matter, and in fact one of the great things about the United States is that we separate church and state. Including prohibiting discrimination based on someone's beliefs.
But there is a difference between "prohibiting discrimination based on religion" and "omitting religion altogether." I get that it is a hot-button issue, but all the same so are a lot of things that make us unique. And we don't lose any of them by walking in the door of the workplace.
I count myself enriched by the great diversity of my colleagues.
Photo by Matthew Fearnley via Flickr (Creative Commons)

You Can Choose It Or You Can Run Away

"Do you mind if I ask you a question?"


"Tell me how you learned to be a leader."

"It isn't something I chose."

"But how did you learn what to do?"

"Like everything else, it's trial and error."

"Did you take some kind of training class?"


"No really, tell me."

"I am telling you. You learn by screwing up."

"Yeah, but everybody says that."

"Look, they say that because it's true."

"Well did you ever feel like giving up, then?"

"All the time. Constantly."

"You mean right now?"

"Are you kidding? If I could retire and paint watercolors all day, of course I would."

"I don't understand. So it's a money thing?"

"Well of course."

"So you've gotten this good as a survival skill."


"I don't know."

"What do you mean, you don't know."

"I mean, Dannielle, that I can't tell you."

"Surely you must have something more you can give me. Help me, I'm trying to learn."

"I really can't."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean there is no answer. You just keep going, that's all."

"But you could have chosen another path."


"But you didn't."

"You either choose it or you run away. That's it."

"That's it?"

"Do or do not, like Yoda said. There is no other way."


All opinions my own. Photo by thinkpublic via Flickr (Creative Commons).