“You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood, back home to romantic love, back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame, back home to exile, to escape to Europe and some foreign land, back home to lyricism, to singing just for singing’s sake, back home to aestheticism, to one’s youthful idea of ‘the artist’ and the all-sufficiency of ‘art’ and ‘beauty’ and ‘love,’ back home to the ivory tower, back home to places in the country, to the cottage in Bermude, away from all the strife and conflict of the world, back home to the father you have lost and have been looking for, back home to someone who can help you, save you, ease the burden for you, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time–back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.” ― Thomas Wolfe

I left home twenty years ago this summer to begin a life and, before long, a family with my new husband. I was the third of seven children to do so, but only the first of my siblings (and for many years I would be the only one) to move away from the town in which I was raised. I wasn’t happy about this. I loved my hometown and it was only after countless tears, and a promise from my husband (then fiancé) to reopen the discussion of residence two years hence, that I agreed to the move. So from the little suburban town I adored, I relocated to the city. And for the next twelve months or so, each time we visited my parents, I shed a few silent tears as soon as we got on the road that led into town. These days I live only half an hour away from my parents (and four of my siblings, all married), but I don’t get to spend as much time as I’d like visiting with them.  Last week I attended a three-day conference and was scheduled to arrive back home on Friday afternoon. When my parents suggested that I spend Shabbos with them, I gratefully accepted the invitation.

My parents’ home has not changed much, at least not in ways that are important. The teakettles I boiled water in as a young teen are still there; although they’ve been retired from kitchen duty, moved to the garden, and are now housing live plants. The refrigerator door is still obscured by photographs and clever quotes; only now some of the children in those photographs are mine. And my parents are still as delightful, open-minded and curious about everything in the world as they were when I was growing up.

My siblings – the individuals I shared a bedroom with, babysat the neighbors’ children with, tussled over nothing-in-particular with, and shared the most intimate details of my life with – have changed in more significant and observable ways. Three of us have moved very much to the right, religiously. Two of us have remained solidly in the middle. And the other two, my youngest brother and I, have moved somewhat to the left.

My hometown, too, has changed. For one, the population in this formerly small enclave has grown dramatically. Surprisingly, the current population of more than 5,000 now appears to be even more homogeneous than it was when my parents first moved there in 1979. Conformity now emerges as one of the most important values within the system. School dress codes are more clearly delineated than ever. During my visit I was told that cameras had been installed on various street corners some time ago. Nobody I spoke to knew exactly who was monitoring those devices.

On Shabbos afternoon my two older sisters came by to visit, and so we got to spend time some time together. Both of my sisters are highly intelligent and well-read. I admire and respect them, and have consulted them on everything from toilet-training to home construction. They are also pretty opinionated (hey, we’re sisters!). I’m very cognizant of our philosophical differences, but still find it hard to avoid the kinds of topics that will spark controversy. And so before I knew it, our conversation had turned into a heated debate about Internet policy, religious authority, technology use, and yes, those cameras on the street. Genetics and life experience have turned me into a fiercely individualistic person, and I am constantly on guard against persons or systems that seek to curtail my right or ability to choose how to live. But when I stopped talking and listened more carefully to the arguments my sisters were making, I realized we were considering the ‘facts’ through very dissimilar lenses. “We want to protect our values and educate our children without media influences,” they were saying. “We don’t care to be players in the modern world – we think modernity is eroding a way of life that we believe in and hold dear. These things you call ‘restrictions’ are actually guidelines we want to live by. The authorities you describe as ‘controlling,’ they are our role models. We look to them for leadership and advice. We are trying to be proactive with regard to our dependence on gadgets and the shortening attention span that comes along with it.” And: “Who cares about the cameras? We have nothing to hide.”  The more I listened the more I realized that for a few minutes there I had fallen trap to a habit I criticize others for: judging people by my own set of values.

So I lowered my voice and toned down my rhetoric. I paid attention to the discourse and the underlying emotions. And I walked away, not convinced, but certainly with a better understanding of my sisters’ position.

But in accepting these fundamental differences I also had to admit that the concept of home would never be the same for me. People talk about the reverse culture shock they experience when returning after a long period abroad. No matter where you’ve lived, it’s hard to rival the romance of home. The smell of my mother’s potato kugel on Friday afternoons will always remind me of more carefree days. The pink carpet in my old bedroom will highlight memories of sisters sharing clothes, sharing stories, sharing secrets. But the sense of oneness, that feeling of total belongingness, that one-for-all-and-all-for-one-no-matter-what consciousness, has been mitigated by difference and change. I know my family will always have my back, but I’m not sure we’ll ever see the world in the same way again.  And that makes me a little sad.

In literature (Dimension of Miracles, The Odyssey, You Can’t Go Home Again), film (Inception, The Searchers, Zombieland), music (see below) and television (Red Dwarf, Sliders, Star Trek), the question has been repeatedly raised and explored:

Can you ever go home again?

Of course I can.

But my home has changed.

And so, I guess, have I.

It doesn’t matter where you are, it doesn’t matter where you go
If it’s a million miles aways or just a mile up the road
Take it in, take it with you when you go,
who says you can’t go home

(Who Says You Can’t Go Home)

A smattering of Yiddish words has crept into the American vernacular: Non-Jews go for a nosh or schmooze over cocktails. Yet the language itself, once spoken by millions of Jews, is now in retreat.

But you don’t have to be Jewish to love Yiddish. In Japan, a linguist has toiled quietly for decades to compile the world’s first Yiddish-Japanese dictionary — the first time the Jewish language has been translated into a non-European language other than Hebrew…

Read or listen to the story in its entirety here: http://www.npr.org/2012/04/16/150723840/for-japanese-linguist-a-long-and-lonely-schlep

School.

That venerable institution that is supposed to prepare us for the ‘real world’ but is essentially a realm of its own, a bubble with few correlations to real life. I loved school when I was kid – I cried when it was cancelled because of snow. As a first grader I came home from school and told my mom I was going to be a teacher when I grew up, and that was that. My career plans never changed. I was a high school teacher for most of my adult life, and I now teach at a community college. I’m an incorrigible intellectual, an education enthusiast, and a sucker for all things scholastic. But when my daughter asked for my input on what she should do after high school, my advice was simple: “Get a job.”

No, I’m not an irresponsible parent, nor a hypocrite. I am not trying to systematically undermine my country’s ranking in world education (honest!), nor do I seek to surreptitiously sabotage President Obama’s goal to get five million more college graduates by 2020. I just know some things about the world, I know academia, and most importantly, I know my child. Let me explain…

My daughter is a remarkable young woman with a magnetic personality. Wherever she goes, people are drawn to her. Little kids on the block idolize her, kids her age want to befriend her, and adults find her charming. (When she was in grade school, a teacher confided to me at a PTA meeting: “The principal warned us not to tell parents that their kids were ‘cute.’ But I can’t help it, I have to tell this to you: Your daughter is so cute!”)

So yes, her teachers loved her personality, but they couldn’t quite figure out her learning style. To be honest, at the beginning of her schooling, neither could I. I couldn’t imagine why, when she was supposed to be studying for a test, she would have loud music on and be in constant motion. “Aren’t you supposed to be studying now?” I would ask, with more than a hint of exasperation in my voice. “But I am studying,” she would say, now equally frustrated. And she was. My daughter (I finally figured out) is a kinesthetic learner: she learns by doing.

So she did satisfactory work in school, but never really enjoyed classroom learning. People around her expected excellence because there is something about her that proclaims it. Because in all matters social and practical, she positively shines. Recognizing that she has an inquisitive mind, teachers were always pushing her to get better grades. “She doesn’t try hard enough,” they would tell me. But the truth was that she did try. She just wasn’t geared toward the absorb-and-regurgitate type of learning that so many teachers were advocating. And her grades were good, sometimes even superlative, but she wasn’t the academic overachiever that people expected her to be. In all other areas, she was superlative. Three years ago I decided to take a hobby that she had started (jewelry-making) and turn it into a business. With my daughter as the creative director, our small business thrived. We worked together for three years, and I always had the sense that I was working with another adult. She was only fifteen when we started.

When my daughter was in her senior year, I watched as she wrote her literary responses and read and re-read her Jewish history notes, and I could tell she was burnt out. She couldn’t wait to leave.

College after high school is not the traditional route for young girls in our community (although it is becoming more common these days). Most of my daughter’s friends were planning to either attend a seminary in Israel for a year or go to work. But having a mother who is a teacher has given my daughter an appreciation, if not a love, for formal education, and so she eventually raised the question: “Do you think I should pursue a college degree?” I told her that, of course, the decision was hers to make, and we discussed various options. But in my head I saw the hunched over shapes of some of my college students, fresh out of high school, silently enduring prerequisite English, history and speech courses, while their eyes communicated a desperate yearning to be out there, in the real world, doing something useful.

In his somewhat controversial book In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: Confessions of an Accidental Academic, Professor X (the author hides his real identity to avoid the repercussions of his expose) introduces the radical notion that college may not be right for every kid out of high school: “…the push for universal college enrollment, which at first glance seems emblematic of American opportunity and class mobility, is in fact hurting those whom it is meant to help.”

There is much that our academic institutions are doing right these days. Young people have more access to higher education than ever before. There is also a lot wrong with the way we educate our kids. In addition to the specter of debt that will follow more than half of young college graduates way into adulthood, colleges are often failing to address the individual needs of many of their students. King Solomon’s counsel in the Book of Proverbs, “Educate your child according to his way,” heralded the notion of multiple intelligences, later outlined by Howard Gardner. Many college professors appreciate their students’ different learning styles and use innovative techniques to reach out to them. Unfortunately, most don’t. Too many still rely on the old ‘sage on the stage’ methodology. Some students (I was one of them) will do well in such an environment. Too many won’t. My daughter belongs to the latter category.

I was a non-traditional college student myself, an adult returning to the classroom with plenty of life experience under my belt. That real-world knowledge made a tremendous difference in the way I interacted with the course material. My professors appreciated my perspective, as well as my work ethic, which stood in stark contrast to that of my younger counterparts: I studied while they partied. As an instructor, I find that most students who come to my classes directly out of high school have a hard time adapting to college life and learning, while those who have spent some time out in the world have a maturity that is more conducive to success.

So she got a job. For six months now my daughter’s been working with a team of men and women, lawyers and high school graduates, middle-aged folks and young people like herself. Her co-workers represent multiple nationalities, cultures and religions. She speaks to county authorities all over the country on a daily basis. The company she works for provides services to businesses as varied as Michael Kors and 7-Eleven. She knows the business jargon far better than I ever will, and can quickly report to you on the commercial codes of everything from selling liquor to constructing a parking lot in any given state. She is encouraged to be creative and think outside the box. She has her own checking account and enough money in it to justify the occasional frivolous purchase (designer shoes and handbags are a constant temptation, as is kosher sushi – she is my daughter, after all!). But most importantly, she knows that she’s making an impact in the real world. Work has given her the satisfaction and self-assurance that her high school report cards failed to confer.

Perhaps there’s a college career in her future. I hope there is. I believe that education is the great social equalizer, and I am familiar with the statistics: young people with a two-year degree will earn twice as much money as those with a high school diploma – four times as much with a four-year degree (although I have friends who hold Masters degrees and are earning the same amount my daughter is – these are strange economic times).

Then again, perhaps she’ll join the ranks of those who have done pretty well without a college degree. People like Mary Kay Ash, Steve Jobs, Rachel Ray, Steven Spielberg, Mark Zuckerberg, and others.

What I do know is that right now, she wakes up in the morning eager to be on her way. Right now, she’s learning something new every day.

So we try to have breakfast together in the morning. Then I go to school (to teach) and she goes to work.

And right now, she’s happy. And that makes me happy. And also very proud.

Here are links to some recent articles that weigh in on the question: Is college worth it?

TIME: http://www.time.com/time/interactive/0,31813,2072670,00.html

Washington Times: http://communities.washingtontimes.com/neighborhood/60-second-attention-span/2011/dec/14/college-worth-money/

NY Times: http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/05/20/once-again-is-college-worth-it/

http://endoftheamericandream.com/archives/is-college-worth-it

http://www.gobankingrates.com/loans/student-loans/college-worth-anymore-higher-education-newest-bubble/

And finally, here’s a video that argues that college is just a giant conspiracy:

But enough about me. What do you think?

I thrive on change. That’s what I tell myself (and anyone who will listen). I find consistency constrictive and I am stifled by sameness. But this fall I found myself facing three pretty significant transitions, and I was caught by surprise by the way they threw me off course. Note that these were all positive transitions, neither traumatic nor unanticipated. But it is only now, some months after their onset and resolution, that I can say I’ve found my groove back. This blog became one of the casualties of my relative disorientation, but I plan to remedy that.

So here are the three primary events that kept me away: 1) Last June, my oldest child and only daughter graduated high school. 2) My middle child, a son who turned seventeen last week, went off to a sleep-away yeshiva (a boarding school mostly for religious studies). 3) I transitioned from being a part-time graduate student to working full time.

Now these are all wonderful changes, but that doesn’t mean they were easy. The word for ‘difficult’ in Yiddish is shver. When one wants to emphasize the extent of the difficulty, the intensifier zeyer (very) may be added, but a slightly more idiomatic expression is sometimes used: git shver. Literally, this is just another way of saying ‘very difficult’. But the Yiddish word git also means ‘good’. When I was a teenager, my friends and I put our own spin on the expression git shver. Noting the literal meaning of git (good), we started using this expression solely for situations that were difficult, but ultimately positive. So for example, if one of us needed to execute some delicate task or to have a tough conversation with someone, if that effort would ultimately improve a relationship or bring some desired outcome, we’d use the expression ‘git shver’ to describe it, stressing the word git.

So that’s what I want to say about the transitions we, as a family, have been through. They were good. We’d anticipated and prepared for these changes. But they weren’t easy. Adjustments, both psychological and pragmatic, had to be made.

Git shver.

“It isn’t the changes that do you in, it’s the transitions. Change is not the same as transition. Change is situational […]. Transition is the psychological process people go through to come to terms with the new situation. Change is external, transition is internal.” (William Bridges, from Managing Transitions): 

(I’ll share more details later. Meanwhile, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the difference between change and transition, and have a conversation about your experiences…)

Nineteen years ago I was five months married and three months pregnant. My husband and I had moved into a small apartment in Brooklyn soon after our wedding, and I got a job teaching at a local junior high school. We were married on August 30th. School started on September 7. Our ‘honeymoon’ lasted 7 days. It consisted of the usual six-day festivities that follow a traditional Jewish wedding. We didn’t get to climb the Swiss Alps together, take romantic strolls around the Seine or sip margaritas on a beach in the Bahamas. We were thrust headlong into real life.

Nineteen years ago I was five months married, three months pregnant, and uncertain where the monthly rent for our little two-bedroom apartment would come from. My husband was working long hours, trying his hand at various jobs in an effort to figure out what he wanted to do. The surface of our dining room table was completely obscured by the textbooks I was using to prepare lessons in subjects I had never taught before.

Nineteen years ago I was three months pregnant and unable to keep any food down. I suffered from morning sickness around the clock, lost weight, and felt like I had lost control of my body and my life. Teaching, a job I had loved so much, had turned into nightmare. On the way home from school each afternoon I would stop into a pizza shop on the corner of the street I lived on, order a slice of pizza, and chew it very, very slowly. I would sit there for as long as possible, postponing the inevitable onset of nausea that would hit me as soon as I opened the door to my apartment.

My little brother’s bar mitzvah was coming up. Since both sets of grandparents were spending the winter down in Florida, my parents had an idea, which they pitched to the (almost) 13-year old boy: “Why don’t we bring your bar mitzvah, along with the entire family, to them?” (The them they were referring to were the zeides and bubbes – the grandparents.) My brother was thrilled. When my father called to tell us that he’d be paying for tickets to fly to Miami Beach, my husband and I saw the opportunity to finally take the honeymoon trip we had missed. and grabbed it. We decided we would drive to Orlando after the celebration and vacation there for a week.

I was nervous. Ten weeks of morning sickness had turned me into someone I did not recognize. Along with the ability to keep food down, it seemed I had also lost my sense of humor and my capacity to let go and just have fun. I worried I would be a terrible travel companion and the trip, instead of bringing us closer together, would create all sorts of tension and resentment. Instead, our Orlando vacation turned out to be exactly what the midwife ordered. The change of scene, change of climate and most importantly, a host of new smells, helped me break out of the vicious cycle of nausea and misery. The only real difficulty we faced was that we kept running out of film.

Nineteen years ago, five months pregnant and finally hungry all the time, my husband and I spent a week just being carefree young newlyweds. Away from the practical and financial stresses that our new life had imposed, released at last from the clutches of morning sickness, we rode the trams in Disney world on routes as erratic as my hormone levels, along tracks whose shapes resembled my mood swings. I’m sure that was the reason why, riding Spaceship Earth at Epcot, my eyes filled up with tears as I listened to words of the finale being piped in through the loudspeakers:

With my morning sickness receding into the background, a vision of the baby I was carrying, whose heartbeat I had first heard less than a week ago, began to take shape in my mind. Through the sixteen-minute journey that takes visitors back into the history of human communication from the dawn of language to the digital age, I thought about the world she would be born into and I felt completely alive to it. The words of the song resonated with me. “…For the future world is / Born today” – and I was doing my part to make it happen. I thought I could hear our two hearts beating together.

I’m writing these words now on a Macbook, on a return flight from Orlando to New York. My eighteen-year-old daughter sits beside me, listening to music on her iPod Touch. We’ve spent three days in Disney world, just the two of us, and I am already reminiscing about my trip. Both trips. Well, all of them, actually. The past nineteen years have taken me through sleepless nights with colic babies, toddler tantrums and teenage angst, breaks and bruises and breakups. My husband is now a licensed electrical contractor. I teach communication courses to college students, and I always start with the history of communication, discussing how our global community evolved. And ‘Tomorrow’s Child’ has grown into a woman…

…A cell phone-using, digital camera-wielding, iPod-operating, computer-manipulating woman. A member of a generation that is inventing the future it envisions. One day at a time.

Nineteen years ago this month I came to Disney world hoping to fill the first pages of my adult life with happy memories. I was nineteen years old then: a woman to the world, but a child at heart. Nineteen years later, I returned with a perspective altered by experience and (I hope) maturity. The memories we made here will bond us, my daughter and me, and accompany her into adult life.

Today, Spaceship Earth at Epcot is an interactive experience, reflecting the changing times. At the end of the ride, my daughter responds to some prompts on a little computer screen located inside the car. A minute later, a video (complete with our faces), depicts how she will live, play and work in the future. A new musical score has replaced the one I remember, and “Tomorrow’s Child” is gone.

On the shuttle to the airport, I ask my daughter, “So, where do you think you’ll be nineteen years from today?” She smiles at the question, but refuses to indulge me. We’re different like that: She’s practical and very much grounded in the here and now. I’m a dreamer, my thoughts always weaving into the future or the past. “I don’t know,” she insists. “Of course you don’t,” I tell her, “but where would you like to be? Where do you see yourself?” She finally allows herself a few moments to fantasize (a house in Los Angeles, four kids, a job she loves), but then stops abruptly, as though she’s uncomfortable thinking about it.

Of course she is.

When you’re eighteen, nineteen years is a long way off.

Tomorrow’s child
Lighting the path as we’re going
Tomorrow’s child
Seeing that knowledge keeps growing
Searching through time
Longing to find
Answers to guide us
And dreams to unite us
Reaching for hope and desire
Building a world to inspire
Tomorrow’s child
Charting a brand new way
For the future world is
Born today

Video  —  Posted: January 19, 2012 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , , ,

At the studio where I take my yoga classes, we start each session with a 5-minute meditation. The instructor initiates it by talking about an event or a personal challenge, and then ties that in to an observation related to a weekly theme. The theme is based on a verse from the Tao Te Ching (a compilation of poetic verses that promote a life of harmony with oneself and nature, composed by the ancient Taoists more than 2300 years ago). The yoga instructor then weaves this daily insight into the yoga practice and encourages members to internalize and express it, emotionally and physically, through the poses. Last week we were focusing on part of verse 20, which (according to Guy Leekley’s translation) reads like this:

The struggle to conform

Leads to discontent.

Approval and disapproval,

Good and bad,

All the judgments people make,

How much difference is really there?

What a worthy ideal! Quit judging and worrying about being judged, says the Tao. Conformity is a waste of everyone’s time.

Except that on second thought, doesn’t it seem slightly ironic to be bashing conformity in, of all places, a yoga studio? If you’ve ever seen a group of people practicing yoga together, you know that it is a beautiful thing to behold. Such homogeny! Such uniformity!

Yeah, you see what I’m getting at. And of course, being me, I could hardly wait to raise the question during our little discussion in class: “Um, isn’t yoga all about conformity?”  But my instructor preempted my question with an explanation that not only set my mind at ease on this matter, but it got me thinking about others.

Sure, she said, as teachers, we’re are always directing you, telling you what to do. ‘Draw your shoulders back. Fire up those legs. Turn your torso towards the river. Melt your heart, a little more.’ John Friend, founder of Anusara Yoga, insists that yoga is an art medium in its own right. The ancient poses, and the methods for getting into them, are merely guidelines, safety measures. They ensure that you don’t throw your back out while doing a forward bend, for example. Or stretch a muscle in ‘full wheel’ pose. But the true expression of the pose should reflect the uniqueness of the person doing it. Your triangle pose should be a celebration of your essence, of your physicality, cultivated by your own pavana (from Sanskrit: spirit or feeling). The concept of expressing freedom and uniqueness within a time-honored framework resonated strongly with me, and I found that my physical practice was deepened through this understanding.

People often ask me, in light of the many cultural hats I wear, how I’m able to keep it all together. They wonder how I deal with the fragmentation, whether I experience Multiple Personality Disorder-like symptoms. They ask me what strategies I use as I move into and out of the different communities of practice I belong to. The truth is that on the one hand, transitioning between the different groups I belong to is not as difficult as it sounds since I am fully invested in each one of the communities I belong to. All of my personal and professional affiliations sustain me, in one way or another. Rarely, if ever, do I go about ‘playing’ a role that is not authentically me. On the other hand, the constant shifting (I teach at a secular college in the morning and at a Yeshiva high school in the afternoon, for example) can be dizzying sometimes. One of the things that help keep me sane and grounded is my yoga practice. I’ve wanted to write about it for some time now, but never really got around to it. My practice has deepened during these last two months, but it was the insights I gained in the last two weeks (including the one I describe above) that finally prompted me to write.

Yoga, from the Sanskrit root yuj, literally means to yoke together, to join, or to unify. It is a practice that originated in ancient India as a way of disciplining the mind and the body in order to achieve a higher spiritual state and a connection to the divine. The practice includes elements of meditation.

Yoga is associated with a number of Eastern religious practices (e.g., Jainism, Hinduism, and Buddhism). I must admit that this link between yoga and religion is a sore point with my boys, who are constantly confronting me about the appropriateness of my commitment, as an Orthodox Jew, to this ancient practice. Of course (and I tell them this in response to their concerns) yoga, especially as it is practiced in most places in the West, is no longer about reverence to the gods of one religion or another. Rather it has evolved into a practice that promotes honoring the self, dissolving inner conflict, and yoking together the heart and the mind for more purposeful living. So while the spirituality of yoga has been maintained with respect to raising consciousness in everyday life, for most people it is no longer marked as a religious practice.

For me, the yogic principles of unification are a welcome antidote to my multifaceted existence. (Though I admit it is a bit ironic that my practice has become yet another aspect of my hybrid identity, a passport into yet another community of practice: The studio I frequent is outside of my neighborhood – I actually cross state lines to get there. I enjoy the anonymity, the experience of stepping outside of my usual social circles and into a community where I am known simply as one yogi among many others. But I digress…)

So this week at the studio we were exploring a theme expressed in verse 26 of the Tao:

Let stability be the source

Of your lightness;

Let stillness be the source

Of your actions.

Thus, the True Seeker,

Even when traveling,

Stays grounded

And not distracted by the sights.

Remain steadfast and calm.

If we lighten up too much,

We lose our base.

When we get restless,

We lose our center.

Many of the yoga poses call for exquisite balance. When I first started practicing I had a very hard time with this. I wobbled, I fell, and I became very frustrated. Ultimately, I learned to heed the advice of my yoga teacher, who enlightened me on two main points: 1) ‘Hug into your core’ – draw strength from the muscles in the pelvic area, and 2) ‘Keep breathing’ – find stillness in the rhythm of your breath. When I learned to do those two things I was finally able to achieve lightness in the poses. I found my balance.

And so as I meditated on this week’s theme I was struck by the parallels between these principles and my religious practices. We all require stability in order to keep our balance. The core values of Judaism are my center, my ‘stillness’. As long as I ‘hug into’ that core I am able to maintain my equilibrium, to remain ‘steadfast and calm.’ My faith reminds me of my purpose, my reason for doing things. People often ask me if I don’t feel ‘stifled’ by the rules of Orthodox Judaism. The opposite is true. Those guidelines keep me grounded. Operating within a framework helps me maintain my poise.

And this leads me back to last week’s theme, the one I mentioned above. Contrary to popular belief, religion and conformity are not synonymous. Judaism does not, should not, replace personal choice. Though we abide by the same principles, all Orthodox Jews are not alike. Even while ‘hugging into the core,’ while adhering to the ‘framework’ of Judaism, I am able to find my uniqueness, to express my individuality. It is only when I know and accept my true self that I can celebrate diversity. The guidelines are in place to keep me safe. They offer direction and keep me grounded. And in staying close to my core I am able to find freedom – or as we say in Anusara terminology, to shine out.

As John Friend explains: We root to rise.

And speaking of yoga and hybridity: Some years ago I attended a talk on a college campus by a guy named Audi Gozlan, who had made the exciting discovery that many of the traditional yoga poses resembled (in form) the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Expanding on this revelation, Gozlan developed a unique discipline he calls Kabalah Yoga, which connects the Hebrew aleph bais, and their intrinsic Kabalistic meanings, to yoga. He describes this practice as:

…a modern fusion of ancient secrets of Kabalah and the meditative art of yoga. A blending of the ancient mind with the modern body. Key to this system is the power of the Hebrew letters and the concept of posing in the shape of those letters, and thus drawing on the primal powers that have existed since Creation.

In his talk, Gozlan also discussed some Sanskrit and Hebrew cognates and speculated about the common roots that may exist between these languages (another fascinating subject from a linguistic perspective, but one which I can’t do justice in this post). Below is a preview of Audi Gozlan’s ‘hybrid’ practice: Kabalah Yoga – Awaken your soul:

So I keep working on my balance. And I’m in the early stages of learning to do inversions (e.g., handstands!). I love discovering new perspectives, and I can’t wait to see what the world looks like from an upside-down pose…

Yet even as I celebrate my own uniqueness, I am cognizant of the flow of human energy that pulses equally through all of us. And I’m reminded of how, deep down, we’re all connected through our breath, and our universal needs. As the ancient Taoists ask, in the end:

How much difference is really there?

My children and I went to see the Macy’s fireworks in NYC on July 4th this year. The West Side Highway, a thoroughfare typically congested with cars throughout the day, was now closed off to all traffic. And so we placed our blankets on the solid yellow lines and ate our salads and sandwiches as we waited for the sun to set. The traffic lights above our heads, oblivious to the altered circumstances, kept changing from green, to yellow to red. About 30 minutes after we had settled down comfortably I began to look around at the expanding mass of people around us, and couldn’t help smiling. Here in midtown Manhattan, celebrating American independence, was the most wonderfully diverse group of people you ever want to see. In front of us sat an East-Asian group – an extended family spanning three generations, crammed shoulder to shoulder on a single blanket. To my left were two Middle-Eastern couples with three young children between them, dining on Subway sandwiches. To my right, an Asian family: Mom, dad, and three young boys. The family behind us was conversing contentedly in Spanish, bringing the total number of languages spoken in just this minuscule corner of the city to five. The scene brought home to me, once again, the inescapable reality of life in the 21st century, which is that most of us come into direct contact with cultural difference almost on a daily basis. And with minority group members comprising more than 30 percent of the workforce in the U.S., Americans are increasingly conscious of the need to address intercultural issues.
 
People in the field of intercultural communication often talk about visible and hidden differences. Visible differences are those human disparities which are immediately noticeable: skin color, dress code, language, food, music, etc. Hidden differences consist of the beliefs and values which impact a person’s behavior, but which may be difficult to perceive or comprehend. Ting-Toomey and Chung illustrate this with the ‘iceberg metaphor of culture.’ At the tip of the iceberg is the Surface-Level Culture, the visible manifestations of culture: its artifacts, movies, music, and icons. This superficial component is small, but it is the only one that is discernible above the surface. Below is the Intermediate-Level Culture, consisting of symbols, meanings and norms. Underneath that is the Deep-Level Culture, the portion that includes traditions, beliefs and values. And way down, anchoring the iceberg to the ground below, are the Universal Human Needs, tying all of humanity together.
 
Companies whose representatives do business abroad say that the most challenging source of intercultural communication are the hidden differences. It is easy to see why. If your Chinese counterpart, dressed in Western clothes, refuses to meet your gaze, it may be difficult not to take it personally. And if your Indian contact speaks English fluently, but consistently fails to keep appointments, the underlying cultural roots of these miscommunications may elude you.
 
On the other hand, anyone who has ever tried to integrate into a culture will tell you that being visibly different is no small challenge to the cultural experience. Human beings have a long and painful history of intolerance when confronting difference, which is unfortunate, because our fascination with the surface structure may keep us from digging deeper, to the beliefs and values that define us, and then even deeper, to the Universal Human Needs that bring us all together. Instead, too often when faced with visible difference, we communicate our hostility through subtle language or nonverbal behavior. Psychologist Derald Wing Sue calls these derogatory behaviors, which are often done unconsciously, microagressions (see video below).
 
 Here is a guest post written by Saada, the daughter of a Libyan ambassador to the U.N. and a member of the highly-respected Muntasser family. Saada, a feisty, intelligent woman, currently lives and works in New York City:
 
Some people wear their hearts on their sleeves; I wear my religion on my head. I am a Muslim woman who wears a headscarf, by choice, in NYC.  As a result, I’ve had my share of eyebrow-raised and eyebrow-crossed looks. One of the most memorable ones came from an elderly woman sitting at a café on Broadway close to the Columbia University campus. I was walking down the street with my 3-year-old son, and the elderly woman at first smiled genuinely as she watched my son happily licking his ice-cream cone. Then she glanced up and saw me, the little boy’s mother, a woman whose hair and neck was covered by a colorful headscarf, and her nose suddenly turned up in horror and disgust.
 
At the time of the incident I was a graduate student, but now I am an ESL teacher working in NYC.  To hint to potential employers about how I would dress if hired, I write ‘Arab-American’ in my resume. Still I get a looks of shock and surprise when I walk in for a job interview.  At one interview I was asked to name my biggest teaching weakness. I responded honestly that I’ve had students leave or quit my class because they didn’t ‘like’ me on the first day.
 
But dealing with students is less challenging even than dealing with colleagues. I’ve been working at an ESL international school since January. The school has fifteen teachers. Three of the teachers have tried their best to avoid me from day one, and they still do. They stare at me as though I am an alien from another planet. One of the three spoke to me once, commenting that I must be very religious because I wear a headscarf in the heat and humidity of the NYC summer. Then there are some teachers who initially didn’t know how to behave around me, but they eventually figured out I was a human being just like them. A human being with many beliefs, one of which makes me dress in a visibly different manner. I have had colleagues admit to me that I am so different from what they expected. When I asked them why they would say, “you know, because of …”
 
I admit that it’s not easy having to work harder than others to prove myself, to make people look past my headscarf. I get frustrated sometimes at the absurdity of the questions coming from so-called educated and open-minded people. One of my female colleagues is originally from India, a place where Islam and headscarves are common. She informed me, with a mischievous smile, that I could take my headscarf off at work because my husband wasn’t around. This really upset me, and I asked her what she meant. She replied, “Oh, I’m sure you didn’t choose to wear a headscarf. It was probably forced onto you by your father or brother or husband.” I quickly set her straight. I told her that the decision to wear the headscarf was mine and mine alone. I also told her about how my father didn’t speak to me for a month when I first wore the headscarf in NYC in 1998 because he didn’t believe in it. I told her that true Islam is not about forcing people to do things. Islam, like other religions, is about personal belief. (Saada explained to me that her father had raised her to be a strong, modern woman, and he was somehow disappointed when she donned the headscarf. When he saw that she was serious about her education, and heard of her ambitions to teach English globally, he calmed down. She adds that since that time, 35 women in the Muntasser family have taken to wearing the headscarf, including her mother, two sisters, and eight cousins. CH)
 
The more interesting moments happen on the streets of NYC. I was getting out of the subway recently when a young African-American man told me that it was okay that I was bald, there was no need to hide it. Another episode happened on a bus. I was holding a Rolling Stones magazine (with Howard Stern on the cover) and looking for a seat. When I finally sat down, a middle-aged gentleman said, right to my face, “Oh, I wish I had a camera! You, with that headscarf on your head, reading Rolling Stones – it’s just priceless!”
 
I don’t condemn people for their reactions, at work, in the classroom, or on the street. I understand the human impulse to reject what is incomprehensible, what is different. The truth is that most people eventually come around. They stop judging me and start respecting me for who I am. As for those who choose to avoid me and buy into the stereotypes, all I can say is: Hey, it’s your loss!
 
Have questions or comments for Saada? Why don’t you share your experiences with visible differences?

@ Macy's Fireworks, NYC / July 4, 2011

@ Macy's Fireworks, NYC / July 4, 2011

References

Ting-Toomey, S. & Chung, L. C. (2005). Understanding Intercultural Communication. New York: Oxford University Press.