Getting To Know You – Quickly

It’s quite a challenge: an 826 Valencia podcasting field trip with high school students who have written letters to the president-elect. The object is to take these letters and turn them into two minute essays the students will record and 826 will podcast. The challenge is to get to know this student in a hurry so that I can advise and encourage in a way that means something to her, and so that the words that result are hers. It can’t be about what I might want to say to the man.

So I sit down with an African-American teenage girl and try to find a few areas of experience that will support her opinions without losing her anger. I start by reading her original letter, a rambling rant against demonstrated intolerance characterized as “crazy”. This doesn’t have much to do with mental illness, it’s used as a synonym for hateful bigotry. She tells him he doesn’t know what her life is like and he’s too stupid to try to learn. He doesn’t like Latinos and because of that he shouldn’t be president. She’s not interested in being diplomatic or showing respecting the man who will soon be president. He has forfeited the right to respect by rejecting her and her friends. The challenge is how to shape this prose into a coherent statement without sanitizing it into meaninglessness, how to support the anger with examples, how to teach her a bit about writing without losing her distinctive voice. I’m not dealing with grammar and punctuation here, rather with enhancing an argument by incorporating examples and comparisons to support her position.

She talks about her Latino friends and their families with compassion, but without ever losing the hard edge that defines her relationship to the world around her. There isn’t an ounce of sentimentality in her narrative. We talk for a few minutes, I suggest a few additions, then she surprises me by beginning her rewrite with a moving mini-story about a family trying to cross the border and the hardship and violence they face. She writes of the pregnant mother using the last of her money to hire a coyote and the death of the coyote in a violent confrontation with border patrol. She goes on to write about a Latino family as if they were her own and I encourage her to dig a little deeper with details of where they live and what they served her for dinner, but she’s not interested, loses focus, and turns her attention to her phone. When she’s through, her anger returns and she finishes the essay with a statement of hopeless impotence. I ask her if she might want to end with a bit of hope for the future, a hope I do not feel but wanted to inspire. She did not. I tried to be positive, telling her that when things don’t go our way we have to take action, express our dissatisfaction and try to make things better. Action can give us hope for a better future. She didn’t buy it.

It is America’s shame that we are having this conversation in 2017, more than fifty years after the long-delayed passage of the Civil Rights Act. It is our failure that our children fear for their freedom because a man with dictatorial inclinations was elected to the highest office in our country by attacking the press and promising to exclude those he doesn’t like. This is not an ordinary election, this is the most serious threat to our democracy we have seen.

It is now 10:00 AM on January 20, 2017, the president of the electoral college is now the President of the United States.




Springtime, maybe. At least the last few days have been much warmer; the almond trees have started to blossom and Friday nights have returned to the café.  We were a small group and several conversations in English and French were going on at once. I was talking to a local winemaker about his upcoming trip to New York when I heard someone else at the table use the phrase “you’ve got to Jew down the middleman.” He wasn’t talking to me and the person he was talking to didn’t react and neither did I.

Now I wonder why.

I thought for a while that I’ve lived too long in a politically correct society and this was no big deal but I haven’t been able to dismiss it.

I also thought this is a small town and the last thing I want is to make enemies. I was afraid that making an issue of this would cause a split and I would be the one left out.

This was what stopped me, in part anyway.

I began to think I was being overly sensitive, probably because I’ve been reading a lot about World War II lately. It’s very hard to find information about the situation of Jews here during the occupation. I’m not even sure there were any Jews in Maury at the time. But there was a concentration camp not 15 miles away in Rivesaltes and though it was first built in 1938 to house refugees from the war in Spain, it remained in use throughout the German occupation of France and beyond. Today there are monuments to the Spanish, Jewish, Tsigane (Gypsy) and Harki people who spent time there. (Harkis are Algerian Muslims who fought for France in the Algerian War and were interned in the camp because no provision had been made for them when the French withdrew). In 1942, about 6500 Jews were sent to this and other camps in unoccupied France, 1800 died there, the rest were sent to extermination camps. Very few survived. A museum of remembrance and education is planned but has not yet received final approval.

Now what.

Is this kind of remark indicative of anything more than thoughtlessness in a casual conversation and is that in itself a dangerous attitude? Is it possible that this person has no idea the remark is offensive? Of course, but that doesn’t mean it should go unchallenged; it is the casual acceptance of stereotypes that leads to bigotry. Prejudice thrives on ignorance and silent complicity; hate crimes, ethnic cleansing, terrorism and other nightmares can be traced to racial and religious bigotry and the dehumanizing effect of stereotypes.

It’s a long way from a casual remark to ethnic warfare and I don’t mean to suggest that we’ve started down that road in our little village, but I can’t seem to put this aside. I went to the camp today looking for what: confirmation, perspective, photos for the blog? The place is huge and appears to have been left untouched for 70 years except for evidence of campers, taggers and garbage disposal. It’s falling down but many walls remain standing. When you see this today – here, not in Poland or Germany – surrounded by modern civilization, the impact is much greater than old newsreel footage. It brings to life the injunction to never forget.

So why publish this? What do I hope to gain?

Apologies are fine but I’m not sure they’d make a whole lot of difference to either one of us. I’d like to believe that you can change the world one person at a time but I doubt it. But I do want this one person to learn that Jew is not a verb and that phrase is offensive and not to use it again.

This blog is a personal journey so I’ll tell you about the first time I can remember an experience like this.

About 50 years ago, the very first real date I had was with a young blond girl from the suburbs. I don’t remember how I met her. Sometime in the course of our lavish Italian dinner at Mamma Leone’s in Times Square – the height of dining for me at the time – she made a similar remark, it may even have been the same phrase. I didn’t say a word, probably not for the rest of the meal and went home feeling ashamed, not of being a Jew, but of not saying anything to her.

Now I’ve done it again but I’ve come to understand that if his casual thoughtlessness is dangerous, so too was my silence.

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