The Secret Ballot

Congratulations, my dear son. This is the first election in which you will vote! I admire you for keeping your own counsel when it comes to selecting your candidates. All I can say is that you are a chip off a chip off the old block. You know that my father, your Papa Harold, was the guy who flew flags out all the windows of our house for every American holiday. Without fail, no matter where he was, he’d put his hand on his heart whenever he heard a patriotic song. He sang the national anthem off-key with a fervor that more than made up for the flat notes he hit.

My father never told another soul for whom he voted. Ever. Not even my mother. She learned to stop asking. As a kid, I took on the ultimate challenge to find out if Papa Harold voted for FDR. (Yes, he was very much a man of the 20th century with a stake in that long-ago election). Figuring out Papa Harold required careful, constant observation coupled with an extravagant imagination. He was like the puzzle in the newspaper that he and I did every Sunday night. The clues were purposely ambiguous so that two choices seemed plausible. When the correct answers were published on the following Thursday, he’d say there’s always next time. That’s good old-fashion American optimism.

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Papa Harold would have wanted me to impress upon you the history of suffrage in the United States—even though it is a history rife with sexism, racism, xenophobia and ageism. He’d want you to know that following the trajectory of African-American voting in this country is a crucial civics lesson, which you must never forget—a lesson that you were first exposed to in grammar school. The timeline alone reflects the long and harsh struggle of civil rights in this country. Shortly after African-Americans were given the right to vote, poll taxes, grandfather clauses and literary tests were designed to prevent them from even registering in many southern states. The poll tax was effectively in place until the passage of the 24th amendment in 1964.

Another fact, I’d like you to know is that your great-grandmother cast her first vote when she was twenty-nine-years-old and the mother of two children. Voting has always been a hard-won privilege. People yearn for the right to vote. I know that you understand there are still places in the world where voting is a revolutionary act. And still there are other places where people are willing to die for the right to vote.

Politics is also a cautionary tale about how words and deeds can be twisted to ruin a person’s reputation. Nothing proves that more than our current presidential election. Remember the fable about the feathers in a pillow I told you when you were a little boy? It had to do with the consequences of gossip. Talking poorly about a person has the effect of a wind that blows pillow feathers everywhere. It’s impossible to gather all of them together just as it is nearly hopeless to fix the damage done to a person’s reputation by careless remarks.

Aside from protecting his precious and few moments of privacy, Papa Harold imparted to me that voting was as sacred as prayer. The Constitution was his liturgy. He never maligned political candidates. He spoke about them in the larger context of our imperfect yet precious democracy. He was fond of the Mark Twain quote that democracy was flawed, but it was the best form of government on the face of the planet.

Remember when I took you and your sister to the voting booth with me? It saddened me when the two of you noticed our polling place was so empty. But it’s no surprise. The United States ranks 139 out of 172 in voter participation. Only half of the eligible voters in the United States vote in a presidential election. The mayors of many American cities are elected by less than 10% of the electorate.

The statistic that cuts to the bone for me, though, is that half of the children in the United States live in homes where nobody votes. We can’t afford that kind of apathy in this election. You must vote and you must vote for Hillary Clinton. I know I’m casting aside the privilege of the secret ballot. But in this election your vote for Clinton is critical. Your fate, along with the fate of the entire world depends upon it.

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For the Sin Of

There is a sweet children’s book called “The Hardest Word: A Yom Kippur Story” that has particular resonance for today. The hardest word, as you might have guessed is “sorry.” During this time between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the Jewish tradition of apologizing is in full swing. Blanket apologies are not accepted here. They must be one-on-one personal confessions, which brings me to the disgraceful apology that Donald Trump offered this past weekend for bragging about sexually assaulting women.

No matter what one’s political inclinations are, let us agree that in no way does Donald Trump represent the Grand Old Party of Lincoln and Eisenhower. His is a virulent policy of exploiting the most desperate Americans with lies and false promises. So no, this is not about politics. This is about what is decent and right and democratic. It makes me sad that no one has used the word “democratic” very much in this campaign season, but what is at stake here is our very democracy. At the Democratic Convention, Khzir Khan, the father of U.S. Captain Humayan Khan killed in action and the recipient of a Purple Heart and Bronze Star Medal, emotionally and pointedly asked Trump, “Have you read the Constitution?”

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As for his apology, Trump scowled through it like a schoolyard bully. It was a feeble attempt to sidestep his boasting about a rape culture, to consider his words of hate as merely “locker room talk.” He calls the release of the lewd recording in which he is heard attacking women a “distraction” from campaign issues. “Sorry” is the hardest word – it’s a word that carries notes of contrition and grace. Done with love, these notes harmonize into the sweetest melody in the world.

Our Jewish tradition has much to say about apology. Writing in the Washington Post, Mark Oppenheimer invokes Maimonides as a wise guide on the subject. Oppenheimer writes that, “Maimonides spelled out his rules for repentance in one of the chapters of the 14-volume Mishneh Torah, completed in 1180. This section, though only a few pages-long and little read outside scholarly Jewish circles, is one of the great spiritual documents of the world. The rules are lucid and practical , and they feel absolutely relevant today.”

Maimonides was clear that the offended must be apologized to directly. In Trump’s case that would be the two women he was heard trashing on tape. According to Maimonides if neither of these women want contrition from Trump, he “should bring a group of three of his friends and approach [the women] to request forgiveness.” If this doesn’t work the first time, the atoner must try to apologize up to three times. After that the tables are turned and the person who refuses to grant the forgiveness is the sinner.

I like the direct format of the Al Chet prayer – translated as “For the Sin of.” The actual text is an exhaustive list of sins that is said a total of ten times during the course of Yom Kippur services. The litany is real, hard-hitting. In fact, in traditional prayer one expresses atonement when reciting each line of Al Chet by thumping the chest for each sin recited. And it’s also a prayer that reflects how sin is a communal responsibility. Shaking our heads in disbelief and then disgust is not enough. We’ve all had a part in allowing Trump to get as far as he has.

Herewith is my version of Al Chet exposing the more glaring Trump sins that we have committed these past months.

We have sinned against You through shrugging off criminal behavior.

And we have sinned against You through ignoring misogyny.

We have sinned against You by allowing the insult of our Gold Star families.

And we have sinned against You through permitting disrespect of our veterans and Prisoners of War.

We have sinned against You by witnessing mocking of the disabled.

And we have sinned against You through not supporting our LGBTQ brothers and sisters.

We have sinned against You through accepting not paying our taxes.

And we have sinned against You through allowing the swindling of people in business.

We have sinned against You through watching the exploitation of fear and vulnerability.

We have sinned against You by listening to hatemongering.

We have sinned against You through exposing our children to hideous and lewd comments.

We have sinned against You through not insisting on the truth.

For all these sins, forgiving God, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.

Some Late Afternoon Thoughts For My 25th Wedding Anniversary

The late Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg is one of my favorites. Ginzburg, who died in 1991 at the age of 75, was born in Palermo, Sicily into a family of Jewish intellectuals. Gifted and uniquely brilliant Ginzburg, who was born Natalia Leví, wrote twelve books and two plays – some of them under a pseudonym because of crushing anti-Semitism. She raised five children and won a seat in the Italian parliament when she was in her sixties.

The book of hers that I always return to is a slim volume of essays entitled “The Little Virtues.” The earlier essays in the book cover Ginzburg’s fascist-imposed exile from Rome to the Abruzzi during the Second World War. In later ones she evokes her life in Turin and Rome as well as her extended time in England.

With my 25th wedding anniversary around the corner, I went back to my all-time favorite Ginzburg essay, “He and I.” It is a straightforward, black and white portrait of a marriage presented in quick, deft strokes. Ginzburg is ostensibly conveying the differences in temperament and outlook between her and her second husband. (Her first husband, a writer and resistance leader, died in 1944 at the hands of the fascist police). But like a developing photograph, the more you read the essay, the more you realize that you see a bigger picture of a beautifully imperfect love. It is also an homage to daily life, to routine and to the happiness imbedded in them.

The essay starts out simply, directly: “He always feels hot, I always feel cold.” Her husband speaks several languages well, she doesn’t speak any well. This is a marriage that exemplifies the old chestnut that opposites attract. But not exactly. Although it’s a study of stark contrasts, Ginzburg goes further and explores what happens after these opposites come together.

Every time I read through Ginzburg’s essay, I see more shades of my husband Ken and me. When we were first married, I gave him a jokey greeting card that illustrated a meeting convened for people who had normal childhoods. There were two people in the picture. Ken could have been the third. He is that person that is calm and steady and kind even in the roughest of times. When I fall apart, he puts me back together.

On our first extended trip together, he did not so much astonish me for driving perfectly through the West Country of England on the opposite side of the road. He astonished me because not once did this man to whom I was engaged yell at me for reading the map wrong or, quite frankly, not knowing how to read the map at all. (These were pre-GPS and cell phones days). He gently took the large crumpled, accordioned paper from me, neatly folded it up, took my face in hands and said the most gorgeous words I have ever heard – words that have come to evoke our life together – “Don’t worry. A car goes backwards and forwards.”

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Like Ginzburg’s husband, Ken takes his time in a museum. He goes beyond the audio guide to understand the exhibition at hand. Natalia and I are zoomers. That is, we rush through an exhibit, taking it all in in a whirlwind of anxiety and curiosity.

And speaking of anxiety, I am a hot, anxious mess. Ken is not. He says “I love you” after every phone conversation even if we’ve had a fight. Even though I‘ve held a few grudges since third grade, I can’t stay mad at him for more than a couple of hours. He hates to clothes shop. I can spend hours going through racks of clothing. He sweetly defers to my taste when I bring things home for him to try on. But he was stricter with the children when they were little than I was. He thinks it’s a hoot that I’m still a pushover with our fourteen-pound dog. I think it’s a hoot that the dog is kind of afraid of him.

He knows everything about Gilbert and Sullivan and Bob Dylan. Me? I’m a child of the ‘70s. I like Donna Summer and the Bee Gees. We love going to the movies together, but he respects that I can’t abide violence or science-fiction – two things he tolerates very well. He takes his time forming a thought. I’m reactive. He can do differential equations and edit my essays with equal aplomb. I wait for his insightful comments. And as I’ve been doing for 25 years – I learn from him again and again. And I love him more for that each time.