Don’t Walk Beside Me

“What happened to your iPad?” I asked my Liberian friend, Gwendolyn, as we stood in line waiting to get our World Economic Forum badges. Her iPad looked like it had gone to hell and back. As it turns out, I wasn’t too far off.

Gwendolyn runs a health NGO, which goes door-to-door in the Liberian capital of Monrovia, educating the public on what the Ebola virus is and how it is spread. Unfortunately, there are many Liberians who do not want to acknowledge the severity of the outbreak, and one such disgruntled resident smashed Gwendolyn’s iPad in defiance.

As Gwendolyn explained the horrors of an epidemic that was claiming the lives of so many of her loved ones, I couldn’t help but think about both the literal and metaphorical oceans that divided us. Her struggle was one for survival, while mine was far more existential, more privileged.

Just days before leaving for my Geneva field trip, I had been working on wrapping up a film with several of my Coney Island film students. I was exhausted; the streets reeked of uncollected garbage; and my brownstone Brooklyn apartment seemed like a world away. It was summer in New York, and I needed to remind myself of why I had chosen to live in the most humid city north of the Mason-Dixon line.

Amid my heated confusion, Nashon, one of my favorite students, offered to walk me to the subway. There had been a surge in gang violence recently, and he advised me that it was in my best interest to walk beside him. Ten minutes into our walk, a police car pulled up along side us.

“Is there anything wrong, ma’am?” the officer inquired.

Stunned, I replied, “No, but if he had a gun to my back, do you really think my answer would be any different?”

The officer tried to calm my nerves, arguing he was only “checking in” and that there was no need to become “emotional.”

Before I could proceed to read him the riot act, though, he drove away. It was in that moment that I finally turned to Nashon. He was silent, removed, and cold. Then he asked, “Miss Yaffa, why’d you have to make a scene? Your words ain’t gonna change the system.”

For Nashon, this was a common occurrence. He was stopped and frisked multiple times a week– sometimes even a day. He’d learned to keep quiet, be respectful, and not give the officers an excuse to harass him further. But I, on the other hand, was not used to daily violations of my privacy and individual liberties. And I, who had not yet been scared or broken by a terribly inequitable system, still believed in the power of my voice.

I told Nashon how impressed I was with his ability to control his rage; how I’d wanted to jump on top of the police car and scream bloody murder. And he said, “Don’t be proud. It isn’t just me; it’s all of us African Americans. Every day we don’t riot in the streets, you should be happy, because Lord knows we have reason to.”

Nashon, much like Gwendolyn, had reason to rage, and yet both of them contained their anger and channeled it into more productive channels. For Nashon, it was visual storytelling– taking his camera into his project and documenting his daily struggle. For Gwendolyn, it was picking up the pieces of her broken electronic and going to knock on the next door of an uneducated local.

Their behavior wasn’t defeatist. It was driven by a desire to change the system, incrementally. I wanted to change it, but without delay. From my more privileged prism, I saw the world through a lens of immediacy. I needed answers, and I needed them now. Quite simply, I wasn’t used to waiting.

And this impatience has become a recurring theme in my 20something life. I want it all sorted out… now. I want the Magic 8 ball to tell me my fate, and not say, “check back in a year, or five.” I want a world without racism or disease– not tomorrow, but today.

But perhaps I could learn a thing or two from Nashon and Gwendolyn. Perhaps I can learn to channel some of that passion, that emotion into a long-term project with tangible impact. Only time will tell, but in the interim I’m launching the second Hub of New York Global Shapers. Our goal will be to design a project to tackle inequality in the city. Rather than expect immediate results, we’ll be developing and implementing over the next 1-2 years.

I’m excited for this adventure, but a bit frustrated that I have to wait until the second week of September to launch this new project. I suppose this is good practice in the patience department.

 

The quarter life crisis: resolved

There is a moment in every aspiring Brooklynite’s life when she finds herself strolling down Smith St, listening to Hedwig and the Angry Inch– ice latte in one hand, recently- purchased Sven clogs in the other. And in that moment, the world, or at least that tiny patch of Boerum Hill,  feels like her oyster.

Today is my 25th birthday, and for the first time since the start of 2014, I am excited about the future. The Sikh astrologer I bumped into in front of my apartment affirmed my new sensation. He said today would mark the turning point to a year that has thus far dealt me some serious blows. And while he subsequently asked for $20 in exchange for his prophecy, I am inclined to believe him.

Though I have no concrete evidence to substantiate the prophecy of a better tomorrow, I’m listening to “Wig on the Shelf” and bopping around brownstone Brooklyn in the hopes of proving the adage “If you will it, it is no dream” true. After all, half the battle is psychological.

I’m also wearing color– something I try not to make a habit out of because I have a New York rep to protect. But today, or for the remaining hours of the 28th, I am breaking with the norm, sporting some sunshine, and daydreaming about the next mountain I plan to climb.

I’m also trying to channel some of the positive energy that birthed this blog. I began this journey when I had returned from my year abroad, when I still very much believed in the power of idealism. And while my idealism has been somewhat diluted, it’s still there– somewhere in the recesses of my body and soul.

This summer I begin the idealism revival. But first, a knish and beer tasting!

 

 

The Arcade Fire Commitment

Arcade Fire is fully committed to the art of dance, and I am fully committed to Arcade Fire. In their two most recent music videos, they explore dark and twisty topics that would bring most listeners to tears. But rather than inducing a Toni Braxton emotion-filled fest, Arcade Fire presents issues of heartbreak and loneliness in the best form possible: seemingly spontaneous dance.

And the timing of the release of their music videos could not be more perfect. After my ex-boyfriend and I broke up last fall, I was experiencing the weird and somewhat uncomfortable sensation that comes with the sudden shock of singledom. I hadn’t been single in 18 months, and I wasn’t sure I was fully prepared to embrace my independent status. I also wasn’t convinced there would be another opportunity to love or be loved. Cue “Afterlife.”

Greta Gerwig, equally crushed by the loss of a love, begins the video by staring longingly into the distance. The gravity of her pain is undeniable, but the beauty of her experience is what she does next. She raises her hand to the sky; shakes her arms to the wind; and then she moves her entire body in a series of quasi-choreographed motions. Leaving the apartment of breakup, she runs and dances and frolics through a snow-covered forrest, ending her five minute rhythmic release on stage, surrounded by adorable prima ballerina-like girls. They jump up and down, and embrace a manless tomorrow.

I am pleased to admit that I spent two months learning the choreography of this video and then practicing it on the school playground across the street from my apartment. And while I can’t give Greta’s super fly moves all the credit, they definitely helped me put one step in front of the other and envision a world where I walked the streets liked I owned them.

Fast forward six months, and I am loathing 2014. It’s presented a series of consecutive losses. And all I want is one small win; all I need is one friendly reminder that it gets better. Or better yet, that I’m not alone in my isolation. Enter “We Exist.”

Andrew Garfield, a man uncomfortable in his skin, dresses in female attire and walks into a cowboy bar. Not surprisingly, he is ridiculed, mocked, and quite literally knocked to the ground. And while most people in his situation would flee from the site of injury, he gets back up and dances in all his effeminate glory. He even pulls four manly men to join him in motion. The absurdity of the visual, while humorous, is also the source of its beauty.

But perhaps the most wonderful moment in the video is when he stands in disbelief, amazed by his own courage and grateful for the support of those acknowledge and accept his differences. Though I haven’t mastered the choreography quite yet, I have watched the video at least 12 times today. And with each viewing, I gain a little more faith in my ability to look tragedy in the face and dance.

When the victim becomes the consoler

One of my journalist friends recently returned from a trip to the Congo. While most of the participants on the trip were fellow journalists and aid workers, two patrons also tagged along. These patrons– who I will refer to as tech wives (the wealthy spouses of Silicon Valley coders)– had little sense of the challenges they would face.

One day, toward the end of their trip, the participants visited a rape shelter, where 10 Congolese women shared their horrific stories of sexual violation. The tech wives, already overwhelmed by the Congolese realities, burst into uncontrollable tears. And in a cruel twist of fate, the rape victims began to console them.

Upon hearing this story, I vowed to never ever become a tech wife– to never exhibit such selfish disregard for those most pained by life’s inequities. And then last night happened.

About a month ago I joined ACTION Youth Media as a project mentor. In this role, I began to work with a group of Coney Island teenagers (mostly from the projects) to create documentaries on critical issues facing their community. We explored gang rape; stop and frisk; and a variety of other sordid realities entirely removed from my own experience.

Though I feared I would fail to connect with them; that they, justifiably so, would never trust a privileged white girl from the brownstone-riddled side of the tracks, I thought I was beginning to make some headway.

And then Eddie died. To be precise, he was stabbed to death by 15 kids who followed him into the McDonalds across from the Coney Island train station. Though I did not know Eddie on a personal level, he was a close friend of several of the teenagers in my program. And his untimely departure affected these young men and women in ways I can’t begin to explain.

As I listened to my students describe his murder, I felt the tears well up in my eyes. I had to use every bit of strength in me to not cry in front of them, to not devolve into one of the tech wives. While I’d had no formal training in group therapy or social work, I needed to keep it together. I needed to be the objective outsider, who listens rather than speaks; who offers some hope of a brighter tomorrow, even if she only half believes it; who looks the gravest dangers in the eye and says, “Is that the best you’ve got?”

But I wasn’t a superhero, and I couldn’t be all those things in that moment, so I tried to do the one thing I had learned in my high school AP Psych class: create a sense of normalcy. When kids’ worlds have been knocked upside down, they need to feel like they can be right side up again. They need their 6 pm media class to continue as scheduled. And so it did. Despite this tragic beginning, I brought the conversation back to the topic at hand: the gendered nature of police investigation and interrogation.

The boys claimed that the police stopped them fairly regularly, but the one female student in my group said she had never been frisked. There was a gender divide, and it was inextricably linked with racial profiling. And, of course, with the search for Eddie’s killers. But it was also a part of the documentary we would begin shooting in two weeks–  a documentary that would ask the question, if gendered-profiling is unfair, how can we fix the criminal justice system so that it creates a safe space for everyone in it?

It was one of the hardest conversations I’ve ever had, but it also felt like one of the most important I would ever engage in. And when class was over, one of my students turned and said, “Ms. Yaffa, this shit is complicated. This whole god damn world is complicated.” I  channeled my inner Whoopi Goldberg-gone-rogue-nun and replied, “Amen.”

 

The Grandma Refrain

5:30 AM Sunday March 30th, and I am wide awake. It’s not because I’m coming home from one of those nights to remember (and will likely forget). No, I’m waiting for a call informing me of a reality that I have not yet grown to accept.

7:00 AM Sunday March 30th, and my stepmother calls to tell me my grandmother has passed away. It’s not an entirely surprising occurrence. She has spent the last two months in and out of hospitals and nursing homes, her body a human laboratory for modern medicine.

Despite the inevitability of her demise, I cry. In the course of two and a half months, I have lost both of my grandmothers. And while the nature of my relationship with each of them was quite different, there is one critical commonality between them: their commitment to loving me, in spite or perhaps because of my flaws.

Each had a unique vision for my future. My mother’s mother saw me as the future of the Jewish people, and as such was committed to my matrimonial quest. My father’s mother believed in my ability to leave the world slightly better than the one I had entered. She subsequently supported me in my academic and social activist pursuits.

They collectively invested in my potential. And suddenly, in their absence, my emotions gave way to a flood of tears. I cried for the loss of my biggest fans, the ones who would attend my third grade Flag Day play, and cheer as their granddaughter stood on stage for an hour as the American flag, a wholly inanimate object.

I cried for the loss of my best friends, who every Friday afternoon would set aside time to talk to me before Shabbat and remind me that no matter how daunting the future appeared, they had faith in my ability to look fear in the eyes and laugh.

And I cried for the loss of two courageous women, who watched as the opportunities provided to them expanded exponentially for their daughters and granddaughters. Despite their sometimes confusion, they cheered from the sidelines as the women they raised began to shatter the glass ceilings they never knew could be broken.

Therefore, on the eve of my second funeral this year, I’m taking a new approach and embracing the Sam Smith response to loss:

You told me not to cry when you were gone
But the feeling’s overwhelming, they’re much too strong
Can I lay by your side, next to you, you
And make sure you’re alright
I’ll take care of you, 
And I don’t want to be here if I can’t be with you tonight

That’s How You Know

My interns often ask me who my favorite journalist is, and my answer is always Ann Friedman. Aside from being a rockstar writer, she also exhibits a certain kind of quick wit that no amount of UCB training can teach you. Each week she shares her wit by way of her infamous pie charts on The Hairpin.

So when I learned that she was participating in Women, Action, & The Media’s yearly auction, I knew I had to bid on her reward: a personalized pie chart. After bidding away my Chanukah savings, I won! And when Ann (yes, we’re now on a first name basis) asked me if I had anything in mind for my pie chart, I sent her a link to an old blog post about my failed foray into Jewish online dating.

Fast forward one month, and Ann conceived of the following work of genius: How Do You Know You’re A Single, Ex-Orthodox Jewish Woman?

Pie chart

 

Wearing trousers on New Year’s Eve

American passenger: So how was your New Year’s? Did you kiss a special dude?

Me: No.

AP: Did you kiss a special dudette?

Me: No.

AP: So what did you do?

Me: I wore trousers for the first time.

There is a moment in every Orthodox Jewish girl’s life when she looks to the High Heavens, fully expecting lightning to strike. For me, there have been two such moments. The first was June 21, 2001– the day after my Bat Mitzvah; the day I assumed full responsibility for all my sins; and the day I dared to sport a short-sleeved shirt in public. It was 90 degrees and humid, a typically painfully New York summer day, and if public nudity had been legal and I had been more comfortable with my body, I would have debated sporting my birthday suit.

Still, despite my commitment to overcoming heat stroke, I was also paralyzed with fear. Men would see my elbows, and what could be more seductive than my funny bones on display? There would be retribution; there would be lightning. And so after a few short moments in the public eye, I receded to my bedroom and opted for more modest attire.

Fast forward 12.5 years, and I make the bold decision to buy crazy, sexy, cool heathen pants. I am not entirely convinced I will wear them, but I use my discount code and go for the spiritual plunge: wearing them on New Year’s Eve in London.

Only once I am in London and surrounded by Jewish peers, I begin to rethink this somewhat bold move. Note: the last time I attempted to purchase pants, I broke down in tears in the GAP fitting room and ran a mile down Broadway shrieking, “Never again.” I wasn’t ready then, and I was beginning to reconsider if I was truly ready now.

But the joy of traveling with a quasi-small suitcase is that you don’t have lots of alternatives. Once you are 3000 miles from home, you must make do with what you have. And so reluctantly and fearful of an impending rain storm, I sported my newly purchased symbol of heresy and boarded a public bus to a fairly large party– where many people who knew my older skirt-wearing self would be amazed (and perhaps concerned) with my transformation.

Then the unthinkable happened. Nobody said a word. And not because they were silently judging my single lady ways, but because nobody actually cared. I was just another rowdy New Yorker in all black attire brooding silently over my beer.

In fact, the only comment anyone even made in reference to my clothing was, “You have a smart blazer.” And my beloved Zavi responded, “Well, obviously, she’s Yaffa.” Though her comment seemed benign, it meant the world to me. I was not defined solely by my exterior. There was a full package, and even complete strangers at the party could sort of see that.

So when I boarded my flight back to New York hours later, and the nosy American grandma quizzed me on the night before, I told her quite simply that I had worn trousers… and lightning did not strike.