Category Archives: Brownstone

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.”


Free foot massages and other tales of my childhood antics.

Though it might be slightly repetitive to type this, I feel it is only appropriate to begin this entry by stating I was a special snowflake, even as a child, and it manifested itself in the oddest of ways. Whether I was playing “Statue Man” with my father– a game in which the person who can sit still the longest wins– or telling everyone and their grandmother that I aspired to be a senator from New York, I was the quintessential definition of peculiar.

After spending graduation dinner with my grandmother, though, I was reminded of one particular peculiarity from my youth: my propensity to give free foot massages. Whenever I would visit my grandmother, I would immediately offer her said service. As anyone woman who has gone through childbirth would tell you, the only correct response is “Hell yes.”

And so I would spend the next hour or two meticulously massaging her feet. Despite the callouses, bruises, and other signs of wear and tear, my grandmother’s feet were not aversive to me. I enjoyed conditioning them back to life. Even as my own hands began to sore, I persisted through the pain– determined to show some sort of appreciation to the woman who birthed my father and by proxy, me.

While a normal seven year old girl might have drawn a less than attractive “thank you” card for the front of her grandma’s refrigerator, I had to get down on my hands and knees and massage my gratitude into her weathered feet. And while my grandmother was highly appreciative, she would always end her personal massage session with the words, “I’d love you even if you didn’t give me this simple pleasure.”

After one such session, I responded to her comment in a most unusual way. “Would you love me if I were a balloon bouncing through the streets of New York?” As any blood relative feels obliged to do, my grandmother nodded politely.

But as any woman with an ounce of urban acumen will say, she then questioned the absurdity of my querry. I stated– and I should note this is before I resigned myself to a career in politics– that I aspired to be a balloon with I grew up. Balloons, once released into the air, are the epitome of free floating objects. They have no obligations; no weights holding them back from the blue skies; no guilt about shooting for the stars.

I wanted to be that free someday– to act and move as gracefully as a colored balloon, and to be content with where I was in any particular moment. I, as my grandmother noted, feared commitment or attachment. I never wanted to feel restrained or constrained by a person or a place. I aspired to be a rolling stoner.

When my mother subsequently mentioned her potential birthday present to me last night– a paid membership to a Jewish dating website– I had my usual rolling stoner panic attack. I’m too young to be looking for a husband; I have mountains, likely in countries oceans away, that I must climb first. And yet, despite my viscerally frustrated response, I knew my mother had deliberately planted a seed– a seed, in which she finally becomes a grandmother and I begin making payments on my future brownstone.

While I have yet to accept or deny her offer, I was reminded this morning why the rolling stone lifestyle is just so attractive:

I may have to modify my seven year old aspiration. Instead of seeking to be a balloon, I might just settle for a colorful bouncing ball in San Francisco.

On becoming a nun.

Since beginning the “networking” process, whereby I attempt to hobnob with the rich and the famous in the hopes of procuring a job that will enable me to acquire the brownstone of my dreams, I have returned to a former realization. Instead of seeking temporary employment in a high powered industry, I can secure permanent placement in a religiously driven corporation.

Furthermore, in devoting myself to said corporation, all my  marital woes would be over. Instead of spending endless hours searching for stray cats on the streets of New York, I could settle into a steady and lifelong relationship– with G-d, that is. Yes, the position to which I am referring is nun and the location is a convent yet to be determined.

Who says nuns can't have fun?

Granted, I am Jewish and my closest connection to Catholicism was a trip I took to Rome at sixteen. And granted, said trip was a Jewish history tour of Rome, in which we sped past the Vatican in the pouring rain. Somehow, though, I believe that I could be both Jew and nun simultaneously. And, perhaps, if I am a particularly devout and silent nun, I might even be canonized into sainthood.

The woman, of course, who has inspired this trip down rosary bead lane is Edith Stein, a German-Jewish nun, now referred to as Saint Teresia Benedicta of the Cross. Yes, John Paul canonized her in 1998 (46 years after she passed away). Born into an Orthodox Jewish household, Stein joined the Catholic Church in her twenties. Legend, and by legend I mean devout Massachusetts Catholics, has it that Stein immediately began performing miracles– resuscitating those near death back to life.

Though Stein perished in the Holocaust (apparently Hitler was not very accepting of converts), she left behind an important legacy for young women contemplating the Divine Sisterhood. Only in her twenties, Stein forewent the possibility of marrying an eligible Jewish bachelor and pursuing a college degree in philosophy for the sake of G-d.

As a recent story on NPR indicates, this is no longer the norm. Fewer and fewer women are willing to make the “sacrifice,” and hence the average age of a nun in the United States has risen to 76. The thought of waving goodbye to all forms of modern technology– cell phones, laptops, iPods– is beyond any Millennial’s comprehension.

However, I would be willing to make all these sacrifices if the convent were willing to make one itsy-bitsy accommodation: Starbucks. I know the Catholic Church doesn’t make a habit of indulging materialism (well, not intentionally anyway), but I am requesting just this one capitalist form of compensation. Provide me with a daily latte, and I promise to pursue otherwise spiritual pursuits.

Or, perhaps, taking a cue from my favorite cinematic nun, I can start a Motown-esque choir and raise funds for underprivileged youth: