Books, Movies, Television, & A Play: Women

A theme seems to have emerged from my reading and watching these days:


As leaders, as in the films Mary, Queen of Scots and On the Basis of Sex; and television series, Madame Secretary.

Repressed women, as in the film Roma, and women finding their voices, as in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. In books, I listened to Eleanor Oliphant is Fine, about a woman who manages to survive child abuse; and the women protagonists of Thrity Umrigar’s novels, The Space Between Us and The Secrets Between Us, who navigate the extreme poverty of New Delphi’s slums to fortify family and forge friendships.

I also read about an early “MeToo” case in Patricia Miller’s non-fiction account, Bringing Down the Colonel: A Sex Scandal of the Gilded Age, and the “Powerless” Woman Who Took On Washington and saw the dramatic portrayal of Gloria Steinem, in Gloria, told in many voices with historical video footage. 

Whew! This wasn’t an intentional focus, though it seems more and more stories are being written and filmed that feature women’s roles in personal and professional life.

I’d seen the documentary about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, RBG, and was a bit dubious about the feature movie. Go see it. Bring your daughters, granddaughters, nieces, sisters, mothers, and aunts. They should see RBG too. Young people will be incredulous at the attitudes toward women in the late 1950’s, and what still resonates today. Fascinating history of how she became RBG. May she live a long, long life, please?

As for Mary, and also Elizabeth I, I wasn’t so current on the actual history and do think the producers took liberties portraying the monarchs with more feminist outlooks than they may have had. See it for the history and scenery.

Roma didn’t work for me and I know I’m in a minority. Shot in black and white, it’s the story of a maid who works for a wealthy family in Mexico, based on the director’s own life. The actors are all unknowns.

We love Madame Secretary. Though each episode deals with myriads of crises, there’s humor found through the day to day predicaments of the Secretary of State’s family and her staff. We loved the first season of Mrs. Maisel, started the second, dropped it, and then I returned to it when my husband was out of town. It’s a bit hokey but endearing.

See Gloria. The second half is opened to the audience for people to share their stories. A different and effective sort of theater experience.

We also saw and liked Green Book and Operation Finale.



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Downhill Skiing: Time’s Up!

This year I decided would be my year to either become a better skier or let it go. I’ve had a love/hate relationship with the sport for many years (as I’ve written here: , and here:

and with creaky bones and achy muscles have felt I’m aging out. Yet plenty of older people ski forever; we’ve met people who enjoy it well into their 80s.

My husband loves the sport and our daughter has joined us in recent years. So when we booked our ski trip to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, I arranged for three half -day lessons. I asked for an instructor experienced with older people, and someone good at instilling confidence to mitigate my fear.

To clarify: fear of heights, fear of snowboarders and fast skiers plowing into me, fear of falling and subsequent injury.

And I’m less enamored of crowds, long lift lines, and getting on and off lifts in general. Add wearing cement block type boots that cut into my shins, goggles that have to be worn over my glasses, and feeling cold, and I’m hardly a downhill cheerleader.

Robin, my instructor was very good. She demonstrated what I was doing wrong—lots of bad habits to break, and had me practice repeatedly new techniques. I weighed the pluses and minuses in my mind, and asked myself, what do I love about skiing? I came up with one answer: being outside. With that, and my knees talking to me a little each night, I made my decision.

Goodbye downhill. What does this mean for the annual ski vacation? Will I continue to go or not? Does stopping skiing test a 37-year-old marriage? I tend to think not. We have plenty of other common interests—like cycling—and other things to do on vacation. My husband can go without me once a year.

I’ve been cross -country skiing for years and rented a pair, planning to hit the trails that are part of the Grand Teton National Park. Cross country is everything downhill isn’t: no crowds, no lines, no noise. Just nature, fresh air, and great exercise.

I drove into the charming town of Jackson Hole and found my happy places: a bookstore, a yoga studio, and a yarn store. A young woman working at the yarn store shared that she’d recently stopped downhill skiing and now only does cross-country. She and her husband moved to Jackson because they worked for the National Park Service. While she no longer does, her husband is currently furloughed due to the government shut down.

As for skiing? Our grandchildren are ready and want us to take them. We’re waiting for snow in the Northeast US. Alas, climate change has kept temperatures mild with unrelenting rain. I’ll happily help them put on boots, make sandwiches and hot chocolate. Who knows, maybe I’ll even do a run or two on the bunny slope with them.

An article in the local paper here cited how people are breaking all the rules enforced by the park service in the parks. Piles of trash, overflowing outhouses, and illegal parking are threatening the local ecosystem and wildlife.

Here’s hoping the new Congress will don its skis and tackle the hardest, most challenging slopes: restoring government and addressing climate change among them.






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Fiddler in Yiddish


A fidler afn dakh, arop fun zinen, ha?

That’s Yiddish for “A fiddler on the roof—sounds crazy, no?”

It’s the opening line of the 1964 musical, Fiddler on the Roof, based on stories by Sholem Aleichem  about Tevye the Dairyman and his five daughters. Set in the Pale of Settlement during Tsarist Russia, it represents the effects of change—from traditions to modernity on the family and community. Tevye’s beliefs are challenged when his daughters choose to marry for love, defying the tradition that matchmakers arrange marriages. Ultimately, Tevye and his neighbors, facing eviction due to religious persecution, must leave their beloved village of Anatevka, seeking refuge far from the home they love.

When it opened in 1964, Fiddler became the first musical in history to surpass 3,000 performances and held the record for longest-running Broadway musical for nearly 10 years until Grease usurped the title. In 1971, it became an award-winning movie.

It’s been performed around the world from professional theaters to community groups to high schools. The song “Sunrise, Sunset” is a standard at Jewish weddings and bar/bat mitzvahs.

It’s been translated into many languages, among them Yiddish, where it was first performed in Israel in 1965.  A revival by the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, in New York City has been extended twice and is heading off-Broadway in February.

At first, I wasn’t interested. Why see a musical, one that I’ve seen countless times and can sing every lyric and recite every line? Would seeing it in Yiddish make much difference?

Then the show received rave reviews, and I asked my friend Yvonne, another musical theater lover, to join me.

Yiddish was the language spoken by Jews in central and eastern Europe before the Holocaust. It’s what my grandparents spoke to their three children, first-generation Americans, one who is my father. My parents would speak Yiddish when they didn’t want my three siblings and me to understand what they were saying. Now my father, at 90 ½, worries he’s losing his fluency, having no one to speak it with.   I know several words and phrases, and many sayings have become part of the American English lexicon. (Think schlep, or maven, or oi vey.)

From the first downbeat, I was enthralled in ways I never imagined. Staged in an intimate theater, directed by Joel Grey, and featuring the original Jerome Robbins choreography, the show—albeit familiar- seemed fresh and evermore poignant in Yiddish. At first, I thought I wouldn’t need the subtitles, in both English and Russian, but found myself sneaking glances at the screens. Some of the words are different: If I Were a Rich Man becomes If I Were a Rothschild, among many others.

At one point, Yvonne turned to me and said: “This makes all other performances a caricature.”

Unfolding before us is a story of immigrants fleeing persecution, of families being separated by beliefs, long distances, totalitarian regimes, and intolerance.

And that’s a story in any language, in any place.










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Building Bridges: Better Angels

Engagement is more productive than hate. Knowledge is more powerful than ignorance. With this in mind, I’ve been looking for ways to interact with people whose political views are opposed to mine. I worry about the world I’m leaving my grandchildren – a feeling shared, I hope, by other grandparents and parents- no matter their political views.

Attending a “Talking Across the Political Divide” workshop sponsored by Better Angels, I practiced a few basic communication techniques. Founded in 2016, this non-partisan organization strives to bring politically disparate Americans together in an effort to unify the nation. In a crowd however of majority liberal-leaning individuals, the conversations were more role-playing than actual scenarios, so using “I” messages, like “I hear that you believe…” or “I understand…” seemed a bit contrived. Yet I could see how these methods may open paths to a civil discussion.

However, there are some issues and beliefs I can’t and won’t tolerate and am prepared to argue, loudly. For instance, Mississippi Republican Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith’s comment about a supporter: “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row,” I find heinous and deplorable. This is racism that shouldn’t be condoned. If this is what the other side believes, I can’t accept it. More people need to hear and heed the famous lyrics from the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, South Pacific, “You’ve got to be carefully taught.”

But then President Trump announced his support of revising the country’s prison and sentencing laws—a bipartisan initiative called the First Step Act already passed by the House that would change federal policies that incarcerated African-American offenders at much higher rates than white offenders. The bill includes funding for anti-recidivism programs and other measures that would affect tens of thousands of current inmates and future offenders.

Bi-partisanship can work, obviously. Let’s hope the new Congress, with all the fresh, diverse faces, will work together to build the bridges needed to preserve our democracy and make the world a better place—for my grandkids and yours.







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Cycling Israel

Seeing Israel by bike is a whole lot different than seeing it from a tour bus. We’d heard about the Israel Ride from friends who’d done it and felt it would be a great way to combine a cycling trip with a visit to our son and his family. After all, we hadn’t yet met our new grandson, born in July.

This is a charity ride, benefitting two organizations: The Arava Institute, an environmental academic institution in the heart of the desert, and Hazon,  a New York-based non-profit committed to food sustainability. We received lots of information all summer about training, weather conditions, Israel security, routes, and packing.

While we’ve done plenty of cycling trips, we’ve never done a multi-day charity ride that included more than 200 riders and 60 crew. We’ve never ridden in the desert where it’s hot and dry all day.IMG_0937

The ride began in Jerusalem. The first day we rode west to the seaside city of Ashkelon, and took a well-deserved dip in the Mediterranean. The next day brought us inland. By late morning, the wind had increased causing severe dust storms. The limited visibility forced the ride leaders (and the police escorts) to cancel the afternoon ride. We’d heard about possible heavy rain—in which case, we wouldn’t be able to ride as Israel forbids riding in the rain. There was rain in the north that posed a threat of potential flash flooding across the desert. So we lost a day of riding and did some touring, including a stop to the ever-inspiring Sde-Boker, where Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion lived and is buried. IMG_0876(Ibex at Sde Boker).

We were bused to Mitzpe Ramon, site of the famous Ramon Crater, or machtesh.  At 500 meters deep (about 1,640 feet), 40 kilometers long, (25 miles), 10 kilometers at its widest point, (about 6 miles); it’s considered the largest in the world. Created by erosion, the views are magnificent. The ride down the crater, complete with narrow switchbacks was breathtaking. We then traversed the crater floor and rode out the other side.  That night we stayed in a kibbutz and learned how these fascinating communities operate. Incomes are pooled;  meals are communal; medical care is provided. The last day we descended into Eliat, seeing four countries as we rode: Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. We took a dip in the Red Sea to celebrate and packed our bikes for a couple days in the north with family.

There we toured Qumran National Park,FullSizeRender (32) the archeological site on the shore of the Dead Sea where the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered hidden in caves.


(Halvah for lunch!)



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Bring It Home, White Women


marchers from the Women's March

Because if we really are going to see a #BlueWave on Tuesday, that’s who we’re depending on – college educated, suburban white women who usually vote Republican. Does that terrify you? It does me as well, and I AM a white woman (although I do not live in the suburbs or ever vote Republican).

Yes, we need the black community to show up in Obama-era numbers, even though he isn’t on the ballot.

Yes, we need Hispanic and Latino men to get over their machismo and vote for the Democrat, even if she’s a she.

Yes, we need the 40+% of young people who CLAIM they’re going to vote to ACTUALLY SHOW UP to vote.

But the richest target for FLIPPED votes is the 44% of college educated white women who voted for Trump and in the intervening years have FINALLY seen the patriarchy for what it is.

I do…

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Happy Birthday: Frankenstein & Little Women

What writer wouldn’t want to say their book has never been out of print? That their book captivates generation after generation, and continues to inspire countless retellings, radio shows, movies, plays, and cartoons?

Two women writers share these distinctions and their works are celebrating birthday milestones.

In 1816, Mary Shelley, then 18, spent a summer with her poet husband, Percy Shelley and other literary luminaries in a large manor house along Italy’s Lake Como. Having exhausted the manor’s supply of ghost stories that the guests read aloud each evening, they decided to write their own. The story Mary Shelley wrote became the bones of the classic, Frankenstein, that she polished and published two years later as a novel.

Nearly 50 years later, in 1867, in Concord, Massachusetts, then 35-year-old Louisa May Alcott received a request from her publisher that would change her life. He wanted her to write a “girls’ book,” an assignment she shunned. But she needed the money to support her family – and modeled the famous Marches after her own siblings and parents. She wrote over 400 pages in 10 weeks leading to Little Women being published in 1868. A print run of 2,000 books sold out quickly, sending Louisa May back to her desk to write what became the second part of the same novel.

Both books have never gone out of print. Considered classics, they are read by all ages, have been translated into more than 50 languages, and continue to be interpreted for their roles in literature, and their relationships to social and political issues over different time periods.

Two new books addressing the books’ place in the 21st century compliment the birthday celebrations. For Frankenstein’s 200th, there’s Frankenstein: How a Monster Became an Icon, edited by Sidney Perkowitz and Eddy von Mueller; and for Little Women’s 150th there’s Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why it Still Matters, by Anne Boyd Rioux.

I’d read quite a few articles about Rioux’s book; and then stumbled upon the other while browsing the new bookshelf at my library. Both are fascinating reads.

I came to Frankenstein probably first via the 1931 Boris Karloff movie and later read the novel after seeing a stage adaptation several years ago. Perkowitz and von Mueller have edited essays by various Frankenstein scholars to discuss the novel’s eternal themes as relevant today as 200 years ago.

At its core, the novel addresses man’s desire to defeat death. In this case, a scientist creates life from death. The novel takes on the ubiquitous question of science versus ethics. As genetic manipulation becomes more mainstream, the issue of how much is too much becomes pertinent. Should science be used to produce superior human beings? Who decides?

Furthermore, the creature conjured in Victor Frankenstein’s lab represents the outsider who is immediately feared and harassed. It shows xenophobia at its worst. In Shelley’s writing, she didn’t explicitly describe the creature’s appearance; instead she portrayed him through how other characters saw him. Who is the monster?

A case can be made that the monster is Victor Frankenstein; a wealthy, privileged man who used his entitlement to dabble in science with no regard to the consequences, abusing power and ethics.

I read Little Women as a child, and like many girls, fell in love with the book and wanted to be Jo. I loved her independence and her desire to be a writer. I loved the antics of the March sisters, and of course, the idea of romance. I’ve seen a few movie versions, especially the 1994 adaptation with Winona Ryder as Jo and a young, handsome Christian Bale as Laurie. I wasn’t alone in my love affair with the book and my yearning to emulate Jo. According to Rioux’s book, Little Women, and Jo, in particular, gave girls, and the women they became, permission to become writers. The book validated the idea of a girl expressing her own opinions, earning a living writing, and that their lives mattered. By giving voices to a gender accustomed to being silenced, Little Women served as a precursor to the modern memoir. Some writers who claim inspiration from Louisa May Alcott include: Anna Quindlen, Jane Smiley, Nora and Delia Ephron, Barbara Kingsolver, Simone de Beauvoir, and Gloria Steinem.

Yet why has it survived?

Rioux contends Little Women transcends time and place, presents a realistic portrait of home and family, and has allowed its readers to adapt its themes to the times. In the 1940’s the book served as a reminder to soldiers that this was the America they were fighting to preserve. By the 1970’s, with the rise of feminism, the book was analyzed for its relationships between women and the development of women’s identities. Little Women challenges readers to consider the many different ways girls can become women.

I wonder what the next 150 and 200 years will bring for these powerful novels.





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