As we move toward 2020 and a presidential election, what better time to look back at the fight it took for women to gain the right to vote — and how sectors of the American female population were overlooked, despite their contributions to the struggle. The show is structured by chronology and themes:
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Just in time for the exacerbated stress and anxiety brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, a new documentary, The Mindfulness Movement (originally slated for theater release) is available to stream online or buy.
The 100-minute film, co-produced by Deepak Chopra and the musician Jewel, gives an introduction to using the breath as an anchor to redirect thought patterns by “focusing on the present moment in a non-judgmental way.”
Director Rob Beemer anchors his look with four personal narratives, which are combined with interviews from pioneers in the field. Beemer has emphasized his goal as bringing “secular mindfulness” to a larger audience. He wants to lessen “misconceptions” about the subject and illustrate the body of scientific research that has evolved and underscores the efficacy of a mindfulness practice.
It is striking that numerous people in the scientific and medical arenas gravitated to the same path of inquiry during the 1970s, despite discouragement from colleagues that their choices would be a career killer.
Daniel Goleman, a science writer for The New York Times and author of Emotional Intelligence, is on-screen to discuss “neural circuitry” and how tests demonstrate the difference in the brain after a subject does the continued “weight lifting” of an ongoing meditation practice. Goleman rejected the traditional route of clinical psychology. He wanted to examine the “upside of human potential” employing scientific evidence. He recognized how mindfulness enabled people to be triggered less and recover more quickly. Goleman also identified how it slowed brain aging.
In 2017, Goleman teamed up with Richard Davidson to write Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body.
Davidson had met the Dali Lama in 1992, and it changed his personal and
work trajectory. The Dali Lama suggested to Davidson the concept of using the systems and approaches of neuroscience to study “compassion and kindness” and to “bring those practices into the laboratory.” They developed an enduring friendship. Davidson is the Founder and Director of the Research Center for Healthy Minds. (Read his thoughts on “COVID-19 and Our Common Humanity.”)
When Jon Kabat-Zinn was on-site in a hospital, he wanted to integrate the research he was doing with Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and share his findings with the medical staff. Given the opportunity to work with patients, he said, “In eight weeks you could see people transform.” Kabat-Zinn went on to found the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
He qualifies mindfulness as: “The actuality of things as they are; not as I would want them to be.” He has defined it as “an ethical practice.”
Starting his career as a medical doctor, Deepak Chopra became chief of medicine at New England Memorial Hospital. However, his dissatisfaction with the institution and protocols of Western medicine pushed him to move into the area of mind. His interest was in discovering how people could maintain an internal “equilibrium despite external factors.”
The original prism of traditional medicine felt lacking to these practitioners. They all ended up on parallel paths, investigating and accessing how a consistent practice of mindfulness meditation rewired and restructured the brain. The key was to reorienting awareness by “directing attention back to the breath.”
Different elements of society have already gravitated toward using the modality to shift consciousness. Beemer digs into examples from inner city school kids to police officers and veterans.
In West Baltimore, children are learning “positive life skills” and are encouraged to leave the classroom and go to the “mindfulness moment room” if they need to reorganize themselves. It’s a huge difference from a trip to the principal’s office. The Holistic Life Foundation, originators of the concept, now works with 7,000 students at forty Baltimore schools. The philosophy is, “It has to start from within, and then move out to the larger community.”
The premise has been adopted by law enforcement, prisons, and with veterans. For police, it’s about “building skills that cultivate a whole new way of being.” For those who are incarcerated, it’s being given an opportunity to evaluate who they want to be when they get out.
Gail Sofer, founder of the Mindful Veteran Project, developed her initiatives when she learned that fifteen to twenty-two veterans were committing suicide per day. It’s about “hacking the system and the ingrained behaviors,” she said.
Meditation tools are also used to break apart the gridlock of emotional and stress eating, and to tackle smoking cessation. In the same vein, self-compassion is taught to cancer patients.
The individual stories related give depth to the science and the stats. Jewel, who speaks about her experiences and the emotional “inheritance of an abusive family life,” now works with at-risk teens. Having suffered from panic attacks and homelessness, her evolution is grounded in lived experience.
George Mumford, author of The Mindful Athlete, recounts how his basketball career became derailed after an injury. The use of painkillers soon morphed to the use of alcohol and harder drugs. Then he became involved in navigating the mind/body process, and studied with Kabat-Zinn. He used his insights to work with sports teams, including coach Phil Jackson and his players. Mumford’s mantra was: “Mindfulness makes you flow ready.” He continues to advise individual athletes and lineups to manage the moment while “doing the thing for in and of itself.”
Co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society, Sharon Salzberg, also came from a history of family dysfunction and trauma. She traveled to India in 1971 after taking a philosophy course that included Buddhism. She describes the Sharon of those years as being “extremely judgmental.” Her journey of discovery had her question herself about what she was feeling. Learning to have self-compassion led to understanding the need to extend compassion to others. Metta, or loving kindness, became a cornerstone of her teaching about friendship — toward oneself and to others. She states, “Everybody counts and everybody matters.” (Check out her Election Season meditation.)
Considering the politically fractured state of America, as well as the larger world, it was encouraging to learn that Congressman Tim Ryan (and former presidential candidate) not only follows a contemplative practice, but is also a believer that it may be a way out of the current hyperpartisan conundrum challenging America. He wrote about his ideas in A Mindful Nation.
As Americans and the world face a major health crisis, a new reality is presenting the opportunity to examine the choices we have made — on both a personal and global scale.
Many of the speakers in the film suggest that five to ten minutes per day of mindfulness meditation can create the “next big public health revolution.” Are enough people interested in cultivating compassion and building awareness about how their beliefs can add to activating a social change shift?
As Oprah Winfrey suggests, “It’s an entry point.”
Carrie Fisher: A Life on the Edge is author Sheila Weller’s newest addition to her body of work, which is often situated at the crossroads between women’s issues and cultural observation. In previous books, Weller examined several women through the prism of music and media. With her biography of Fisher, her subject is so outsized, it is the equivalent of a group portrait: The many facets of Carrie.
Who was she? The child of a Hollywood couple; inhabitor of the career-defining role of Princess Leia in “Star Wars”; actress and writer; friend to innumerable celebrities; daughter, mother, wife (married to Paul Simon); partner.
Yet, perhaps the one aspect of Carrie that would impact and influence everything — was being the genetic inheritor of a predisposition to drug addiction and bipolar disorder (both from her father). These two elements would have a tremendous bearing on her entire existence.
As Leo Tolstoy observed, “Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Carrie and her family lived out their dysfunction against the backdrop of screaming headlines splashed across tabloid newspapers. In 1959, her songster father, Eddie Fisher, dumped his MGM wholesome bride, Debbie Reynolds, for megastar and beauty, Elizabeth Taylor. The actions and lifestyles of actors and actresses were starting to be revealed in a vastly different way from the 1940s and 50s, when major studios were able to whitewash, spin, and cover up news that was detrimental to the image (and dollar value) of their stars.
Carrie would become part of the unraveling of 1950s American society (She was born in 1956.) when “Father Knew Best” and there was no alcoholism, drug use, homosexuality or decision-makers who weren’t white men. Rather, Carrie’s time would unfold against the backdrop of independent film, Woodstock, Vietnam, social upheaval, and the morphing roles of women.
It is true that Carrie navigated her ordeals within the confines of extreme privilege and Hollywood glamour, unlike the average person. Yet, the essence of her evolution and aspects of her struggles will be easily recognized to other women — especially of her generation. Her myriad insecurities, one of the continuous threads of her personal history, is what makes this telling of her life accessible to an audience beyond just her fans. Carrie perseverated about if she were pretty enough, smart enough, thin enough — and then as she aged…not young enough. It will ring an unwelcome bell.
Ultimately, after being attacked on Twitter for her appearance in “The Force Awakens” (2015), she was able to push back against the fat and age shamers. With her trademark incisiveness said acerbity, Carrie proclaimed, “Youth and beauty are not accomplishments. They’re the temporary, happy by-products of time or DNA.”
Carrie left high school at 15, and began her movie career two years later when she portrayed a Beverly Hills teenager in Warren Beatty’s “Shampoo.” Very few people are aware that she attended the prestigious Central School of Speech and Drama in London in 1974, before snagging the part of Princess Leia at 19. It was a role that would freeze her in time, like a specimen trapped in amber. There were benefits, but also plenty of liabilities. Some of her nuanced performances — in movies like “Hannah and her Sisters” and “When Harry Met Sally” — were overlooked. She also appeared very briefly on Broadway (when she was 26), replacing Amanda Plummer as the young nun in “Agnes of God.”
By her twenties, people were already recognizing Carrie’s rapier wit and originality. Simultaneously, Weller references those who spoke about her vulnerability and neediness. Carrie’s perpetual generosity to others, both monetary and emotional, was most probably part of her quest for love and approval — something she craved from both of her self-involved parents. Ironically, despite her own extensive litany of problems, she became a caretaker to both Debbie and Eddie as they grew older. With her mother, after years of competition and discord, they developed a co-dependent relationship (They had houses next door to each other.). With her father, who tapped her for money, made inappropriate remarks, and sometimes shared drugs with her, there remained an unfilled quest for a love that Carrie hoped would be realized.
When Carrie became a “writer who acted,” she moved into what would prove to be the most comfortable space for herself. Despite having a great singing voice, she wanted to completely differentiate herself from her parents. She penned numerous books, including “Postcards From the Edge” (It was made into a movie with Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine.), and was a sought after script doctor.
At the age of 24, Carrie was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She rejected that conclusion by doctors, and the option of taking lithium to balance her moods. In 1985, she was again diagnosed — with bipolar two. She was finally able to accept the information, specifically as an explanation for her behavior and extreme emotional swings. However, as Weller points out, the way that Carrie went about dealing with her circumstances was “in Carrie style — with the unofficial caveat that she didn’t have to follow treatment in an orthodox fashion.”
Carrie made a point of being open about her bipolar status, to share her experiences and destigmatize the condition. In an interview with Diane Sawyer in 2000, she stated flatly, “I am mentally ill. I can say that.” The following year, she agreed to be the cover story for Psychology Today.
I spoke with Weller by phone to dig into Carrie’s legacy — specifically to
“She had a big personality and a lot of honesty, about herself as well as others,” Weller told me. “Exaggerated emotion and intensity is more welcomed in men,” she said. Weller pointed to the example of actress Margot Kidder, who was “ridiculed,” and not treated with the same empathy as Robin Williams. “It’s harder for women to behave unconventionally,” she added.
Weller emphasized that even with Carrie’s “intense challenges, she remained productive.” That is evidenced in anecdotes about Carrie’s perpetual travels, performances, and writing.
“Carrie was a woman who was famous just for being herself,” pronounced Weller. “She broke boundaries. She understood that she had a disorder that didn’t have a cure. She used her honesty to help other women, and increasingly understood the importance of kindness.”
Weller’s biography illustrates the breadth and scope of Carrie’s difficult but full journey. She went through so much — from the emotional fallout of a famous and fractured family, to the procedure of electroconvulsive therapy [ECT] as a treatment. She always came out the other side…until she didn’t.
The book left me with feelings of sadness. But then I did something Carrie might have done. I rented “Postcards from the Edge” — and laughed along with her.
J Street has been on my radar since its inception. I interviewed founder Jeremy Ben-Ami in 2008, about Jews and the Obama candidacy. The organization has grown in size and influence since that time, and has offered an option for American Jews who do not identify with the status quo being put forth by many legacy Jewish organizations, nor the politics of AIPAC.
With two days of concurrent sessions, trainings, and plenaries, there was a myriad of topics to explore and not enough time to hear everything. I was surprised to run into an activist I know, who is Jewish, and an unwavering critic of Israel’s policies. She commented on the range and quality of the speakers.
Along with 4,000 other attendees, I heard the ideas of American Jews, Israelis, and Palestinians. Many of them I was very familiar with. Others, I was exposed to for the first time. Throughout the event, the anniversary of the Tree of Life synagogue massacre (October 27) loomed large.
Panels and Trainings
My Sunday began with a Primer on Occupation and Annexation. It was delivered by Frank Lowenstein, former Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations. It was both informative and discouraging. It also helped to explain why the Obama administration chose to abstain on United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334.
Next up was Fighting Antisemitism and its Weaponization in American Politics. It was moderated by Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Executive Director of T’ruah. The room was packed.
A point of agreement I would hear frequently over the next 48 hours was the premise that “Progressives allow themselves to be divided and impacted by wedge strategies.” Another frequent iteration posited that white nationalism is a “reaction to the strengthening of democracy,” while Trump had “engaged and emboldened White Supremacists.”
Peter Beinart offered, “We don’t have a consensus of what is anti-Semitism.” Rabbi Jacobs underscored the need not to fall into the “trap of false equivalency,” particularly in regard to “legitimate criticism of Israel.” Maya Berry, from the Arab-American Institute, agreed that antisemitism needed to be called out from both the left and the right.
Questions raised included: If Zionism is a response to Jewish global history, how is it to be viewed through a current context? Can an individual be anti-Zionist without being antisemitic? It was mutually agreed by the panelists that an open discussion was needed about these matters, or as Berry remarked, “We have to rip off the Band-Aid and have a conversation.”
While mentally chewing over that dialogue, I proceeded to the room hosting the training session, Antisemitism, Racism and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: A Progressive Understanding of Antisemitism. After a recent encounter with a local colleague who informed me that “Israel was a criminal state,” I was more than ready to learn some strategies.
Cherie Brown and April Baskin led the group in exercises for “coalition work when the Israel/Palestine conflict comes up.” Brown, who co-authored the pamphlet “Anti-Semitism: Why Is It Everyone’s Concern?” focused on the “need to stay in coalition.” She explained how antisemitism is used as a diversion to push groups that should be aligned, into isolation. Brown used the examples of the Women’s March, LGBTQ events, and the flap over the Black Lives Matter platform.
Baskin, a Jew of Color, who drolly referenced herself as a “professional Jew for the past 10 years,” drilled down on “seeing other parts of the Jewish community. (Jews of Color currently comprise 12 to 15 percent of American Jews.) She has been working across “lines of differences,” and elucidated that “brown people don’t see Jews as oppressed.”
Role-playing was enacted in order to observe reactions. It involved visualizing three concentric circles which included comfort, stretch, and panic. The difference between reactivity on an emotion scale (via triggers) versus an oppression scale was parsed. The person next to me (who was visibly Orthodox) shared his story about attending an anti-Trump rally where he was asked, “Are you a good Jew or a bad Jew?”
Guidance and direction embraced listening fully to others. “Compassionate accountability while understanding that history has brought each person to where they are,” and “Take it from the global statement to the personal,” were takeaways. Conclusion: “It’s not how long we want it to take, it’s how long it takes.”
Feeling empowered by new tools, my next session shifted to the work being done by Israelis — who have been pushing back against their country’s entrenched right-wing actors. Specifically, the work of the New Israel Fund, which presented an interview with Naomi Chazan .
Naomi Chazan: “Can one be overly critical of a country one loves?”
Naomi Chazan, Former Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, as well as a previous president of the NIF, was interviewed by Libby Lenkinski. I had previously heard Chazan speak, via streamed events. A staunch feminist who doesn’t mince words, Chazan has addressed “the rise of gender segregation in public spaces,” and the need to “rehabilitate the basic norms of Israeli democracy.”
With dynamism and humor (“I’ve always been astounded that a bunch of Polish chicken farmers started a state.”), Chazan delivered a blueprint of what needs to be done. Much of what she said about Israel and Netanyahu was equally applicable to the America/Trump situation. She prefaced her comments with the rhetorical question, “Can one be overly critical of a country one loves?”
On the threat to Israeli democracy, Chazan underscored, “We are at a crossroads.” Drawing a picture of global illiberalism, neo-authoritarianism and populism, Chazan voiced her alarm concerning “democratic erosion.” This covered the degradation of civil and human rights (legislated inequality with the Nation-State Law), governmental checks and balances being undermined; weakening institutions with attacks on the media and the judiciary.
“This leads to the centralization of power,” said Chazan, “and creates hegemonic authority.” Qualifying that the backslide has been going on in Israel for a decade, Chazan signaled Netanyahu as the leader of that trajectory.
“It’s being done incrementally,” Chazan stated. “It’s meant to numb you. And when you finally wake and realize — it’s hard to reverse.” Chazan’s was adamant that the foundation of Israeli democracy had to be strengthened. “Polarization is the cancer of democratic society. We must find avenues to a shared society…while respecting separate identities.”
Chazan was unambiguous about the Occupation: “Jews should not rule over another people.” Attacked for her views by others with regularity, Chazan dismissed it with, “Just plough ahead. Don’t give up for a minute. If you don’t succeed, try another course.”
There were 5 contenders at the conference. Others delivered video statements. Bernie Sanders was clearly the crowd favorite. He began by announcing, “I am a Jew. I will be the first Jewish president of the United States.” He was unequivocal in his opinions. He warned against conflating criticism of Netanyahu’s Israeli government with antisemitism. He stated flatly, “What’s going on in Gaza is inhumane.” On the current American and Israeli leadership, Trump and Netanyahu, he received laugher and applause on the sentence: “One who’s going to be impeached, the other who’s going to jail.” Sanders also put forth the concept of a “global progressive movement.”
Pete Buttigieg was clear-cut on his views. He supports a two-state solution and no annexation; all funding must be compatible with U.S. law and policy. “You can be committed to a U.S.-Israel alliance without supporting a right-wing government,” he said. He wants to see America reestablish its role as an “honest broker.” On Gaza: “It cannot continue without an explosion.” He commented wryly, “The United States has to be engaging with nuance and good faith ¾ which is not a hallmark of the Trump administration.”
Other points delivered by candidates:
“Our Boys” — Art as Activism
The three creators (Hagai Levi, Joseph Cedar, Tawfik Abu Wael) of the HBO film, “Our Boys,” were present to discuss their movie, which dealt with the brutal revenge murder of a 16-year-old Palestinian boy in the aftermath of the tragic kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teenagers in the summer of 2014. A gut-wrenching and nuanced look at the different elements of Israeli society, the movie was slammed by Netanyahu. In a quest to understand the hows and whys of the “price-tag” killing, Cedar affirmed that for him, the search was, “most importantly, to find the murderers in ourselves.”
Fida Nara, Co-Director of Mahapach-Taghir. An Arab-Palestinian, Nara was pressured not to take part in the conference. “Can Israel be just [fair] for the [Palestinian] 20 percent of the population? We need each other to make this change.”
Dr. Saeb-Erakat, Palestinian Chief Negotiator. Also discouraged from attending. “To quote Yitzah Rabin, ‘Without a future for Palestinians, there I no future for Israel.’ [A two-state solution] is the only option. Peace must be rooted in justice. It is doable. It is up to us. Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow is what we decide. We have no right to give up. I believe together we can make it.”
Nitzan Horowitz, Chairperson of Meretz, Knesset member. Openly gay. “We must ask in Israel and the United States, where do I stand on democratic values? It’s the same battle everywhere. The same forces. The same money. We have to do it together.”
The energy from J Street U leaders and college students was palpable. They are working on a Democratic Party Platform which will embrace “No annexation of the West Bank” and “No settlement expansion” planks. One of the group’s leaders pronounced to the crowd: “Political problems have political solutions. It’s about organized people, not organized money. It’s time to end a 52-year occupation. We are not disloyal to anyone.”
There were numerous exhibitors at the conference. Some are part of the ten-member New Progressive Israel Network” which is working on common aims. Below are groups that I found of particular interest:
Breaking The Silence: This organization was founded in 2004 by Israeli veterans who collect and publish the testimonies from soldier who have served in Gaza and the West Bank since the beginning of the Second Intifada. They offer lectures and also do tours in Hebron or Susiya and Area C. I picked up their pamphlet, “The South Hebron Hills,” a compilation of soldier testimonies from 2010-2016. It’s a must read.
Taghyeer (Change) Palestinian National Nonviolence Movement:
Working on the ground, the mission is to “build a grassroots movement through nonviolence in action to better Palestinian lives and forge a path to freedom.” Their founder, Ali Abu Awwad, wrote a letter to Trump in response to his actions regarding Jerusalem.
Partners for Progressive Israel: Their advocacy includes webinars with top speakers delving into on-the-ground topics, to inform audiences about the realities in Israel/Palestine. Civil rights and social justice for both peoples are the nucleus of their agenda. They organize trips to the area for those who want to learn about Israeli and Palestinian society.
Project Rozana: Their information caught my attention with the “Adopt a Driver” flyer. It is an initiative that supports Israeli and Palestinian volunteer drivers. They transport Palestinian youngsters who need to get from their homes, through checkpoints, to appointments at hospitals located in Israel for medical visits.
It can be too easy to throw up one’s hands, either in despair or resignation.
Both the United States and Israel are being subjected to the same playbook, which employs the global anti-democratic trend in government. The conference proved that there are plenty of people that don’t want this scenario. As Naomi Chazan said, “Despair is not a plan of action.”
It’s really about what each of us can do individually, as a link in the chain, to move forward on making a difference.
Photos: Marcia G. Yerman
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