Monday, May 1, 2017


My brother went to visit my mother, who has Lewy Body’s disease and lives at the Hebrew Home, a skilled nursing facility, last week and texted me a picture of her. The photo is hard to look at. She is lying against her white pillow, tucked under white sheets, having been bedridden for a few days because she was eating and drinking less and less. Skin stretched taut over her face, her mouth open and sagging, eyes closed, she looks nothing like the mother who danced at weddings, bar and bat mitzvah receptions, town celebrations, even when she ironed clothing as American Bandstand was on TV.

The painful picture, of my 80-year old mother who can no longer walk or feed herself, has to wear diapers, and exists each day in her wheelchair until she is put to bed in the late afternoon, brought back a flood of memories of the vibrant woman who was Beverly Bernstein.

Probably not coincidentally for she is on hospice now, both my brother and I have been thinking about her eulogy and what we might say when it comes time to say goodbye. In all honesty, my mother has been gone for a few years now. Even when she was able to respond with a perfunctory “thank you” or “I love you too,” the women strapped into the wheelchair was not really our mother, the one who sat with me when I was 12 and listened to me as I read her from the novel I was writing or rushed to my room in the middle of the night if I was sick or played word games with me before bed.

I could go on and on and on.

I’ve said it before: I had a complicated relationship with my mother. She once renounced being my mother; she was so neurotic at times (I wasn’t allowed to cross the main road near our home until I was 12) that she was the main reason I moved to California in 1987 to attend graduate school. I needed to be away from her. And all the crying she did in those first months after I’d moved, essentially asking me in tears over the phone or at a local diner when I visited the East coast, “How could you do this to me?” made me just want to scream.

But she was the one who rushed to my side in the hospital in 1988 when I had emergency ulcer surgery after it burst. She brought the newspaper each day, bonded with my roommate, who was donating a kidney to his brother fighting cancer, and just sat and talked with me as I recuperated for two weeks. She kept a diary the year I was in Israel in college and sent her daily musings to me every single week. She taught me to drive on the tobacco backroads of Bloomfield. She took me to concerts. She looked over every piece of school work, and every photograph I took.

So, now, at what could easily be the end of her life, the memories that pop up are almost all positive. Why not honor her as completely as possible for her loving legacy?

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Day After

Like many Americans, around 59 million, I am shell shocked this morning, stunned, not quite sure if I am living in a parallel Twilight Zone universe.

Donald Trump is president? With Mike Pence, the man who advocates for gay conversion therapy and ending a woman’s right to choose, a heartbeat away from the highest office in the land?

Yes, we will survive? Yes, we will overcome whatever Trump and the Republican majorities in the Senate and House throw at us. But at what cost? Will people be deported? Will Muslims be banned even temporarily from entering the United States? Will we overturn Roe v. Wade? Will same sex marriages become illegal again? Will millions of health-insured Americans lose their coverage if (when) the Affordable Care Act is repealed?

I am mostly sad. Sad for our country, sad for my children and students, sad for all of us.

I have dedicated my life to fighting for social justice and social change, and yesterday’s election seems like a swift and painful kick to the gut, to the core of my being.

When I was eleven or so, I started writing a novel about the friendship of a white teen and a black teen. The white protagonist, upset over the inherent racism of society, decided to go on a roadtrip/quest to find justice and peace. I wanted to be the youngest person to write a novel. My mother often sat with me on lawn chairs under the maple trees in our backyard and listened as I read my story.

I abandoned the story after a few months, but I have never wavered in my commitment to making the world a better place.

I organized a local chapter of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry when I was in high school, and protested against the treatment of Jews in the USSR. I canvassed Connecticut neighborhoods for the Connecticut Citizens’ Action Group (CCAG), fighting against utility rate hikes and the pollution of groundwater with toxic waste.

In 1982, I joined 250,000 people in New York City as we marched against nuclear proliferation. In August of 1983, I drove through the night with a dozen CCAG colleagues and friends to the 20th anniversary March on Washington, commemorating Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream Speech”.

A month later I was in Europe on a trip sponsored by Mother Jones magazine to protest Reagan’s decision to install nuclear weapons in England and other parts of Western Europe. In England, we met with a group of women who’d established an encampment at Greenham Common to protest militarization and promote peace. In Germany, we met with activists who’d fasted for more than a month to challenge the presence of Reagan’s Cruise missiles.
When I started teaching Jewish Studies at a private school in 1987, my whole focus was on social change and recognizing the prophetic imperatives built into my religion. And that commitment deepened when I became the school’s community service coordinator and was able to lead students in projects that made a difference in our neighborhoods and with people in need.

In 1992, Verna and I helped to register voters outside Safeway in San Francisco. We truly believed in being part of the process to help more Americans vote and express their political convictions.

In 2000, when many of us believed the election was stolen, Verna and I set up a website,, and sold t-shirts with his face on it and the website listed. We made nearly $3000 and donated all proceeds to anti-Bush and social justice-related causes and organizations. We even gave one to Michael Moore who said it had made the cut of t-shirts and other donations he’d amassed. A local columnist, Stephanie Salter, mentioned our t-shirt in her penultimate column of things she was grateful for before she departed San Francisco for the midwest.

Verna and I and her then 77 year-old mother, along with Miguel in a stroller, protested against the men in power at the Bohemian Grove in 2001, and again in 2003 with more than 200,000 people in San Francisco, as we voiced our opposition to Bush’s invasion of Iraq.

Miguel and I once helped to paint the house of a local refuge for families in crisis. My students and I used to serve meals to the homeless, and even recorded many of them for an oral history project that won an award. Maya and I have made teddy bears that were donated to kids in the hospital.

Our commitment to change will not waver with the election of Donald Trump. My children and my students still know that we must be forces for good and justice in the world, and that we will not succumb to the racism and misogyny and ethnocentrism that was so pervasive during this election cycle.

Even a Hillary victory would have meant that those of us who cherish liberal ideals, the same ideals that helped to end slavery and mount the Civil Right movement, would have had to lead a chorus of change from the progressive left against the wall of oligarchs who prefer profits over people.

I am sad, I am shocked, I am worried. But I will never, ever stop fighting for basic human decency, for the Golden Rule that we treat each other as we want to be treated. I refuse to accept that our nation is a Trump nation. We are better than scapegoating immigrants; banning Muslims; attacking women; and other recklessness.

The hard work of battling for justice continues. I will do my best to remain on the frontlines.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Stand With Love

We are a nation of binary opposites: on one hand, there is Donald Trump and his blatant and inexcusable misogyny and racism, spewing forth about Muslims and perfectly legitimate bodily functions as he tries literally to bully and insult his way to the White House.

Trump represents the worst of America’s rugged individualism ethos: that we can somehow return to a mythologized greatness by being ugly and vindictive.

On the other hand, kindness and compassion abound throughout our amazing and challenging country. There is the Compassion Collective, started by a group of well-known writers to raise money for the Syrian refugee crisis ( The Collective wants to raise $1 million to support the refugees during this tragic crisis. The maximum donation is $25.

Another philanthropic and heart-warming effort was started six years ago by my friend Bob Welch ( when he was a columnist for the Eugene Register-Guard. Inspired by an anonymous $1000 from a reader to help those in need during the holiday season, Bob and friends seek out worthy recipients in the Eugene, Oregon area in order to not only spread some holiday cheer, but to make a bit of a difference in the lives of those struggling with bills and mental illness and homelessness and other issues.

Bob retired from being a full-time columnist, but he is still actively involved in his community, and today he posted about his latest mission of mercy (

The Compassion Collective and Bob Welch (and friends) represents the best of humanity, people willing to stand up and say, “I need to make a difference and help,” or, in the words of the Collective, to “stand with love.”

We live in scary times, and it’s easy to lash out against enemies both real and imagine, and also find scapegoats to soothe our anxieties. But by doing so we also abdicate our basic connection to others, to everyone we meet or can assist. The choice is clear, and we can easily opt to stand with love.


Thursday, December 3, 2015

Our Hearts Are Heavy

I wish I understood how the world truly works. Yesterday, three people allegedly opened fire with assault weapons on a group celebrating at a center for developmentally disabled adults. There are reports one of the alleged gunmen may have become radicalized in Saudi Arabia, while he was on the traditional Muslim pilgrimage, and met his future bride, a woman from Pakistan.

My heart hangs heavy with profound sadness when I ponder the loss of life and the sheer terror everyone in San Bernardino experienced amid what was supposed to have been a holiday party. I don’t understand how anyone can resort to such mind-numbing violence even for a cause.

But the melancholy is even thicker today because my neighbor, Jen, died at 4:30 am this morning, after fighting a battle with tongue cancer. She leaves behind a loving husband and two young children, ages 8 and 6, as well as other family. I grieve for them, especially her two adoring and adorable children who now face life without a mommy, something with which I am quite familiar.

Last Saturday, I went outside to play with Maya, who was already at the park, on the swings, next to Jen’s six-year old daughter. They were giggling and smiling as young children often do, enjoying the crisp autumn air and the attention of one father and one grandmother.

I knew Jen’s situation was dire, and when I saw her daughter and pushed her on the swings, at one point lifting her onto Maya’s lap (facing her) so they could do a butterfly swing, legs and arms entangled, I breathed deeply and felt the sadness wash over me again. She was going to experience what Maya had and has: deep, deep loss, tears, anger, anxiety, fear, loneliness. And it didn’t seem right that a little girl, blond-brown hair, and an exuberant smile, should be plunged into such sorrow.

I know people cling to faith in times of crisis, and I admire many of them, but I can’t make sense of Jen’s death or the terror in San Bernardino in any religious or spiritual context. I know someone who once said, after a hurricane had ravaged her town but she was unharmed, “God was looking out for me.” I have seen friends post thanks to God on Facebook for answering their prayers.

But I always come back to: does that mean God did not answer the prayers of the others, such as Verna who wanted to live and grow old as her children became adults and beyond? Or sweet, sweet Jen, an amazing woman also with everything to live for? Or our other neighbor, Shauna, who died this past May from colon cancer, and had a zest for living that shone like a beacon to everyone?

Shortly after Verna died, the priest she’d personally enlisted to officiate her funeral service, said to me on the phone, “I just don’t understand when people say, ‘God wanted her more’ or ‘It was just her time’.”

I think Father Paul was saying we cannot understand why someone dies, but we should not lapse into easy answers and try to make death into some deep theological phenomenon.

But knowing that there are mysteries to the Universe that may never be satisfactorily explained to an agnostic like me does nothing for the utter despondency and helpfulness I feel today as we come to terms with the deaths in San Bernardino and in my neighborhood.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Almost 31 Days

Today marks the end of the October 2015 blog challenge where thousands of us signed on to write a post each day of the month. I hit 26 blog entries, which is pretty good considering I combined to write 24 posts from 2012-2014.

I'd love to say I learned something about myself or life or the nature of writing and the universe. But I did not. Not because I know everything, but more because the nuggets of truth were sparkling there before me for a long time.

I'd hoped that writing each day (or close to every day in the month) would motivate me to turn my focus onto the memoir, It's Not About The Breasts, I want and need to finish about our family's cancer journey. But I am at a point in my life where I sense change is on the horizon and writing may need to take a back seat a little longer.

I feel I am being called to return to teaching and the classroom, which I hope to do by next fall. I am in the process of studying for the three state exams I need to pass in order to earn my credential. So writing, writing, and writing would distract me from my more immediate goal.

The reality is that blogging is, once said a good writing friend, like a one night stand: you get the pleasure with minimal effort. But writing a book, which I have done once, is like having a long-term relationship. You need to invest time and energy and total focus. It's hard but the rewards are great.

Right now, my dream and plan are to teach middle or high school social studies, resuming a passion I stoked for 12 years after I moved to California in 1987, and enabling me some more freedom in my personal life as a single father.

I did learn something, or maybe I was just faced with the stark reality, unrelated to writing this blog. A friend for more than 35 years turned down my Facebook friend request because of my views on Israel. I can easily handle cyber-rejection, but the experience has made me wonder about the often fragile ties that bind or repel us on this complicated orb we call Planet Earth.

I am listening to Dave Davies, of the Kinks, on iTunes as I type this blog post. I saw him with a a friend last night in downtown Napa. His voice is beyond rough and gnarly, but he is a survivor, having outlasted a massive stroke in 2004. He has to use a music stand to prop up the song lyrics, songs he wrote and has performed for more than 40 years. But he perseveres and pumps joy and passion into his music.

The song that is playing? I'm Not Like Everybody Else.


Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Make A Wish

“Where’s my eyelash?” Maya asked last night in her bathroom before bed. “I want to make a wish.”

I was watching her as I clipped my fingernails. She’d already brushed her teeth and was ready for me to continue reading the second installment in the School for Good and Evil series.

“Oh, good, I found it,” she said moments later. “Now I can make a wish. Do you want to know what it is?”

“It won’t come true if you tell me,” I said.

“It’s not going to come true any way,” she said, and then she closed her eyes, held her index finger to her mouth, and blew the half-moon curved lash away.

“What was your wish?” I asked, certain that I already knew.

Earlier in the evening Maya had asked me for a Fitbit for Christmas.

“Can I have a Fitbit?” she asked.

“I don’t know Maya,” I said. “Why do you want one?”

“Because then I can get exercise.”

“But you don’t need a Fitbit to get exercise,” I said. “You can just go outside.”

For the record, I do not own a Fitbit nor have I ever used one. I am guessing some of her friends at school or their parents use one.

“Then I could do 12 laps around the park,” she said as if ownership of Fitbit would magically propel her out the door any more than she already runs around.

“Maya, think of something you want for Christmas that you will actually use,” I said. “I can take you rock climbing or get you special art supplies.”

“But I’ll use the Fitbit, Dad,” she said. “And I know Santa gets us everything we ask for.”

So I expected her to wish for a Fitbit knowing her Jewish father a.k.a. Santa had more or less nixed her request. But her answer startled me.

“I wished for Mommy to come back,” she said.

A wave of sadness hit me. “I wish the same thing, too, Maya. I am sorry you are sad.” Then I quickly corrected myself. “It’s OK that you are sad. I wish Mommy were here too.”

Maya went on to say that she didn’t really want to talk about missing Verna any more last night. The conversation made her more melancholy. So we climbed into her bed and I started reading about two princesses fighting the forces of evil and trying to get back to their happily ever after.

I leave notes in Maya’s lunch every day. Today’s note read: “Maya, I wish I could make all your wishes come true. I love you that much!”

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

World Serious

Rivalries and grudges often take on mythic and irrational proportions. Sports, family, and politics would be three areas where many of us have seen the boundaries of civility and decency stretched by absolute unforgivable behavior.

We understand Red Sox vs. Yankees or Giants vs. Dodgers or insert other professional or college teams where the animosity between either the players or the fans (or both) is palpable. I have a few close friends who are Yankee fans and, frankly, it doesn't matter much to me. One friend, though, never congratulated me in 2004 when the Red Sox finally won another World Series after 86 years of cursed futility.

Politics is another potent area, red vs. blue. We all know people who have un-friended or stopped speaking to someone who disagreed with their tightly held beliefs. I was holding a 'Bush Stole the Presidency' poster at a rally in Fresno in 2001 in anticipation of Bush's presence at a fundraiser, and one man, after he found out I had been a teacher, said to me, "I wouldn't want you teaching my kids."

And there are as many stories of intolerant people on the other side as well. But where does this almost maniacal hostility come from?

I didn't talk to my mother for nearly three years after she'd done something that was inexcusable. I had to defend my family against her personal attacks. We made up and all, and she apologized, but I know families today where communication is done via attorneys or where people simply just don't talk.

Sports is another arena for our internecine rivalries to fester. A few years, two Dodger fans nearly stomped Brian Stow to death outside Dodger stadium after the Dodgers played the Giants. I once witnessed several fights break out at the old Yankee stadium when the Yankees faced the Red Sox on a warm summer night in 1978.

My father and I always say we are happy as long as the Yankees lose. Recently, when the Cubs played the Mets for the National League pennant, he and I spoke on the phone about which team we were rooting for.

"I'm rooting for the Cubs," I said. "I can't forgive the Mets for 1986 (even though the errors and bungles that led to the Mets winning in seven games fell squarely on the shoulders of the Red Sox)." Plus two of Verna's cousins, her first cousin, Jim, and his wife, Jessica, are avid Cubs fans. They live here but have season tickets, and they deserve to feel the sublime joy I felt three times in recent years.

"And I'm rooting for the Mets," my father laughed, "because of Theo Epstein (the former Red Sox general manager who bolted for Chicago) and Jon Lester (the former Red Sox ace whom they courted in free agency but signed with the Cubs)."

Obviously I am only touching on this subject in a very superficial manner. Rivalries on a geopolitical and sociological scale are often deadly. The tribal warfare in the Middle East, Israeli vs. Palestinian, Shiite vs. Sunni, carries crises that seem beyond intractable. And the same goes for gang bloodshed, where wearing even the wrong color could get you killed.

But in our daily lives we often opt for the petty and mean-spirited allegiance to a team, an ideology, a point of view, or something else that in the whole scheme of life should matter very little.

I attended an amazing 20-year reunion  this past Sunday and Monday of the Association of Personal Historians, and one of my former colleagues shared this powerful quote:

"An enemy is someone's story we have not heard."