Swollen


Some days, you really don’t feel like taking the high road.

Take today, for example, when I read a letter from a reader named Molly (not her real name). Maybe I just wasn’t ready to deal with this total stranger who seems to have taken a keen but rather unpleasant interest in me. Maybe I just hadn’t had my coffee yet, and my mind was like a dozen unmade beds and half-baked ideas and I wasn’t standing firm enough not to be blown over by the sheer force of this person’s meanness.

At that moment, the high road was looking mighty unappealing.

I thought immediately of this file a friend e-mailed me as a joke. It’s called “Swollen,” and features a montage of medical photos in which the unfortunate participants are shot from the waist down and suffering from acute enlargements of their reproductive organs.

Point. Click. Revenge. That letter writer, who so conveniently left out any gender pronouns but was clearly female, who was so cowardly as to insult me anonymously (she had to give us her name as a condition for publication but requested it be withheld) would experience what I had experienced. She would open her e-mail with the terrible feeling that someone out there hates her and she doesn’t know why.

When this angry fantasy passed, it left a residue of understanding.

Molly, anger is something you and I have in common. Instead of using mine as a catalyst to lash out, blame and moralize, I’m choosing to use it as a tool for self-reflection, or at least I’m trying.

When I sat with my anger for awhile, I realized that your letter is really a compliment of sorts. It means I’m doing my job. I’m provoking thought. Yes, there’s a part of me that wants to be loved by everyone. In the end, however, I’m more committed to telling the truth as I see it. My honesty must have poked at a part of you that really hurts. The column you mentioned about my mother (which didn’t offend her, by the way) really pushed your Mother Button and it’s a powerful one for most of us.

I was in no way prescribing a way of acting. I was merely sharing my own experience. Sometimes, an intense loving relationship can also be challenging and complex, at least in my world. Why that’s so threatening and unsettling to you is something only you can understand, Molly.

It is my sincere hope that you’ll stop wasting your time and energy worrying about me. Ultimately, I’m really not that important to you, but maybe the feelings I bring up are.

As for me, when I told friends how peeved I was about your letter, they were shocked. “Don’t you get tons of fan mail?” they asked.

That’s when I realized how much the rare letter like yours tends to obscure all the praise. And that, Molly, is my problem — one that you’ve helped me to see more clearly. Instead of keeping all those nice letters in a big steel box in my closet, I should keep them closer to my heart, where they belong.

Your letter has also given me the opportunity to address two issues I feel are pressing.

Firstly, the question of whether or not I’m Jewish enough, or Jewish in the right way, or Jewish enough for you. A friend of mine, a columnist who is Black, gets similar letters about how she isn’t Black enough. This is a part of almost every minority group. We internalize the oppression we get from the dominant culture and turn it against each other, and it breaks my heart as much as it confounds me.

I could try to defend my Jewishness, tell you how I carry it with me wherever I go, in my decisions and actions, in my work, in the life I try to lead, but I don’t need to justify myself here. There’s only one true judge, and Molly, it ain’t you. My writing isn’t that of a rabbinic scholar, but there are volumes of such work available and I encourage you to explore it if that’s what you find meaningful. I’m simply offering another perspective.

Secondly, you played the “narcissism” card. Isn’t it interesting that men who tell their stories are never called narcissists? They are considered charming storytellers, sensitive and open in their ability to present autobiographical material. I’m sure you can relate, Molly, being young and female yourself. We’re often made to feel that our voices and our experiences don’t count. They do. Narcissist is a just word in this case, a stick and stone rolled into one, and it doesn’t scare me and I hope it doesn’t hold you back, either.

There’s a Yiddish saying, “If someone throws stones at you, throw back bread.” Maybe I’ve only thrown you a stale bialy, but I’ve done my best. You really helped me learn something and I hope I returned the favor. Believe me, it’s better than “Swollen.”


Teresa Strasser is a 20-something who writes for The Jewish Journal. She recently received an Emmy nomination for her writing on “Win Ben Stein’s Money.”

How to account for the different stories


I read Gary Rosenblatt’s indictment of Los Angeles’ rabbinate with some unease. It did not square with my understanding of what had occurred in the aftermath of the shootings at the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Granada Hills. Accounts from our reporter, Julie Gruenbaum Fax, suggested that the community as a whole, the rabbis included, had come forward to lend support, both moral and practical. However, it was his view that the 100,000-plus readers of The Jewish Week of New York took away from the events of that tragic day.

How to account for the different stories, almost diametrically opposed to one another? From the two articles (Rosenblatt’s, which appeared in the Sept. 3 Jewish Week, and Fax’s, which ran in the Aug. 20 Jewish Journal), you might think these were two different incidents of violence and terror in two separate cities.

It is particularly disturbing because I know Gary Rosenblatt to be an experienced and extremely responsible editor and writer. Editor-in-chief of The Jewish Week, he is one of the leading Jewish journalists in America. Moreover, Rosenblatt is learned about Judaism and astute when it comes to Jewish organizations and the politics that enfold them. Since it was he who had written that Los Angeles’ rabbinate had fumbled badly, I, for one, could not easily dismiss his account by falling back on that cliché, “Oh, you know journalists and their passion for conflict, for the negative spin.”

I telephoned him in New York.

He had received a call, as he relates, from someone on the JCC staff who was angry at the rabbis for their non-appearance, and angrier still that a few rabbis had flocked to the scene only to gravitate toward the journalists and the TV cameras. Rosenblatt had followed up with telephone calls to four or five rabbis he knew in Los Angeles. As he reports, one had been away on vacation; another did not think to drive out to the Valley or telephone to inquire if his help was needed. In all, not one of the rabbis had pitched in to help. His editorial in Jewish Week, and reprinted here, followed. As a community, we do not come across as looking good. Or at least our rabbis do not.

The Jewish Journal received a similar telephone call from a JCC staffer complaining about grandstanding and absentee rabbis. But when our reporter Julie Gruenbaum Fax checked, a different story emerged.

At Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge, Rabbi Jerald Brown “dispatched his associate, Rabbi Debbie Till, to the JCC and then to the hospital, where one of his members was injured. Rabbi Barry Lutz stayed at the synagogue to deal with clearing out their own preschool and to field phone calls from distraught members, many of them JCC parents.”

There were others as well. Rabbi Steven Tucker of Temple Ramat Zion, about 1.5 miles from the JCC, visited area hospitals the day after the shooting and the JCC later in the week.

“A number of rabbis,” according to Fax, “deliberately stayed away from the site as the crisis was occurring” on the assumption that “the last thing emergency personnel needed was more people to handle.”

Meanwhile, Rabbi Lawrence Goldmark, interim executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, who served as the representative for all the city’s rabbis, was also on hand. “He gave comfort to many parents and campers on site,” wrote Fax, “[and] also attended the funeral of the slain postal worker, Joseph Ileto.”

It occurred to me as I read the two stories back to back that another factor was present as well — namely, that most of the rabbis turned to their own congregants in an effort to offer comfort.

I can tell you with some authority that journalism is not a science or a branch of the arts. Nor is it an immediate form of history. It is, rather, a way of obtaining information either from eyewitness accounts or knowledgeable sources, some of whom often have their own political agenda. The reporter’s job is to gather the information as quickly as possible, avoid being used by one or another of the interested parties (e.g. the irate JCC staff member), organize the important details and make sure that the story is accurate, reliable and readable.

All this in time to make the day’s deadline. That means there is a cap on the number of calls that can be made, details that can be checked out, and background that can be researched.

The truth of the situation, or of the quote attributed to the authority, you may have noticed, is not at issue. Accuracy is prized. Did he say it? Was it observed? Can the “fact” be corroborated by two separate, independent sources?

Often, journalists know the limitations that bind their coverage, and so adopt a humorous, somewhat cynical take on the public figures they cover. Not true, I should add, for Gary Rosenblatt. And invariably they react to the event, are imprinted by it, and become the informed observer — which accounts for the (often unconscious) point of view or (the conscious) spin given to a news story or a column.

I cannot tell you which story is “true” — Gary Rosenblatt’s or Julie Gruenbaum Fax’s. If fault can be found, I would cite Rosenblatt’s failure to call us or Fax or to refer to her story.

Though both accounts came from interviews, each is accurate; each tells the story that emerged from the conversations with sources. In Fax’s case, there was the advantage of being on hand, of talking to more people, of seeing close up the impact and the response(s).

We are reprinting the version that New Yorkers were offered. It’s always helpful to know how others perceive you. Perhaps The Jewish Week should run Julie Gruenbaum Fax’s story.

Note to our readers: You can find Fax’s news account on our online archive at http://www.jewishjournal.com/jccrabbis.8.20.9.htm.