Expanding Moment

Apr 01

Journey, Dreamt

I awoke

in my grandmother’s


on a ship, afloat

in the ocean

It was

a three-year-old’s dream,

of blue, and green

of salt-washed planks

and sky,

passengers packed

on the deck

to wave


A dream drenched

in Yiddish syllables,

soft, and edible;

punched through by wet,

plunky patches

of Russian;

soaked in sounds

of babies

and small children,

the steady hiss of steam,

the whoosh – slap

whoosh – slap

whoosh – slap

of water on wood.

A dream

of bodies


packed close

in the dark




and brine.


Of children, wrapped

in threadbare jackets,

fitfully drifting

toward slumber,

their bellies

tugged and twisted

by hunger’s tireless



A story

of two hungry sisters,

a fellow passenger

who sees -

two little girls,

so hungry -

and gives them food.

My grandmother

used to cry,


Such a kind man, 

she said,

to offer us food —

I didn’t

know his name.

At night,

a memory 

of Mama’s robe.

Of light hands,



A murmur

in the dark:

Makh tsi de eygelakh,


Makh tsi de eygelakh.


And a dream:

Hills, purple

in Russian






of home.

I awoke

in my grandmother’s eyes

on the morning

she peeked

between dark coats

to watch

America drift

into view:

faint, flat shapes

on the ocean,

like the backs

of sleeping bears,

just a hair darker

than the sky.

Mar 29

Every time I log on, another Facebook friend has become an equals sign.


Frankly, the sweepingness of it feels a little like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”: Faces disappear and pink parallel lines abound, with more popping up every second. Already, the equality meme is viral. Already, there are myriad versions of it, as people tweak the image with added symbols of identity.



And already, there is thoughtful debate around whether this kind of phenomenon does any good.

Orlando Soria titles his blog post “Changing Your Profile Pic Is Not Activism.” He harbors no illusions that posting the meme does anything but assuage our own consciences. But he concludes that it does “[serve] as emotional enrichment for our community, a way for us to show we support one another.” Despite his dismissal of its political value, he ends up affirming the “inherent value” of that show of support.

Brian Moylan has less patience for such displays of button-clicking activism. Like Soria, he critiques participants for thinking they are changing the world by sending a new meme ricocheting around their FB echo chambers. But while Soria is content with the emotional support it offers those within those chambers, Moylan would much rather we were having actual, hard conversations about marriage equality in real time, with people who may disagree with us.

“If visibility is what you’re aiming for,” writes Moylan, “why not write a letter (hell, even an email) to your senator and let him or her know that you want marriage rights for everyone … You know, do some actual work—something hard and annoying and perhaps intensely uncomfortable.”

He has a point. Of my 302 Facebook friends, I can’t think of one who would oppose marriage equality. So what change am I effecting, really, by changing my profile pic? What risk am I taking? Those of us whose newsfeeds are currently bleeding red and pink should be honest with ourselves: We’re really just participating in another social media game, and patting ourselves on the back for it.

But those with more politically diverse FB friends, or those who use their page for work in a politically diverse environment, or those who are looking for work — may have a little more at stake. For those whose views on marriage equality may not already be known or accepted in their communities, posting that pink icon may be a bigger risk to take.

I read one comment about a closeted gay son didn’t know his mother was an ally until she changed her FB cover photo — seeing that photo enabled him to come out to her. So yes, for that mother and that son, it was a good and blessed thing that she put that symbol up on Facebook.

But for those of us in echo chambers where this particular human rights issue is not even a question, thinking of all the different creative ways we can riff on the equality sign may be fun and validating, but if we’re not actually addressing our lawmakers, what are we really accomplishing?

Moylan likens the profile pic trend to “everyone in the theater clapping to revive Tinker Bell, [as if] it’s going to do some good.”

I find this interesting. Because he’s right; in real life you can’t just clap your hands and revive someone — you have to breathe into their mouth or operate on them, get your hands dirty. And you still might fail.

But within the contrived world of the theater, hand clapping does actually revive Tinkerbell; the successful completion of the play’s plotline depends on the audience, the “real people,” actively participating in the illusion, and playing their corrective part, night after night.

So, to the extent that representation is reality, is it possible that within the contrived world of the internet, changing your image is enough to effect substantial change somewhere?

How about if your initiative goes viral enough that the story about mass image-changing gets into the newspaper? Activists know that media coverage is crucial to achieving any political goal. So it is relevant that this equality meme campaign was just covered by the Washington Post. Unfortunately, it was written up in the Style Blog. This is telling.

I agree with Soria that every positive change in an individual is good. Like that mother and son. But do little changes in scattered individuals ever collectively add up to social change?

Theoretically, I suppose if you change enough individuals, they’d eventually elect different representatives and those representatives would change laws. Well, not really, anymore — not since we’ve de-regulated campaign spending. But even if that still worked, that kind of change could take a VERY long time. So we mount political actions (which Moylan argues this isn’t) to try to get the attention of lawmakers – even though the lawmakers – in this case, the Supreme Court – are paying absolutely no attention to our Facebook pages.




Me? I deeply support progressive mass social action, even if it exists only as a social media display, and I think iconic art can be a very smart and powerful part of that. But I’m wary of FB trendiness, and of the illusion that it is activism unto itself. I’m also wary of reducing one’s identity to a symbol – this approach seems, ultimately, to favor sameness over difference. Wouldn’t it be more powerful to attach that iconic symbol to our own pictures, so we could actually see the wide array of different kinds of people who support this initiative? Isn’t that what the LGBT rights movement is all about — the right to fully be your own person, safely, everywhere?

I also have questions about the long-term strategy here: How long does everyone plan to keep this as their profile pic? Until the summer, by which time the SC must tell us only if they plan to rule on these cases anytime soon? What if they decide not to decide? Do we keep these icons up indefinitely?

Don’t get me wrong: It’s a smart icon. It’s just that replacing my face with it feels like a contradiction. What was that futuristic Ray Bradbury story in which “equal” was misunderstood to be “the same”?

I was, however, delighted to see the image below pop up in my FB feed. I think it’s much more powerful as political art than the plain equals sign:


I love it because instead of trying to “normalize” queer relationships, it queers (hetero-normative) American icons!

When it comes down to it, everyone should do what they can. Geyn gezunte heit (Go in good health) – post the parallel lines. Just don’t get your ass stuck in the Style Blog.

But to those of you for whom posting the meme was a cinch (and I include myself here): I invite you to make your statement, then go and actually do something about it. In the real world. If you don’t know what to do, I think Brian Moylan has a few ideas.

Mar 24


Three years ago, I wrote down this conversation I had with my then 4.5-year-old daughter. Just found it in my files while looking for something else and thought it timely to post. I love the way children’s minds combine language and information with ideas that are uniquely theirs.


H is building a lego fort and talking to me.

H: Mommy guess what? When the people were slaves in Egypt, they really wanted FRESH FREEDOM. Do you know what FRESH FREEDOM is? It’s when they didn’t want to be slaves anymore. They wanted to go somewhere where the Pharaoh wouldn’t make them slaves, where there weren’t any slaves at all. And that was FRESH FREEDOM, where they wanted to go.

 Me: Oh really?

 H: So Moses came and took them down to FRESH FREEDOM. They weren’t slaves anymore. And they weren’t slaves ever again.

 Me: Does that mean we’re in Fresh Freedom now?

 H: No. FRESH FREEDOM is not alive anymore.

 Me: Oh. Why not?

 H: Because the people decided … Africa was actually FRESH FREEDOM.

 Me: It was?

 H: Yes. It was a different state of Africa, and they decided to take FRESH FREEDOM down cause the people were pretty not slaves anymore. They only had one country: Africa.

 Me: So they didn’t need Fresh Freedom anymore, because everyone was free in Africa?

 H: Uh huh.

Jan 03

This is Forty-Five. Part I


This week I turned forty-five. To celebrate, I went to see Judd Apatow’s “This is Forty.” I know, I know — five years off, but I will take my demographically-targeted movies where I can get them – I don’t see anything out there called “This is Forty-Five.” Plus, I happen to know that Apatow is forty-five, like me.  So I hoped the movie would be relevant — maybe even affirming.

And some of it was relevant – at least to me: The humor of a marriage that has moved well beyond the initial phases of mystery and is deep in the thickets of co-parenting and unsexy physical intimacy. The way in which a family spins itself into its own particular loop of insanity — both unique and universally recognizable. The kids — Apatow does teenagers particularly well. Even the ego boost for the forty-year-old wife and mother of two when she gets sweetly hit on in a bar – I get it.

But the other hundred and twenty-nine minutes of the movie? Feh. And not for the reasons that others have critiqued it — the looseness of its plot doesn’t bother me. I happen to like 1970s-esque, meandering movies that are in no particular narrative rush and like to travel up the characters’ asses. I don’t even mind getting bored by their long stretches of banality. (Though I do draw the line at “My Dinner With Andre.” Yawn.) 

No, none of that is the cause for my vote of “feh.” This is: I went to see that movie hoping to feel validated, at least a little. I came out feeling — well, it was a tie between invisible and degraded.

I imagine if I were Black, or Latino, or Arab, there would have been no tie; I would have simply felt invisible. There is not a person of color (save for an Asian drug addict and a pesky black nurse) to be found within a mile of Apatow’s camera range. I know, it’s Hollywood — what did I expect? My other choice would have been to go see people of color demeaned.

In this movie, however, there is a Jewish woman: “Barb.” This is where degraded comes in. Is Barb the main character? Uh, no. That would be too much to hope for, even though the film’s writer, director, and producer is a Jewish man. Even though many of Hollywood’s scriptwriters, directors, and producers are Jewish men. No, no, no: In this film’s taxonomy of (white) women, Barb is one rung up from the bottom — just a step above the crazy, embezzling, infantile Asian woman.

Barb is the lumpy, comic foil to the heroine — the jogging buddy who can’t keep up. Her exclusive function is to assuage the body angst of the main character, played by blond and rail-thin Leslie Mann. It is Barb whom their young personal trainer declares he doesn’t want to fuck, as proof that he won’t fuck EVERYTHING that moves and thus his desire for the main character, Debbie, means she’s still attractive — even at forty.

One of the movie’s most depressing scenes is the one in which Barb has the most lines. I guess, after the personal trainer’s stage-whispered declaration of Barb’s unfuckability, Apatow thought it would be empowering to give Barb a few comic lines of her own. So in a move that deceptively comes across as edgy humor, Barb gets a sweaty little soliloquy about her own sex life: She announces that ever since “the cesareans,” she hasn’t felt a thing “down there.”

“I could sit down, hard, on a fire hydrant,” she states, “and I wouldn’t even know that I was sitting.”

Whom exactly is this movie meant to empower? White, blonde, rail-thin forty-year-old Hollywood actresses, take heart! At least you’re not Jewish, fat, de-sexed, and unfuckable by everyone except a fire hydrant. 

I looked up the actress who plays Barb, Annie Mumolo. She’s a lovely-looking young woman. Not that you’d know it from this film. (Reminds me of that article in Lilith Magazine years ago about the author’s realization that Rhoda Morgenstern, the Jewish sidekick from the Mary Tyler Moore show, was actually pretty. Not one of Rhoda’s self-deprecating lines ever encouraged the audience to see her that way.)

Where is it written that Jewish male screenwriters can’t get on the train to Hollywood without throwing Jewish women under it? In Woody Allen movies, Jewish women don’t even exist. That may be preferable to this. Not that Jewish men fare so wonderfully in Apatow’s world – the recognizably (to quote the movie) “Jew-ey” men are either guilt-inducing mooches or nebbishy sidekicks. And the main male character is Jewish only by dint of his father’s obvious Jewishness. Apatow has cast his wife and daughters in the film but written his Jewish self out altogether and replaced himself with the much less jew-ey looking Paul Rudd.

Jewish men are not loved here. But they don’t get the one-two punch of self-hatred and sexism; the film does not weave a sub-plot of ranking men’s bodies, and their resulting social worth, into its scenario of what it means to turn forty.

Of course even the slim, sexy, WASPey-looking Debbie isn’t top girl, according to the het male perspective of this film — she is forty, after all, and her children have “sucked all the meat” out of her breasts. Nope – this movie’s gaze blatantly ranks her below her younger, busty bombshell employee, whom Debbie initially suspects is a thief but who turns out to be just a good-hearted prostitute. Oh, I mean escort - who technically doesn’t have to sleep with her clients, but always winds up doing it anyway. Because, apparently, she loves it that much. (Really, Judd? Really?)

I liked Judd Apatow’s work when he started with offbeat little character-driven stories about genuine, sweet people trying to figure out who they are. “Freaks and Geeks” was also racially monolithic but I loved it because the characters were real – they had real feelings, their bodies were real sizes, they didn’t run boutiques or have houses with swimming pools, they were both hilariously stereotypical and humanly complex. Like actual people.

But then Apatow got bigger, and his characters got smaller. I’m not sure what else I expected once he got to Hollywood. I heard him say recently in an interview that while he loves having his daughters act in his movies, he doesn’t want them to have to deal with all the nastiness in the acting biz outside of his studio. He may be the most loving director they could have, but let’s hope that by the time his Jewish daughters become women, he will have figured out how to write some equally loving roles for them.

Oct 07

Ahavat Olam (eternal, unconditional love)

Oct 2

Dear Grandpa,

I don’t know what else to write.



Oct 5

Dear Hannah,

You wrote plenty.



Oct 04

Mom’s Sukkot Poems


Only a few days after Indian summer, the leaves come down in fours and fives, no longer questioning their destiny.

The coolness of the air settles in with Sukkot,
making us forget the sweltering days of summer.
Peter says, “I wonder how long this will last.”
I say, “Ma Tov! How Good!” 


For almost forty years we built our sukkahs.
I nagged, Peter built, and it got done, usually in time for the beginning of the holiday.
The children and I strung cranberries and tied on gourds to the lattice top.
We sang, we prayed, we ate.
Once or twice we even slept in the sukkah.
Friends crowded in and bunched up together for warmth.
Each year different, each year the same.

In our desert hut, forty years of harvesting.
I can still look up and see the stars.

Sue Roemer
October 14, 2008

Sep 24


Every year, on the first day of Rosh HaShana, I burn my tongue.

Not on purpose.

Clattering into the car with myriad accoutrements - knapsack, prayerbook, tallis, service outline, kipa, choir music, water bottle, microphone, snack, and travel mug of hot tea becausehowwillIsingforfourstraighthourswithoutit? – I am rushing to shul just a little later than I’d like.

I stop at a red light. Shoot. This is making me later. I remember the mug of tea I so meticulously brewed and packed this morning—yes! Because how will I, after all, singforfourstraighthourswithoutit? (Ha – wait till Yom Kippur.) I reach for the travel mug, put it to my lips, and, bam! I burn my tongue. 

Every. Frigging. Year.

I have, in a way, come to cherish this bizarre habit as my own little High Holiday Ritual of the Id, a mini re-enactment of the burnt offering, if you will. It is poetic, you see, and could be read as strangely devout: At the dawn of every New Year, the cantor ritually burns her tongue in an act of unintended supplication to The Eternal. Oh God, burn my lips and I will sing your praise!

Maybe I do it because of the spiraling nature of human behavior – because try as we might to do better, we sometimes have to repeat the same mistakes several times before we can shift into something new, to treat our loved ones and strangers with more kindness, to not burn our goddamn tongue on the way to services. But we know that the real work is in returning and trying again. Because holiness lies in persistence, not perfection.


Nope, nope. That’s not why.

I need a new frigging travel mug; that’s why.

The other thing I do every year is I spend the High Holiday season ignoring my kids.

Not on purpose.

First, there’s the lead-up: For the entire month of Elul, Mama’s locked in a room on the third floor — chanting psalms? No. Hitting her head against the wall, trying to remember which nusach to use when on which holiday, trying to remember that elusive, hugeantic prayer, and continually meaning to but never getting around to reviewing the sections of Torah she’s leyning until during the actual Torah service, while the folks up for the previous aliyah are getting their blessing? Yes. 

Then, there are all the nights - right around when school starts, mind you - that Mama’s out at choir rehearsals:

“Mama, you’re missing bedtime again?”

“Yes, sweetie, I’m sorry. I’ll come home and kiss you while you’re sleeping.”

“Mama, do you REALLY kiss us when you come home while we’re sleeping?”

“Yes, of course I do.”

"But we don’t feel it."

"That’s because you’re sleeping. But I do kiss you. Every time."


And all the mornings when Daddy is up with the kids and Mama isn’t, because Mama was up until 1:00 the night before, grabbing those consecutive, uninterrupted hours to learn the music for God knows what part of which service, she doesn’t even remember.

And, of course, there are the Holidays themselves: Mama leaves the house right after dinner, returns late at night, and is up and out at nine the next morning. She’s gone for most of the next two days, then comes home exhausted and sick. She spends the following week – when she is not napping -  locked upstairs again in her office. And ten days after the first Holiday, she repeats the whole thing: Gone, gone, and gone — until late at night at the end of The Weird Grown-Up Fasting Day, when Daddy finally takes us to the Downtown Synagogue to see Mama and inhale cookies with the congregants.

I lie in bed at night, imagining the indie movies my children will one day make about their abandonment at the hands of their professionally Jewish mother. What do the High Holidays mean for us?, they’ll say with a smirk. We don’t know — MOM was never around then to explain. Jewish identity? Yeah, that means ABSENT MOM. Never mind the divorce papers with which I fear I will be served: “Was unable to function as partner and Jew simultaneously.”

I tell my kids this time of year is for thinking about all the blessings in our lives, the ways we want to change our behavior, and how our lives move in cycles, like the seasons, the weather, the Earth. I ask them at dinner what they remember from the past year.

“My birthday party.”

“What do you remember about your birthday party?”

“You wouldn’t let me have gummy worms.”

“Gummy worms rot your teeth. Are there things you’re happy about from the year, and things you’re sorry about?”

“I’m happy about my birthday party. I’m sorry I didn’t get gummy worms at my birthday party.”

Approach wall. Bang head.

Last week, Erev Rosh Hashana: My family is walking home. A block away from our house, our neighbor is blaring the soundtrack from “The Wiz” out of his parked van. I belt it out as we pass — “Ease on down, ease on down the ro-oad … come on … ease on down, ease on down the ro-oad …” — until my daughter shushes me:

“M-o-m! Stop! You’re messing me up!”

I am no stranger to being shushed by my daughter; at seven, she is already totally embarrassed by me. I can’t do ANYTHING in public. (She’s on the advanced track: Next year it will be outright disgust. At this rate, by the time she’s fourteen, she should be done with all of this and back to accepting me wholeheartedly. Right, parents of teens? Right?)

I usually ignore my daughter’s requests to tone it down, and she usually ignores mine. But this time, I am surprised enough to oblige. Because this time the complaint is not that I am embarrassing her; it’s that I’m getting in the way of HER singing.

“I’m making up a Rosh Hashana song,” she says. “And I can’t hear it when you’re singing.”

Stunned, I shut up. The rest of the way home, she trails behind me on the sidewalk, singing something to herself repeatedly, not quite loudly enough for me to hear the words.

We enter the house, and she says: “Mama, will you help me write something down?”

“Sure, sweets. What?”

“My song. I don’t want to forget it.”

“Great! Of course.”

“And maybe you and me can go upstairs with the computer and record it.” 

“We can record it right now if you like.”


I pull out the computer.

“What’s the song called?”

“Um … ‘Everything’s Part of a Life.’”

I type it in. “When I say go, you start singing.”

“Okay.” She glances over at her dad and brother in the kitchen. “But nobody listen.”

“Right. Nobody’s listening.”

I press ‘record.’ “Okay, go.”

She leans in towards the computer. And she starts to sing:

“Festivals, parties, dying, funerals, all is part of a life,

Festivals, parties, dying, funerals, all is part of a life.

Happiness, sadness makes a life go ‘round

Everything’s part of a life

Festivals, parties, dying, funerals, all is part of a life.”

"That’s it," she says.

I stop the recording.

Holy crap.

She gets it. The whole thing. Way better than I do.

I turn to my mom in my mind. Did you hear that? I ask silently.

Yup, my mom answers.

Did you teach her that?

Nope, Mom says. Life did.

Out loud, I say: “That’s beautiful, my love.” And I hold back my tears, because I know if my daughter sees them, she’ll turn away.

*Cappara is a Hebrew term with dual meaning: 1) An act of repentance; 2) A term of endearment for a loved one. (Thanks, Basya, for reminding me of that.)

Aug 16

Dai Dai Davven


I just spent a week away from my kids. Let me repeat: A week. No kids. I didn’t do dishes. I conversed with adults without interruption. I didn’t have to dress, feed, wipe or worry about anyone but myself. It was GREAT. 

Now, that week is over. Did I mention that it was great?

What was I doing for a whole week without my kids? You guessed it — sipping cognac on a Greek beach. Okay, no — but close enough: I was at the Davvening Leadership Training Institute.

Let me pause here with a story from last March: My son, who was three and a half and experimenting with the concept of idiom, broke the tension of a 45-minute-long potty training battle when he pointed to an unusual faucet on my mother-in-law’s bathtub and exclaimed, “What is this the hecker?!”

So (and here the interruption becomes relevant): Davvening? - I hear some of you wondering - What is this the hecker?

Davvening - or, as it is more groovily known, “davvenen” - is - let’s see if I can get this right - connected Jewish prayer. It’s what starts to happen when you stop checking out your neighbor’s neon kipa – or when you meditate deeply enough on it – to journey into yourself. Access your own emotional undertow, as it were. If you can get deep down to the Earth’s-core-connectedness of everything, you’re really there. But anywhere inside is good – the point is to get past the surface noise in your head. The difference between this and other kinds of meditation, as far as I can tell, is that while meditation is usually about detachment, davvening can include asking. Investment is okay.

That’s as much as I know after week one of Davvening Leadership Training; I still have three more weeks, over the next two years, to go. Something else I quickly figured out: Deep davvening and small children? Fuggetaboudit. I had to be away from my kids for three days before I even remembered I had a self. Now I get why women in traditional structures are “excused” from shulgoing – someone’s gotta keep the kids out of the davveners’ hair. And since the men are required to davven, well …

So after my week o’ thrice-daily, kid-less davvenen, I am so spiritual. Blissed out and dreamy and loving the world, I ferry back to my family.

I arrive at bedtime. The kids are doing somersaults off the walls. My partner, who has had them all week - bless his heart - kisses me hello and bolts. I am stuck in a tiny bedroom, trying to get two spastic kids who have not seen me in a week to calm the frock down and go to sleep.

Bliss starts to leak out my right ear, leaving a small, creeping pain in the back of my neck.

I lie down on the older one’s bed. The kids bounce and giggle. I tell them a story. They keep jumping up to go to the bathroom. I lie down on the younger one’s bed. They throw pillows at each other. I close my eyes. I rub my temples. I watch my serene self slip into the garbage disposal. And then, blam – a chunk of wisdom from my week away smacks my forehead like a soft tomato: Leaders facilitate transitions. Facilitate the transition to bed, you idiot.

Unsure how else to do it, I start to sing. I make up a song about how it’s time to lie down, it’s time to close your eyes, to think of all the things you did today. It’s time to lie down, time to take a breath, and to think of all the things you’ll do tomorrow. I throw the bedtime Shema in there, newly davvenen creature that I am, and start the song again.

Lo and behold, the little one gets still. He snuggles against me. After a couple more rounds, I hear the older one quiet down on her bed, listening. Then, I hear her weeping.

I have a very clear memory of myself at eight or nine, just a little older than my daughter is now, lying on the rug in front of the fireplace in my childhood home, listening to my mother sing “Scarlet Ribbons.” Toward the end of the song, I began to weep uncontrollably. I couldn’t have told you why specifically – the song had washed over a dam in my heart and everything I had ever been sad about or yearned for came gushing out in inarticulate tears.

My mom had a gift for singing straight to people’s hearts. I spent most of my childhood fighting to not let her get my heart like that, for fear I would lose track of it in the puddle of emotion. So it is with mothers and daughters. Now I am walking smack in her path, and I spend much of my time trying to open my heart back up.

I walk over to my daughter’s bed, sit down, and hold her. Her little brother follows and stands next to me, holding my knee. When my daughter finally finds words, she says, through her sobs, “I want Grandma.”

Damn. What’d I tell you about my mom? Her power to show up only seems to have increased with her death: Nothing but her presence with us in the room could have reminded my daughter so strongly of her absence.

I think of stars, whose light continues to stretch into the future, millions of years after their bodies have perished.

I kiss my daughter’s head.

“Me too,” I tell her.

The little one asks, “Where is Grandma?” She died?”

“Yes, sweetie,” I answer, “But her love for us is here.”

We’ve struck love. Thanks, Mom.

Scratch my earlier definition of davvening. This is a better one.

May 25



One morning last week I came downstairs to hear my kids arguing.

My son (almost 4): “Yes, I can.”

My daughter (almost 7): “No, not really. Not outside.”

My son: “Yes, I can. Can too.”

My daughter (whining): “Nooooo! People would make fun of you!”

My son meets me in the hallway. “What’s up?” I ask him.

“Mama, can I wear a dress if I want?”

“Of course you can,” I tell him.

“See?!” he says to his sister.

“But Mama!” my daughter exclaims, “if he wears a dress outside the house, people will laugh at him!”

Cripes. Today is Gender Stereotypes Re-Education Day? I missed the memo! I could have read up, or prepared some notes.  Can I get a cheat sheet? Can I at least have breakfast first?

“Mama!” Apparently not.

I turn to my daughter. “Sweetheart, that is rude. No one ever tries to shame you out of wearing something you like to wear.”

“But he can’t wear a dress outside, Mama! Boys don’t wear dresses! Everyone will laugh!”

Jesus — when did my robust, soccer-playing, emotionally generous daughter turn into the Gender Police? Just the other week she dressed her brother up in her old ballet outfit and twirled with him around the house. Now that he wants to take it on the road, suddenly she bucks?

“I don’t think people would laugh, sweetheart. And what if they did? Would that mean that your brother is wrong for wearing a dress, or would it mean that whoever laughs is acting like a bully?”

“I don’t know!” Pout. Snort. She crosses her arms and stomps over to the window.

That’s my cue to let it lie. I go to the kitchen to get a banana. “We’re leaving for school in five minutes. Let’s get ready.”

My son follows me. “Mama?”

“Yes, sweetie?”

“Can I wear a dress now? To take H to school?”


The entire previous interaction has done absolutely nothing to prepare me for this next, very logical request. In the millionth-of-a-nanosecond-long pause that follows, I scroll back through decades of feminist theory and gender myth-busting, before gathering my wits to say:

“Sure, honey.”

He breaks out in a huge, excited smile.

I slap my head. What the hell was that millionth of a nanosecond about? Was I, when faced with it in the moment, actually considering refusal? I would love to unpack this, maybe write a paper about it, but we have to go — I have only two minutes to find a dress for my son to wear and figure out how to field my daughter’s renewed complaints about it before we are late for school.

I run back upstairs and rummage through my daughter’s old clothes, mentally kicking myself that we just gave away a bunch of her dresses. I finally dig out a dress that my daughter recently grew out of. My mom had asked her health aide to buy it for H three years ago when we came on a visit. My mom was by then wheelchair-bound and almost completely paralyzed; she asked me to arrange the two new dresses on her lap so that when my daughter walked in, my mom could “give” them to her. We joked with my daughter that presents grew out of Grandma’s lap.

“Here, sweetie.” I pull the dress over my son’s head, thinking how pleased my mom would be.

He beams.

Two minutes after we arrive at H’s classroom, H comes over to me: “Matthew asked about N’s dress. He’s making fun.”

“Sweetheart, asking is not the same as making fun.”

“He IS making fun! He said why’s N wearing a dress!”

“It sounds to me like he’s curious. You could just explain that this is what N wanted to wear this morning.”

She walks away, scowling. Clearly, I’m getting nowhere. 

That night, for their bedtime story, I tell my kids about their Great Aunt Lois, who was the first girl to wear pants to her high school in the 1950s. She got suspended for it, but the school administration backtracked after my grandmother marched down there and raised hell. At least, that’s how my mom liked to tell it.

“Can you imagine?” I ask my kids. “Living in a time when people got upset if girls wore pants?”

They both shake their heads.

“I would not like that,” says my daughter. Pause. Then: “It’s kind of like telling N he can’t wear a dress to school.”

I am a brilliant parent. And thank God for my brave Aunt Lois.

For one night, I bask in the glow of my accomplishment. And then, the following morning, from the top of the stairs, I hear my daughter quietly imploring her brother near the front doorway: “N, this morning, could you not …”

“What?” he asks, excitedly, “have too much fun?!” He is echoing the refrain I leave him with when I drop him at day care: “Whatever you do, do NOT have too much fun!” To which he always replies, “Oh yes, I will!”

In this moment, though, my heart aches; I know how far from that sentiment his sister’s request is about to be.

“No,” says H quietly, “could you not … wear a dress today to my school?”

Backslide. I know she’s feeling equal parts embarrassment for herself and protectiveness of her little brother. But if I don’t intervene, her attempt to talk him out of it will ultimately wither a part of him – and her.

“H,” I admonish from the top of the stairs, “come here.”

“Mama?” She sounds genuinely surprised. “How did you hear me?” 

“I hear everything. Come up here, please.”

She comes up the stairs, into my room, and sits on my bed. I continue: “I thought we’d established that people are allowed to wear what they like, and it’s rude to make them feel otherwise. Would it have been right to ask Great Aunt Lois not to wear her pants to school?”

She shakes her head, then asks: “Did the kids make fun of Great Aunt Lois?”

I have no idea. So I guess: “I’m sure some of them were pretty confused at first. Others may have made fun. But that doesn’t mean they were right to make fun, does it?”

She shakes her head.

“And isn’t it our job to challenge the bullies, not the people they’re making fun of?”

She nods her head. But her furrowed brow shows me she is not completely convinced. 

That day I stay at my daughter’s school to teach music. My son is with me, proudly sporting his dress for the second day in a row. Several kids come over to ask if my son is a girl, or if this is his “wacky clothes day.” “Nope!” I explain cheerily, “He just wanted to wear a dress today! Doesn’t it look great?” Each, in turn, looks confused for a moment, then nods.

Hmm. I wonder to myself if I put too negative a spin on the whole thing earlier with my daughter. To bring the issue right to bullying don’t accurately describe the curiosity and openness to change that I see in these young kids. I think, maybe I should talk more with my daughter about it – explain to her that answering positively helps everybody to see N’s dress as positive, too. So when I am alone with her after school I raise the issue, recounting how I answered the kids’ questions today about N’s dress.

“I know!” She interrupts me with a tone that I am beginning to understand means I’m talking too much. “I heard you say it!”

Of course. She watches my every move. She rejects very word out of my mouth, but not a single action goes unnoticed. 

I feel for my older child. She is the family experiment; each new phase of hers holds as big a learning curve for me and her dad as it does for her. I do not understand her seven-year-old mind, with all its attendant insecurities. And I’m not a practiced enough parent to always present with confidence the world I want her to inhabit – a world in which dresses on boys is normal. At best, she gets to see me fighting to establish that normality in my own mind, and blundering around figuring out how to field others’ reactions to it. 

I’m afraid that’s all I’ve got.

Maybe that’s enough. This morning we are all upstairs, dressing to go downtown. 

My daughter asks her brother, “Do you want to wear just pants today or a skirt, like me?”

“A skirt!” he replies.

“Okay.” I hear her say. “Here, you can try on one of mine.”

May 08

The Torah of SEPTA*

June, 2012

Last week, my three-and-a-half year old son (technically he’s almost three and three fourths, but since I turned forty-four and five-twelfths, I’m less particular) — my son watched several SEPTA service trucks roll down South 49th Street. He asked why they were there and where they were going. He observed that we don’t see that many orange trucks on the other streets. He queried as to why that is (49th St hosts several trolley lines). He then wondered whether they were called flatbed trucks or something else (beats me). He asked what did I think they were going to fix (I guessed trolley tracks). He quizzed me on how they were going to fix them (ok, I really don’t frigging know) and why were they carrying that hose (Crap, how many hours until naptime?). After about five straight minutes of questions, he was silent for a moment. Then he had the following comment:

“It musta been hard for the people to make the whole world. They would haveta work work work, and rest; and work work work, and rest — a hundred times. Then they haveta pick a house to live in. Everybody in the whole world hasta pick a house to live in. We already picked one.”

Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you The Old Testament. In five sentences.

I should have reached for the stone tablets right then and there. But we were crossing a busy intersection. So instead I uttered the same sage words with which our ancestors have responded over the centuries to the revelations of their cherished prophets:

“Uh huh. Feet in the stroller please, sweetie.”

My son thinks SEPTA created the world. And why not? They’re always out there, tending to their inventions – they put down tracks, they fix stuff. They dig deep and go up high — they rule over heaven and earth. And they drive us everywhere. They are certainly a more hands-on deity than that other dude.

So sure, SEPTA for God.

One problem with this regime change, though: Sundays. If SEPTA is God, then the Jews have it wrong: Except for a few token trains at inconvenient times, the Sabbath definitely falls on Sunday. It also falls, by the way, on occasional weeknights after nine p.m. in the Westbound tunnel.

The whole Sabbath on Sunday shtick could put a serious crimp in Jewish theology – we’d have to re-think some things. But we could adapt – we’re good at that. The hard part would be admitting that the Christians were right.

But the more I think about it, the more I see real benefits to SEPTA Almighty. Imagine huge donations from Evangelical millionaires being re-directed from megachurches and Republican candidacies over to public transportation! All we have to do, really, is hold an election and vote SEPTA into Eternal Office. Then those rich Evangelicals would HAVE to fork it over!

So it’s decided: We’ll hold an election for God. Oh, but wait — how will we guard against voter fraud? Hey, here’s an idea: Let’s pass a law requiring every voter to show a photo SEPTA TransPass in order to vote! Why, you ask? To make sure that the people who might vote against our God aren’t faking their addresses or voting twice. Well no, that kind of fraud isn’t really a problem now — but it was rampant in 1903, you know. With our new law, we can be sure to disenfranchise many of those who might vote against us – in fact, it pretty much knocks out anyone who drives a car! That will definitely eliminate our voter fraud problem. Just as it has in other forward-thinking states who’ve adopted this kind of law.

Whew. I feel great. Who knew it would be so easy to steer things our way? But I guess if my son is right and SEPTA created the world in a hundred days, our state can certainly dismember the 14th, 15th, and 19th Amendments of the Constitution with a mere stroke of the pen! Nice work, everyone — drinks are on me! In fact, let’s take the day off tomorrow!

And on the 101st day, the Governor rested.

*Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority