On Gender Analysis, Shavuot, and Showing Your Values

A village is built into the side of a steep hill. It’s a trek to get to the main road, which leads to the capital city. And so, a well meaning aid group build some steps. Success! No more scrambling down, just straight steps, and then a flatter walk or hitching a ride into town. Except. Except. The women of this village don’t go into town. And even after these brand new expensive steps are built they don’t use them. It seems like they would! The hill is steep, some houses are higher up than others. It’s tricky to climb to the village market, even trickier with a baby in arms or in a carrier. 

And there’s the rub. The steps go straight down to the main road. They don’t have any landings for gathering, any twists to bring people to the market, to the friend who watches your baby, or the one who needs help with laundry. The desire paths the women had worn in their hillside village were far more useful than the paths the men requested. But nobody asked the women where they would have liked the steps to go. 

The steps still would have reached the main road! The men could have still used them, but they would have served the women and children too. 


Aid workers come in to a town that has been hit hard by civil war. Peace is holding now, thankfully, so they gather the village elders, their ranks thinned after the war,  and ask them what they need. “A bridge!” The elders say immediately. We’ve been asking for a bridge for as long as we can remember.  It’s dangerous to ford the river, but we need to cross to access the economic capital. 

And by some miracle, the supplies move in pretty quickly. The kids tumble out of their houses to see the trucks pull up and some women follow them. One woman goes out to the aid workers and asks what they are building. A bridge! To cross the river! The woman looks at them stunned, and points to the small stream her children are jumping over. There’s been drought for five years. The river has dried to nothing. The road that the bridge was supposed to connect to was bombed two years ago. The men didn’t know. They’ve been at war. They haven’t lived here. What the village really needs is potable water. 

I was senior in college trying to organize a screening of a movie. The admin at Hillel was insistent it was impossible. I couldn’t use the room at the time I wanted it, and the other rooms were too big/ too small. It was IMPOSSIBLE. Finally after rounds of back and forth on this I asked her WHY I couldn’t use the room for a movie screening. “Because the chairs have to face the screen for the movie, but then Mincha will be right after, and the chairs have to face the ark for Michna” she said. I took a beat. If I ask each person to turn his or her chair 90 degrees after the movie is over, can I host the movie screening? And the movie screening happened.


There’s a tradition that teaches that every Jew—even those who would not be born for centuries—was at Har Sinai. Does your Shul’s Shavuot programming reflect that? Can you look at the flyer for Shavuot and say “yup. The Torah is for EVERYONE” (or even, “the Torah is for everyone who goes to this shul.”) 

If the people teaching and the people attending your Torah offerings on Shavuot do not match your community, then Torah in your community on the holiday celebrating Matan Torah is not accessible to all. Look at the flyers that are posted in your shul. Look at the people who show up to the classes. If it looks too male, too young, too child free, too old, too—non representative—then your shul does not prioritize Torah for all. 

“But Leora,” you will say, and then you will offer a version of one of the following: 

  1. We didn’t specifically ask men. We posted a general call for teachers and only men volunteered. 
  2. We asked women to teach and they said no. 
  3. Shavuot has to start after tzeit and then it’s already very late. 
  4. The children are all sleeping when we are teaching Torah 
  5. The children are too young/too old/too hard to entertain
  6. If we didn’t say yes to the same people who taught last year and the year before etc, then we wouldn’t be able to fill a whole night of learning. 
  7. A lot of people in our shul don’t have the knowledge to teach a shiur
  8. We just asked the most knowledgeable/popular/loudest/easiest people, and they all just happened to be men/under the age of X/over the age of Y
  9. We are lay led. We didn’t have time to address this issue/to make alternative programs
  10. At least we managed to get a tikkun! 
  11. We can’t control who comes! It’s open to all! 
  12. We’re working on it! We’re hiring a woman/a youth director/an education director/a Rabbi. That’s how you know we care. 
  13. We do care about women! We have a woman president/yoestzet/speaker scheduled for this summer/ women’s tefilah group

Did I miss anything? Did any of you ask the whole community where to build the steps? Did you build a bridge or safe water wells? 

If your shul regularly was not getting a minyan would you say:

“We asked people to show up and they said no.” 

“We post on the website that minyan is open to all”

“We don’t have anyone saying Kaddish right now so it’s not important.” 

“Only women volunteered to come to shul and unfortunately we don’t count them.” 

“We don’t have time to fix this problem.”

“We’re hiring a minyan coordinator next year.”

“We had a minyan on Rosh Hashana.”

Here’s the thing. Maybe your shul has had a tikkun for 100 years. That’s pretty impressive! The whole institution of Tikkun Leil Shavuot has only been around for 500 years. 

But here’s the other thing: does your tikkun look the same as it did 100 years ago (the invention of the xerox machine and sefaria aside)? What percent of your shul are you serving with your 4 am shiur? What did you have to give up to make that happen?

It’s not Halacha to have shiurim all night. If your shul has to give up serving the whole community to serve a tiny slice, you should think about if it’s worth it. ALSO, if your shul has a shallow bench, is there another community you can pool resources with? You can probably learn Torah with them even if you can’t daven with them. 

Did you ask your whole community what they wanted out of shavuot? Did you ask them when they WOULD be available to learn Torah? To teach? Did you ask if people would be interested in giving a lightning talk? In speaking on a panel? In discussing art works or poetry? Did you ask the women WHY they didn’t want to teach? Did you ask anyone what they would need to feel comfortable teaching or attending a class? Did you ask if anyone wanted help crafting a shiur? Did you suggest to anyone that you’d like to hear his  personal reflections on Megillat Rut even if he can’t read Hebrew? Did you ask the parent what he wants his child to get out of the holiday? What she is planning on teaching at bedtime on Thursday night? 

Did you consider that Torah learning can start before Yom tov? That your shul might benefit MORE from programming in the middle of the day than in the middle of the night? 

Did you stop to wonder if the flyers you hang this year might convince more people to say no to teaching next year? 

Did you ask your community what their values are, and does your shavuot programming truly reflect those values?

Did you build steps that look like every other staircase ever built? Did you consider turning the chairs 90 degrees? Did you build a bridge? A well?

Do More With Less, Or The Strange Arrogance of Covering The Pulitzers

Or: Of the Big-Name Papers, Only The New York Times Knows How to Write a Lede

It’s a mark of how far I’ve strayed from my first (professional) love, that I didn’t know the Pulitzers were being announced today until the New York Times breaking news notification came across my phone. A few years ago, sitting in a newsroom, my colleagues and I were making (mostly correct) predictions about who would win what.*

It’s a mark of how my love for  journalism–and for people I did it with–has shaped me, that I got up almost immediately to call another journalist friend to discuss. She too no longer works in journalism.

But even more notable as a sign of the changes that have come were the prizes themselves, and the message the New York Times lede appropriately conveyed:

The Post and Courier of Charleston, S.C., with a staff of about 80 and a daily circulation of 85,000, won the most prestigious of the Pulitzer Prizes for journalism awarded on Monday, for a series on the high number of deaths resulting from domestic abuse in the state.

Pulitzer coverage is a funny thing: Would these prizes be news worthy of breaking news alerts,  prime web-page real estate, and multiple articles if they weren’t news stories about the newspapers? Do the papers even find the right stories within the prize announcements?

Screenshot from the Wall Street Journal's coverage of the Pulitzers

Screenshot from the Wall Street Journal’s coverage of the Pulitzers

The Wall Street Journal‘s home page headline is “Wall Street Journal Wins Investigative Pulitzer Prize” and doesn’t mention the Post and Courier in the subhead or the first two grafs.  Reuters–which does not have its own prize to highlight--led with the New York Timeswin, even though the Public Service award is the most prestigious.

I can almost forgive all this eye-roll-inducing self-congratulation because the print news industry has so little to celebrate these days.

But there IS news in this year’s awards:  that a newspaper so tiny could win an award so big ( a paper that size has not won in five years, and the Post-Courrier has not won since 1925); that public service was defined as reporting on  domestic violence, a topic notoriously under-discussed;  that  a newspaper did  work which was data driven and focused on taking previous years’ reporting to the next level despite a staff of 80.


By the time I got to the Post Courier page, the only coverage on the home page was an editorial urging legislative action for restrictions on gun ownership by domestic abusers.

That Times’ lede is a lede written by a journalist for journalists. For people who can read that sentence and understand all  the implied history of heartbreaking layoffs and fear about the Buzzfeed-ification of journalism. For people who know what it’s like to pray that data analysis will be the panacea of journalism as a whole while also hoping that crunching the numbers will lead to a compelling story about the humans journalists truly want to serve.

This year’s prizes offer a second, related story about the state of journalism today. The Daily Breeze won the prize for local reporting  “for their inquiry into widespread corruption in a small, cash-strapped school district, including impressive use of the paper’s website.” The paper has seven local reporters.* One of the journalists who won the prize has already left to become a publicist “for economic reasons.” The reality of the business, especially for local journalists, is so brutal that even a shiny prize can’t hide it.

Screenshot from The Daily Breeze's website

Screenshot from The Daily Breeze’s website

But  to the small papers everywhere–including the college papers such as my very own–that a small, over-worked staff can still produce great journalism, and perhaps has an obligation to do so (my heart broke a little when I noticed that on a non-print day Spec had fewer news articles than we did on the days we were most ashamed of the product we put out. I get it, but it’s sad).

The message “do more with less” is cynical and short-cited when it comes from the business side, but it sounds more like a defense of the value of what journalists do when it comes from the Pulitzer committee  and is highlighted by THE newspaper of record and its peers. The Wall Street Journal, Reuters and company should have had the heart to recognize that the Pulitzer Prizes are about more than the big names. They are about the potential journalism still holds, staff and circulation numbers be damned.

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The Danger of “Dress Like You Deserve Respect”

When a Hill staffer told Malia and Sasha Obama to “dress like you deserve respect not a spot at the bar” the reaction was pretty much as I expected: outrage combined with some discussion about their length of their skirts: variations of “their skirts are a little short, but that was out of line,” and “they are teenagers who are years from being able to drink.”

What I didn’t see was anyone saying “actually, they deserve respect no matter what they wear or what faces they make (or don’t make) because they are people.”

And, while we are are at it, a bar vs. respect should not be an either or proposition. Women getting dressed for a night out, regardless of their skirt length deserve respect. As do women dressed for any other occasion.

This “dress like you deserve respect” message seems like the other side of the “she was asking for it” coin. We need to teach both our girls and boys that clothes do not make the person, and all people deserve to be treated as human and with dignity. No one was asking for it. Everyone has humanity.

Stories about college rape, about police brutality*, about black boys in hoodies, and about first daughters in skirts show us how far we are from internalizing that lesson.

* separate post on this to come

Cooking, Newspapers, and Love

IMG_0226My grandmother cooked and baked. Out of duty, out of necessity, out of love.

For most of the 69 years she was married to my grandfather, she was also in charge of feeding the family. Of making sure dinner was on the table every night.

She was a working woman even when she was a girl, getting jobs to help support her family from the time she was 16, when her father died. She went back to school when my mother was in elementary school and then had a proud carreer as a reading teacher in New York City public schools. In a jewlery box on her dresser, sits a tiny lapel pin from the association of New York public employees.

She cooked because that’s what women of her era did, but she also fed the people she loved because she loved them. She made us brownies and brisket and said “eat, eat” and “what can I get you” and “eat, eat” and “what can I make you?” What she meant was “I love you. I made this for you. I worry about you. I love you. I love you.”

My grandfather read the newspaper. When he died, it had  been decades since he had been on the subway–I don’t think he has ever used a metro card. Still, he folded the New York Times the way New Yorkers, subway riders, did.

He  was an artist, a lover of all things beautiful, he painted landscapes, city scenes and  rural scenes, portraits of strangers, and portaits of people he loved. The sound of birds made him smile. As did a grandchild modeling a new dress, a clear blue sky, a painted masterpeiece, a symphony, an opera. He would hum and sing and whistle. He also demanded things to be just so. Coffee made with the milk left over from his cereal, soup at just the right temperature, vanilla ice cream rather than chocolate, the whole newspaper, all of the facts.

My grandfather complained he was getting older, he couldn’t read all of the newspaper anymore. “Now I only read the front section, the opinion section, the sports section, and  arts,” he said. Once, we tried to give him the large-print edition of the New York Times, and he was furious to discover that it wasn’t the whole paper. It was mainly feature articles that the editors seemed to think older people would be interested in. “What is this?” He said. “There’s no news in here; nothing about what’s going on in the world.”

My grandmother claimed she didn’t remember recipes anymore. Every thanksgiving, my mom would call her and ask how to make the turkey and the stuffing. Every year, my grandmother would claim she didn’t remember and then provide detailed lists of ingredients and directions.

* * *

My Papa Marty, Dr.  Marcus Kaplan, died on Saturday, 13 months after my grandmother died.

On Saturday night, I stood at the sink and washed dishes. When I was done with the ones in the sink, I took the dishes out of the dishwasher and washed those. It was too late too cook or bake; I don’t know how to paint or sculpt like my grandfather did.  But I wanted to do something. Even in a tiny way,IMG_0045 I wanted to be helpful. Like my grandmother was for so much of her life and wanted to be all the way until the end, even when she was frail, like my grandfather was in epic ways, especially at the end of my grandmother’s life. I needed to have my hands moving. I wanted actions that said “I love you. I miss you. I worried about you.”


I honestly can’t believe that my grandfather lived that long after my grandmother died.  In the 29 years I knew my grandmother, I remember only a couple of times that they were apart for even more than 10 minutes. It was such a strange, infrequent occurrence that I had convinced myself that I had dreamt a time that my grandmother was in my house without my grandfather.

The feelings of missing and loss for my grandfather is new and raw and completely entwined with my missing my  grandmother. They were a unit, and so I miss them both.

* * *

There is a newspaper fingerprint on my college diploma. It was a fitting end to four years devoted mainly to The Columbia Spectator. But over the last few days, I’ve been thinking about that fingerprint and my grandfather.


My grandfather wore a University of Pittsburgh ring until the day he died. He was  a proud  Pittsburgh Panther, the son of a pickle seller and  a member of the Dental School class that walked across the dais, received their diplomas, and joined the army. He treated both soldiers and prisoners of war. He was proud of his education and of mine; he suggested jokingly that I carry my grad school diploma around and hang it in any room I entered.  What he meant was “I love you. I’m proud of you. I love you.”

But that newsprint fingerprint floats into my mind and I don’t I think about my grandfather’s education and the blessings of being not only third generation college educated but also third-generation graduate school educated. I think about my grandfather folding the newspaper and about my standing behind him as he learned to navigate the New York Times app on the iPhone. Ironically, it wasn’t until he died that I realized that my incessant need for facts and information, my love of the news isn’t only a product of the information age I grew up  in. It’s a gift from my grandfather. I don’t have his talents but I have his thirst for knowledge. And I hope I have his capacity for love and for humor.

Today, I missed my grandparents and so I read the news. I missed my grandparents and so I planned menus. I made lists of ingredients and read directions. I thought about information and creation. I read, and planned, but what I meant was,  “I love you. I miss you. I love you.”


Thirteen Years

On Rosh Hashana 2001, the shofar reminded me only of sirens.

In early October 2001,  at the Barnard open house, the representative asked how many students were afraid to come to school in New York. A few hands went up. Then she asked how many parents were afraid to send their daughters. All along the back, where the parents were standing, hands went up.

That weekend, we went to Ground Zero. Stood silently looking across the rubble still smoking. Even after a shower, my hair smelled like smoke.

Five years later, I interviewed people who had been at Columbia that day, a professor of terrorism who turned on the television and thought for a moment the image of the burning tower was a bad movie, student photographers who walked the length of Manhattan, a student who had interned at Lehman Brothers at the World Trade Center that summer. His hand shook as he passed his I.D. across the table to me. Five years later, the card, with a World Trade Center icon, was still in his wallet. We talked in early September sitting outside, a day just like the one he was remembering.

The high school auditorium with the televisions showing the falling towers and projecting news broadcasters who sounded as confused and scared as us, feels worlds away and like I was there yesterday.

Privilege and Outrage: Why I Care About Ferguson

This is 2014. Photo: Associated Press

On the one hand, this should be the shortest post ever: “Because I am human and American,  I care about human rights, our constitution, racism, and poverty.” Done. Hit publish and walk away.

On the other hand, a lot of people who look like me, live near me, and have similar backgrounds to me, don’t see it that way.

The last time I found myself completely unable to stop reading a news story, was when it felt really really personal. When I finally gave myself a news break, I felt relief and calm. This time, I turned off my computer on Friday evening and didn’t turn it back on until Sunday night. When I did, I felt guilty, because Ferguson is not just about Michael Brown, it’s not just about protesters or journalists who are being stopped from doing their job. It’s not just about Ferguson. It’s about the black kid who gets pulled over by the cops ten times a month. It’s about schools with just over 50 percent graduation rates. It’s about segregation in the year 2014. It’s about the criminal justice system in this country. It’s about black boys who are taught to never call the cops. It’s about systemic racism. (Don’t believe me? Take a look at the Twitter hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown. Read this. And this. And this.  And this).

And, because I’m white, I can turn off the news and I have the option to tune all of that out. I don’t live with that systemic racism, so when I turn off the news, I have the privilege of tuning it out. My friends, co-workers, fellow citizens, are not so lucky.

When I think about why this is the news story that I can’t stop reading about, I think about the West Wing‘s Toby Ziegler reaction to the shooting in Rosslyn:

Toby: Why does it feel like this? I’ve seen shootings before.

President Bartlet: It wasn’t a shooting, Toby, it was a lynching. They tried to lynch Charlie right in front of our eyes.

To head it off at the pass: yes. I know that the West Wing is not real. I know that in that fictional world, Charlie was shot at by white supremacists and that in the real world, it’s likely that Darren Wilson’s motives were not overtly racist.

Wilson may have shot in fear, but that fear probably has roots in the way our society portrays black men: as dangerous and disposable. Michael Brown’s death may not have been a lynching, but it drove to the surface a lot of anger about a lot of racial injustices. It exposes my country’s darker side, the demons that we have not conquered, the demons we haven’t even really tried to fight because it’s more comfortable to ignore them. 

Yes: “We.” This should be a problem for everyone.

Last week, a commenter on Jezebel said  something along the lines of, “I wish we didn’t make this about race, so that everyone could be outraged.” But, you don’t have to be the victim to be outraged. Exercise empathy muscles. Be outraged because it’s unacceptable not because it could happen to you. Educate yourself. Learn that most protesters are not looters. Check your language. Are you making gross generalizations? Are you saying, “not to be racist” or “no offense, but…”? Ask yourself, how can I change myself and how can I change the system, no matter how small an impact. (Does anyone have an answer to the latter question? Let me know!)

In response to a piece from The Forward   “Why Jews Should Care About Ferguson”, someone on Facebook wrote.

“Would you be scared to open your shop there past 9pm? Now? Exactly, so cut it. You have no stake in the game. But those with shops over there do. So how can you belittle their concern for safety?”

Nobody in the thread or in the article had justified the looting. The idea that we somehow shouldn’t or are not allowed to care about the broad underlying injustice because we don’t know what it’s like to be store owners in Ferguson is even more mind-boggling than the idea that you should only be outraged if you are black. I have a stake in this game. We all should. 

I am outraged because as a Jew I believe that I cannot ignore the oppression of others just because things have gotten easier for my people and my family over the decades. We are asked to always remember that we were once slaves and to treat others accordingly.

I am outraged because I remember how uncomfortable it was to be told before a school field trip that any misbehavior in the museum would reflect badly on all Jews everywhere, and the way that information about Michael Brown has been handled by the police, by some parts of the media, and by the Internet reminds me that black boys and men carry a burden that is similar but many times heavier. (I don’t want to link to it, but google Michael Brown Marijuana and then think back to high school).

I am outraged because as a (former) journalist, I believe that the rights of freedom of press, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and redress of grievances should not be corralled and must be protected even, and especially, when protecting them calls into question structures of power, and the status quo. Even when its scary or difficult. I agree with the police who believe it is part of their job to protect these rights not with the police who believe it is their job  defend against them. I am outraged because I love this country and part of that love comes from being able to criticize its failings

I am outraged  because I agree with  former Madison, Wisconsin Police Chief David Couper, who wrote, “In a democracy, police have a very complex role compared to what is expected of the police in other systems. The power of the state must be balanced with the rights of an individual; other systems have no balance requirement—only to use the power given them by the state. Uniquely, police in a democracy don’t exist solely to maintain order on behalf of the state, but also to assure that the fundamental rights guaranteed to every citizen are protected in the process.”

I am outraged because as a white person, I automatically benefit from systems, perceptions, and stereotypes that hurt others and I’m not OK with that.

I am outraged because as an American I want to live in a country that lives up to the values enshrined in the constitution.

I am outraged because I believe that everyone’s life is enriched when everyone has opportunities that allow them to reach their full potential. I believe that the American Dream should not be reserved for those who do not have to overcome poverty, sub-par public services, or bigotry.

I am outraged because as a human I believe that skin color should not serve as a barrier for entry, that the poor should not be treated as less-than, that failing students should not be dismissed as net-losses.

I am outraged because as a human I understand that teenage deaths are tragedies, whatever the cause.

I am outraged because as a person, I believe that we could be doing better, and not trying makes me furious.

I am outraged because racism even in its most subtle forms should be considered outrageous. Full stop.

A Serotonin-Colored Ribbon


A version of a Serotonin necklace from Amazon. Maybe it needs to come with a tag that says “ask me about this”

Something about the coverage of Robin Williams’ death struck a chord with me. Maybe it was my horror in hearing that details of how he killed himself were published in the LA Times. (I didn’t read the article, but I’ll say here what I said to the person who mentioned this to me: why is that news? And, in England there are actually restrictions on publishing the hows of suicides in attempt to prevent copy cat suicides. I do not support restrictions of the press but I do support reasonable and rational self-restraint and the asking of “is this news”). Maybe because he was a childhood icon. But probably it was because of the shock from people who couldn’t imagine how a man so beloved, so successful, so funny could kill himself.

Slate has done an excellent job addressing this head on with a few writers successfully mentioning their own struggles with depression without making the stories about them, explaining for what must feel like the millionth time that depression is a disease, and that people who suffer from it can’t just be told they are loved or should be happy. Some of the articles also point out that some of what the public loved about Williams could also have been Williams trying so hard to fight for his health.

I remember that. The fighting with myself. Something I have never said on the Internet for fear of the stigma: I had depression the fall after college graduation.
Thankfully, I was never suicidal. Thankfully, I got help that worked for me and my serotonin has been balanced for years now. Thankfully, I had friends and family who noticed and helped me get help. I remember thinking I was doing such a good job hiding it, only to have a friend respond to my admission–because that’s what it felt like–of depression with “I know. I guessed.” The fight with myself was exhausting and ineffective, and it was prolonged by the stigma and by the idea that somehow I could just will myself better. Which was bullshit. I know  that, with treatment and support, I survived a disease that hits some people a lot harder than it hit me and that can be deadly.  And I’ve been thinking about that when listening to people talk about Robin Williams.
 One bit  from Slate’s coverage has stuck with me over the last few days:

Mental illness isn’t a marketable disease. I’m sure there are many celebrities who suffer from it, but we don’t have a celebrity spokesperson. There are no ice bucket challenges for depression. Cancer survivors can proudly show off their scars, but no one wants to see ours. We don’t have a ribbon or color. Anyone want to buy a gray KitchenAid mixer for mental health research? And depression is one of the more acceptable mental illnesses to have. Imagine a 5k run for bipolar and borderline personality disorders.

This paragraph actually sent me searching not for a mental health ribbon, but for a serotonin necklace or key chain. Because, in this case, maybe ribbons aren’t enough.
Maybe the “ribbon” for depression can also be a teaching tool:
“What’s that?”
“Oh, it’s serotonin, the chemical widely understood by scientists and doctors  to be linked to depression; when people are depressed, it often is reflective of a chemical imbalance in the brain. That’s one of the reasons why depression should be considered an illness, and not something that a person can just will away if they smile enough, get enough perspective, are strong enough, or just pull themselves up. I’m a survivor. Others aren’t so lucky.”
A ribbon that is actually a molecular structure could start a conversation with the curious and push past a lot of the stigma by diving straight into the very issues that undercut the stigma. It appeals to my inner geek and my inner advocate. It certainly doesn’t launch the type of campaign Molly Pohlig  is referring to in that piece, but it could be something, a code for those in the know that there are other people out there and a way to start conversations with others.

Personal Rage

Chalk messages written on a storefront on Newbury street the week following the Boston Marathon bombings and the arrest of Tsarnaev.

The idea of human rights arose in parallel to the rise of photography; when we could see abuse happening around the world, we had more reason to get angry about it.* Photos made the tragedies seem closer to home. In the age of the Internet, it would follow, we should be able to get outraged about everything. But we don’t. Maybe there are too many things worthy of our outrage. Maybe, when we have access to information about everything we need a way to rank tragedies, to say this one is closer to me. These victims looked like me or lived near me or could have been me.

All of which is complicated by the fact that while we could have equal access to information to everything, we actually don’t. News doesn’t get all covered equally. Rich white child victims might sell more papers than black teenage victims. I feel dirty just writing that. It shouldn’t be true. But too often it is. War in an African country gets fewer viewers to tune in than a dick pic scandal in Washington D.C. Sometimes, lots of news competes for the same news cycle. (See for example: the international section in the last few weeks). Sometimes, it’s a slower news week so one story gets more attention than it would any other time.

Sometimes the news is personal; we find ways to make it so, We find that someone we know knows the mother of a kidnap victim. The planes came from our airport. For a few hours, or minutes even, we couldn’t reach our family, worried that they were hurt or that their homes were destroyed. A bomber attacks our city.

Journalists are taught to remove themselves from the story. It’s the ultimate death of the author, by choice, a surgical removal of a person who actually is part of the story.** Well-written journalism moves me as it should, but objectivity is a habit that dies hard, so I was shocked to find myself furious when I read that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s lawyers wanted to move his trial out of Boston and to D.C. Lawyers said Tsarnaev “could not receive a fair trial in Boston or elsewhere in the state” because a large percentage of people knew someone at the marathon, were affected by the shelter-in-place city shutdown during the manhunt, and presume that Tsarnaev is guilty.

And my first thought when reading that was “well Dzhokhar should have thought of that before he planted a bomb at the Marathon! He should have thought of that before he placed a bomb at the finish line of a race that embodies the city, killing Martin Richard, Krystle M. Campbell, and Lingzi Lu and then shooting and killing MIT police Officer Sean Collier later in the week. He should have thought of that before attacking MY CITY.”

“Woah,” I thought. Not only should I still be thinking of him as “the alleged bomber,” because that’s how newspapers refer to suspects who have not been found guilty, but I also actually do believe in the right to a fair trial for everyone, that upholding our democratic values when it’s the hardest is what makes our democracy strong. And yet, my reaction to the news was that if Tsarnaev wanted a fair trial, he shouldn’t have committed the crime. Twisted logic at its best.

Because ultimately, I didn’t sleep for a week after the bombings, reading the news non stop. Because this year on Patriot’s Day, standing at the bottom of Heartbreak Hill wearing a Boston Strong t-shirt felt like the healing I didn’t know I needed.

Because it turns out that inital rage cannot always be suppressed by journalism ethics and democratic values. That initial reactions can be tempered in the name of logic and values, but can’t be prevented altogether. That while we should rage about all tragedy, some will be closer to home than others, and that there’s a limit to how small the world can shrink. Even in the age of the Internet.


A memorial to the victims of the 2013 Boston Bombing victims, placed at the finish line of the 2014 Boston Marathon.


* I first heard this idea in Samuel Moyn’s History of Human Rights class. Any misrepresentation of this is a reflection of the fact that I took the class my sophomore year of college, not of Prof. Moyn.

**The New Yorker is laughably strange about this: “‘How would you like it if I called you a whiteskin?’ Sherry Pocknett, a Wampanoag from Mashpee, Massachusetts, asked a person who asked about the name.” It’s possible that the person who asked was not the reporter who wrote the Talk of the Town piece, but given the New Yorker’s record of awkward third person self referrals, I’d bet good money that it was Ian Frazier himself who was doing the asking.


In college, I volunteered in a fifth grade classroom in East Harlem, teaching conflict resolution. We did a “stand up/sit down” ice breaker: We sat in a circle and someone stood in the middle and said something about himself or herself. Anyone who agreed or had the same experience stood up.

The students were blown away that their teacher listened to rap, that other kids had parents who were divorced, or were afraid that their siblings would join gangs.

The conversation that I remember most visibly was this one:

Me: Was there anything that surprised you?

Child One: I was surprised that the adults (the female teacher and the three female volunteers) stood up when someone said “I’m afraid to walk alone at night.” Because you are ADULTS and we are supposed to walk with ADULTS to be safe. If the adults don’t feel safe, how are we safe?

Me: Well, there is safety in number–

Child Two: It’s because of RAPE.

Child Three: Don’t SAY that.

They then went on to discuss everything else they were afraid of or things that had made them afraid (ghosts, spirits as completely distinct from ghosts, a brother getting killed, seeing someone kill himself). These weren’t kids who were isolated from legitimately frightening things, and now, hopefully, all of those kids are teenagers. I’m not sorry we were honest with them, but I’m sad we had to be.

Arthur Sulzberger Is a Newspaperman. He Should Have Known Better.

My own short journalism career was largely unimpeded by my gender (the one big gender fight in my college newsroom ended in conversations and e-mails that  could have been a PBS special on forgiveness and understanding), but I still saw it and heard it. The fellow journalism interns who thought nothing about talking about visiting strip clubs while I was standing right next to them, the female reporter who struggled to get cops to take her seriously when she covered a crime scene, the staff photographer at my school paper who was asked not to take the photos on a story I was writing because the editor didn’t think two women should go to a low-security prison, the writer (me!) who didn’t object to that reasoning despite no indication from our sources that the precaution was necessary.

There were messages I was young enough to ignore that said that to rise to the top was to choose journalism over family. There were congressmen who didn’t take me seriously. There was a Senate press corps that was still predominately male to say nothing of the gender imbalance  in financial-related press conferences.

I knew that I was already benefiting from fights of The Girls in the Balcony  by virtue of entering journalism when I did, and, with her appointment as executive editor of The New York Times, Jill Abramson (who also benefitted from those fights) seemed to bust open the glass ceiling long before I was close to hitting it. It seemed that the industry I loved would be a little more likely to love me back. (It turned out, it didn’t, or I didn’t love it as much as I thought I did, but that was not related to my gender).

Abramson, during the announcement of her appointment to executive editor.

The night Jill Abramson was announced as the next executive editor of The New York Times  I couldn’t sleep. Three years later, she was fired. We don’t know the whole story as to why she was fired, but there is reason to be skeptical of claims that is was simply management style, mainly that the Times has had lots and lots of bad managers at the helm. From The New Yorker: 

Another, a prominent reporter, proposed a multiple-choice question: “Tough and abrasive?” (a) Abe Rosenthal (1977-86), (b) Howell Raines (2001-03), (c) Max Frankel (1986-94), (d) Jill Abramson (2011-14), (e) all of the above. “Business is basically good, and the journalism is good, but the culture is bad,” the reporter continued. “But that describes a hundred and fifty years of the paper’s history. It’s always been sociopaths and lunatics running the place. Why step to Jill? People are genuinely upset about that.”

Even if it turns out that Abramson’s lower salary was totally justified, even if it turns out she was a terrible manager, the conversations around her tenure and her management style have been gendered from the start. There was no way they weren’t going to be. And, the conversation around her firing has been gendered. While Sulzberger said that he spoke to female “rising stars” at the Times who didn’t want “special treatment” and didn’t see the firing of Abramson as anything but a decision about an individual, David Carr “heard from several talented young women who are a big part of The New York Times’s future. “’ I really don’t see a path for me here,’  said one. ‘Are we O.K.?’

“Well, that depends on how the next few weeks go and whether The Times can convince female employees that it is a fair place to work, with ample opportunity to advance,” Carr wrote.

Carr concluded that Sulzberger’s assessment of Abramson’s management failings was correct, but the fact is that the way that the firing was handled at the Times scared some of the women who worked there, made them doubt that there were cracks in the glass ceiling. The coverage of the firing, both the carefully reported and the sensational, didn’t help. I read that coverage and couldn’t remember any of that thrill I had three years ago.

Sulzberger owns a newspaper–THE newspaper. He and his staff should understand messaging and the ways that messages can be unintentionally transmitted or mistranslated. Regardless of what really happened in the lead-up to Abramson’s firing, it’s inexcusable that Sulzberger  didn’t understand that female journalists everywhere were going to see Abramson’s sudden and unceremonious dismissal as a message about the metaphorical glass ceilings in the Times’ window-filled building and therefore in the industry as a whole. Sulzberger–perhaps inadvertantly–sent a message about the way a female reporter and editor is expected to conduct herself and the dangers she’ll face is she dares to be, like many of her predecessors,  pushy and forceful.  And it doesn’t look like progress.