From Survivor to Wonder Woman in 8 Days.

Eight days ago, over Memorial Day weekend, we took our kids to the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. Most years we fritter away these school vacation days doing nothing special, but this year I was The Mom I Keep Meaning to Be, at least for a day. The visit matched the meaning of the holiday — Remembering.

We took the one hour tour, then listened to a survivor speak. His testimony — death marches, concentration camps, losing his mother and grandparents, but surviving, and even finding his brother and father — was harrowing, yet somehow also uplifting. Here he was telling us about the greatest evil and cruelty the world has known, but also telling us how he later met his wives (all 3 of them), and introducing his daughter and two grandsons in the audience. He held the rapt attention of a multi-ethnic, multi-generational audience for over an hour, and we would have stayed as long as he could speak.

A tough visit like that must be balanced with sweets and joy, so we also ate lunch at L.A.’s famous Dupar’s restaurant. That’s how we do. We remember the holy hell — because we have to — and then we take a big bite out of life. Because we’re still here.

Eight days later, we watched Wonder Woman. Did you know that the original comic strip Wonder Woman’s first villains were the Nazis? (I read that here.) As cool as it was to see powerful women warriors on the big screen (it brought the L.A. Times’ Lorraine Ali and others to tears), what moved me more was that the actress embodying the strongest, fiercest, most unstoppable (and, yeah, super gorgeous) woman in the universe…is a Jew. It was like the entire Jewish population was saying in unison, “How you like us now, Hitler? We are STILL FREAKIN‘ HERE!”

WonderWoman

Not only that (and perhaps I’m taking this Jewish woman thing too far, but indulge me), but Wonder Woman’s entire existence is for tikkun olam, healing the world, the most central Jewish value of all, a value generations of Jewish women and men have striven to achieve and pass down to the next generation. The can be no greater healing of the world than peace.

I am aware as I write this that fifty years ago today, the 19-year-old state of Israel, a refuge for Europe’s remaining Jews, faced “an ominous build-up of Arab forces along its borders” (History.com), and shut it down. I am aware as I write this that Israel continues to struggle to find a lasting peace (with multiple points of view even among Jews as to how to accomplish that). And I am aware as I write this that anti-Semitism, hidden and blatant, continues to flourish all over the world.

I don’t expect a movie to heal the world. It’s an amusement, an entertainment. But, for me, this movie was something more. In its small way, our Jewish Wonder Woman resounded with the message carried over from our museum outing one week before: We’re still here.


(Much has been written about the Jewish Wonder Woman, including this piece about the first Jewish woman illustrator of the Wonder Woman comic, this in Slate, and of course this Tweet from Scandal’s Josh Malina: “FU, bds.”

JoshMalina Tweet

Open Letter to Jose Cardenas, One of “McFarland, USA”‘s Real Life Champions

Dear Mr. Cardenas,

This past weekend I saw “McFarland, USA,” a movie about one phase of your life, growing up in the agricultural town of McFarland, California.

You and your friends worked in the mornings before school and on the weekends in the fields picking vegetables and fruit, just about the hardest (and most important) work anyone can imagine. Then you spent afternoons running miles upon miles upon miles.

A day later, I read in your essay in the L.A. Times that your State Championship race was “one of the biggest disappointments in my youth.” Your long-held regret stirred the nurturer in me, and although you are a grown man, a journalist, husband, father, and Army sergeant, in my mind you are still that high school kid, and I can’t help my motherly instinct to tell you how I see what you did that day, and what lessons you have taught me and my children.

You saw the film as being about your disappointment. I saw the film as being about your tenacity, determination, loyalty, perseverance, athleticism, and strength. The movie was about much more than a state championship race, it was about the people you became.

(Spoiler alert for movie fans who aren’t aware that Disney movies have happy and dramatic endings).

But let’s talk about that race. You set out sprinting, on fire to prove something. You pushed too hard; you didn’t last. Even that teaches everyone who sees your story to see these truths:

1. No one is perfect. You are a father. Your child will strive, and will sometimes fail. You will guide her through heartbreak or disappointment by scrolling through your youth, looking for a moment that fills your reservoir of empathy. That race is going to heal your daughter’s heart some day.

2. Keep going. You didn’t like your race performance. You moved on, kept running, went to college and graduated, creating opportunities that didn’t exist before.

3. Give others a chance to shine. Your personal disappointment gave another teammate (who, according to the movie, had nothing to offer the team but keeping his faster brothers on the team) his first chance to make a difference.

4. Try to see differently. You saw your “mistake” of setting out filled with fire and speed as failure; we thought you may have inspired your teammates to run faster, push harder than they otherwise might have.

5. Pace yourself. Sometimes we are overcome by adrenaline and ambition. We push too hard and flame out. It’s a chance to pause, slow down, get our bearings before we get up and go again at a kinder pace.

6. Have a team. When our fire burns out, we need friends to help carry us for a while.

I was born in a family where everyone goes to college. I took it for granted that I would go. You were born in a community where that was not true, but with the blessings of a great coach and other adults to point the way to other paths, you made that your reality.

You close your essay with this glimpse of forgiveness: “‘McFarland, USA’ suggests my teammates became winners in life. And by that measure, maybe I can let go for good the sour memory of the state race. A caption says what became of me, a sort of champ in my own life, too, I guess.” Mr. Cardenas, there’s nothing to guess about.

After McFarland, U.S.A. at the El Capitan Theater in Hollywood.

Apres enjoying the glamorous, one-of-a-kind El Capitan Theater in Hollywood, California.

P.S. By the way, these are me and my kids — two sons from the ‘burbs and a foster daughter from Guatemala — the ones you are helping me to teach that anything is possible if they work hard enough.

The X-Rated Birds and Bees

(Names have been changed to protect the innocent, and the moderately-guilty).

As much as we like to think we are our children’s best teachers, it’s the time they spend with friends that provide them with the most “education.” Case in point: the few days our 8-year-old, let’s call him Huck, spent at baseball camp last month. At camp, the counselors teach batting, fielding, throwing and chewing bubble gum. The campers teach scratching, spitting and singing rude songs. Huck comes home singing about Batman peeing on the wall, Scooby Doo eating poo and a word-play game that he generously teaches his five-year-old brother: “Hey, Butch,” he whispers to him with a sly smile, “say ‘X’ really fast, over and over.”

Butch, pleased to be enlisted in his brother’s game, says: “X X X X X X X.”

Huck giggles uncontrollably. “You said, ‘Sex sex sex sex sex sex sex!’”

Butch is unperturbed. To the contrary, he thinks it is the pinnacle of humor. They keep at it. They sling “X X X X” all over the neighborhood. It’s getting a little out of control. My husband, Stud, decides he has been handed a “teachable moment.” It is time to Talk About Sex.

It’s not like we haven’t talked with our children before about where babies come from. They have long known that a man’s sperm fertilizes a woman’s egg, leading to the development of a baby. They have had long chats about the games they played together as lonely eggs in my ovary, waiting to become zygotes and begin their cells dividing. A sleepy, sluggish three-year-old Butch once commented, “I’m not feeling very fertilized right now.” (Truly, I could not make this stuff up.)

They also know that babies, including them, come out through a woman’s vagina, or sometimes her stomach.  But they have never asked The Big One: how do the sperm and ovum end up at the same party?

I always expected to be the one to have The Talk. After all, two years ago Huck asked my husband, “Daddy, how do babies get inside Mommy’s tummy?” and his wise father replied, chin in hand, “Good question. You should ask Mommy about that some time.”

But this time, amidst the chorus of “sex” reverberating through the house, Stud decides to step up to the plate. “Do you know what sex is, guys?”

“Yes.” Butch replies. “It means kissing.”

“No,” Huck counters, “it’s naked cuddling.”

I listen from the other room as Stud takes a swing. “Sex,” he explains, “is when a man puts his penis in a woman’s vagina, because they want to make a baby.”

Silence. No laughter. Shock has set in. For all of us.

I listen for a sound, anything. Finally, Butch speaks: “I’m hungry.”

And so we move on . . . .

The next day the four of us go to see Alvin and the Chipmunks. We are sitting in the dark movie theater waiting for the previews to end. Two on-screen characters kiss. “That’s sex, right mom?” Butch asks.

Thank goodness I overhead their dad’s explanation yesterday. I repeat it, adding for good measure: “ . . . because they love each other and are married.” I consider adding that the man and woman have Ph.D’s, but let it go for now.

“Oh yeah,” Butch says, and the movie begins. Sexy girl chipmunks fawn over Alvin, Simon and Theodore and shake their rumps singing Beyonce’s Single Ladies. Horny teenage boys threaten Alvin because species-blind teenage girls have swooned and sighed over these rodent rock stars. Sex is everywhere.

Walking home later, Butch explores every leaf on every plant. I watch him, marvel at his concentration, wonder at his inner conversation. Out of the silence he asks in the slow, articulated voice he has, “Can I play with Kevin tomorrow?” He considers the leaf in his hand. “I want to tell him what sex is.”

Uh-oh.

I envision him becoming the scourge of the pre-school, the playmate to avoid. “Well, honey,” I try to appeal to his sense of propriety, “that’s something his mommy and daddy want to tell him about. It’s not for friends to tell.” I almost add, “Kind of like Santa Claus,” but that would just complicate matters. Butch seems to understand, but his eyes betray significant disappointment. “I wish I could tell him,” he adds.

“I know, honey. But please don’t.”

We get home and I e-mail Kevin’s mother an advance apology for the things my son will no doubt teach hers, not just in pre-school but over the next thirteen years. I get a frantic reply from her, wanting to know exactly what words she should be prepared for. When I tell her over the phone the words we used, verbatim, I hear the now-expected silence, and wonder if the phone has gone dead. Then I hear her breathe. “Wow,” she sputters. “You guys left nothing to the imagination.” Yeah. We figured it was best that way.

And I wonder as we say goodbye, if maybe we’re all going to be on the “playmates to avoid” list for a while.