Siding With Scarlett

I’ve been a Scarlett Johansson fan for years, starting with her role in The Horse Whisperer up to her recent stage performances.  And why not?  She’s a local kid made good, a product of local public schools.  Her mom hails from The Bronx, her forebears fromMinsk.  We’re  landsman.

So when, in January 2014, Johansson resigned from her Oxfam position after facing criticism for her promotion of Sodastream, whose main factory is based in Ma’aleh Adumim, an Israeli settlement in the West Bank, I was puzzled at first.  I didn’t understand the issues around it, and had only just seen the TV ads featuring Johansson.

Oxfam opposes all trade with Israeli settlements. Johansson said she and Oxfam “have a fundamental difference of opinion in regards to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.”

Confused, I turned to my rabbi for enlightenment.  And here is what Rabbi Judith Lewis, of Riverdale Temple, Bronx,NY, had to say:

“I love my Sodastream!

“I’ve had one of those Sodastream seltzer machines for about 10 years – I think I bought it right when they started marketing it in the United States.  And yes, part of the reason I bought it was that I liked the idea of supporting an innovative Israeli company.  I did not know that the factory was located in the West Bank.  But it’s been a part of my culinary life too long for me to part with it now.  In fact, I am chagrined to admit that I bought my sister and brother-in-law one this year – just weeks before the Scarlett Johansson flap.

“I didn’t realize the factory was in the West Bank until then.

“But I’ll say it very clearly – I’m glad I bought it.  And I’m glad Scarlett Johansson stuck with ‘us’ instead of Oxfam.  And this is coming from someone who prides herself on being liberal, who avoids the West Bank when she visits Israel, and who would like nothing more than to see a peaceful and secure resolution to the Israeli -Palestinian conflict, even if it means that some of my favorite spots in Israel will once again be difficult, if not impossible to get to.

“I remember riding down the Red Sea coast of the Sinai Desert when it was Israel- while I was in rabbinical school, which means sometime between the fall of 1975 and the spring of 1976.  We explored the Sinai confidently – climbing the peak that was identified as Mt.Sinai (after having slept at the base of it, outside of Santa Katarina Monastery, on the ground, no tents, nothing – in the middle of the desert).  I remember swimming off Dahab, wearing a pair of swim goggles, no fancy mask, and being so overwhelmed by the beauty of the coral reef that I could hardly breathe.  That was, in fact, the beginning of my love affair with scuba diving.  I had never seen anything like it, and now I cannot see enough of it!

“We drove all the way down to Sharm-el-Sheikh, and then I remember being able to see sharks quite clearly, swimming  in swarms through the Straits of Tiran as we stood on the high vantage point of Ras Muhammed.

“Then I remember, about 20 years later, traveling to Nuweiba, on that same Red Sea coast, on a bus with 40 other reform rabbis, so that we could take an overnight ferry to Aqaba.  Yes, you can walk to Aqaba from Eilat now.  They are contiguous.  You just have to have patience while you navigate the red tape of both sides of the customs authorities.  Back then, one could not leave Israel for an Arab country and return through the same location.  Nor could one go back and forth between Jordan and Israel.  You could go one way, but not both.  The peace treaty with Jordan was brand new.

“As we schlepped down to Nuweiba to catch the ferry, I asked our tour guide – actually the owner of a fantastic tour company in Israel called ‘Da’at’ — how it felt to be in the Sinai now that it was no longer Israel.  He said something like, ‘it wasn’t ours before, then it was, and now it’s not again – but we have peace.  I’d rather have peace if I have to make a choice.’

“Now, about 20 years after that trip, I think about Israel and her neighbors.  You can still walk across the Jordanian border and the Egyptian border, but the Egyptian border isn’t recommended these days.  Certain Israeli orthodox leaders are saying that Reform Judaism isn’t really Judaism.  Certain women are still struggling to liberate the Western Wall from the Haredim.  Certain vice presidents are warningIsraelabout what the public relations effect will be if she remains recalcitrant on the settlements.  And certain American academics are boycotting any products made in the West Bank, or inIsrael– it’s not always clear.  Three cheers for Scarlett Johansson.

“I am not a fan of the settlements.  Never have been.  I am a fan of certain neighborhoods in Jerusalem that were once Jordan.   Heck, I’ve even lived in some of them.  I am a fan of Israel- the IsraelI dream of, but also the Israel that exists today, even though I hate some of the things that go on there.  But if I’m not ready to vote with my feet, I have to focus on the things I do like.

“Lately we have begun to hear more and more about the technological innovations that consistently come out of Israel- even snow making for the Sochi Olympics – how profoundly ironic can you get? Israel helping Russia make snow!

“But Israeli innovations also spring from every aspect of the digital world, medicine, agriculture, and even yogurt, as I learned from Ari Shavit’s book, “My Promised Land.”

“I don’t think the greatest threat to Israelis from its neighbors, notwithstanding the possibility of a nuclear bomb in Iran.  I think Israel’s greatest threat is from herself; from a failure to nurture what makes her great, and a willingness to turn a blind eye to the things that make her not so great.

Yes,Israel hassles Palestinians when they try to get from one place to another.  Ever heard of stop and frisk?  Yes,Israel continues to build settlements where public opinion would indicate that she should not.  Have you ever heard of misuse of eminent domain?  Redlining?  Yes, Israeli Palestinians do not really enjoy the same benefits of citizenship Jewish Israelis do.  Have we overcome the effects of slavery in this country?  Do all minority citizens of the United States really enjoy the same benefits of citizenship that white, Anglo-Saxon Christians do?

“I wish that Israel could live up to the standards and ideals that created the state.  I also wish that the United States could live up to the standards and ideals that created it.  And so, surprising myself a bit, I have finally come down squarely on the side of those who say that criticism of Israel– when done in isolation and not in the context of criticizing all nations who fail to respect human rights, justice, fairness, etc. — is outright, blatant anti-Semitism.  There, I said it.

“Now I think I’ll go make myself a bottle of seltzer.”

I’m still sorting out what Rabbi Lewis told me, but I guess I’d say: “Yeah, what SHE said.”  And, for Oxfam, the net takeaway?  Scarlett — New York City-kid-made-good — is “just not that into you.”

She Brings the Bronx to You

Anna Ortiz-Irving brings today’s Bronx to the thousands of ex-pats who long ago left the Borough of Universities for other pastures, greener and otherwise.

Every day, no matter the weather, the 63-year old single mother of five walks the streets of the Bronx’s Fordham and Kingsbridge neighborhoods, in the 52nd, 46th and 50th police precincts, and takes pictures of apartment buildings, private houses, stores, alleys, step-streets and more – all on behalf of former Bronx residents eager to see what their old haunts look like.

She then takes cell phone photos and posts them on her Facebook group “Fordham Road Yesterday & Today”

As an added plus, she posts the occasional photo essay, such as the timely “New York Blizzards, Then & Now,” or a look at early ’60s Bronx bars.

“They see their old homes, and it takes them back, yet they are so surprised,” Ortiz-Irving said.  “They’re surprised at how GOOD it looks.  It’s like a shock to them.  They’re expecting burned out buildings, like a scene out of ‘Escape From New York’ or ‘Fort Apache, The Bronx.’”

The former Verizon service technician is comfortable walking anywhere in the area, day or night.  And she is comfortable dealing with building supers, allowing easy access to the back alleys that connect many Bronx apartment buildings.

Ex-pat Bronx people seem to be everywhere, based on a visit to the Facebook affinity groups that abound, with names such as “Grew Up in the Bronx in the 1960s,” “Bronx People Who Have Moved Elsewhere,” “Born, Raised & Schooled on Da Streets of Da Bronx,” “You Grew Up in the Bronx When…,” “Bronxites Now Living in Southern California,” and “Fordham Area Bronxites.”

Many long-time residents left in the era of high crime and economic collapse, and headed for first-ring New York City suburbs, as well as Florida,Arizona and California.

And then there is Ortiz-Irving, born in Morningside Heights and a Bronx resident since she was a baby.  She has never left the Bronx’s Kingsbridge area, except to take an infrequent, domestic, vacation.

“Why should I?” she said.  “People are surprised that I didn’t run.  I tell them, ‘This is my home, my neighborhood – it’s where I belong.  Why should I run?’”  Her mother, on the other hand, was sometimes terrified for Anna’s safety back in the day, as her teen-aged daughter would leave for parties around the city late at night.

Anna was unfazed.

“I never got in trouble,” Ortiz-Irving said, referring to dangerous situations.  “The Bronx was, and is, beautiful.  And I’m comfortable everywhere I go.”

Many of the former Bronxites who regularly post on Bronx-related Facebook groups have a lot invested in maintaining their image of theBronxof their youth.  “It used to be so nice,” is the phrase Ortiz-Irving commonly hears from ex-Bronxites before seeing the current photos of their birthplace.

In fact, NYPD Compstat Unit statistics show that felonies are down 75.67 percent from 1990 in the 52nd Precinct, 81.13 percent in the 50th Precinct, and 80.70 percent in the 46th Precinct.

The gentrification that has changed vast parts of Brooklyn and northern Manhattan is still nascent, at best, in isolated sections of the south Bronx, as reported in cool blogs such as Ed Garcia Conde’s Welcome2TheBronx show  And, according to many longtime residents, a wholesale revamp of the borough may not be desirable.

Nevertheless, recent newspaper articles, such as this one in The New York Times, point out the aesthetic and financial appeal of Ortiz-Irving’s neighborhood

“I show them their old apartment buildings, the lobbies, the parks, schools and they’re amazed,” Ortiz-Irving said.  “They can’t believe how nice it looks, how elegant the buildings are, how blue the sky is.  They marvel at the green grass in St. James Park.  Yes, we have grass in the Bronx!

“They’ve left and they’re older now – they won’t come back.  So I bring their Bronx to them.”







Two Deaths

“They” say this is the “most wonderful time of the year.”

For the most part, “they” are correct.  Our lives leave what is routine, and we focus upon holiday magic, and doing for others, and enjoying the company of friends and family.

Sometimes, however, “they” can be wrong.

This post is a tribute to two Real New Yorkers who met untimely deaths.  They did not know each other.  Their common bond is that each lost his life during the holiday season.

Dr. S was the best physician I ever had.  He was raised in the South and his Upper East Side practice was run a bit like a country doctor’s.  He was practical, hands-on and listened. Barely middle-aged, he was athletic and fit.  He rode a motorcycle to work.

When he and his wife came to New York, years ago, they started a healthcare clinic for the poor on the Lower East Side.  They ministered to the sick and needy, and Dr. S also did his work at Lenox Hill and tended the garden of his private practice, steps from the Guggenheim.

Last year, Dr. S and his wife went on a much-needed vacation in Costa Rica.  One day, he went for a swim, while his wife stayed on the wild, unspoiled and uninhabited beach.  Dr. S got caught in a rip current and, try as he might, he could not make it to shore.

Last holiday season, Dr. S drowned.

I can still picture him in his office, sleeves rolled up, keying my test results into his laptop and admonishing me about my weight.

He was a Real New Yorker because he came here determined to make a life and to make his mark upon the world.  He worked hard, played hard and gave a helping hand.

The second remembrance of a Real New Yorker is — I mean, was — a good 20 years Dr. S’s junior.  He was born in Manhattan and was raised in Brooklyn, a Real New Yorker by birth.  I knew his parents well. They were neighbors in the Park Slope co-op we lived in for 17 years.

N. was a preternaturally gifted writer.  He endured the competitive pressure-cooker of Stuyvesant High School and was barely out of his teens when his first book was published.  He was hailed as the voice of a generation and beloved by legions of YA fans, kids who swore that the emotions he captured were their’s.  This gifted artist tapped into the mainline of today’s teen angst. There were books, screenplays, films and, now, TV scripts.  N. moved to Los Angeles.

But his talent had a price tag: he suffered from depression for years.  Last week, he killed himself in a most gruesome way.  I simply cannot imagine what demons it takes to cause one to deliberately head to the roof of a 13 story apartment building, your parents’ home, look down at the concrete below, and let yourself fall those dizzying seconds.

Two lives, connected only by the time of year of their deaths.  Of course, the game of life is that we all know that, someday and somehow, we will die. Which is why it is so hard for me to waste time — “it’s like throwing money in the gutter,” as my grandmother would have said.

Dr. S and N. are gone from this earth, but not from my memory.  I am left here to ponder their promise, now unfulfilled, and to remember not to waste a single moment.

One man is gone, doing what he loved best, living his passion.  The other, a young man, is also gone, lost traversing the foothills of his life, and tortured by an inner pain so severe that just one more day on earth was an unbearable, impossible, burden.

Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei raba.

B’alma di v’ra chirutei,
v’yamlich malchutei,
b’chayeichon uv’yomeichon
uv’chayei d’chol beit Yisrael,
baagala uviz’man kariv. V’im’ru: Amen.

Y’hei sh’mei raba m’varach
l’alam ul’almei almaya.

Yitbarach v’yishtabach v’yitpaar
v’yitromam v’yitnasei,
v’yit’hadar v’yitaleh v’yit’halal
sh’mei d’kud’sha b’rich hu,
l’eila min kol birchata v’shirata,
tushb’chata v’nechemata,
daamiran b’alma. V’imru: Amen.

Y’hei sh’lama raba min sh’maya,
v’chayim aleinu v’al kol Yisrael.
V’imru: Amen.

Oseh shalom bimromav,
Hu yaaseh shalom aleinu,
v’al kol Yisrael. V’imru: Amen.

A New Mayor, A New Day

The Real New Yorkers welcomes Bill de Blasio and his family to the NYC mayoralty.

Bill comes from my former neighborhood, Park Slope, and has lived there since well before tykes carelessly tossed $850 Burberry jackets to the floor of the playground at PS 321, and left them there, without a care.

To me, this is a story about the incremental change needed — now — to improve our city.  Real New Yorkers know that, once upon a time, it was the East Side and a few other enclaves where the uber-rich could be found.

Now?  NYC is largely a richy-rich world.  The non-rich are getting pushed out.  No, strike that.  Steamrolled out.  The prevailing attitude has been:”hey, if you can’t afford to live here, get the eff out.  And stay out!”

Real New Yorkers need to be able to live in their own city. Young adults from around the country, and energetic go-getters from all over the world need to be able to make New York their home.

Mayors can do only so much.  This is understood.  But by changing the dialogue, by recalibrating the tonality, many disinfranchised NY’ers can again feel like they at least have a fighting chance.

The ongoing decrease of crime in this city continues to impress, especially when marked against other cities such as Chicago, LA, Houston, DC, Detroit and Baltimore.  Kudos to the NYPD and the community policing approach first started many years ago under David Dinkins, who initially hired Ray Kelly.  A tweaking of stop and frisk will not ruin the quality of life in this city.  Instead, it will improve it, since the numbers show that the policy does nothing but clog up the system with unnecessary collars.

For all of Bloomberg’s vaunted managerial and entrepreneurial expertise, he kicked the contract can down the road and left a blow-out-the-doors, $2 billion deficit ahead.  What’s more, his tin ear got the goat of Real New Yorkers.  Kathy Black as school chancellor? Seriously?

And yes, let’s talk about schools, since Bloomberg said, way back when, that his mayoralty would ultimately be judged on the state of the schools when he left.  After upping the budgets and getting metric-centric, the kids are still flailing.  They were taught to pass tests, not “learn.”  There’s plenty of work to be done to improve the education level of our kids in our public schools, and if it takes an incremental increase on top earners’ income taxes, so be it.

Bloomberg, Bermuda awaits. Mayor Bill de Blasio: welcome.


Today’s question, from Brooklyn:

Dear Real New Yorkers,

What tips can you provide on how to celebrate Labor Day?

Best Regards,

Perplexed in Park Slope

Dear Perplexed,

No need for confusion.  There’s no reason to buy petrochemicals and drive in heavy traffic, or go to crowded beaches or noisy parades.

All you have to do is think — about two words: Labor Movement.

Society is built upon the back of labor.  Yours.  Mine.  His.  Hers.  Real New Yorkers understand that, as a key portal for immigration to the U.S., our city was, is and always will be instrumental in providing the physical and intellectual strength needed to keep this country humming.  And, as we know — or should know — the U.S. consumer economy is a key driver of the world’s economy.

The bravery of the labor movement, born on our streets, resulted in a powerful middle class that created an unparalleled standard of living.  Now, today, many politicians believe there is currency in denigrating labor.  They claim that the modest remuneration of civil service workers is the cause of broken budgets.  They claim that teachers — TEACHERS, FOR GOD’S SAKE!!! — make too much money and have caused the collapse of our once-enviable public school system.

And many citizens believe the noise.  ”Yeah,” they say, “who do these unionized people think they are, with their Cadillac medical plans, and pensions, and raises.  Where do they come shining off?”

Instead, a considered comment might be: “Hey, we deserve that type of package too — we’re holding down the fort for three fired co-workers, and now they cut my hours so I’m not entitled to healthcare benefits anymore!”

For the reality is, when the middle class makes more money, people buy more goods and services and pay more taxes.  And that, Perplexed, floats everyone’s boat.

Even the one-percenters howling at the moon over the (stagnated) minimum wage and the need for a few measly sick days a year.

I am reminded that Woody Guthrie lived in Coney Island for a time.  He came from Oklahoma, but he ended up a Real New Yorker.  His song, Tom Joad (based upon Steinbeck’s epic The Grapes of Wrath) tells a story worth noting and noting well on Labor Day.

Now, Perplexed, if you really want to get your dander up, about today’s labor inequities, give a listen to this performance by Springsteen and Tom Morello, on Springsteen’s homage to Guthrie’s song, The Ghost of Tom Joad. Consider Bruce’s opening remarks as he intros this song.

After watching it, I think you’ll know better what you should be doing and thinking this Labor Day.


The Real New Yorkers Speak



Welcome to The Real New Yorkers Speak.  This will be a regular feature on topics of the day.  No holds barred.  Any New York-centric topic is fair game.

Today’s question:

Dear The Real New Yorkers Speak:

I am a registered Democrat and the mayoral primaries are coming up tout de suite.  Who should I vote for?

The Real New Yorkers Answers:

Good question.  Here’s how I look at it:

  • Weiner: Anthony, Anthony, Anthony…what are we going to do with you? I had thought you were on the right side of the issues, I had thought you were a contender but, alas, you have serious emotional problems.  These days, the NYC mayor has to deal with both pothole issues and be an international ambassador and be a big-picture guy.  Do you really want this, this person representing Real New Yorkers on the global stage?  Once you’ve become the butt of the late night comedians’ jokes, you’re no longer viable.  Next….
  • Quinn: Ah, the mighty Quinn.  All the media training and soft, cuddly feature stories can’t whitewash who you really are, what you really did, and what you’re likely to do if elected.  If you would have voted for a fourth Bloomberg term, she’s definitely your candidate. But if you’re a Real New Yorker, move on…
  • Thompson: Four years ago, Thompson nearly toppled mini-Mike, despite sleepwalking through his campaign and being outspent by Bloomberg about a gazillion to one.  I think I like the guy, I really do.  But in the first debate, he came off so…so…so…dull.  If he’s capable of amping it up, he better start soon.  So far, I give him a grade of ZZZZZ.
  • De Blasio: Ok, I’m trying hard to ignore the fact that the PC patrol, such as Susan Sarandon, is coming out for Bill. I heard great things about him, from people who I respect and who are in the know.  But I wasn’t sure.  Then, I saw him in action at the first debate.  Hmmm.  He impressed.  He was the only adult on the stage, the only one with his lights on.  Weiner flailed.  Thompson failed.  Quinn parroted the key message points her handlers drilled into her big doughy head.  But De Blasio?  I think he’s a player, I think he’s a mensch and I think he can make a difference after 12 years of megalomania.  Now, does he have a chance against, say, a Joe Llohta?  Stay tuned.

Over to you, Real New Yorkers.  What do you think?


Stirrings in the Bronx?

They laughed when developers began buying up brownstone shells in Harlem in the early 2000s.  They laughed when Roberta’s opened in Bushwick.  They laughed when big $ hotels opened on Fourth Avenue in Park Slope.

So check this out: The Opera House Hotel opens in the South Bronx.

Hmmm?  Along with residential newcomers to the southern end of the Grand Concourse, methinks there’s something afoot here on The Mainland (the Bronx).  Check it out.  Could be the bad old days are finally fading.


The Real New Yorkers Speak

Our advice and opinion column — The Real New Yorkers Speak — will debut here next Wednesday.

We’ll cover topics of interest to all Real New Yorkers, from food & entertainment to housing to child rearing.

Tune in every Wednesday for audacious commentary on lifestyles in the five boroughs.  And, because this is YOUR column, feel free to send your topic suggestions.

See you next Wednesday!

The Real New Yorkers



The New “Real New Yorker”

The City of New York has a whole new population of recently minted citizens.  They love it here, intend to stay and raise kids here, and want to build their careers here. And yet, in some important ways, these New “Real New Yorkers” are very different from the Real New Yorkers of generations past.

Today’s Real New Yorkers ride the subways day and night.  They are not afraid and, why should they be?  They never experienced yesteryear’s subways: sad, hot, tagged Redbirds, with only a door or two that worked.  And, what’s more, they don’t care about the bad old days, either.  The fact that their train did not derail or catch on fire today is no big deal:

Today’s Real New Yorkers are young and tech-savvy, full of energy.  They don’t care for cars, ride bikes everywhere, and embrace mass transit.  Importantly, they grew up with electronic devices that put 1960s era, NASA-level computing power in their shirt pocket. They want to know: when’s the next train coming?  Why can’t I get Wi-Fi?  Why doesn’t my Smart Phone work down here?  What’s with these MTA neanderthals?

Some short stories, such as those in my recent collection, Home Front, put today’s New Real New Yorker into my time machine and back to the scary Days of Decline here in New York. Such tales are an eye opener for some.

But then, the story is read, the time travel is over and it’s back to today’s reality.  Rather than asking, “If I get on this train at 2 a.m., will this be the day that I die?” they wonder: Why doesn’t my station have a countdown clock? as they sip complex Fair Trade coffee orders and flick the pages of their iPads.

Me?  I’m just thrilled that the a/c works and I can see out the graffiti-less windows. Working a/c, on a New York City subway car.  Imagine that!



This Real New Yorker’s Summer Reading List

Summer’s here and the time is right, for…well, sure, dancing in the streets but, also, curling up poolside with a good book.

What is this Real New Yorker reading this summer?  Well, other than re-reading that soon-to-be-classic, Home Front (available at your favorite online booksellers), I’m reading:

  • Anne Proulx, Close Range: Wyoming Stories (almost finished.  Wow!)
  • Transatlantic: Colum McCann (loved Let the Great World Spin, so this s/b a winner too)
  • The Round House: Louise Erdrich (heard such great things about it)
  • The Yellow Birds: Kevin Powers (ditto)
  • The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious, by Avivah Zornberg (What?  You never read any of Zornberg’s books?  She’s at the intersection of religion, psychology, philosophy, anthropology, literature — with a heapin’ helpin’ of her unique “special sauce.”)
  • The I.L. Peretz Reader (keepin’ it real)
What’s on your list?  Let’s share book reports later this summer…