I identify myself as a woman, mom, stepmom, daughter, sister, friend, aunt, cousin, adopted aunt… My family is really important to me. I feel profoundly connected to both my blood connections as well as to those I’ve inherited through marriage, compatibility, history, serendipity, and love. I’m very happily married (not embarrassed to say that it took two tries). I’ve got two older stepdaughters and three young sons who are very close in age. We were very blessed in the fertility department. I gave birth to our third son one month before our 4th anniversary, soon after my eldest turned three.
I’m also a writer, editor, memoirist, public speaker, historian, peace activist, optimist, and a health activist. I also love to laugh heartily and turn bad into good and am someone who is impassioned about empowering others. I have a B.Sc.in Journalism from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, and an M.A. in German history from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Another defining element is that I was born in California, grew up in Michigan and then moved to Jerusalem right after I graduated from college. I was born to one land and moved to another. Thus I write in English, my mother-tongue. Despite the fact that I’ve lived in a Hebrew-speaking country for my entire adult life.
Religiously, I’m a funky admixture between modern orthodoxy and very liberal and tolerant tendencies. I hail from a very open-minded family that believes in “live and let live”. And I don’t believe that I have the right or obligation to tell anyone else how to live his/her/their life. I cherish Judaism and approach other religions and faiths with great respect and curiosity.
And finally, I’m also a breast cancer survivor, which is a huge part of who I am. I discovered that I had breast cancer more than seven years ago while I was still nursing my baby, who was the youngest of three sons under five, so it was really intense. I felt some strange sensation in my body, not a palpable lump, but more of a hunch, and I scheduled an appointment with a breast surgeon based on that instinct. Incredibly, my doctor managed to isolate the tumor amidst the mother’s milk. Blessedly, I did not need chemotherapy—but still, I had never imagined myself getting cancer. It terrified me. Would I live to rear my children? I was an extremely healthy person, and prior to my diagnosis, my eyes were only on persuading my spouse to have another child.
Thankfully, I was keenly aware that young women could get breast cancer. I had lost two friends to the disease, one very close one, my beloved Shaindy Rudoff z”l – Shout-out to you, Shaindy, in heaven, for reminding me of the incidence of breast cancer in young women and saving my life!
In the aftermath, while waiting to hear if I needed chemotherapy, I joined a few breast cancer support groups. I was lonely as a breast cancer survivor and sought a friend who could help me understand and make sense of what I was going through. I joined the Cope Forum, an Israeli-Palestinian breast cancer support group, which was an incredibly eye-opening experience. There I met Ibtisam, a devout Muslim Palestinian woman from Abu Dis, which is on the other side of the Separation Barrier. She became my friend, my “person”. She’s now like family. In fact, there is an incredible connection between our entire families.
My perspective changed while I was away from Israel. The way I see it, cancer is a real enemy and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is human-made. If you think about it, what are we actually fighting about?
In 2014, after Operation Protective Edge, the 50-day conflict between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, I decided to start public speaking to share the story of my friendship with Ibtisam. There was so much racism and hatred in the air. It felt imperative to show another side to the way Israelis and Palestinians can relate. I mean, how can listeners hate two women who got breast cancer when they were nursing and now enjoy a real, deep, intimate connection?
The public speaking blended well with what I’d already started doing, which was writing about our friendship. The first article I penned was “Brought Together by Cancer” for Tablet magazine. It captured a slice of our experience in Bosnia and won First Place for Excellence in Jewish Journalism from the American Jewish Press Association (AJPA). I published a piece about my friendship with Ibtisam in the Atlantic. People started contacting me about covering our story.
In 2014 the BBC did a television piece on us that was translated into Spanish, Portuguese, Persian, and Arabic. We were also interviewed by BBC Radio. I felt like it was imperative to tell our story. After that, we were interviewed by Alhurra TV, which is a US government-funded station in Arabic that offers a modern alternative to Al Jazeera. Our story appeared in several other publications, including Brigitte Woman in German. You can find all the media coverage on my website.
I’ve continued with the public speaking, which I really love. I impart a message that’s heavy on hope and embracing other, rather than on politics or cancer. My talks have been sponsored by Jewish, Christian and Muslim organizations. I’ve addressed at least 60 diverse audiences, including synagogues, mosques, churches, high schools, Jewish day schools, health organizations, universities, interfaith groups, Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure (which sponsored the Cope Forum and the trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina), Hadassah, Federation, the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, business breast clubs, Israel Bonds, senior citizen homes, etc…
When I can, I bring Ibtisam. In December 2015, Ibtisam and I presented together at the US State Department. As a result, I’ve become both a peace activist and a health activist. I feel a need to open people up to both. On the health front, I initiated a meeting at the Israeli Knesset (parliament) to discuss cardiovascular wellness in women.
About my day
Lately, I’ve been waking up at about 5 or 5:30 am due to hot flushes and my husband’s snoring. I rouse myself out of bed and head to the pool where I swim about 2 kilometers. If I’m lucky, I get to watch the sunrise. When I’m done, I text my husband to see if anything is missing for my kids’ lunches, and in the car, on the way home I listen to the news roundup or Harry Potter audiobooks.
Right now I’m reaching the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and it can be difficult to get out of the car, even though I know what’s going to happen! Once my boys head out the door for school, I make breakfast. I’m a creature of habit: my standard fare is either plain unsweetened yogurt with cut Granny Smith apples and walnuts or a vegetable omelet, cooked with green onion and herbs grown in my garden, spread on low-salt rice cakes atop the most delicious thick tahini.
Then I pack my bag and go to the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute where I’m a library fellow— a glorious place to think and create. There I work my writing: revising my memoir; doing the editing that pays bills, which includes academic editing and consulting for clients who are applying to college and graduate school and need help with their essays; and crafting other pieces on subjects that interest me for publications such as the Atlantic, Washington Post, WomansDay.com, House Beautiful, TriQuarterly, Tablet, USA Today, the Forward, Education Week, and more. Because I’m intrigued by so many things, it can tricky to discipline myself to stay focused on my memoir.
I try to go there every day to write and only occasionally work from home. On Wednesday mornings I attend a yoga class for breast cancer survivors that is also taught by one. You can’t imagine how helpful this is! Shira, our instructor, tailors our class to our particular health needs (bone density loss due to the banishment of estrogen, and post-surgical issues, including lymph node loss, etc…). It’s an exercise and support group, all in one. On some mornings, I also go for a walk with my husband.
My most exciting new project/adventure is participating in a 16-month long course sponsored by Neve Shalom’s School for Peace, called “Transforming Fear, Fighting Incitement and Building Support for Peace”. We’re a group of Israeli and Palestinian mental health professionals, community organizers and others learning how to facilitate Israeli and Palestinian dialogue groups. I recently came back from a five-day workshop in Aqaba, which was incredible. I’m really excited and inspired. There is much to learn, share—and do! It’s one more facet or layer of my story. Who could have dreamed that this would all come from cancer?!
Oh, one last thing. I was awarded a Fiction/Creative Nonfiction writing mentorship from the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) for Spring 2018. It’s quite competitive—only 1 in 10 get it so I’m especially thrilled. My mentor is Amy Gottlieb, who authored The Beautiful Possible, a gorgeous book. I feel so fortunate!
My children come home from school after lunch, so on some days I stay at the library to write but many days I’m home. Then it’s time to serve as a bit of a police officer, encouraging them to do their homework and read books rather than watch movies on screens (at least those movies are in English!).
Frankly, my kids do spend much of their afternoons doing good things: piano lessons, practicing guitar, football, basketball, youth movements, hanging out with their friends. Some afternoons we go to different events. My mother-in-law invites us to concerts. Sometimes we attend activities sponsored by Kids for Peace, a fabulous peace movement that brings together Jewish, Christian and Muslim children and teens from across Jerusalem.
Evening & night
In the evenings, I spend time with my children and my husband and sometimes go to a lecture or a writer’s workshop. My youngest, in particular, loves to read with me.
I’m a night owl so my tendency is to continue working at night but I recently read a few studies about how important adequate sleep is for your health so I try to get to bed by about 11 pm, though once a week or so I stay up until later. Then I ask myself, how can I justify staying up too late when I’ve already had cancer, right?
Additional thoughts & challengesWhat would I change about my day?I absolutely don’t use my time as efficiently as I could. I’m great at connecting with people, and I spend far too much time doing that! It would very beneficial if I could improve my time management skills to get out the door quicker and stay in my lane, as they say.
Learning to empower myself as much as I empower others
I am passionate about empowering others and reminding them that excellence can be the enemy of the good. Yet it’s harder for me to take my own advice. I wish I would listen more to that mantra and learn to surrender to things even when they’re not perfect. Just as I have complete faith in my spouse, children, stepdaughters, siblings, relatives, and friends and hold a mirror up for them, my wish for myself is to be able to do that for me – to empower myself and not only others and to trust the process. I want to live in that confidence.
My memoir as a journey
I’m working on the second draft of my memoir. I want it to tell the right story, for it to be excellent and to feel proud of the outcome. Here, too, I had to work hard to really believe in the shitty first draft, because if I had been overly daunted by the shitty first draft, there would never have been a draft at all. If I hadn’t created it, it would not exist. My memoir has taken me a long time to write. It’s been a psychological journey that I need to complete for many reasons. I think it’s a story that needs to be told, and that it can buoy both Ibtisam and me. It’s a real story, a story of true friendship, the real deal. And so I want to just tell it and not fear so much that I won’t tell it well enough.
On being kind
I think I can be harsh sometimes, with myself as well as with others around me. I want to remind myself in real time how important kindness is and how vital it is to be kind to ourselves. And especially to our kids! My husband is a professor at Tel Aviv University and we spent last year on a sabbatical in Ann Arbor, Michigan. While I love the passion of Israel, it is also a place fraught with aggression. Michigan has more tenderness and kindness, and I’d like to feel more of that in Israel, and contribute to that as well.
On being relentlessly optimistic
An ex-boyfriend used to call me “relentlessly optimistic”. He spoke truth. I’m almost always happy and optimistic; I’m hardly ever depressed. While I have been through rough times, I remain sunny. I am by nature quite fearless and usually turn bad things into something positive. My ticket to ride the hard and deal with the difficult is to feel what I feel – and use humor. So far, it seems to work well.
When I reflect on my One Day I say, “wow!” I am sooo soo grateful to be alive! It’s such a gift that we take for granted. Cancer taught me nobody promises you anything. I intend to make the very most I can of every single day. Shouldn’t we all? Keep in touch, and please let me know how you’re doing the same. Thank you for taking the time to read! I’m delighted – and honored!