“For me a lot of the skill is not so much in shocking the audience — it’s in building the suspense,” explained Ilise S. Carter, a professional part-time sword swallower in New York who performs under the name “Lady Aye.”
And it’s true. Most of us react with shock and amazement when we see someone sticking a sword down his or her throat. But the spectacular part only takes a couple of seconds. Most of her time on stage, Carter tries to connect with the audience and create the tension that will turn her working act into a memorable experience.
“I’m one of the world’s very few female sword swallowers,” is one of her opening lines. That’s also true. According to Dan Meyer, president of the Sword Swallowers Association International (yeah, that’s an actual organization), this rare and potentially life-threatening practice is still part of a male-dominated business. The SSAI estimates that only 15% of the few dozen professional sword swallowers are women.
What’s more, Lady Aye is a minority within a minority. Based on my research, she is the only female and Jewish sword swallower in the U.S. (But it’s difficult to confirm the exact numbers of such an offbeat occupation.)
St. Patrick’s Day was yesterday, but I feel like it’s been here for weeks. Perhaps because there’s a commercial void between Valentine’s Day and Easter, this Irish Catholic feast day has permeated America so thoroughly that you’d think it was a national holiday. The muffins and bagels at the supermarket have been dyed green since early March, and the seasonal aisle overflowed with green beads. My wall calendar, on which each month is printed in a different, seemingly random, color, March is a cheery green. Amazon.com decorated their homepage with a shamrock; click on it and you’re taken to a page full of Irish-themed products. There are shamrocks on the streets of my city, too — they’re stenciled there to mark the parade route, but the paint is permanent so they remain there all year — to no one’s objections. And everywhere, I keep noticing the catch-phrase, “Everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day!”
What amazes me, as a member of another minority group familiar with historical marginalization, is how strange and wonderful it is that everyone wants to be Irish. The Irish and the Jews have both “made it” in America. A Jewish or Irish individual can now achieve virtually anything anyone else can. But what the painted shamrocks on the streets remind me is that personal equality does not always extend to the group. Imagine a holiday in which all Americans were repeatedly told that on that day, they were Jewish too. I don’t think very many would be thrilled about it.
In the Far Rockaways, there is no Red Cross relief, no FEMA, no National Guard shuttling in supplies for the elderly Polish and Russian Jews living in high rises without power or heat. There is no relief for the poor black and Latino families living in low-income housing. The lights haven’t come on, and for many the water hasn’t started to flow. There is no heat, and basic necessities like water and food are scarce. Life may be starting to look a bit like normal in parts of Manhattan, but here in the marginal communities of the Far Rockaways, there are only volunteers, mainly coordinated by Occupy Hurricane Sandy Relief. On Monday morning, when many people headed back to work, I decided to go back to Far Rockaway. We rented a van, donated by a wonderful rabbi’s grassroots fundraising, and picked up volunteers, both strangers and friends. Our motley crew drove to the Occupy Hub in Sunset Park to collect more supplies and make our way to Far Rockaway.
The stark contrast of the normalcy of Brooklyn and the utter devastation of the Rockaways is still shocking. Seagulls hover over the continuously growing trash heap in Riis Beach Parking lot, comprised mostly of soggy debris mucked out of homes flooded by Hurricane Sandy.
In the high 100s it looks like relief is on the way. The streetlights aren’t on yet, but on Monday LIPA trucks lined the streets and stations run by ATT allowed people to charge their phones and connect with loved ones. It looks hopeful, which is a relief to many weary Rockaway Beach residents.
If you, like me, spent any time this weekend in the areas of New York City that were ravaged by Superstorm Sandy, or if you even spent time just reading about these folks’ plight, it may be a difficult and frustrating task to turn your thoughts back to the endless media noise around the election. The disconnect is huge — but at the same time, the need to vote has never been more important.
Here’s my own frustration: I know the weather-battered residents in the most impoverished, neglected parts of The Rockaways, Coney Island and Staten Island, for instance, may languish no matter who is elected. After all, this is a national political climate where no one ever mentions the word “poor;” instead, the rhetoric focuses on the catch-all middle class. Meanwhile, one side is viciously attacking the other with a coded racial dog whistle for supporting government “handouts” — you know, those relief and assistance programs that save people’s lives and keep them from going hungry. And that’s all on top of a local political environment where our Mayor’s idea of helping lower-income folks is restricting their soda use and frisking their sons.
Meanwhile, it looks like ad hoc community groups in cooperation with Occupy Sandy, may be doing a better job than government or large agencies at getting aid where it’s needed after Sandy — without red tape and with on-the-ground knowledge.
My mom has been a global warming true believer since I can remember. As an avid lover of winter and a careful listener of Al Gore, she thought the evidence was obvious: Our grandparents had snow from Thanksgiving to Passover while we have less and less.
My brother and I used to tease her for being an alarmist, but then the weather began to change — noticeably — over our own lifetimes. And so eventually, as these things often go, it became like mother, like daughter. I morphed into that Debbie Downer at brunch, talking in hectoring tones about how climate change was going to ruin everything, starting with the apple crops and ending with global famine and the zombie apocalypse. Well, maybe not the latter. You see, as a part-time news editor at a progressive website, I’d been posting items about the small, localized side effects of climate change that made me more willing to accept the truth in the bigger changes.
For instance, here in the Northeast we have small-seeming trends that nonetheless show evidence of a major shift: maple syrup shortages, failed apple crops, fir trees dying, covered bridges washing away in storms. Even twentysomething kids who used to seasonal work at ski mountains now have to go to soup kitchens due to warm weather.
In New York City, the evidence has been all too tangible (balmy Halloweens, unbearable Junes). And between hurricanes Katrina and Irene, there were growing reports of the vulnerability of the city to the new superstorms — the Battery, the tunnels, the subway systems, reports that predicted much of Sandy’s damage.
Of all the holidays I’ve never observed, Sukkot has always looked like the most fun. Growing up, I didn’t know anyone who celebrated the autumn festival; my awareness of it came entirely from reading. Sukkot would have seemed exotic if it wasn’t somehow so familiar, a combination of Thanksgiving and being allowed to sleep on the back porch.
Sukkot is known as “the season of our rejoicing,” and though I appreciate the story of the ancient Israelites’ miraculous survival in the desert, what strikes me most is the holiday’s minimalism. Though Jewish law doesn’t forbid you from building an enormous sukkah and filling it with all your belongings, practicality dictates that most sukkahs are small, just a place to eat, (optionally) sleep, hang out surrounded by harvest-themed decorations and, well, rejoice.
So it’s not quite as odd as it sounds that, this year, when I noticed Sukkot was approaching, I thought of my apartment. Sure, it cannot be folded up and stored away, and its roof is neither constructed from natural materials nor partially open to the stars. But my current home in New London, Conn. — and almost every other unit I’ve ever lived in anywhere — is small, basic and, dare I say, sukkah-like. To a lot of people’s consternation, I’m happy with that.
I am hardly the first to make a connection between minimalism, happiness and Sukkot. And I would not be surprised if others had associated this idea with broader debates about American materialism and whether ever-growing McMansions really provide personal fulfillment. (The maximalists seem to be winning at the moment: According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average size of a new single family house went up 88 square feet from 2010 to 2011.)
As a freelancer who works from home, I can claim a portion of my living space as a tax deduction. But last year, when I told my tax preparer my apartment’s size (under 200 square feet), she didn’t believe me. She even went online and pulled up my building’s floor plan from municipal records, triumphantly informing me that in fact my place was over four times as large as I’d said it was. “But that’s the entire floor,” I said. “That includes two other apartments, one twice as large as mine, as well as a hallway and staircase.” She looked skeptical, and grudgingly typed in a number about twice my actual square footage.
It is with an actually, physically aching heart that I report to you the death of an 8-year-old Brooklyn boy, Leiby Kletzky, who disappeared from a short, solo walk yesterday and was later found in a dumpster. Here is the story.
I bring it up because it seems to prove that the incident that kicked off Free-Range Kids — my letting my 9-year-old ride the New York City subway alone — was foolish, or worse. At the time I said that I felt this was a reasonable and safe thing to do, because I believed in my son, my city and my own parenting. Despite the sorrow I feel even in my joints, I still do.
There are horrible people in the world. There always were, always will be. There were horrible people in the world even when we parents were growing up, and our own parents let us play outside and walk to school and visit our friends on our bikes. Our parents weren’t naive. They knew that we live in a fallen world. They also knew that they had a choice: Keep us locked inside for fear of a tragic, rare worst-case-scenario, or teach us the basics — like never go off with a stranger — and then let us out. They let us out.
Bikini clad models were trotted out at New York City’s transportation headquarters this week to protest the Brooklyn Hasidic communities’ protest of their presence in advertisements for Georgi vodka on the sides of buses that pass through neighborhoods heavily populated by the ultra-Orthodox community.
More can be read in this report on the Fox News website under the heading “Pop tarts.”
Of course, why a vodka ad has to feature a woman’s tush touting the name of the liquor eludes me. But then, that’s probably why I don’t drink Georgi. I’m more of an Absolut girl.