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.
Last season, “The Real Housewives of New York City” started to fall apart. Like many reality show participants, the Housewives were all too aware of their own roles and too obsessed with promoting their products and businesses. So Bravo, the network that airs all of the “Housewives” shows, fired half the cast and brought in three new women, one of whom was Aviva Drescher. Drescher, who is Jewish, was considered the replacement for fired housewife Jill Zarin, best known for sparring with more successful ex-castmate Bethenny Frankel. Both Aviva and Jill (who reportedly know each other and hang out in real life) are terrible, stereotypical examples of Jewish women, albeit in quite different ways. Together, they exemplify every bad cliché that exists about Jewish women on television.
Some of the things that made Jill a compelling person to watch on television were the same things that made her a terrible person to watch on television. She self-identified as a “yenta,” and during the first season of the show she was shown trying to matchmake on multiple levels (she introduced a cast member with young children to a friend who did admissions for a prestigious Manhattan preschool). But as we learned more about Jill and the show brightened her star, her negative qualities came more sharply into view. She was nosy, bossy and loud. She inserted herself into every possible storyline, including ones that had nothing to do with her. She lectured others about how to dress for a wedding, how to express sympathy, and how to have a fight. In one particularly cringe-worthy moment, she saved an angry voicemail message from Frankel and played it for anyone and everyone who would listen. Sometimes, watching Jill was like watching a cartoon character come to life.