Live and local from the 37th annual ASJA Writers Conference – greetings from New York!
Today, I swiped tears from the corners of my eyes as I listened to Melissa Fay Greene and Ruth Gruber speak beautifully, eloquently, movingly about how they as journalists, women, Jews, made a difference in the world.
First, Melissa spoke about her journeys in Ethiopia, as a journalist trying to answer the question of who raises, guides, loves, and nurtures the 35 million orphans of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, and as a mother seeking to bring home children to love. Next, Ruth spoke about her journeys to Europe in 1944 to accompany 1,000 Jewish Holocaust refugees to America and later, at the United Nations and in Tel Aviv, to establish the state of Israel.
These speeches, on Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath, were given by two strong, dynamic Jewish women. They represented the best of what people can do: reach out, speak out, try to right the wrongs of the world. And each has made an impact. That’s what I call a Kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of God’s Name, for while they may not appear as religious Jews, both women are proud of their Jewish heritage and both women feel a responsibility to help others.
If only we all felt that way.
I swiped tears from my eyes because of the beauty of what they have done. Of how they live their lives. Of the magnitude of their efforts, not discouraged in any way by just being one mere person in a sea of billions. Of believing that any step they take is a step in the direction of the betterment of our society.
There is a concept in Judaism which goes by the Hebrew phrase bat Melech, daughters of the King. In religious circles, it’s taken to mean that Jewish girls dress with dignity because they are representing the Almighty in all that they do, appearance included. That can mean everything from ironing outfits to covering arousing parts of the body to choosing pleats and fabrics that denote dignity rather than looking like a bum.
It occurs to me as I spend this whirlwind weekend among writers, many of whom spend working hours alone before a computer in quiet home offices, that the image we present speaks volumes about who we are and how we want to be seen. I’ve spend much of my life chafing against the idea of others judging me, of having to appear “put together” to satisfy the opinions of others.
But, it DOES matter. A professional who values her work and worth won’t wear ripped jeans with bra strap peeking out from beneath her T-shirt for a business meeting. She’ll choose black pants and unscuffed heels, a slimming skirt or patterned dress that doesn’t dip too low or scream too loud. There are many ways to show personal style without communicating a lack of self-respect.
When I went freelance ten years ago, I promised myself that I would never spend a workday in pajamas or sweats. I’ve never broken that promise. Ok, if I start work at 5 a.m., there’s a pretty good chance that I’m still in plaid flannel pants but come sunrise at 7 o’clock, I’ll be upstairs, pulling on a coordinated outfit, earrings, makeup and all.
It’s for me, you know. I may dress up more if I’m interviewing sources or conferring with clients, but even on the days when all I do is sip Elite instant coffee with 2% milk swirled in and listen to Joshua Radin as I write, write, write, I write plum-dark eyeliner across my lids and paint my lips pink because I feel better when I’m attractive and stylish. I start to become who I want to become.
We have one chance, one life, to make an imprint on the world. Whether we speak up or speak out, like Melissa Fay Greene or Ruth Gruber, or simply hold ourselves to a certain standard of dignity, it’s all the same thing.
I refuse to believe that my soft, sole voice will fall on deaf ears. I may not command the attention of world leaders – yet – but what I say matters and how I appear does as well. It’s a whole package, you know. Only I can say, upon looking in the mirror, that the person who stares back is someone I am proud not only to know, but to inhabit.
I used to cringe when I heard the phrase that the Jewish people should be “a light unto the nations.” It felt elitist and exlcusive. But in my 30s, that phrase has taken on new meaning. It means that by choosing to live the Jewish life I was handed, I am commanded by my lineage and my illustrious ancestors to behave, speak, write, and dress in ways that improve the world, that show compassion and love, and which convey a great sense of acceptance for all humanity.
Every person has the power within to change the world around us for better or for worse. Thank God every day we have the chance to make a new choice, a right choice, a lasting impression that is one more step in the journey of making this world a place we can call home.