Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

Archive for the month “November, 2010”

Help an Author over Thanksgiving

From Thanksgiving through December is a period of great festivities and socializing. We give gifts to our dear ones for whatever holiday(s) we celebrate. We are invited to people’s houses for dinner or a party, and often we go stay with relatives.

Now I admit that I love receiving a good bottle of wine or a special box of chocolates since these are rare purchases in our tight family budget. But I want to suggest that you look at the gift buying as a double opportunity. Provide a nice, meaningful gift, and help support a struggling author.

From this thought came a list of 10 easy ways you can do to help the author. I would like to share 3 of them that would be easy to do during this season of goodwill. Moreover, I firmly believe that what goes around comes around – when we help someone, we are in turn helped by others.

1. Buy your friend’s book, and if you enjoy it, buy it as a gift in the situations mentioned above.

2. Where should you buy the book? There has been a lot of discussion about where to buy books. Your local independent bookstore is probably struggling to survive. If it is important to you that such businesses survive, now is as good a time as any to patronize them. This is also good for the author as the bookstore will often order 2-3 copies.

The same actually goes for both Barnes & Noble and Borders. They are struggling and closing stores. Also when one store orders a specific book, there is a good chance that other branches in the region might buy it as well – you could start a chain reaction (pun intended!).

First choice: the independent bookstore nearest you (that will help your friend get her book into that store on a regular basis). Second choice: a chain bookstore like Borders or Barnes & Noble (if they start selling the book locally, they might buy books for more stores in the chain). Third choice: the author’s website (the author makes the most money when selling direct). Fourth choice: buy direct from the author. Fifth choice: Buy from Amazon.com (preferably from the link on the author’s website).

3. Recommend your friend’s book. If you like the book, recommend it to friends. Blog about it. Tweet a review or mention. Share a note on Facebook. Recommend the book to your book group. Post a review on Amazon.com, and other reader social networks. People do read them before making a purchase.

Word-of-mouth remains the most effective form of marketing. So when you are standing at that family get together by the fireplace with Uncle Moe, swirling your wine glass and trying to think of something you have in common beyond shared genes, how about this for a great conversation starter:

My friend just wrote this great book…” And you never knew that old Uncle Moe’s friend at the golf club has a son who works for Random House and is looking to discover the next John Grisham to impress his boss and save his job.

Happy Thanksgiving,

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

 

Movies That Matter – The Great Debaters

“The Great Debaters,” is a heavily fictionalized but true story of Professor Melvin Tolson, who in 1935-36 coached the debate team from an all-black college in Marshall Texas to a nearly undefeated season that sees the first debate between U.S. students from white and Negro colleges. Their impressive run leads to an invitation to face Harvard University’s national champions.

The movie apparently received a lot of criticism when it came out. There were a lot of big names attached – Denzel Washington directed the movie while Oprah Winfrey was one of the producers. There are apparently many changes (for example the national champions who invited the debate team at Wiley College, was USC and not Harvard).

But I think those critics miss the point – not least that this is a heavily fictionalized account and was never suggested as anything else. The movie has great acting performances, scenes that have you sweating with fear for the characters, or close to tears of joy or sadness.

If that doesn’t cut it for you, this movie highlights both the gross historical racism that this country was founded upon, and the transformative potential of education. It pitches David .v. Goliath, freedom .v. privilege, and inspires the notion of teamwork and perseverance.

For me, beyond the erudite display of the power and artistry of words, the character of the Wiley College team coach stands out. Melvin B. Tolson, the noted poet, social activist and educator, is not necessarily loveable. He is self-righteous, autocratic and fearless, Mr. Washington’s Tolson reminded me of the stern East London schoolteacher played by Sidney Poitier 40 years ago in “To Sir, With Love.” I almost pursued a career as a teacher after watching this movie.

There is a powerful scene where Tolson, driving home from a debate with his students, comes upon a lynching. The imagery of this hideous atrocity sear your mind, and you are sweating when the mob, still riled with blood lust, chase the car. Afterward, Henry’s shame and stifled fury drive him to a self-destructive spree. This is a powerful scene in its own right, and an aspect that Hollywood often ignores.

“The Great Debaters” still sends an important message. In these turbulent times, as our economy makes a seismic shift and people stand shakily on the edge of the chasm or even fall over the edge, we need more than ever and the transformative power of education and words.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

 

 

 

 

 

Local Musician – Joshua Redman

I have always prided myself with enjoying more than one genre of music. It seems a waste. I have my favorite heavy metal groups, punk, soul and R&B. I have flirted with country and now, with my son’s guidance, am learning to enjoy rap. Somehow, until I came to live in Berkeley, jazz just passed me by. So it is fitting that the first jazz artist that I have learned to admire is Berkeley born and bred.

Joshua Redman is both African American and Jewish American. I have no idea how this fusion affected his music, but I am aware that African American Jews have additional obstacles within even the liberal Jewish community. Whether it is only a second glance born out of reflex, it is still one glance too many. Sometimes it is more and I had the misfortune to witness this while working with an African American Jewish student at Hillel (Jewish student center).

According to his biography Redman was exposed to many kinds of music at the Center for World Music in Berkeley, where his mother studied South Indian dance. He graduated from Berkeley High School [1], class of 1986, a path my eldest son will soon take. In 1991, Redman graduated summa cum laude with a degree in Social Studies from Harvard University, a path I would be happy for my son to take.

Redman won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition, also in 1991, and began focusing on his musical career. I am not qualified to judge his music; I can only say that as a consumer, I have become captivated by it. When I return home from work, tired and facing making dinner and helping the kids negotiate their homework, Redman’s sax is often in the background.

Redman was an inaugural member of the Independent Music Awards’ judging panel to support independent artists. [3] Unfortunately, with the decline of session studio work Redman’s contributions are gradually being replaced with computer-based synthesized music. While again claiming no musical talent or judgment, I have to share that I find the rise of computer-based synthesized music to be disturbing. If I can claim to play music because I own a certain computer program, then Houston we have a problem.

My son recently told me that he will soon have a chance to choose a new instrument and can’t decide between the trumpet and the sax. I thought of Joshua Redman and fired up my favorite Redman album, Freedom in the Groove, onto my stereo system. No pressure there, son.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

 

 

 

Books That Matter: The Appeal

Having written a novel about a court case involving multinational corporations as the Goliath to the little guy’s David, there is no way I cannot enjoy this novel. I happen to love John Grisham novels, legal thrillers, and admire his tight writing technique.

I believe The Appeal is important as it focuses on the ability of those with money and power to manipulate the legal and political systems. What gave it particular validity for me was a review by a 30 year litigator.

H. Lehmann has worked… as a plaintiffs’ trial lawyer, having worked in that capacity for well more than three decades. I’ve directly handled or closely supervised more than 1600 civil matters, and have had good outcomes on all but a tiny few, partly because of having a “no asshole rule,” about the clients our office will accept. In the past, I’ve been disappointed and offended by some of John Grisham’s books, as he has often characterized tawdry and wrongful conduct by lawyers, including the plaintiffs bar, as though such conduct were common, when, in my experience, the opposite is true.

No system is perfect, but few that I’ve known from my generation of lawyers chose the law with money as a primary motive, and those that focused on that have not tended towards competency or guts. Consistent with his apparent belief in redemption, Grisham has redeemed himself from the uninformed callousness shown in some other works. This tale of the human spirit, and of evil, is an accurate portrait of very real problems faced by our society, issues and problems that the general public barely even imagines.

The Supreme Court election which is central to this story is reminiscent of what happened in California, in 1986, when the then-governor, Mr. Dukemajian, working with ideas from a major Republican PR firm, and as orchestrated by a campaign professional from San Francisco, at a cost of many millions, convinced the people to refuse re-election to three purportedly “liberal,” Supreme Court Justices, Bird, Reynoso, and Grodin, based on their alleged hostility to the death penalty. In fact, the support for the process came from the insurance industry, which sought, with ultimate success (through Judges with insurance backgrounds) to undue several cases which had been to the benefit of insurance consumers, notably Royal Globe vs. Butte (construing Insurance Code 790.03 (h) in a way that forced fair settlements), Paul vs. State Farm and Davis vs. State Farm, cases which were de-certified for publication (erasing them from the law by fiat of the Chief Justice), where those published appellate decisions had found a fiduciary level of relationship between the carrier and the insured.

These humane cases had cost the insurance industry, by insisting on fairness, and through politics, these cases were undone. The Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court resigned his position, I believe for personal reasons, about six months after an official determination that, no, strictly speaking, he had not violated ethical standards by taking all expenses paid trips from major insurance companies at the same time he was making decisions which happened to be on their behalf.

My familiarity with this comes from deep practice experience in the affected areas, including involvement with two of the major cases which were de-certified by this process. The law was politicized, and still has not reached the impartiality that was present when I was originally in practice, though there have been, in fairness, genuine strides away from the dark. This story, in fiction, illustrates what is at stake when greedy preoccupation with material gain is allowed to have its way with law. Also, the legal analysis and issue handling shows a level of practical depth seldom seen in fiction. For these reasons, I have just purchased an additional copy of this book for our long time exchange student from Germany, as she is entering law school next year, and I do not know of a better tale to warn of the dangers which society faces when the high calling of honorable legal practice is subjugated to the goals of those who hold money as a life goal. This is an important and worthwhile book.

Click here for a review by Thomas M. Loarie on Amazon.com.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

 

 

 

Organizations That Matter: The Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA)

The Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) was founded in 1999 to create “an authentic progressive Jewish presence in the campaigns for social justice in Southern California.” The PJA has a double agenda.  Within the Jewish community (the LA Jewish community is the second biggest in the US) they serve to invigorate and motivate the Jewish social progressives. As a Jewish organization they serve as a vehicle to educate, advocate and organize around a broad array of issues including diversity, equality, justice and peace. In February 2005, the PJA opened a San Francisco Bay Area chapter, which is proving just as impressive.

Why do we need a Jewish progressive organization? Why not just join up with activists of all races, religions, and classes? I believe the answer lies in honoring our own rich heritage of social activism. Jews have been involved in high proportions in the anti-Apartheid movement, the civil rights struggles and the democratic agenda in almost every country where Jews can live freely and openly.

Jewish identity, whether from positive or negative angles, is strong within our psyche. Jewish tradition teaches that we have an obligation to work for Tikkun Olam (fixing the world). As the PJA bumper sticker says: to kvetch (complain) is human, to act…divine.

As a minority, even the tolerant climates of California, Jews gravitate towards Jews. For those of us who do not bond in the prayers, study and rituals of our religion, the drive to fight social injustices can be a rallying cry. The synagogue, the foundation of Jewish fabric for so many generations can be replaced for many by such agencies as the PJA, the American Jewish World Service and Jewish Funds for Social Justice (more on these great organizations another time).

We fight for economic justice by educating Jews about our obligation to stand with the working poor, and then we organize the Jewish community to join in campaigns to improve working conditions and secure a living wage for low-wage workers.  We work to reform the criminal justice system and to promote a more just and humane system of restorative, rather than retributive, justice through a ground-breaking program that trains volunteers to mediate between non-violent juvenile offenders and their victims throughout Los Angeles.  We work to promote understanding and tolerance by facilitating several tracks of Muslim-Jewish dialogue.

Through organizing around the values of tikkun olam, through encounter with Jewish sources and learning, and through strategic social justice work, we work to create a Jewishly-literate membership that examines core Jewish values in a new way, and to “bring back” to Jewish communal life many individuals who would be otherwise disconnected.  Under the rubric “tikkun ha ir, tikkun olam(repair of the city, repair of the world), we also participate in the broader community coalitions working to build a better California (and America) for all of its inhabitants.
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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

 

 

 

People Who Make A Difference: Dana Lyons

We can change the world using literature, movies, art, and music. Dana Lyons is a folk singer who is writing songs that matter, here on the West Coast and all over America. Dana lives up in Washington State and so I claim him for Left Coast Voices.

My family first heard of Dana Lyons when we were still living in Israel. We lived opposite a woman who has a brother who…it doesn’t matter. Deeply involved in creating a sustainable intentional community, we were easy prey for idealistic environmental songs.

But Dana Lyons is much more. A solitary vegan on the kibbutz, I had just lost a vote to build a dairy (I believe the vote was 45 for – 1 against) when my friend tried to cheer me up by playing the classic Cows with Guns. I had lost the vote, but made a new friend.

Dana Lyons became a firm family favorite, so a few months after moving to Berkeley, we were delighted to discover he would be playing in an Unitarian Church near us. When he walked in, we got the chance to introduce ourselves.

“So you’re my Israeli fans,” he quipped, all modesty. “I always wanted to meet you.” He then asked my oldest son (then seven) what his favorite song was. My son didn’t remember the name, but explained a political song about farmers protecting their land.

Dana was surprised at his choice and promised to sing Turn of the Wrench even though he hadn’t performed it for some time. I think he got lost at one point and launched into a great riff. I only hope someone recorded it for him.

Dana’s songs and ballads are political, environmental, tributes to activists he’s met. There are songs that are hilarious, poignant, profound, in-your-face. And Dana puts a lot of effort into writing songs that children can relate to, helping to bring through the next generation of left coast activist.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

 

 

 

 

 

Support Independently Owned Businesses.

I saw the following pitch on the Afikomen Judaica home page the other day.

Think about which three independently owned businesses you’d miss most if they were gone. Stop in & say hello. Pick up a little something that will make someone smile. Your contribution is what keeps those businesses around.

If half of the employed U.S. population spent $50 each month in independently owned businesses, their purchases would generate an estimated $42.6 billion of revenue. For every $100 spent in independently owned businesses, $68 returns to the local economy. Spend it online and nothing comes home.

Pick 3. Spend 50. Save your local economy.

This initiative is being driven by the 3/50 project that was initiated by a blog entry from Cinda Baxter and it is clearly compelling.

Living on a limited budget I often struggle with how to finish the month financially and support local businesses and the philanthropy I believe in. The theme of big business encroachment is an integral theme of my novel, The Accidental Activist and is based on a true story involving McDonald’s.

I want to support local business. My father was a shopkeeper and the bespoke tailor of his community. However I do think that there needs to be something reciprocal, that our ideology should not be taken for granted. The local independently owned business might not be able to compete over price, but I think I would be willing to spend a bit more for similar or better quality/service/experience.

Here’s an example. I enjoy coffee from Peets and (yes) Starbucks. I enjoy the product (choosing exactly what I want), the clean environment (bathrooms), and the ambiance (good music). I seem to always receive cheerful service and, if the coffee doesn’t taste right, quick no-nonsense redress.

I will support a local coffee shop before entering either of the aforementioned chains if they can reach the same standard. I am even willing to pay a bit more, but often there is a problem with the quality of the experience in one of the factors listed above. For the record, I love Java on Ocean in Ingleside (SF) and Local123 in Berkeley.

Nothing can make the experience worse than the consumer feeling that s/he is being taken for granted. I have read a lot of Starbucks literature and am impressed with their customer-driven culture. I need to feel this from the local competition. I have recently had two negative experiences in small bookstores. It is frustrating. I could easily have purchased the books I sought on Amazon quicker, more efficiently, and cheaper, but I chose the local option.

It is not enough to procure my, or anyone else’s, business just because you are small, local and independent. I need to feel the love. When I do, I will come back for more without a second thought. Is there a future for the independently owned business?

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

 

Veteran’s Day 6 – A Bumper Sticker Bears Witness

I’m not sure that I agree with this one. It can sometimes be too simplistic to make such historical comparisons (I appreciate that this is coming from a person who finds profoundness in bumper stickers).

But there is a point that I have been trying to convey in my blog posts this week that is also a clear theme of Unwanted Heroes. You cannot change the past. The treatment of war veterans from previous wars can never be corrected. Organizations like Swords to Plowshares help to remedy the injustice, but the memories remain.

What can be done is to learn from past mistakes. When soldiers return from Iraq and Afghanistan, they must be received with respect regardless of our political views, and they must receive the support and benefits that were so sadly lacking for those who returned before them.

Otherwise a travesty begets a travesty. The worse crime we can commit as a society is to fail to learn from our past and our mistakes.

Never Again is a powerful rallying charge for my people when we talk about the Holocaust. But is a worthy rallying cry for other injustices such as this.
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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

Movies That Matter: The Deer Hunter Veterans Day 5

The Deer Hunter is one of the classics with regard to anti-war movies. But it is far more than just focusing on one guy and his inevitable downfall. It is a story of friendship and loyalty. Even when we don’t see the soldiers we served with for years, there is a link that will never be broken, a comfort that immediately takes hold even before the first bottle cap is released. It is also what makes it so hard when these same friends don’t make it.

The Deer Hunter won several Academy Awards, though to be honest this neither makes it a great movie, not does it denigrate other movies of the time. I was surprised to learn that one of the most memorable aspects of the movie, Russian-roulette gambling games, were not part of the Vietnam war, I learned that Director Michael Cimino used them as a metaphor for the futility of war. The connection between what happened in Vietnam and what happened to their families back in Pennsylvania, gives the movie a needed perspective that is so often ignored.

This might be the age of the Internet when news is old by the end of the day, but The Deer Hunter is 41 years old, and still as relevant as it was then. ——————————————————————————————————-

Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

 

 

Why I Write by Karl Marlantes (Veterans Day 4)

I took the following interview almost verbatim as it is so powerful. The link brings you to the full article.

Why I Write by Karl Marlantes — Publishers Weekly, 1/25/2010

Having read a galley of my novel, Matterhorn, about Marines in Vietnam, a somewhat embarrassed woman came up to me and said, “I didn’t even know you guys slept outside.” She was college educated and had been an active protester against the war. I felt that my novel had built a small bridge.

The chasm that small bridge crossed is still wide and deep in this country. I remember being in uniform in early 1970, delivering a document to the White House, when I was accosted by a group of students waving Vietcong and North Vietnamese flags. They shouted obscenities and jeered at me. I could only stand there stunned, thinking of my dead and maimed friends, wanting desperately to tell these students that my friends and I were just like them: their age, even younger, with the same feelings, yearnings, and passions. Later, I quite fell for a girl who was doing her master’s thesis on D. H. Lawrence. Late one night we were sitting on the stairs to her apartment and I told her that I’d been a Marine in Vietnam. “They’re the worst,” she cried, and ran up the stairs, leaving me standing there in bewilderment.

After the war, I worked as a business consultant to international energy companies to support a family, eventually being blessed with five children. I began writing Matterhorn in 1975 and for more than 30 years, I kept working on my novel in my spare time, unable to get an agent or publisher to even read the manuscript. Certainly, writing the novel was a way of dealing with the wounds of combat, but why would I subject myself to the further wounds all writers receive trying to get published? I think it’s because I’ve wanted to reach out to those people on the other side of the chasm who delivered the wound of misunderstanding. I wanted to be understood.

Writing to be understood is a powerful motivator for anyone. For one who served to defend his/her country, it is so hard to return and be scorned by those you believe you were defending in the field. I experienced this when I would return on leave from my service during the first Intifada in Gaza. This is what brought me to a war veteran writing to be understood in Unwanted Heroes.

I hear you, Karl. I just wish so many others could find such an outlet to heal themselves.
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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

 

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