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 “February, 2011”

Remembering Blair Peach

I was fifteen years old when he died. I don’t think I had even met him, but I might have. We had participated in the same demonstrations. We had shared the same political agenda. Yet I took his death hard and it left its mark on me to this day.

Blair Peach and many other Englishmen and women were demonstrating against the unthinkable. Not even four decades had passed before Hitler’s Nazi army were massing on the Normandy shores to invade Britain, not forty years since six million of my people, a third of all the Jews on earth, had been murdered in the Holocaust.

And now the British National Party (might have still been called the National Front) was making alarming gains in local elections. As they marched through immigrant neighborhoods, many of us swelled the ranks of the Anti-Nazi League.

I had been brought up to trust the police. “If you get lost,” my mother drilled into me, “find a policeman. He’ll help you.” The neighborhood bobby was still a British value.

And yet, as I stood in the demonstration, preventing the Nazis from marching, the police charged us. I will never forget the one who punched me in the face. I had learned early to duck and weave. My school wasn’t in the nicest neighborhood and I was Jewish, with friends who were black, Asian and Irish. I just never expected a policeman to pop one at me without cause and then look on with no apology. To this day, I fear the uniform.

But Blair Peach, a man who had dedicated himself to teaching kids in a public school for children with special needs was not so lucky.  On April 2nd, 1979, he was pulled from the demonstration by members of the Metropolitan Police’s Special Patrol Group, and beaten unconscious. He  never woke and died 24 hours later. The  next day, over 10,000 of us took to the streets. Disband the SPG (Special Patrol Group) became our mantra. A huge cover up ensued. SPG members shaved their hair, mustaches and every uniform was laundered the next day before any evidence could be found. Many SPG officers, however, were members of the Nazi Party and used unauthorized weapons such as baseball bats, crowbars, and sledgehammers. No apology was ever given, no one brought to trial for police brutality.


I share this as the police patrol the streets of Cairo. I vividly remember an US army officer, flown in to take charge of the army in New Orleans after Katrina, yelling at his troops to put their weapons down. “We don’t turn them on our own citizens,” he barked.

A police officer, a soldier, like any one else has the right to defend him/herself when their safety is threatened. There is no other justification to use violence on anybody.

Blair Peach should be thinking of retirement right now, at the end of a distinguished career, giving four decades of himself to his students. They were denied him, his family were denied him and the police brutality that killed him is still being denied.

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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 http://www.alonshalev.com

 

My Worlds Collide

So there I was, just after concluding what I hoped was a passionate speech (probably more of a speechella since I was sharing the stage) for literature as a tool for social activism. Some people came up to the panel and shared their view, asked a few questions, and then this tall man leaned in.

“English right? Which team?”

I never batted an eyelid. He nodded approvingly as I espoused  my affinity for Arsenal, the soccer team I have passionately followed since my Uncle George, may he rest in peace, took a wide-eyed six-year-old to his first game in 1970. We won 4-0 and I, totally absorbing everything around me, missed every goal. But undeterred, I followed in the family footsteps (one cousin aside, but we don’t discuss that) and became a Gunner-for-life.

Every day, I drink my morning coffee reading the New York Times and the daily offering of Arseblog. I am often moved to tears of joy or anger, or burst out laughing, and I also think the New York Times is a good read.

But this left me thinking. Why do we, primarily though not exclusively, 21st century men, need to find connections over sports? I wear a Golden State Warriors pin on my jacket, and I admit, the pin serves a purpose as I work the room making contact with donors for my non-profit, or to promote my books.

Then, yesterday morning, as I worked out on the elliptical at the gym, I came across an article in Men’s Health (issue – November 2010) by Lee Child called “Get Your Head in the Game”. He took my thoughts one stage further. Why do we, grown men and women all, insist on wearing our lucky shirts for the game? Why do I get up at 4 or 7 am on a Saturday to watch my team play live in the UK, because if I record the game we might lose?

We all know that, though these players need our support, their winning a game probably depends more on hours of training, planning strategy and individual and team preparation. My old Arsenal shirt (commemorating our last year at Highbury before moving stadium), worn 5,371 miles away (I looked it up) from where the game is taking place, at 4 am in the morning Pacific time, probably does not tip the scales.

The answer lies perhaps in the fact that our lives, particularly in the digital age, are becoming so predictable. Sure, shit happens (nice surprises too), but we generally know how our life is playing out, hour-by-hour, backed up by electronic reminders. We even pay most of our bills automatically and can buy our groceries without leaving home.

What is left is the uncertainty of 90 minutes of soccer, when giants can be humbled. The Warriors (NBA) have just reeled off 7 of 9 victories, including winning against teams that will make the playoffs. My own team Arsenal just beat the team considered by most football fans to be the best in the world, even having to come from behind to win 2-1.

This is what makes our blood pulsate. It connects us to the excitement of the hunt. Even if we are not the one to throw the spear, score the goal, or shoot the game-winning basket, even if our team will not be champions at the end of the game or season, for a few moments we allow ourselves to revel in the world of unpredictability. Perhaps this helps to set us apart from the onslaught of technology. Perhaps it is one the few ways to maintain our humanity in the 21st Century.

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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 http://www.alonshalev.com/

72 Hours

Every year when I am volunteering in New Orleans, I vow to prepare my family for a disaster scenario. Living in California, we are threatened by earthquakes, and now superstorms.

72hours.org is a no nonsense guide to prepare your family in the eventuality of a natural disaster. I don’t really have much to add other than … well, read it now because we might not have the Internet after it happens.

Are you prepared for the big one?

Or for those aliens from outer space?


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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 http://www.alonshalev.com/

 

 

Not My Fault

On Saturday, I made my debut appearance at a Borders bookstore. I was part of a panel of local authors featuring JoAnn Smith Ainsworth, Karin Ireland, and Christine London.

On Monday, Borders filed for bankruptcy. I have been assured that nothing I said on Saturday precipitated the decline of this multinational company despite the content of my books.

Truth is, although I am first and foremost a supporter of the independent bookstores, I have an admiration for Borders and Barnes & Noble. I enjoy spending time in their stores perusing and drinking coffee and writing.

Most importantly however, I feel for the people who work at these stores. Sure, they are there for the money, but they love working around books. They love the excitement of the public when a new Harry Potter comes out. When they hit the job market, they most probably won’t be able to stay in the book industry. Around 200 Borders are slated to close.

This isn’t the time to theorize about the advent of the e-book, or the archaic business principles of the industry. Neither is it the time to explain why, as a not-yet-on-the-A-list of authors, it doesn’t make business sense to expect to sell your book when it sits on a shelf alongside 100,000 other books.

Right now, I am feeling for those who work at Borders, who kept the place clean and orderly, who help you find a book. When Christopher Paolini released the third of his 4-book trilogy, my then 10-year-old stood defiantly at the front of the line in our local Borders, falling asleep on his feet literally as the clock approached midnight. I remember the lady who was working there, encouraging him to stay awake and hang in there. At exactly midnight, she put a copy that she had hidden under the counter into his hand and whispered that he should buy that very copy. It was the only book in the store that Christopher Paolini had personally signed.


Five minutes later, my son was fast asleep in the car clutching his autographed copy by his hero who was barely ten years older than him. Two years later, my son and I wrote a 90,000-word fantasy novel. The seed might not have been sown in Borders that night, but I have no doubt it was well-watered and nurtured.

To that lady and others who may well lose their job – Thank you. I hope you find something fast to help you on your way.

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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 http://www.alonshalev.com/

When Walmart Cares About Our Health More Than The FDA

Last month, Whole Foods suspended their composting program because it was too expensive. Ironically, on the same day, Walmart announced that they were beginning a composting program at most of their stores.


Michael Jacobson’s article in the New York Times caught my eye. The FDA Should Be Bolder Than Walmart tells how Walmart is using its muscle to help accelerate a number of changes including:

– taking concrete steps to reduce their carbon footprint,

– forcing their retailers and distributors to do the same,

– supporting the fight against childhood obesity by insisting on the removal of trans fats from products that they sell. Though this isn’t a stated claim, they are probably helping cut cardiovascular diseases as well.

– insisting that their suppliers across the board cut sodium levels significantly.

Jacobson says that”Wal-Mart’s plan to lower produce prices (modestly) should increase consumption and (modestly) lower the risk of heart disease and generally improve health. All told, Wal-Mart will be saving thousands of lives, something it should be very proud of.”

The First Lady agrees and has openly complimented Walmart. What would be great, as Jacobson says, would be for the First Lady to put her influence behind pushing the FDA to lead the war, instead of following behind everyone … from quite a distance.

Now before anyone wonders whether the author of The Accidental Activist (an anti-multinational corporation novel) is getting soft, let me leave you with 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

My Heart is an Open Book

Staying with the romantic theme for another day, searching on-line for one’s partner is on my mind. No, no, Mrs. Blog knows I am writing this.

I remember the first time I heard from friends who were open about using on-line dating services. Until this point I had  a very negative, stereotypical profile of such people. Watching these two young, successful and charismatic people at their wedding, proudly encourage anyone who was single and seeking a partner to take the path that brought them together.

Now, five years later, as I pack up my papers at the end of a business meeting, three young men share their experiences using different websites. It is a serious conversation and I eavesdrop on them as they talk. All three are socially competent, communicative, nice young men.  All three have the financial means to cruise the bars and clubs, and would probably enjoy themselves whether they met future spouses or not.

They do not see on-line dating as a last resort. On the contrary, they allocate their time and resources in this respect, as they do in the rest of their lives, with efficient and effective strategy. It makes total sense to them, products of the technological age that they are, and they harbor no doubts that they will achieve their goals.

How does one choose which site to use? Well, I know of on-line dating sites that use religious, geographical, sexual preference and other parameters, but I was surprised to discover that you might want to consider a potential partner by the books they read. As an author, this perked my interest.

Alikewise is “a dating site that allows you to find people based on their book tastes.” We often ask a potential partner what books they read, essentially perceiving this as a way of further understanding them. So why not save time and have this discussion on-line? In fact, why not use it as criteria? Alikewise is already spreading its wings to the US, Canada, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, the Netherlands, and Israel.

So next time you sidle up to someone in a bar/party/club and need to yell into their ear: “so watcha reading?” and then strain to hear his/her answer, maybe consider Alikewise instead.

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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 http://www.alonshalev.com/

Valentines Day – Most Romantic Song

It is thirty years since this song came out. Hazel O’Connor was part of the UK Punk music scene. Though I never spiked my hair, I loved the edgy pulse that ran through Punk culture. It was a good time to be growing up in London. Breaking Glass is an absolute classic album, as was the movie.

So, you are wondering, punk music + romantic Valentines Day = ? Just trust me, watch and listen. And if you can do that with someone special next to you, all the better.

And while I’m here, this is dedicated to my special Valentine – 15 years together and it just keeps on getting better.

If you can’t see the video, click here.

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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 http://www.alonshalev.com

Potential Natural Disaster in California

More than a hundred scientists joined their research together to bring us the news that California might be facing the threat of a massive “superstorm” that could destroy one-quarter of the state’s housing. Now I wouldn’t usually pay this much attention, except that when I heard about it, I was in New Orleans helping to rebuild a community center in the Lower Ninth Ward, the parish that had been particularly damaged by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the ineffective levees.

It makes you think.

When we are volunteering on the Gulf, every year someone asks why would these people want to move back after what happened to them might happen again? I reflect on who are we to talk – coming from the land of the earthquake and now the super flood! As the video below show – it has happened before.

A second reason why I feel a need to bring it to your attention are the amazing photos of similar such storms.

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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 http://www.alonshalev.com/

Local Author – Adam Mansbach

Adam Mansbach’s work is not jut a pleasure to read, he is a great author to listen to. Adam is the author of two novels:

Angry Black White Boy is an amazing race ride – in a New York cab. It tells of a white boy who moves to New York and works as a cab driver to support himself through college. He is consumed by the hip hop culture and yet, as white boy, he is straddling two worlds.both of which treats him as an outsider. Consumed by guilt of white privilege, he begins robbing white customers. The authorities and media think the criminal is a black man and…well I’ll leave you hanging there.


The End of the Jews is not your average inter-generational insight into one culture, whether Jewish, Italian etc. What stands out here are the totally believable characters. This is a novel where the characters stay with you long after you’ve finished it. I read this book about a year ago, and there is one scene that has stayed crystal clear in my mind. Imagine a young American connecting with his Eastern European grandfather over spraying graffiti. I’ll leave you there.

If ever you have the opportunity to hear Adam speak, it is worth it. Hip hop oozes from him, so when he addressed the Berkeley Writer’s Group a year ago, as he got excited, he spoke almost in an unconscious rap beat. I wish I had recorded him, not only for this, but for the valuable and honest knowledge he shared with the group. Here is a taste of what I mean.

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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 http://www.alonshalev.com

 

 

Independent Bookstores – Looking for Ways to Survive

Last month, more than 500 independent bookstore owners got together for a conference to discuss creative ways of generating more income. Julie Bosman covered the event in the New York Times.

What was clear was a consensus that just selling books wasn’t going to be enough. Even the giants, Borders and Barnes & Noble are struggling. There were optimistic voices:“We know now that in the world of physical book selling, bigness is no longer viewed as an asset,” said Mitchell Kaplan, owner of Books & Books, which has independent stores in South Florida, Westhampton Beach and the Cayman Islands. “It’s about selection and service and ambiance. Now we’re finding a situation where the marketplace is getting back to reality.”

But there were also calls for changing the rules. “We have to figure out how we stay in the game,” said Beth Puffer, the director of the Bank Street Bookstore in Manhattan. “You have to rethink your whole business model, because the old ways really aren’t going to cut it anymore.”

There was a lot of focus on taking the bookstore to the customer and harnessing websites, social media, and even selling e-books.

Matt Norcross, the owner of McLean & Eakin Booksellers in Petoskey, Mich., led a workshop on creating a store Web site and market both tree and e-books. The chosen host seems to be Google, perhaps seeking a bigger ally to fight Amazon.com. So far, they seem to be struggling to get their names out there on the web.

Naftali Rottenstreich, who is an  owner of Red Fox Books in Glens Falls, N.Y., said it it would be a huge challenge to accustom customers to the idea of buying books online through the independent bookstores.

“The mindset right now is, that’s Amazon or that’s Barnes and Noble.com,” he said. “There’s a transformation that has to take place, and I think it will happen in time.”

The idea is difficult. Their customers are willing to pay more for the privilege of perusing in an intimate environment, with staff that are familiar or them. The online idea loses all of this.

Other ideas include adding wine bars, cafes, and selling other products such as toys, baked goods or gourmet products.

Last October, I heard a lot of fear at the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association conference. While I am sure there was fear aplenty at this conference, there seems to be a strong desire to adapt and survive.

Do we really want our Main Streets devoid of a bookstore? What does this say about our values and what message is it passing on to our children? Or is Main Street even going to be relevant to the next generation’s buying experiences?

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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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