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 tag “San Francisco Hillel Foundation”

Happy New Year Everyone

Last night and today, Jews all over the world come together to welcome in our new year – Rosh Hashanah. People seem to dig out all kinds of ritual and traditions. It is both a time of introspection (the 10 days leading up to the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur) and a tine of hope.

We need both.

Five  years ago, we began a new tradition (can a tradition be new?) that has become a part of the SF Hillel Jewish Student Center year. We meet for a festive dinner and then many students take advantage of the generosity of local synagogues who have offered students free tickets for services. Others stay at the Hillel House for an alternative ceremony one that focuses on goals and aspirations for the new year.

By nature, I am an introspective person all year round.  So I think this is why I am drawn towards the need to set new goals, dream new dreams, hope for a better future for all.

Like Michelle Citrin, I love Rosh Hashanah

Wishing all my Jewish friends a Shana Tova (a good year), and to everyone a year of health, happiness and peace.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist 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/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

 

Guest Blogger – Suzie Thornton

Suzie Thornton is the female protagonist in The Accidental Activist. Being a fictional character has never stopped her expressing her own opinion.

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I couldn’t help myself. I couldn’t stand by and watch big business trample over individuals, communities, and villagers. Someone had to stand up to the multinational corporations and who better than me? Well many people actually, who are smarter, more articulate and strategic. But back then I was a young, single woman, with no assets that anyone could threaten to take from me. I was working part-time in a bookstore. And maybe, just maybe, I was looking for a fight.

Or so I thought.

Helen Steel – the real heroine

No one suspected that the Oilspill court case would become the longest in British history. No one imagined that I would be denied legal aid and forced to defend myself against the most accomplished lawyer in British libel history. It took a huge chunk of my life away from me, something I will never get back. But I had to do it. I simply wouldn’t be me if I had ignored or buckled to the threat. And I got to know Matt in a way that I doubt would have happened.

It’s funny but one of my friends who read The Accidental Activist claimed that it is a romance novel. Of course it isn’t (and don’t tell the author – he might try and sell more books this way). The Accidental Activist is a courtroom drama wherein a multinational corporation tries to crush a tribe in South America and anyone who tries to stop them, or highlight their injustices.

I studied Political Science at London University, but I never learned as much as I did taking on the big guys. You can never understand how the legal system helps the multinationals until you are on the inside. And then it is simply frightening.

I’m glad that The Accidental Activist focuses on Matt. He was an unsung hero, a man who not only changed the outcome of our court case, but changed the face of political advocacy. I’m glad Alon Shalev was able to get inside of Matt’s head and show his transformation from a self-absorbed yuppie to a man who was ready to harness his talents to fight social justice.

But the sex! Did you guys have to get so explicit about it? You know my mother will read the book, right?

This blog post is dedicated to Helen Steel – the real heroine in the real McDonald’ Libel case upon which The Accidental Activist is based.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist 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 and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

 

Convention Season – The Mirror Never Lies

I have already admitted to being a recovering addict of West Wing. One of the side effects of this unfortunate illness is a consistent belief that our political leaders are intelligent and always strive to tell the truth as they see it. Congressman Todd Akin managed to dispel the first and promote the second with disturbing ease last week.

I’m watching snippets of the Republican Convention and I am struck by the desire to sell an illusion that is flawed at its base. I have lived in the US for seven years now and in that short time have come to love the country and absorb a deep respect for the values and decency that most of us share. I am excited by the freedom, the democracy, the ability to make change. But I am under no illusion that America is perfect, that it is No. 1 in the world (basketball aside), or that it is God’s own country.

Do the Republicans really believe that they are serving in the best interest of the nation by perpetuating the illusion that we are No. 1? And by the way, I have heard the same mantras from the other side. On NPR this morning, a panel analysed how Governor Romney distorted truths in his speech last night.

It’s so depressing. The best thing any leader can do is grab our nation by the shoulders and force us to take a good hard look in the mirror. Unfortunately, winning votes by inflating delusional egos is more of a priority. 

The hype – over the top.

Jeff Daniels and Aaron Sorkin did exactly this in this scene from The Newsroom. Apparently, honesty does not rock the ratings. (Warning: There is explicit language in the clip).

America can be great – if indeed that is our goal. But first, we must take a good hard look in the mirror and understand who is looking back at us and how we got to be where we are. The fatal flaw of our democracy is that it is built on blaming others, not admitting what needs to be fixed.

One convention down, one to go. I will wait for a moment of honesty. To quote one of the special guests at the convention: Go on – make my day.

“He’s not there, Clint. You know that, right?”

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist 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/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

A Space Of My Own

I pride myself in telling people I can write anywhere, anytime, anyplace. I write on the BART train, the bus, the airplane, the car (just checking if you are reading!). I can write early in the morning, late at night, and during my lunch break.

My desk at home is in the kitchen. I can swivel my chair and be sitting at the dinner table for a family meal. Usually I can cut myself off from whatever drama is unfolding around me.

This morning, after we dropped my youngest at camp near the Cal campus, my oldest (13) said he wanted to study at Cal. A half hour later we are sitting in a coffee shop at a big table. I am writing this post, my son is reading, and three Cal students are sitting discussing a paper and how to present themselves.

These students are articulate, enthusiastic and, well cool. I notice my son glancing over and wonder what he is thinking. Moreover, I am having trouble concentrating myself (I wasn’t planning on writing a post).

Recently, this has happened a lot, that I am having a harder time focusing. I wear headphones more often and allow the music to isolate me. But at home, in particular, I am more aware that I have a family around me, deprived of their father for long hours because of a demanding job.

I fantasize about owning a house and having my own office with big windows and a comfortable space. I can tell you what desk, chair, speakers, bookcases and filing cabinets I want. The door is closed and I am writing novels at a furious pace.

Stephen King, in his stunning book On Writing described his big, beautiful desk in his office. With the door closed he almost killed himself on drugs and alcohol. His wife kicked him out of the house until he cleaned up his act. She saved his life. He ditched the big, arrogent desk and replaced it with something more modest.

“It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.” 

― Stephen KingOn Writing

Thankfully, I have never experienced the lows that Stephen King had to endure as a child and young man. But I also have a lot to lose. I am keenly aware that now is not the time to hide away in an office. True, every minute is precious to advance my writing career and my books, but a window is closing. My sons want to spend time with me, but already their heads are being turned by socializing, screens, and the fairer sex. It is just a matter of time.

So I will crave my sacred writing space with the big windows, desk and bookcases. But I will adjust my vision … and leave the door open.

Me and my boys writing a novel … really!

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist 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/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

Tomorrow – My Son The Man

They grow up so fast!  Why I remember when…

Tomorrow morning, my son will stand before our family, friends, and the Jewish community. He will fulfill a 700-year-old rite of passage, as he declares himself a man in G-d’s eyes and the eyes of the Jewish community. He will take on the responsibility to be counted as one of the 10 adults needed for community prayer, lead prayer and study, and will be accountable for his actions before G-d and the Jewish community. In fact, Ariela and I will actually renounce our responsibility for such actions as part of the ceremony.

Rites-of-passage mean a lot for me and I have enjoyed ceremonies at every junction of my life. Some are fictionalized in A Gardener’s Tale. But as Winston Churchill said after the Battle of Britain: “This is not the end. Neither is it the beginning of the end, but it is the end of the beginning.”

Changing diapers, making egg-in-a-nest and nursing scraped knees are behind us. Discussions on the fairer sex, fashion, image, values, and politics, have replaced them and I have learned to embrace the change. But the responsibilities relinquished are replaced with the responsibilities of cultivating a young man who will be a kind and generous person, an activist, a philanthropist, a world-changer.

I have tried to be a nurturing father, a supportive husband, a fair boss, and an inspiring leader. My son has seen me succeed and fail. He has seen me address crowds as an author, rap my annual speech to students, celebrate my friends and students successes, and cry at their failures and losses.

Tomorrow, I will offer words of wisdom, hugs of love, and nods and thumbs up of support. Tomorrow, I will relinquish my responsibilities as a father, and take up my responsibilities as a friend and companion. In a world where so many young men are denied the positive role model of a father walking alongside them, where masculinity is ensconced in the unforgiving rule of law, the scavenger economy, and the uncompromising street, I have nothing to offer but myself and my example.

I can only hope to be worthy of the task ahead.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist 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/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

New Orleans and San Francisco – Soul Mates

I am currently concluding a week of volunteering in New Orleans with students from our San Francisco Hillel Jewish Student Center. A lot has changed since my first time here in ’06 when we gutted as many houses as we could to allow the residents to received their insurance and begin the long rebuilding process.

In my second and third years, we helped build drywall and roofs for those who could only afford the materials but not the labor. In the last few years we have been helping with sustainability programs such as establishing a community garden in the Lower 9th Ward, the hardest hit area, or helping create a community center. While the work changes, the need of the residents to tell their stories remains. New Orleans, and particularly the low lying parishes, remain a traumatized community.

One surprising aspect is that we keep meeting people living in New Orleans who were linked to the San Francisco Bay Area. I feel there is an indefinable link between two cities that just don’t comply with the American norm.

The piece below is from my next novel, Unwanted Heroes. I wrote it after my first trip here.

Chapter 2: The Fog Rolls In

Yeah, I grew up in London with fog rolling off the Thames, but I do not recall locals stopping to admire it. Other cities share similar traits to San Francisco: Rome has hills, London has immigrants and culture, and Paris the artistic mystique. But San Francisco has all of this and it is not thrown in your face. It just is.

I lean over the rails on the Embarcadero and stare out at the looming Bay Bridge, gray and partially veiled by early morning mist. Next to me stands a metal woman, eighteen feet high, a creation welded from hundreds of recycled pieces of junk. She holds hands with a child about eight feet tall, and together they stare out to sea.

The metal woman lacks the elegance of the Statue of Liberty. That is what makes San Francisco special. It works without pretentiousness. I am told that the metal mother and child stand at the annual Burning Man festival in the Black Rock desert. Fire courses through her body and out of her hand into the child.

We could do with a fire right now. I shiver as I watch wisps of cloud hover above the water. It is very early and I must open the coffee shop. Despite the cold, I love this hour of the day when the city slumbers, but is not asleep. It is simply preparing for the onslaught.  In two hours, tens of thousands of people will spew out of the BART and MUNI public transport tunnels. Others will stubbornly drive in, searching for elusive and pricey parking spaces. The more enlightened drivers have recruited passengers from the casual car pool pickup points scattered around the bay, thereby paying less for the bridge tolls and utilizing the carpool lanes. The passengers, for their part, get a free ride into town.

Walking down Mission Street, I see Clarence, a huge African-American, dressed in a shiny black suit. I cannot tell if he is awake behind those big black sunglasses until he raises his saxophone to salute me. The shiny instrument gleams, even in our fog-filled streets, and Clarence lets rip a short riff to announce: The barista has arrived!

Clarence customarily stakes his position in the early morning. There are more street musicians than ever these days and, with only a limited number of prime spots, Clarence must claim his territory. But at this time of day, he plays only for me and I feel like a king. Clarence knows I do not have spare change to throw in his open sax case—perhaps he would feel insulted if I did.

Later, around 9.30, when the herd is safely corralled into their office cubicles and Clarence’s muscles are aching, he will come and rest in The Daily Grind. When I think Mr. Tzu, the owner, is not looking, I leave a cup of coffee on Clarence’s table. I used to mutter under my breath that some jerk had changed his order after I had already poured his cup and there is no point wasting it. After about the fortieth time, I figured Clarence had picked up on my ruse so I just place the steaming cup on his table without a word.

No thanks, but I know the gesture is appreciated, just as I appreciate Clarence playing for me as I pass him in the early morning. He will sit for an hour or so and then slowly move off. I know little of Clarence, but he is part of my life—another strand that weaves this urban tapestry called San Francisco.

Two weeks ago, a bunch of students entered The Daily Grind, their clothes covered with ‘New Orleans’ insignia. They were excited and boisterous as they passed Clarence at his regular table. From the way Clarence eyed them, I thought that their intrusion annoyed him, but I was wrong.

“Hey! What’s with th’ shirts? What y’all doing with New Orleans?”

A young woman, blond, thin and tanned, excitedly explained how they’d just come back from a week helping to rebuild houses damaged by Hurricane Katrina. “You should’ve seen the damage that hurricane did,” she said.

“Ain’t no hurricane did that, gal,” Clarence replied with a growl. “Weren’t no nat’ral disaster. Don’t let ’em bull ya’. The hurricane would’a done some damage, but if those levees had held, if those bastards had built ’em like they should, well, ain’t no one have died there. My grandma’s house waz swept away. Broke her, it did. Such a proud w’man.”

Clarence rose and moved heavily to the door, but then turned. We all watched. He spoke now in a softer tone. “But I thank y’all for going down there t’help. It’s import’nt y’all show ya’ care, that some’n shows they care.”

We saw his tears as he left, leaving behind a heavy wake of silence. I could not stop myself. I nodded to Tabitha to cover for me and followed him out of the café.

He stood on the corner of Mission and Spear, caressing his saxophone, and let rip the most beautiful, soulful jazz I have ever heard. He was not playing for me that time; he was not even playing for San Francisco. I could almost see his tune rolling out of the bay along with the fog and making its way to the Gulf Coast.

When he finished, I approached, unsure what to say. We stared at each other.

“I’m so sorry,” I said. “I’m so sorry.”

I had spoken with Mr. Tzu, that day. I had an idea and from that week, every Friday at lunchtime, Clarence would play in The Daily Grind to a packed audience. Big jars were scattered around the tables with labels: All Proceeds to New Orleans Relief Projects, and as the music touched our customer’s souls, the jars filled, because San Francisco has a heart, and that heart was bleeding for a sister on the Gulf Coast.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist 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/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

Classless Bureaucrats

I never understood why I saw this sign was on every street corner in the Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans, amidst the devastation and tragedy.

Sign says: We Cut Tall Grass

Don’t these people have enough to contend with without worrying about the state of their lawns? Hear what Mack, the visionary leader of the Lower 9th Ward Village, has to tell you about this:

After all these people have been through, you would think the local government would be happy to cut their grass for them, seeking any way to help them return to their homes.

It defies the imagination how these bureaucrats can have the audacity to actually fine displaced people, their own people, who paid their taxes their whole life under the illusion that their government was there to help them when they needed it.

Mack tracks where his neighbors are settled.The sign hangs on the outside of the community center so that no one will forget.
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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist 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/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

People Making A Difference: Peter Allen

Peter Allen will stand for Attorney General of California on November 2nd. He is the Green Party candidate and, in the interest of disclosure, a friend of mine.

As a college student in London, I crossed the line from the Labor Party to the Green Party. The Ecology Party, as it was known then, was just forming. I was met with derision from my fellow left wing students and smirked at by students who supported the Conservative Party.

In the end, it was all my fault that Labor failed to win a working class constituency back from the Tories (They actually doubled their majority). It had nothing to do with the fact that the Conservatives had bribed the people renting government houses by offering them the chance to buy their houses even though many could not afford the costs. Sounds familiar?

There is a lot that makes sense on Peter’s website. As I made my way through it I couldn’t help feeling that there is little in his agenda that people would disagree with. The main challenge is making the decision to vote outside of Democratic/Republican lines. It is a tough one and I can offer very little.

However, at some point, we need to send a message to the main parties that their complacency is what is breaking the system, and keeping it broken.

More on Peter’s policies in future posts, but for now, might I suggest you check out his blog at http://peterallenforag.blogspot.com/.

Hear Peter on KQED along with all the other candidates except the Republican who declined to be on the broadcast (Kamala Harris gets the first half hour and is also impressive). Whatever his reason, I wish to share my admiration for Michael Krasny as a moderator. I have listened to radio moderators all over the world and Mr. Krasny stands head and shoulder above the rest.

Finally, for those of you wondering if you are brave enough to leave the two party system (and everyone else), enjoy this song from Billy Bragg (the song begins at 1 minute 20 seconds if you want to skip the intro).


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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist 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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