Monday, October 20, 2014

Q&A with author Elana Maryles Sztokman

Elana Maryles Sztokman is the author of The War on Women in Israel: A Story of Religious Radicalism and the Women Fighting for Freedom. The former executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, she also has written The Men's Section and co-written Educating in the Divine Image. She lives in Israel.

Q: You write, “The cold, hard reality facing women in Israel today is that while Israel has made certain strides for women’s rights, it has not yet achieved the mission for which it was created.” To what do you ascribe this, and what do you see looking ahead?

A: You can argue that Israel is too busy dealing with matters of so-called "security" and therefore social issues often fall to the wayside.

I think that there are many areas in Israeli society where this thinking is starting to come down, where people are insisting on dealing with societal issues despite the sense of existential urgency that some political leaders often instill.

But this can be an uphill battle -- during the Gaza war, for example, MK Moshe Feiglin was due to introduce a bill regarding sexual harassment, and he stood at the podium and said, "Now is not the time to be talking about things like flowers and sexual assault." Things like that.

I think, though, that there is a deeper problem in Israel which is that there are layers of sexism entrenched in every layer of society. And the fact that army culture dominates so much of Israeli life -- including dominating people's most formative years, dominating people's resumes, dominating the networking and connections made in politics and in business -- I think that all of this makes it very hard to instill gender equality.

The movement for equality comes up against so many entrenched forms of sexism in virtually every area of Israeli life.

Q: What role do you see religion playing in the treatment of women in Israel?

A: Today, religious extremism constitutes one of the most serious threats to women in Israel. Women are literally banned from walking down certain streets, from entering certain clinics and shops and gyms, etc., at certain times, or in certain attire. It has become commonplace to see signs that women are not allowed to stand in certain places, such as in cemeteries.

All of this comes from religious extremism -- but it is enabled and empowered and supported by secular political leaders and businessmen who think that it is in their interest to cave in to demands of religious extremists. This is a huge threat to women that is being supported by mayors and Knesset members and business owners.

Q: How would you describe the situation for women serving in the Israeli military, and what do you feel should be changed?

A: I have a whole chapter on this in my book, and i will try and summarize this for you in a few sentences.

The army is one of the most sexist institutions in Israel, starting from the moment young men and women are called up and sent on different tracks with different resources and options available to them.

The army has made some important changes in the past 15 years, since the Alice Miller case, and has opened up many areas of the army to women.

But the most elite and selective units are still all male. And more importantly, the units that form important jump-starts to careers in politics and hi-tech are almost exclusively male.

So there are layers of male privilege at work here. And the worst part is that generations of young men and women are being inculcated with very gendered views of society.

The pressure to induct haredi men is only making matters worse. Because where haredi men go, women suffer. Women are asked to leave their posts and make themselves invisible, and the army is even planning an all-male training base. This is all very bad for women.

What should be changed? Everything should be open to women, women need to be seen and promoted and advanced, laws need to passed to enforce gender equality in all levels of decision-making, and the army needs to commit to women's well-being and advancement before doing anything with haredi men.

Conscripting haredi men is just not so important. If they don't want to serve in the IDF, do soemthing else. Do national service, volunteer in a hospital. But the IDF should not be throwing women under the bus in order to induct haredi men. That is just all wrong.

Q: Looking back at the mid-20th century in Israel, you write that “the portraits of early pioneering working women obscured more entrenched inequalities and sexism.” In general, what sort of opportunities were women in Israel afforded during that time period?

A: Israel has a very advanced parental leave policy already from the 1950s. And back then, women made up a larger portion of the workplace in Israel than they did in the U.S.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm working on my next book and on some other things which are still in formation. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Elana Sztokman will be participating in the Lessans Family Annual Book Festival at the JCC of Greater Washington, D.C., which runs from November 6-16, 2014.

Oct. 20

Oct. 20, 1854: Poet Arthur Rimbaud born.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Q&A with author Helen Wan

Helen Wan, photo by Anna Campanelli
Helen Wan is the author of the novel The Partner Track, now available in paperback. She worked as a corporate and media lawyer, most recently for Time Inc., and she speaks frequently on women in the workplace. She is based in Brooklyn.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Partner Track and your main character, Ingrid Yung? 

A: I came up with the idea as a young law grad who’d just landed at my first job at a big corporate firm. I might as well have landed on the moon. I simply hadn’t come armed for that rarefied, elite corporate culture with its unique set of unwritten rules.

I wish I’d known then what I know now – that I wasn’t the only one who felt that way, that actually, many of us arrive in corporate America vaguely suspecting that we were out sick the day they passed out the decoder rings.

I went out in search of a realistic book about how a young woman could succeed on the corporate ladder while being true to her “authentic” self. But I couldn’t find any books that spoke to me. I could not find any credible contemporary stories out there about women or minorities (let alone a young woman of color) tackling the crazy dynamics and politics of the corporate ladder.

So, finding none, I decided to write that book myself. It only took me 12 years! Truly, it was a labor of love. I’m so grateful for all the things that have happened since my book’s publication. And believe me, I don’t take a single one of them for granted. I still feel like Cinderella at the ball. 

Q: Diversity in the workplace is a major issue in the book, and you've spent a great deal of time recently speaking at corporations, law firms, universities, and elsewhere about workplace inclusion. What are some of the topics you stress in your talks? 

A: I’m frequently asked what concrete steps we can take to improve the numbers of women and minorities who advance to senior leadership positions. Basically, what can we do to improve their experience such that talented folks will stick around? A few examples of ideas I mention in my talks:

• CLARITY. Employers should clearly articulate policies for flex-time and work-from-home arrangements, maternity/paternity leaves, and criteria for non-traditional “path to partnership” arrangements.

• SPONSORS AND MENTORS.  Substantive trainings should start at very junior levels on how to identify and cultivate real relationships with mentors and sponsors both in and outside the company, and then there needs to be actual access to senior leadership to allow this kind of meaningful relationship-building to happen.

• TONE-SETTING. No progress is made unless the right tone is set at the top. If the C-suite sends a loud message that diversity and inclusion is an actual and important business objective, change will happen.

• MEASUREMENT.  What gets measured gets done. Some companies are smartly tying managers’ compensation to actual metrics on how well they do developing the careers of women and minorities on their team. It’s not rocket science: the people in a position to do something about increasing diversity need to have more skin in the game.

At the same time, it’s very much a two-way street. The onus is not just on the employers. So, in my author talks, I also stress what young lawyers can and should be doing on our own behalf.

We need to take more risks. Raise our hands. If there’s something we want – a promotion, an assignment, an international rotation, a secondment – we need to speak up and ask for it. Bosses aren’t mind readers, after all. Taking control of, and responsibility for, our own career paths is a critically important skill, yet it’s astounding how little this is stressed in school. 

Q: What impact has the book had, and did you expect that when you started out? 

A: Maybe the best way to answer this is to tell you about two moments that have really meant the world to me. One was when a third-year law student – a young African American woman who had just completed her summer associateship at a top national law firm a lot like Parsons Valentine – thanked me for writing The Partner Track, and told me that she only wishes she’d found the book at the beginning of her internship, rather than at the end, because it would have made her feel “so much less alone.”

Well, given the personal reasons I wrote the book in the first place (and the fact that I’m a ridiculous softie – I’ve cried at McDonald’s commercials), my eyes actually filled when she told me this. 

And the second moment that stands out: a group of young women told me that they overhear my characters’ names being used as shorthand around the office (“That guy’s a total Murph”). Which made me burst out laughing. 

But the happiest thing about the book’s reception or “impact” has been the fact that schools and employers are now using it as a springboard for robust, real conversation about issues of diversity and inclusion. That has made the 12 long years of labor worthwhile! 

Q: Did you know the book's ending before you began writing it, or did you change things around as you wrote? 

A: Ha. I definitely did NOT know this novel’s ending as I was writing it! Everything changed around as I wrote and rewrote, then rewrote again.

So many first-time authors – and I am no exception – know exactly what the themes are that we want to write about. I wanted to chronicle the experience of being an outsider in a work context where it’s very, very important to be on the inside. 

But ask that same writer, well, what’s the story, precisely? What happens? That was by far the hardest part to figure out. I went through SO many drafts and redrafts of this manuscript over the course of 12 years.

Finally, one day, years after I’d first started writing it, my scientist husband was reading over a scene, and he pointed at a line of dialogue. “Right here. Seems to me this is what the book’s really about,” he said.

I looked at the page and realized he was right. I completely revamped the plot from there. Just jettisoned about half my draft, which was painful. (It is painful to kill your darlings!) But now I had my plot. The story had been lurking there all along; what I’d needed was to locate that single loose thread. And then I just pulled.

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: I’m at work on my second novel. It’s so much fun inventing a whole new set of characters again! So while the book I’m writing now isn’t a sequel to The Partner Track, I think it’s a deeper dive into familiar themes: women’s complicated relationship with ambition, how race and sex and class and family histories and cultural upbringings affect how we define success for ourselves, and how all of these things affect our pursuit of happiness. 

Also, while there is one character who happens to be a lawyer, the story takes place in a decidedly different setting.

I’m also continuing to speak at companies, schools, and leadership conferences about these themes, and about how we can create more fulfilling, meaningful work lives for ourselves. 

It’s been quite a crazy roller coaster ride of a year (I also have a little toddler at home, so it’s been hard being on the road), but it’s also been an amazing privilege to meet so many enthusiastic readers all over the country, and to wake up each morning and go to work doing something I really, really love. I think that’s one of the greatest privileges of all – to love what you do.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Oct. 19

Oct. 19, 1931: Writer John le Carre born.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Q&A with author Lauren Rubenstein

Lauren Rubenstein is the author of the children's book Visiting Feelings. A licensed clinical psychologist, she is also a yoga and mindfulness teacher. Rubenstein, who is based in Bethesda, Maryland, has traveled frequently to Haiti to work with children there. 

Q: Why did you decide to write Visiting Feelings, and what is the importance of mindfulness for children?

A: The first lines of Visiting Feelings “visited” me while I was in savasana (relaxation) at the end of a yoga class. I was inspired by Rumi’s “Guest House” poem (which I couldn’t convince my editor to include in the book):

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

-- Jelaluddin Rumi, translation by Coleman Barks

Richard Miller’s practice of Integrative Restoration, or iRest, also inspired me. A form of yoga nidra or “yogic sleep,” it is a beautiful guided meditation practice that takes Rumi one step further, asking us to experience feelings with all of our senses, using the non-judgmental observation skills that are at the heart of mindfulness. So we invite a feeling in for a “play date,” in children’s terms.

Finally, learning how to process feelings is a skill I wish I had been taught as a child. Many adults are still working on the ability to experience a feeling, engage with it, explore where it lives in the body -- all while knowing it is there for a visit but will not take up permanent residence.

I hope children learn to appreciate that when strong feelings visit, they are only a part of their experience, not their whole experience. Just like when we tell a child his behavior was “bad” but he is not bad, we can feel sadness but not be defined or consumed by it. This can help us meet any situation or set of feelings with greater equanimity. 

We are always admonishing children, “Calm down!” “Relax!” “Don’t worry!” “Stop being upset!” – but we don’t always give them the tools to process difficult emotions. And, as a culture, we tend to label the positive emotions as Good and the negative emotions as Bad, which makes us a bit phobic about feelings like rage or envy.

But all emotions are passing sensations, and they are all part of the human experience. Just like the old story about going on a bear hunt, we can’t go over them, can’t go under them – we have to go through our emotions. Mindfulness can help children (as well as adults) experience and process emotions rather than suppress or flee from them, which is often ineffective.

Q: What can adults do to help kids learn mindfulness techniques?

A: It is so helpful for parents, teachers, and other adults who work with children to learn mindfulness practices for themselves. If the adults use it as a “technique” it is much less effective than if they embrace it as a practice.

In other words, “Teach what you know.” There are enough different forms and flavors of mindfulness practice that everyone can find one that resonates. Translating adult mindfulness to children’s practices can be a fun exercise in creativity, as the explosion of resources suggests.

Q: How did you first get involved in working with kids in Haiti?

A: Following Haiti’s 2010 earthquake, some of the board members of Go Give Yoga (named YogaKids Bridge of Diamond at that time) travelled to Haiti and set up a yoga program for children at Partners in Development, a non-profit serving people living in extreme poverty.

On their return they sent an e-mail blast with the story of their trip, and asked for yoga teachers who might be interested in volunteering. I was the first to respond! This type of adventure was totally out of character for me, and I had no doubt it would be a one-time thing – but the universe apparently had other plans, as I look forward to my seventh trip….

Q: How was illustrator Shelley Hehenberger selected to work on your book?

A: My publisher, American Psychological Association’s Magination Press, directed me to the websites of a handful of illustrators. The minute I saw Shelley’s work I knew she was The One. The editor contacted her and reported back to me that she was too expensive – which was so disappointing!

Fortunately, Shelley got back to the editor and said she liked the book so much that she was willing to negotiate.

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: Two books are “visiting” me. Visiting Thoughts teaches children how to work with thoughts; Shelley is eagerly anticipating a draft to begin illustrating.  

The second project is a breath and yoga book for children inspired by Pat Gerbarg and Dick Brown’s Breath~Body~Mind work (

Q: Anything else we should know? 

A: There are lots of suggested exercises at the back of the book.  Please also visit the website,, for a blog post on more fun exercises to accompany the book – and I encourage readers to let me know what creative ideas they come up with for visiting emotions.

Finally, readers can exchange ideas and learn new mindfulness activities by following Visiting Feelings on Facebook.

Thank you for Visiting!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with authors Peter Finn and Petra Couvee

Peter Finn, photo by Marc Bryan-Brown
Peter Finn and Petra Couvee are the authors of The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book. Finn is national security editor for The Washington Post. Couvee, a writer and translator, teaches at Saint Petersburg State University.

Q: You describe Doctor Zhivago as "a
Petra Couvee, photo by Huib Kooyker
weapon in the ideological battles between East and West." What are some of the key reasons it came to play that role?

A: The actions of the Soviet authorities played the decisive role. The decision to ban the novel, and the demonization of Boris Pasternak, especially in the ugly period after he won the Nobel Prize in October 1958, was a godsend to Western Cold Warriors.

If the Soviet Union had allowed even a small print run of Doctor Zhivago, it is possible that it would not have attracted the attention it did as a “banned” novel and become an international bestseller. In that case, the CIA would have had no reason to organize a secret printing of a Russian language editon.

Q: What accounts for the continuing interest in Doctor Zhivago?

A: Doctor Zhivago is not a classic page-turner; it’s a poet’s novel, a novel of ideas that, probably, would have had a more select readership if it wasn’t for the Cold War controversy surrounding the novel and the 1965 David Lean movie that brought it to the attention of a worldwide audience.

Pasternak and his novel have proved to be an ongoing inspiration for writers, filmmakers and artists. This interest -- and new generations of readers -- keep the novel alive. We are also pleased to note from the responses we get that people picked up the novel again after reading our book. 

Pasternak’s “single-handed fight,” as he called it, for artistic integrity and freedom of the individual endures. Similar literary controversies occur because of censorship and rigid belief systems. This month, for instance, the Maldivian government announced a new law regulating poetry and literature to protect what it called Islamic codes.

Q: Why did the two of you decide to write this book, and how did you divide up the writing and research?

A: Petra worked on the story in The Netherlands during the late 1990s. Peter published a piece on the Zhivago Affair in The Washington Post in 2007, after which we were introduced to each other. We started to talk, and finally decided to work together in 2010.

We did the research trips together, but mostly communicated by e-mail and Skype, exchanging drafts and ideas, while doing research from our respective locations, Peter in Washington, D.C., and Petra in Saint Petersburg, Russia.

Q: What surprised you most in the course of your work on this book?

A: The role of the CIA had been the subject of speculation and rumor for years. Our research settled what the agency did and did not do, and shed light on its motivation.

The CIA’s principal goal was to get the novel back into the Soviet Union and into the hands of readers there. A limited print-run of the novel was printed in the Netherlands, and distributed from the Vatican pavilion at the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels. We were surprised to find that the CIA published a second print run in 1959, a miniature edition of 9,000 copies.  

But the soul of our book is Pasternak himself – an ever surprising, intriguing character and inexhaustible subject for researchers.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: We are gathering string on a few ideas, but haven’t settled on anything yet.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The Chinese translation of our book is due to appear next month at Peking University Press. And we are very excited about that. A French edition will follow next year. We are still waiting, and hoping, for a Russian edition.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb 

Oct. 18

Oct. 18 (O.S. Oct. 6), 1872: Writer Mikhail Kuzmin born.