Alternative Student Break: Helping Rich Kids Feel Good About Themselves Since 2007

This is my column for the Daily Northwestern this week.

This week, students from all over Northwestern will be applying for Alternative Student Break, a program that sends students to other parts of the country or the world to do volunteer work for a week. ASB is popular because it’s so hard to find anything negative about it. Traveling! Helping poor people! Making friends! What’s not to like?

I’ll concede that ASB is a great learning experience and a good way to bond with other NU students. It’s important to make yourself aware of the difficulties people and communities face elsewhere in the United States and in the world. However, I’d stop short of viewing ASB as some grand act of charity, which is the way that many students seem to view it.

First of all, as volunteer work goes, it’s not cheap. Domestic ASB trips usually cost at least several hundred dollars while Hillel’s trip to Cuba this spring costs a whopping $2,900. That’s probably twice as much as I’ve ever had in my bank account, and I’m comfortably middle-class.

It seems that many NU students assume that several hundred bucks for a spring break trip is small change. After all, chances are that many of the students who will spend their spring break on ASB in Kansas City or Pittsburgh will have friends vacationing in Paris, Madrid or the Caribbean. But given that you could just as easily volunteer at no cost right here in Chicago (not exactly free of its own problems) or in your hometown, one really has to wonder about the sense of paying to volunteer elsewhere.

More troubling than ASB’s price tag is the implicit assumption it makes about service work: that it’s something wealthy people do for poor people. This assumption may seem like common sense at first; after all, what are poor people supposed to do? Help themselves?

Yes and no. I do believe that those with the resources to help improve their society should do so. Sometimes it’s the richer people who have the time and money to do things like march in protests, call their representatives in Congress, donate to charity and go on ASB trips. But I think that the highest level of helping is to help others help themselves, and sometimes that means making a commitment that lasts much longer than a week. It means becoming a mentor to a child at risk of dropping out of school or volunteering at a job skills training center for unemployed people. It means starting a ripple effect by helping people raise themselves up, so that they will keep rising long after you’re gone.

Although throwing money at problems rarely helps, there are still ways to use money to help people improve their own lives. Microlending, which has really taken off in recent years, involves giving small loans to people in developing countries who want to start their own business and make it out of poverty. Loans can be as small as $25 and Kiva.org, one of the most well-known microlending websites, boasts of about a 99 percent loan repayment rate. It’s like giving to charity, except you get your money back.

But I get it. Giving some money to a stranger across the world doesn’t make nearly as cool of a story as spending a week rehabilitating abused animals. Nobody’s going to gaze at you in adoration because you gave $100 to a man in Tajikistan so he can buy seed and fertilizer for his farm. But that doesn’t mean you won’t have done a really important thing.

If you’re interested, NU even has its own microlending organization. It’s called LEND and it supports Evanston businesses. If I had several extra hundred dollars lying around, I’d invest it in this organization or in a Kiva loan. After all, when you take an ASB trip, a substantial amount of the fee you pay goes towards things like travel, lodging and food. What if you took all that money and invested it directly? Such an investment means that all the money you have to spend goes right to the people who need it most.

Just as ASB neglects the long-term view, it neglects the roots of societal problems, such as discrimination, ignorance and bad government policies. Are ASB programs helpful? Sure, to a certain extent, they are. But they treat the symptoms rather than the disease. The houses you build during your week on ASB may help people, but they do nothing to solve the problems that made those people homeless.

NU is quite an apolitical campus, but it still boggles my mind that many NU students love helping poor people so much but take so little interest in the government policies that keep those people poor. The sorts of changes our society would need to make to end poverty and make ASB trips unnecessary are much more far-reaching — and perhaps less compelling. These changes take years, and they include things like educating yourself and others, talking to members of Congress, starting campaigns and teaching your own children to vote intelligently and with empathy.

This is why I feel that ASB is really more about the students than about the people and communities they’re helping. It’s more about the students’ experience, their desire to learn about others, their need to feel helpful. To put it less charitably, it’s a way for rich kids to feel good about themselves.

I’m not saying people shouldn’t go on ASB trips. Go ahead and go. Have a great time. But always remember that your responsibility to the world doesn’t end after a week of building houses or tutoring kids.

Learning Racism on the NYC Subway

I spent this past week in New York City with my mom and little siblings, who are six and nine years old, respectively. Aside from a few times that they were too young to remember, this was their first time in the city and they had a great time.

On our last day in New York, however, they were confronted with a situation that they would never have encountered back home in Ohio.

We had just gotten on the subway in Queens to go to Manhattan. The train was full, but my  brother and sister found seats next to an older lady. My mom and I, meanwhile, stood facing them.

As my siblings sat down, the older lady mumbled something in their general direction. “I’m watching you,” she growled at them.

None of us paid much attention to this at first. I took out my phone and started reading on it, just as many other commuters on the train were doing.

And then the older lady started saying something that made me consciously notice her race–African American–for the first time.

“Are you takin’ pictures of me? You takin’ pictures of me? I can call the police on you for that. I’ll blow your brains out. Look at your ugly white face.”

I calmly ignored the diatribe, as is the unspoken code of conduct on the New York City subway. It’s impossible to spend even a day in the city without encountering at least one person who is drunk, high, schizophrenic, or otherwise in a state that makes them spew nonsense. The thing to do is to just let it go.

My mom and my siblings took note as the lady kept going.

“You bunch of white trash. I’m watchin’ all of you. You and you and you.” She gestured at my brother and sister.

She kept going in this vein right up until the train reached her station. She stood up and picked up her purse. “Finally I never have to see your ugly white faces again,” she said, and left the train.

I sat down in her seat next to my siblings, glanced out the window, and saw the lady walk off. I turned back around and relaxed. As the train was about to pull out of the station, I heard a thud on the window behind me. My siblings and I, startled, turned around and saw that the lady had come back and hit the window where we were sitting.

This experience made quite an impression on my brother and sister. They talked about it to all the friends and family we saw that day, and they were still talking about it on the plane home the next day. I tried to tell them that some people are strange or disturbed and say weird things, but that these people are not the majority. I’m not sure what they thought about it, but I’m afraid that they’re too young to consciously, coherently think about it at all.

As a young adult who purposefully tries to stay educated about race relations and the history thereof, I can’t say that this experience changed my opinion about anything. I’ve met and been close to enough black people to know that most would never say such things–just as most white people would never say such things to them.

But my siblings have not. In the leafy Ohio suburb where my family lives, diversity is almost nonexistent. We’re one of very few Jewish families here, for instance, and when I Iived here I knew only a handful of black people and no Latino/a people. (Asians are probably the only minority that’s well-represented here.)

This trip to New York was probably my siblings’ first experience with seeing such a tremendous diversity of races and ethnicities (not to mention orientations and gender identifications). The fact that one of their only verbal interactions with a stranger in New York happened this way can’t be a good thing.

Furthermore, unlike my little siblings, I’ve read enough about race relations to understand the circumstances that cause people to develop the views that the lady on the subway had. Perhaps she’s watched friends and family members being unjustly stopped and searched by the police. Perhaps she’s been denied housing or other needs because of her skin color. Perhaps she’s witnessed white people refusing to sit down next to her on the subway at all. Perhaps her calling us “ugly” is a response to a mass media that depicts whiteness as the only variety in which beauty can come.

I know all of this and more, but my siblings don’t, and they’re way too young for me to try to explain it to them. With all the difficulties they face because of learning English as a second language, having a culturally nonconforming family, and, sometimes, even simply being Jewish, the idea that someone might view them the way they view kids who taunt them for their accent or curly hair, is probably a confusing one. They don’t know what it means to be “white” in America. I don’t think they’ll know for a long time.

And that’s the real tragedy. If these two kids develop the unjustified fear of black people that many white people have (even if it’s only subconscious), it won’t be from the surrounding culture, as many would assume. It’ll be from a concrete experience that happened when they visited New York City for the first time and encountered people who don’t look like them. They’ll remember feeling trapped on the subway as a woman they don’t know threatened to “blow their brains out.” They’ll remember being told that their skin color makes them ugly. They’ll remember that the woman was black, because she pointed out that they were not.

And so, racism is perpetuated. Even if my siblings end up forgetting this particular experience, there may be others, and there will be many other kids who encounter a situation like this one. My brother and sister weren’t to blame for this woman’s distress, but to expect her to “rise above” it would be presumptuous. Whatever happened that made her say those things is real.

For once, I have no solution to propose. My purpose in sharing this story was only to illuminate the importance of teaching children how to empathize and how to keep themselves from forming stereotypes–much easier said than done.

They should also be taught more than just that slavery “happened” and is now over (if only race relations were really that simple). The woman on the subway was a racist and she was wrong, but people don’t become racists in a vacuum.

I can only hope that when my siblings are old enough to understand all of this, they will still be open-minded enough to learn it.

I ♥ NY

Consider this a love letter to my favorite city.

Looking down 5th Avenue towards southern tip of Manhattan, from the top of the Empire State Building

New York City was the first bit of America that I ever saw, fourteen years ago when my family immigrated from Israel. I can only imagine how my parents felt. They had escaped from social and religious oppression when they’d left Russia, and now, two casualties of Israel’s faltering economy, they looked to America for help. New York welcomed them with open arms.

And now, it welcomes me. Growing up wedged between four cultures, I never learned to speak the language of just one. I’m always some combination of Russian, Jewish, American, and Israeli. I’ve never felt at home anywhere. Except New York.

I don’t have to identify myself here, perhaps because there are plenty of people here just like me, who grew up in one culture, speaking the language of another, observing the religion of a third, and finally settling into a fourth. Here I don’t have to get into a car and drive far away to find the food I grew up with or a place to practice my religion. I don’t feel awkward when I pick up the phone to talk to my parents and a dozen sets of eyes immediately turn to stare at me. (You’d have to try pretty damn hard to get people to look at you in New York, and speaking Russian–there are 300,000 Russians there–definitely won’t do it.)

I’ve lived in six cities on three continents, and New York is the only one in which I’ve felt comfortable and accepted. I feel like it speaks my language.

Abandoned lot near Rockaway Beach, in Queens

It seems that achieving the American Dream means living in a way that you can forget your fellow dreamers even exist. My parents’ house in Ohio is located in one of the best neighborhoods in town. Backyards sprawl around their houses; often they’re larger than the house itself. They are usually surrounded by a fence,

You don’t really see many people out and about. You don’t have to; you have your own backyard to hide in. My mom and I are instantly recognized by many residents of our neighborhood because we take lots of walks. On the rare occasion that I actually talk to someone, they often point this out.

Interaction with people is minimized in many parts of the U.S., and that’s considered the ideal. There’s no super to pay the rent to, no neighbors to stomp on the ceiling above you, no musicians on the street corners or on the subway cars (since there aren’t any subways), no bus stops full of people, no beggars asking you for change. People move to the suburbs and count their blessings that they no longer have to deal with all these pesky people.

I don’t like it that way. I like it the New York way.

There’s nothing worse for me than silence and aloneness. In New York, you are never alone. Look down the street at night and you see hundreds of glowing windows peering back at you. People sit on porches, stoops, benches, balconies, and railings. They lean on buildings, cars, and fences. They eat, smoke, talk, read, play chess, embrace, make music, or do nothing.

When you’re feeling lonely, which is most of the time for me, there’s nothing more powerful than this reminder that you’re never really alone. Even if it feels that way.

The Manhattan Municipal Building

So yeah, I’ve done all the tourist stuff. I’ve been to the Met, the MoMA, the Lincoln Center, and the Museum of Natural History. I’ve walked all the way through Central Park and been to the Bronx Zoo. I’ve been to the top of the Rockefeller Center, the Empire State Building, and the Twin Towers, when they were still standing. After they weren’t, I went to Ground Zero. I’ve been to Wall Street and seen every inch of Broadway from Battery Park to Columbus Circle. I’ve been in Times Square, Washington Square, Madison Square, Union Square, and probably a lot of other important squares. I’ve been to both the Strand and Macy’s, Columbia and NYU, Chinatown and Greenwich Village, Brighton Beach and the Upper East Side. And I know I’m still not even close to being done.

But my favorite thing to do in New York is just to walk. You can lose yourself in the streets of Manhattan without ever really being lost, because getting lost in Manhattan would require not knowing how to count. It’s easy–the avenues go up and down the length of the island, and the number of the avenue increases as you go from east to west. The streets go perpendicular to the avenues, counting upwards as you go north. Below Houston Street things get a bit tricky, but you still can’t really get lost.

The reason I can’t do this anywhere but New York is because no other city has such a vast amount of walkable territory. In Chicago, you can find the nicest neighborhood you’ve ever seen, but walk a mere ten blocks in any direction and you’ll start to see housing projects.

Anything that chocolate, music, and sex can’t heal, walking can. New Yorkers know this, which might be why they’ve built a city that makes walking so easy.

L'orange Bleue, a French restaurant in SoHo

My parents have a friend who works two blocks away from my aunt’s apartment, where I stayed for the past five weeks. When I told her that I’m planning to become a psychologist, she said, “Come to New York! There’s no better place to be a psychologist.” She said that elsewhere, people still believe that psychotherapy is something for crazy people to do. In New York, however, people understand that it can be a valuable tool for attaining self-knowledge and becoming happier. My impromptu adviser proudly pointed out that she herself has an excellent therapist.

Of course, psychology isn’t the only subject on which New Yorkers, generally speaking, have progressive views. In New York, it’s legal for a woman to go topless in public. Chain restaurants were required to provide calorie counts for all of their menu items even before Obama’s healthcare bill made that mandatory nationwide, and trans fats are illegal in restaurants. Homeless people don’t sleep on the streets anymore now that the city has a network of homeless shelters. Smoking is illegal not only in restaurants and bars, but also in parks, public squares (i.e. Times Square),  sports stadiums, and beaches. Cars are almost entirely unnecessary thanks to the constantly-improving public transit system. Gay marriage is legal.

When I hear about all the things that New York has and Chicago (let alone Dayton, Ohio) do not, I feel like this is a city that takes care of its people. It’s one more reason to feel welcome there.

Underneath a bridge in Central Park

Leaving New York sucked. On my last evening there, after I came down from the Empire State Building, I kept hanging around in Herald Square because I didn’t want to get on the subway and go home. That would put a note of finality into it.

On the plane the next day, I kept thinking about all the people I’d interacted with in New York. Not just my friends and family, but the nameless people–the Russian lady who asked me for help in CVS on my first night there, the stewardess I talked to while I was in line to buy snacks at the airport, the Spanish-speaking woman who offered to take my picture on top of the Empire State Building, the Bukharian Jew working for the Russian car service I used to get to the airport (we talked about family and the places we’ve lived), the giggly 40-year-old woman who approached me in Barnes & Noble in Union Square to ask me for help loading music onto her new laptop, the 16-year-old high school student from Florida who started talking to me about books in the Strand, the U of Iowa student I talked to about football in Washington Square, the street cart owner who chatted me up while making my chicken and rice on my first day out in the city, the gentleman with salt-and-pepper hair wearing a really nice suit who talked to me as we looked at male sex toys in the Museum of Sex.

I was so worried when I first set off for New York that I would be terribly lonely there. Everyone warned me that people are cold, that they ignore you, so I wasn’t at all prepared for the incredible variety of interesting and complex people I would meet there. And, despite having been in New York before, I had no idea of how the loneliness melts away when you find yourself actually walking through those streets.

Now I do, and now, more than anything, I just want to be back in those streets again.

Midtown and the Empire State Building, from the top of the Rockefeller Center

Coming Home

[TMI Warning]

This weekend I went home to Ohio, where my family lives. I hadn’t been home since winter vacation (I spent spring break in New York) so the time seemed ripe for a visit.

The drive was spectacular in that unspectacular way. I took the Megabus, sat on the upper level, and spent whatever time I didn’t spend sleeping looking out the window at the Midwestern landscape. I watched as it changed from the industrial utilitarianism of Chicago and northwestern Indiana to the vast fields, punctuated by lonely farmhouses and islands of fluffy deciduous trees, that I grew up with.

When I got to Ohio, I was stunned by how green it was. Green trees, fields, and shrubs stretched in every direction. I was reminded of how I felt three years ago, when I came home from a summer in Israel–I felt like I’d never seen so much of one color in my life.

Coming home has a certain routine. I greet my family, especially my little brother and sister, whose screams of “Mashaaaaa!” (my Russian name) are always followed very closely by screams of “iPaaaaaaaad!” (my iPad is possibly their favorite thing about me). Then I go through the house and take an inventory of everything that has changed since I was last there. My sister has a new car seat, a much bigger one. There are new drawings and school projects and children’s books lying around. My dad has been cleaning out the little closet under the stairs.

My room, though, is just as I left it, more of a museum than a space where someone actually lives. Every time I’m home, I make changes to it, because that’s the only way I can continue to believe that someone actually inhabits it. Usually I box up some relics of my old life and put them in the closet. This time was no exception.

Yet it’s impossible to avoid the reminders of the fact that I don’t belong here anymore. The first thing my dad said upon seeing me was that my outfit (leggings, boots, and a long, non-revealing top–de rigueur in Chicago) was an “outrage.” He repeated this point several times, saying that just because I could wear something in Chicago doesn’t mean I can wear it in Ohio. Then he said I look like a slut.

This was far from the first time I’ve felt this way here. Come to think of it, I’ve always felt painfully out of place in this little suburb. I was one of very few foreign-born students in my high school, and one of even fewer Jews. I didn’t know anyone else who had ever visited Israel, let alone lived there. I looked different, dressed different, talked and acted different.

I was the subject of much speculation and well-meaning humor. I’ve been called such epithets as “commu-Jew,” “Russian spy,” and “weird Jewish Russian flute player.” I’ve been asked all sorts of naive questions; ranging from the innocent, such as, “Have you ever tried wearing your hair straight?” (Yes, I have. It’s ugly. I am Jewish and my hair is meant to be curly) and “Which church do you go to?” (Um, actually, I don’t go to any church); to the simply ridiculous, such as, “Do they have cars in Israel?” (Yes, Israel has come a long way since biblical times).

(Or, as an addendum–do I like bagels? Do I like vodka? Do I party a lot? How much can I drink? How much can my parents drink? Do my parents belong to the Russian mafia? Are they spies? Political refugees? Do they keep nukes in the basement? Will my dad beat up any guy I bring home? And while we’re at it, why didn’t the Jews accept Jesus Christ as the Messiah?)

I also found myself struggling to explain my developing identity to those around me. Whenever I tried to tell my friends about my life in Israel, I was generally met with blank stares, because many of the people I knew had never even traveled outside of the United States, and some had never even left Ohio or the Midwest. When discussing my travel plans, I usually encountered dumbfounded confusion as to why I would ever want to go to “that place,” since American media tends to portray Israel as a war-torn wasteland. One friend’s mom, a well-meaning woman who treated me like family, asked me to consider not going to Israel anymore because, and I quote, “We want you to be safe with us.”

Everything I’ve mentioned above, I generally took in stride, often even with a laugh. But sometimes the ignorance drifted subtly (or not-so-subtly) into prejudice. A boy in my third-grade class called me a “stupid Jew” (an experience now shared, sadly, by my nine-year-old brother). When a high school friend jokingly insulted me and I got a bit defensive, he smugly suggested that perhaps my defensiveness has to do with my Israeli nationality. Somewhat more disturbingly, a close friend in high school began to tell me once that her mom considers me egotistical–here I wondered, How? She’s hardly even talked to me–but then my friend inserted the explanatory qualifier–because I’m Jewish.

Oh, okay then. Makes perfect sense now.

Whether harmless and funny or crude and prejudiced, the way people interpreted and responded to me when I lived in Ohio could only have told me one thing–you don’t belong here.

Chicago is a different story. People mostly couldn’t care less which country my passport comes from or which type of religious congregation I attend (or, in fact, whether or not I attend one at all, which by the way, I don’t). When I tell friends about my time in Israel, they say “That’s really cool” and tell me about studying in Argentina or traveling through China. Although prejudice of various sorts still exists, even here, I don’t know which is rarer–someone deciding that I’m “egotistical” because of my ethnicity, or feeling like enough of a smart-ass to tell me that their mother thinks so. For the first time in my life, I’ve met people my own age who share  bits and pieces of my culture, and my identity has become even stronger because of it.

And yet…and yet. How I love coming back to Ohio. I miss the greenness and simplicity of it, the friendliness of the people, the lack of noise and traffic. Sometimes I even miss the prevalence of lawn gnomes and pickup trucks. I love escaping the pace of the city, and the police sirens screaming past my window at all hours of day and night. And the girls in heels and sunglasses looking down their noses at me, and the men who try to say things to me on the street.

In Ohio I don’t have to feel bad that my shoes are from eBay and my perfume is from T.J. Maxx–because so is everyone else’s. Even the extra pounds on my body seem to melt away when I’m home, because the “fashionable” waifishness I encounter every two steps at Northwestern is, needless to say, very rare back home.

In Ohio, in other words, I’m a big fish in a small pond.

I used to hate Ohio and especially Beavercreek, the suburb where I lived. They represented everything I hated about the United States–the stifling conservatism, the ethnocentricity, and, on a less serious note, the complete and utter lack of things to do. But over time I’ve grown to appreciate this leafy town. It is, in its own small-minded way, comforting, familiar, and serene.

I’m coming home, I’m coming home
Tell the world I’m coming home
Let the rain wash away
All the pain of yesterday
I know my kingdom awaits
And they’ve forgiven my mistakes
I’m coming home, I’m coming home
Tell the world that I’m coming

Bookman's Heaven

Note: This short piece has the rather unusual (for me, anyways) distinction of having achieved a grade of 100% in my journalism class, which I’m very proud of and happy about, so I hope you enjoy it too. :D

If history were a place, it would be Bookman’s Alley.

A fixture of Evanston, Illinois for the past 31 years, this bookstore is the sort of place a bibliophile can enter in the morning and emerge from in the late afternoon, squinting at the sun, wondering where the hours went.

Walking into Bookman’s Alley reveals a serene white-haired man sitting at a desk cluttered with books. He talks easily and casually with regular patrons, but to a first-time visitor, he says nothing.

The store seems tiny and cramped, and the hardwood floor—creaking quietly with each step—is covered with afghan rugs of varying colors and sizes. Piano jazz flows from somewhere near the ceiling. Artwork covers every inch of wall that a bookshelf hasn’t already appropriated, and prints and posters for sale call for attention from baskets on the floor. Full of mismatched chairs for reading and relaxing, the store smells like dusty paper and rugs that haven’t been aired out in decades.

The bowl of pastel-colored gumdrops near the door is an anachronism. Their rough texture and syrupy taste are a jolt from the present.

Reach the end of the front room and you will find a miracle. The room opens up into another, then another. The rooms overflow with dusty tomes, sometimes autographed, sometimes available nowhere else but this bookstore, hidden in an alley. Each bookshelf has a label, such as “Nautical,” “China,” “Magic,“ “Literary Biography,” or, curiously, “Nostalgia.”

Some books peer out from glass cabinets, and some—such as the $1,400 first edition of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and the Damned—are too precious to be seen and are denoted by a handwritten card instead. Antiques, though not for sale, accompany the books—Civil War uniforms, model ships, a falconer’s costume, and even a 19th-century printing press.

This is a place where history lives and breathes.