Tuesday, December 31, 2019

I Think Everyone Read More Than I Did in 2019

In 2019, I aimed to read a total of 12 books – a modest goal, I thought, after reading seven in 2018 and a mere four in 2017. Although I didn’t hit that target, I enjoyed the books I read and, as difficult as it was, actually stopped reading the ones that weren’t as engaging.

The first one I put down unfinished was “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” by Yuval Noah Harari. Despite its best-seller status, after 115 pages, I’d had enough and moved on to something that better held my attention. “ Morgan: American Financier,” by Jean Strouse, also didn’t do it for me. Although I was interested in the historical facets of the man – his travels, family, and home, located just a few blocks from my own apartment – the financial rigmarole of stocks, bonds, banking, and railroads was more than I could handle after plodding through more than 200 pages.

Having put those two tomes aside, these are the four books I read from cover to cover in 2019.

1. When a beloved high school English teacher died suddenly in February, I purchased a copy of Benjamin Dreyer’s “ Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Gide to Clarity and Style,” in his memory and was immediately smitten with the author’s – a copy editor at Random House -- wit, wisdom, and irreverence around grammar and language. By the end of the month, I was quoting from the book often. Here’s one of my favorites: “One does not...use quotation marks for emphasis. That is why God invented italics.”

2. A random find at Labyrinth Books in Princeton, NJ, where we Hermans are frequent visitors, “Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA,” by Brenda Maddox, captivated me on all fronts. Here’s what I wrote on goodreads.com upon finishing the book in May:
Before finding this book by accident, I had little idea about Rosalind Franklin – who she was, what she accomplished, or how she was robbed of the credit she deserved for her work at the time by the very men, fellow scientists, who benefitted most from it and who went on to win the Nobel Prize, thanks, in large part, to her Photo 51.

An entirely different facet of her life intrigued me, too. Her family's Jewish history and a relative's role in British-ruled Palestine, as well as the possibility that she carried a BRCA mutation, which may have contributed to her death from ovarian cancer at age 38, were fascinating aspects of her life -- especially to a fellow BRCA mutation carrier.
I recently found a second book about her, "My Sister Rosalind Franklin: A Family Memoir," written by her younger sister, Jenifer Glynn, and I look forward to reading that one as well.

3. Turning to something lighter during the fall, I got totally wrapped up in Claire Lombardo’s debut novel, “The Most Fun We Ever Had,” which my sister, a voracious reader, recommended to me. Over the course of only 11 days, I read the entire 532 page book that tells a decades-long tale of the Sorenson family – Marilyn, David, and their four daughters – from the point of view of nearly all the characters. “Real people, real life, and a good read about one family's ups and downs that will take you away from whatever nonsense you're dealing with in your own life,” is how I described it after finishing the book in October.

4. My final book of 2019 also came from a recommendation from my sister, who lent me her inscribed-by-the-author copy after she’d met him at an arts and medicine event at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center: “The End of Your Life Book Club,” by Will Schwalbe. This one, too, I read in short order, finishing it just a few days ago, after which I wrote this “review” on goodreads.com:
Although the book initially seemed a bit slow to me, I grew to love the author and his mother through the course of reading it. From the start, his descriptions of the MSKCC waiting rooms – including the coffee and graham crackers – were oh-so familiar to me, and I came to realize that I'd met his mom’s oncologist, Dr. Eileen O'Reilly, M.D., when she spoke about pancreatic cancer at a NYC FORCE meeting several years ago. For these reasons, as well as having lost my own mom to cancer shortly after the author lost his, I feel a connection to him. Of course, all the "book talk" was wonderful, and I've added several volumes from the book's appendix to my own to-read list.
This year, I purchased more books than I read, and my goal for 2020 is the opposite: to read more books than I purchase.

Happy new year and happy reading, my friends.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

With Hereditary Cancer Syndrome, Every Month Is an Awareness Month

Thank goodness it's November.

It's taken me a long time to realize what a toll October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, takes on me each year, but last week, it hit me. At an awareness event at my synagogue, one of the presenters scribbled the word "metastatic" in all capital letters on the flipchart at the front of the room - M-E-T-A-S-T-A-T-I-C - and I thought I might lose it.

As though a time machine had whisked me away, it was Friday, April 2, 2010, all over again; I was alone with my mom at the hospital. Just outside the room where she'd been since the previous Monday (the night we were to have hosted the first seder of 5770), amidst the constant bustle of the nurses' station, her oncologist offhandedly said to me: "It's everywhere."

It's impossible to believe that fateful day was nearly a decade (a decade?!?) ago, but in the intervening years, I've done everything possible to protect my own health since I learned I carry the same BRCA2 genetic mutation that we now know contributed to my mom's death. In addition to significantly increasing carriers' lifetime risk for breast and ovarian cancer, it also raises my risk of melanoma and pancreatic cancer - and in men, the risk of breast, prostate, melanoma, and pancreatic cancer.

Although I'm glad to have turned the corner from October into November, the latter is Pancreatic Awareness Month, and my vigilance is year-round, so, here are a few statistics about the disease from the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PANCAN):
  • Pancreatic cancer is the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States;
  • One of the deadliest cancers, it has an extremely low survival rate - just 9 percent;
  • This year, an estimated 56,770 Americans will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and 45,750 will die from the disease; and
  • It is estimated that in or around 2020 (just two months away), the disease will rise to be the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths.
Of course, I'm grateful that my family doesn't have a history of pancreatic cancer. At the same time, according to PANCAN, the cause of most pancreatic cancer is unknown, and there are no early detection tests and few effective treatments.

Having said that, with each passing year, I'm increasingly grateful to FORCE: Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered, the grassroots organization that has done so much for me during the last decade. In addition to introducing me to other BRCA+ women whom I could learn from and lean on throughout my journey, FORCE has given me a network of friends who are framily and a platform from which I can spread awareness about hereditary cancer mutations, as well as share my knowledge, gained through experience, to help women who are behind me - as thrivers, survivors, and previvors - on their own hereditary cancer journeys.

Most recently, FORCE helped me uncover this clinical trial for pancreatic surveillance, designed to collect enough data to allow the researcher to obtain funding to conduct a full study that may lead to early detection among individuals at highest risk. Because it's open to individuals with BRCA mutations, but without a family history of pancreatic cancer, it ensures that I can continue to do everything possible to protect my health. For this and so much more, I'm ever-grateful to my FORCE family.

With that in mind, please consider making a donation to FORCE - not only in gratitude for what the organization has done for me, but also to ensure that it can continue to provide much needed support, resources, and advocacy to others affected by hereditary cancer syndrome, and to help me fulfill my annual $250 fundraising goal as a volunteer outreach leader for FORCE in New York City.

With deep thanks and appreciation,
~ Jane.

Friday, August 2, 2019

Why It’s My Business to Comment on the World Around Me

Nearly two weeks ago, somewhat tongue in cheek (but with no malicious intent), I posted this photo that I’d taken during the hottest part of the day, when the heat index in New York City hovered around 110 degrees:

The accompanying text said:
I think God would have forgiven this man if he'd decided to take off his jacket today.
Update: Actually, I think he just should have taken off his jacket. It's not God who commands him to dress as though he's still living in 19th century Poland. Get with the weather, dude.

A flurry of likes, loves, and laughs followed the post, along with comments – some online and others by text.

By text, one friend asked: “Would say the same thing about a Muslim woman in full garb?”

I responded: “I’m not sure. I don’t know enough about the ‘why’ of Muslim dress.”

To which my friend said, “This feels to me a bit like MYOB.”

Is it?

Part of the reason I don’t know much about the "why" of Muslim dress is because I’m not Muslim. I am, however, Jewish and this guy is one of “my people.”

A proponent of talking openly and honestly about what we see, my sister noted, “The ‘why’ of Muslim dress is modesty, which is not the case for this man.”

So why do Hasidic men dress the way they do?

According to seeker.com:
Hasidic Judaism was founded in Eastern Europe, primarily the Poland and Ukraine regions, in the late 18th century. The traditional clothing stems primarily from Polish nobility standards of dress during this time. Contrary to popular assumption, Hasidic garb comes more from historical context rather than specific religious texts like the Torah.
As MyJewishLearning.com notes:
The Torah says little about clothing, either descriptively or prescriptively. Without explanation, it prohibits blending wool and linen in a garment (such garments are known as shatnez), in the same verse forbidding “mixing” different seeds and species of cattle (Leviticus 19:19). It forbids men from wearing women’s clothes and vice versa (Deuteronomy 22:5), without specifying the characteristics of either. It also requires Jews to put fringes on the corners of a four-pointed garment (Numbers 15:37-41), both as a way of identifying the Jew and reminding the Jew to observe the mitzvot commandments].
According to this Aish.com video, there are four reasons religious Jews dress the way they do: 1. It effects the way other people see them; 2. It effects how they perceive themselves; 3. It identifies them as members of a specific group; and 4. It expresses their honor and dignity as humans, distinct from animals.

These explanations are all well and good, but none of them expressly prohibits the man from removing his jacket if he’s bothered by excessive heat and humidity – a likely scenario on the day in question.

Perhaps it’s not for me to suggest that he do so – and, of course, I meant no offense in my observations – but, in these difficult times, it most certainly is my business to observe and reflect upon what I see around me.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

When Someone in the Family is #TragicallyJewish

My sister sometimes texts my dad and me pictures of herself before she heads out to teach The Art of Perception. I’ve started to follow her lead – mostly to connect with them both each morning.

Today, our thread started with this photo:

Daddy: Good morning. Fetching, as usual. Off to minyan? L.D.

Me: Yup. How was the new rabbi?

Daddy: She conducted a lovely, low-key service. She is very effective & I think only good things about her. Have a good day. L.D.

Me: So, I should plan to come for YK?

Daddy: If you wish, but we have time to talk about it. L.D.

Me: Indeed.

My Sister: I just woke up. Why are we talking about Yom Kippur? I am going to have breakfast.


Daddy: I dunno. JEH likes to get her calendar in order early, I suppose. Have a good day & stay cool. L.D.

Me: My temple already sent info re: tix and choosing services. I’d rather fast forward right to Columbus Day. (Yes, I admit this is not a terribly #TragicallyJewish statement, but it is true. I would rather attend services 50 weeks of the year and skip the HHDs entirely. Anyone else?)

Daddy: YK is not until Oct. 9. (I wonder if he knew that off the top of his head or if he had to look it up.) We can talk about it. Not to worry. L.D.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Here's What Makes an Amazing Jewish Leader

This day, as a new crop of Reform Jewish clergy was ordained as rabbis and cantors, seems a most fitting time to publish thoughts about two of my own beloved Jewish teachers and leaders. I was honored to speak about each one recently -- although these words hardly begin to scratch the surface of my admiration, respect, and esteem for them.

On Saturday, April 6, I introduced Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism, who was this year's Diana S. Herman Memorial Scholar-in-Residence at Temple Emanu-El in Edison, NJ. Here's what I said that afternoon:
Rabbi Eric Yoffie’s website describes him as “a bold, inspiring, and passionate speaker on Israel, interfaith dialogue, church-state issues, and American religious life.”
Wikipedia and the URJ’s website can fill you in on his educational background and the worship initiatives, social justice priorities, and other programs he championed during his 16-year tenure as president of the Union for Reform Judaism. 
And that is all useful and important information.  
But, I want to tell you briefly about the Eric Yoffie I know – the one who holds a special place in my heart.  
The one who quietly thinks things through, turning them over and over in his mind, carefully  examining every possible angle. 
The one who states his positions unflinchingly and with bold, concise eloquence – never backing down, no matter how fierce the opposition. 
The one who was never too busy to answer my Jewish questions, teach a bit of Torah, ask after my family, or where I would be for seder. 
The one who, running into my mom in a crowded elevator at her first URJ board meeting, didn’t miss a beat in wishing her a mazel tov on her newly minted graduate degree – and never ignored a chance to thank her and my dad for “sharing Jane with us.” 
The one who cares deeply about his own family, his friends, and, in his role as a Jewish leader, the people who worked with him and for him. 
The Eric Yoffie I know is a mensch– humble, genuine, full of integrity, with a well-calibrated moral compass that always points north. 
I’m incredibly proud and honored to have this Eric Yoffie in my world and to welcome him to Temple Emanu-El as the Diana S. Herman Memorial Scholar-in-Residence.
Earlier today, at a brunch honoring Lafayette College history professor and Hillel advisor Bob Weiner as he prepares to retire at the end of this year after 50 (yes, 50!) years  on the faculty, I had the pleasure of sharing these reminiscences:
I must have met Bob Weiner early in the fall semester in 1981. I lived in Ruef, and was just learning about pub night, “spinning disks,” and the fact that a roasted tomato sprinkled with parmesan breadcrumbs was the only vegetarian option in Marquis. 
Overwhelmed by the newness of it all, I yearned for something familiar, a pacing or rhythm I knew, something that felt a little like home. That yen landed me in Hoag Hall late on a Friday afternoon for Shabbat services. That’s where I first met Bob – 
Bob, who, over time, recognized and nurtured a spark of leadership potential that gave me enough confidence to join the Hillel board and work my way through the ranks, ultimately serving as president and organizing a Passover meal plan in the original Hillel House on McCartney Street.
Bob, who helped me design a Jewish studies minor – an offering that didn’t exist at Lafayette at the time. That cluster of courses led me to the Jewish non-profit sector, where I have spent the majority of my career. (And I’m not the only one. Following the synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh last fall, I reached out to Brian Schreiber, a fellow alum,….you know, that tall, lanky guy with the wide grin? He’s the executive director of Pittsburgh’s JCC and as he wrote to me at the time, “Bob was really the catalyst for my journey into Jewish communal life.”)
Bob, whose family has always been an integral part of his life at Lafayette. I first met Mark, his eldest son, when, as a high school senior, he and one of his classmates became my classmates when they came to campus to study in a first-year Hebrew course taught by Professor Marblestone, z’l. And, Sandy? In my mind’s eye, she’s always there – with a smile, a hug, and a kind word. And if she’s not, no doubt she’s tootling around the Lehigh Valley in her pink Mary Kay Cadillac!
Bob, who, together with Sandy, of course, (and I think I’m remembering this detail correctly) trekked to New Jersey for a sukkah party at my parents’ house, when I was living there following graduation. As Bob told me at the time, but for the fact that the Weiners lived in the Lehigh Valley and the Hermans lived in central New Jersey, he was sure the two couples would have been the best of friends.
Bob, who a few years later (and again with Sandy), attended my wedding and when the marriage dissolved,was still there with comforting words that validated the truly life-changing decision I had made.
Bob, who more recently invited me back to campus to speak at Hillel about working in the Reform Jewish world. Somewhere along the way, though, that plan got nixed in favor of a talk to a wider audience about hereditary cancer genetic mutations and my experience as a BRCA mutation carrier.
Bob, who is humble, genuine, full of integrity, caring, menschlichand what my grandmother would call a gutte neshuma.
Bob, you and Sandy hold a special place in my Lafayette memories and in my heart. As you set off down this new path, my dad, my sister, and I wish you abundant joy, laughter, love, and all good things. Godspeed, my friend.
I am blessed to have these two Jewish leaders in my orbit, and I was grateful for the opportunity to share with others the reasons each one holds a special place in my heart.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

The Seven Books I Read in the Last 12 Months

Last year was hardly my “readingest” year ever and I’m glad to report that I’ve done better in 2018. Having set a modest goal to read six books this year, I surpassed that mark and completed these seven books:
  1. The Weight of Ink, by Rachel Kadish: This is the kind of book you can't stop reading, but you don't want to end. Filled with richly drawn (and flawed) characters, the novel's story lines are heavily built around characters’ encounters with their own flaws. The parallel stories – four centuries apart – were equally compelling, and the mystery of how each would end propelled me through. A fabulous read!
  2. The Marrying of Chani Kaufman, by Eve Harris: To be honest, I was somewhat surprised this book was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize because although I enjoyed it at the time, I’ve not thought about it since turning the last page. Neither the characters nor the story’s details have stayed with me, and, it seems, there was little to ponder or chew on once Chani and her groom (I can’t even remember his name…Ben? Jacob? Shmuel?) were actually married.
  3. How Doctors Think, by Jerome Groopman: I’ve eyeballed Groopman’s books many times, but only read this one after picking it up at the annual Bryn Mawr Wellesley book sale in Princeton. As someone who uses our broken medical system extensively in an attempt to remain healthy despite heavy odds, I appreciated Groopman’s perspectives and insights, culled from both his professional expertise and his own forays into the system as a patient.
  4. Mothering Sunday, by Graham Swift: “You must read this one,” my sister said emphatically, our arms already full of treasures from our afternoon of browsing with our dad at the Bryn Mawr Wellesley book sale. Heeding her advice, I found a real gem: beautifully written, poignant, thought-provoking, and sad, with more than a bit of staying power.
  5. Internal Medicine: A Doctor's Stories, by Terrence Holt: Following in the footsteps of William Carlos Williams, Michael Creighton, Robin Cook, Siddhartha Mukherjee, and other physician-writers, Holt offers a collection of short stories that bring heart and soul to the clinical side of becoming a doctor. The author is a former literature and writing professor, and more than once I had to consult the dictionary to look up words I didn’t know.
  6. Mercies in Disguise: A Story of Hope, a Family's Genetic Destiny, and the Science That Rescued Them, by Gina Kolata: Given my interest in diseases caused by inherited genetic mutations, this book, which details the Baxley family’s experience with Gerstmann–Sträussler–Scheinker syndrome (GSS), caught my eye. The non-fiction account reads like a novel and gives me renewed respect for pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) and the tremendous hope it brings to families whose mutations cause a certain and horrible death. May science continue to search for answers around GSS and other prion diseases, and may the efforts bear fruit quickly – for the Baxleys and other families affected by these genetic mutations.
  7. Bellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem at America's Most Storied Hospital, by David Oshinsky: A soup-to-nuts biography of Bellevue Hospital, this book is more accurately a sociological study of New York City, public health, and a colorful cast of characters including physicians, research scientists, and politicians. The early history of today’s behemoth medical center, in particular, is filled with fascinating stories, including the “invention” of ambulance service, which began with horses and buggies in the streets of 17th century Manhattan. A dense and wonderful read!
I’m currently about 100 pages into Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari. A heavy, slow read (like so many other of my choices) we may be well into 2019 before I finish it. Having said that, I, once again, will aim to read six books in the new year, and hope they prove to be as enjoyable and enlightening as the ones I read in the year now ending.

Friday, November 23, 2018

5 Things I’m Grateful for This Black Friday…and Always

Photo: Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center
These people, places and things (but nothing with a SKU or UPC code) are bringing me joy and gratitude this Black Friday – and all year long.

5. Living and working in New York City

Despite my love-hate relationship with the city – its noise, crowds, transit system, and other offerings, good and not so good – there’s nothing quite like helpful New Yorkers, bodega coffee, or crossing 23rd Street against the light on a holiday morning when New York shows us its quiet side.

4. William, my trainer

From crunches to rowing, lifting to running, boxing to jumping, the two hours I spend under William’s guidance each week make me a partner in caring for my body, building physical and emotional strength, and expanding my world with a small view into the life of an Ecuadorian immigrant family.

3. Health and the insurance to help guard it

A visit to the Evelyn H. Lauder Breast Center at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center right before Thanksgiving each year not only reminds me not to take my health for granted, but also to remember the hundreds of people who, whether they know it or not, play a role in ensuring my inherited genetics don’t determine my destiny.

2. The minyan at Temple Shaaray Tefila

In a large congregation, it’s a blessing to slip into “my pew” on most Saturday mornings and to connect to the people around me, and the prayers, music, and rituals that will unfold in the coming hours. Torah study, too, connects me to my (ancient) people, unchanged by the millennia, but ever-changing because of my own new perspectives, knowledge, and “ah-ha” moments.

1. Family and friends

More than an individual's presence, it is the love, support, joy, laughter, humanity, honesty, attention, time, and more that we share with one another that makes my life rich and full. Thanks to the people in my village and in my world – near and far, new and not so new, known and unknown – I truly have everything I need.