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Archive for August, 2015

The Medicalization of Grief

Posted by E on August 29, 2015

sadness heart tree

We like to think we live in a diverse, tolerant, understanding society, when nothing could be further from the truth. The Cult of Positive Thinking has made it socially-acceptable to be shunned for expressing real emotions: sadness, grief, any manifestation of loss that isn’t perfectly encapsulated by a prescribed set time, after which you are supposed to “move on.” There are craploads of online articles that purport to answer the question “What is normal grief?” (emphasis mine), “What is the difference between grief and clinical depression”, “Grief – What’s Normal and What’s Not?” and “A Helpful Guide to Coping with Grief and Loss” – as though something like this can be easily slotted into a How-To guide. As if, you can grief for a certain period of time, dependant on the degree of closeness to the deceased, and afterwards you’re clinically abnormal if you do.

So what is “normal”? Three to six months for an elderly parent? Nine months for a spouse? One week for a pet?

Leo Dec2011 smallWhen my beloved cat Leo, who was like a child to me, had to be put down in 2012, I could tell that my grief wasn’t socially acceptable. Of course, no one actually came out to say, “It’s just a cat,” but I know that’s what they were thinking. His death affected me viscerally for two years, well past socially-acceptable norms. I didn’t think of Leo’s soul and spirit as a “cat.” He was a family member. But in our world, there is an unspoken denigration of any species other than Homo Sapiens. And in this society, nobody wants to talk about grief. After all, how long are you supposed to grieve a “pet”? A week? Is the loss even considered “serious enough” to take time off work?

What if it was a child? How long are you supposed to grieve, before you are expected to put your best face on and be a “role model” for the world? Years ago, I read about the tragic, violent death of two New York City children murdered by their live-in nanny. Stabbed to death in their bathtub, during bath time, to be precise – a violent and brutal end to lives that never had a chance to bloom. Their mother had kept a meticulous blog of their life, full of wonderful, creative activities – picnics, playdates, the best Manhattan kindergartens money could buy – and when they were murdered, social media swarmed upon those photos. There was a kind of disturbed glee at the fact that someone in an upper-class, $10,000 per month rental apartment, could suffer loss.

But loss always feels the same. Whether you’re in the lowest or highest income brackets, to lose a child – indeed, anyone you love deeply, with all your heart and soul – is the worst ache you can ever experience. And yet the expectation was that, after a certain period of grief (say, a year), the family would move on with their surviving middle child and life would go on. Indeed, they did – they established a foundation and art scholarships in the names of their dead children and nowadays are all about being positive and carrying on the dead kids’ “legacy”.

PROZAC SAMPLE ADI wonder how much of that “positivity” is the result of social expectation. If you “get over” such a tragedy, you’re a role model for “moving forward.” You get to go on talk shows and get applauded for being “strong.” If you don’t, you’re a loser who must be mentally ill. Personally, I couldn’t recover from such a loss. I’d want to die. We all die anyway, right? So why live with pain for another 40+ years (statistically speaking, based on my current age)? How does one recover from such a loss and get to be a poster child for Positive Thinking?

ritalinWe live in a fucked-up world where the DSM-5 (Psychiatry’s Holy Bible) classifies grief as a potentially-abnormal phenomenon, a mental illness to be medicalized and treated with psychotropic drugs (a billion-dollar annual industry) if need be: Prozac, Paxil, Lithium, Ridalin, and everything in between. The meds are only supposed to mask the grief that you’re not supposed to manifest in polite society, to mask the unacceptable pain we all feel but aren’t allowed to speak about.

Don’t make any assumptions about me and my stance on this field, by the way, particularly as my BA was a double major in Criminology and Psychology – essentially both being fields of study focused on classifying human beings as criminals or abnormal – but these days I wonder all sorts of things. I guess it’s understandable, especially since I’m grieving the loss of my own mother.

My mother isn’t dead – not physically, anyway. But for all intents and purposes, she is gone. Taken by a disease worse than cancer and stroke and traffic accidents and all things combined: Alzheimer’s. You see, when a person gets cancer, there is time to grieve and say goodbye. Preparations for departure get made. When it’s a car accident, the initial shock is brutal – but at least you don’t see your loved one in a vegetative state for years, trapped between here and there.

But this horrible, awful thing – nobody gets it. How could we evolve as a society in terms of human rights and technology, yet at the cost of burying our true feelings deeper and deeper?

Sadness is NORMAL. Grief doesn’t have an expiry date – it lasts as long as you feel it in your body. I experienced severe trauma in my first, formative ten years of life. It still affects me today. And it’s certainly not for a lack of counselling or Prozac. But sometimes trauma, grief and sadness can take decades to resolve. And sometimes, a part of it remains with you for life.

And that is perfectly fucking NORMAL.

Iablanita bridge 2

One of my favourite photos with my mother – one of the very few

I feel like my mother is dead already, but it’s not politically-correct to mourn her yet. People don’t understand when I say that she’s gone, because technically she’s still alive. And I recognise that for as long as she’s alive, it’s socially unacceptable to grieve as though she’s dead.

And yet, she is.

My mother was an awful, abusive, neglecting parent – mostly because her own “mother” didn’t care to raise her and her father had died in her infancy. She grew up wild and feral, with no maternal instincts, and I wasn’t a planned pregnancy. And therefore I too, skinny and alone, raised my own self.

And yet today I feel something I’ve never thought I could ever wish for – that the abusive, unkind person she used to be still existed.

Iablanita bridge

One of my favourite photos with my mother – one of the very few

Because I could be angry. I could hate her. Because I could try – as ineffectually as it might be – to lash out, and at least attempt to explain how her behaviour affected my life.

But all there is now is a shell – a person with the same DNA, but a body vacant of its spirit. She’s only 70 years old, but early onset Alzheimer’s has taken whatever had remained of her. I’m only grateful that, even though I had a 50-50% chance of inheriting the APOE gene from her (which she tested positive for) as well as from my maternal grandmother who also died of Alzheimer’s, my 23andme results show that I did NOT get the Alzheimer’s gene. Although it’s something that still terrifies me each time I forget someone’s name, each time I have to search my brain for a particular word.

And so yesterday, while visiting her at Mount Sinai hospital, I hand-fed her dinner and couldn’t stop the tears from flowing down my face. Because she is a child now – a child who harmed me in so many ways and will never understand how she has scarred me. But now there is nobody to stand on trial, nobody to hold accountable.

So while I spooned rice, turkey mash and gravy into her shaky mouth, it dawned on me that the person who wounded me is gone. Dead. There is only a small, vulnerable child left in her place. But nobody around me understands this because, for all intents and purposes, this woman is still alive.

So perhaps I’m not supposed to grieve and mourn the death of her. After all, we’re not allowed to mourn the non-dead. To mourn longer than usual. To express any sorts of feelings of raw pain and anguish, of depression and loneliness, because there is no motive. The pain of my childhood is long behind me, right? And my “mother” is not dead. Not clinically, anyway.

And yet, I am.

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Posted in death, grief, personal, psychology, sadness | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Artist’s Guide to Establishing a Social Media Presence – Part 2: Crowdfunding Your Project

Posted by E on August 27, 2015

Marc-Chagall_I-And-The-Village

About ten years ago I stumbled upon a revolutionary website that introduced me to the concept of microloans: Kiva.org. With as little as $25, I could contribute funds to individuals all over the world, and especially in impoverished third world countries, in order to help them achieve their business goals. People who wouldn’t normally have access to traditional banking systems were now able to obtain loans and expand their income, providing better lives for their families. Within a year, my partner and I had contributed to more than a dozen businesses and were rewarded as our funds were paid back both monetarily and through the sense of joy we experienced each time we were sent an update or photo from the person we’d funded.

community treeAfter my introduction to Kiva, I started wondering if there wasn’t a way to contribute financial resources to individuals in need without the need of a payback. Sure enough, within a few short years, the concept of crowdfunding exploded. Crowdfunding is, in essence, the potential to leverage the power of social media in order to build widespread support for a project. Crowdfunding builds upon the idea of crowdsourcing: “the act of outsourcing tasks, traditionally performed by an employee or contractor, to an undefined, large group of people or community (a “crowd”), through an open call.” (Wikipedia)

The basic concept of generally goes like this: you pitch an idea, set a fundraising goal and choose a deadline for raising funds – typically 30 to 45 days from start. (The last point has been rendered obsolete with the introduction of new, never-expiring platforms like GoFundMe).

A 2014 Forbes article quotes a Crowdfunding Industry Report by Massolution which states that an estimated $5.1 Billion was raised through online crowdfunding in 2013. 2014 brought new crowdfunding sites that further accelerated the rapid industry growth.

crowdfunding umbrellaKickstarter was the major crowdfunding website that started it all – whether needing the cash to fund an innovative consumer product, a CD release or to get an indie film made, people who might never have had the ability to see their dream in action began to connect with others who understood their vision and, more importantly, were willing to bankroll it with as little as a single dollar.

Kickstarter’s unique concept still rests in its all-or-nothing approach – if your financial goal isn’t met by the end of the campaign, everyone who contributed gets their money refunded and the project creator walks away with nothing. This was meant to encourage 1) realistic fundraising goals, and 2) the public’s trust that their money would actually be used for a project that got enough funding to actually get made.

Because of their history and the public’s familiarity with its concept and reliability, Kickstarter still remains the most popular platform for crowdfunding. However, the competition for funds is fierce, and now there is such demand for campaign creation that Kickstarter’s team has implemented a system of pre-approval – which means you compete with other idea pitchers before you even have a chance to be featured on the site. Due to the fierce competition, having a high-quality video that explains your pitch is pretty much a necessity.

However, there are a couple of other newer crowdfunding sites that are rapidly gaining in brand name recognition and giving people a chance to raise funds without forcing them to take an all-or-nothing risk. The most reliable competitors to Kickstarter are Indiegogo and GoFundMe.

Crowdfunding_Future

This spring I launched a campaign on Indiegogo for a new memoir project, and two months later I continued it using GoFundMe as a platform. Both sites have a lot of similarities, and while I chose Indiegogo initially and would still recommend it to start with (I’ll explain why in a minute), I found that GoFundMe offers the most flexibility via their open-ended campaign platform. This means there is no expiry date to the pitch, and you can keep the link live and continue receiving donations over time, as long as people are still willing to support your project.

It’s no secret why I chose not to go the Kickstarter route – the all-or-nothing approach was a deal-breaker for me. I’m not a gambling person, and I don’t have thousands of fans and family members to solicit from. I also dreaded the figures – as of today’s Kickstarter stats, only 37.12% of projects are successful. I feared having to beg everyone for donations for a month and raise only a portion of my needed amount – only to lose it all. It wasn’t a gamble I was willing to make.

So I went with Indiegogo because they have a beautiful and intuitive website interface and lots of the artists I know were using them at the time to fund their project. I think I set a deadline of 45 days for my campaign, and then it was live and searchable within minutes. No glitches, no staff preapproval process – just smooth sailing all the way. They also have a much larger international presence than Kickstarter, and aren’t as North American-centric. An important factor for me, given that my book research involved travel to eastern Europe.

The thing that makes GoFundMe third in my view (behind Kickstarter and Indiegogo) is the fact that you need to raise a threshold of $500 before your campaign can be featured and searchable on their public site. The link still works, but it’s not searchable via their website. However, GoFundMe makes up for this major flaw by allowing you to withdraw the donations as soon as they come rolling in, instead of waiting for an expiration date.

There are, of course, other websites where you can raise funds for humanitarian cause or a charitable purpose – the most popular among non-profit organizations is FirstGiving. But since this is a Basic Guide for Artists (and since my word-count for this article is reaching epic proportions) I’m going to limit myself to these top three sites.

Infographics-CrowdFundingIf you take a moment to visit my crowdfunding project pages at Indiegogo and GoFundMe, you’ll see how I set them up and the kinds of thank-you Rewards (or Perks, as Indiegogo calls it) you can provide to your donors. It’s extremely important to offer something back – because people need to see proof of their donation in action. Even if your project might be delayed in completion – and one of the biggest complaints about Kickstarter and other platforms is that the projects often run late in delivery – you still need to keep your backers informed as to how things are going.

All in all, I raised close to $2000 for my book using a combination of Indiegogo, GoFundMe and private donations via Paypal – I’d set up a donation button on my website and sent the link to anyone who expressed discomfort over registering on a crowdfunding website. I was actually surprised at how many people opted to donate directly to me. Although I still came short of my goal of $8000, the money I did raise was invaluable and helped cover my flight ticket to Romania, as well as part of the cost of accommodations.

crowdfunding hands    crowdfunding steps

A 12-Step Battleplan on how you can get your project funded:

1. Do Your Homework

Look up the most successful campaigns on Kickstarter – after you watch a few pitches, a pattern starts to emerge. The best campaigns will use humour or emotion to elicit a response from their potential backer audience.

2. Develop a Social Media Strategy

Identify any particular target audience and figure out how to reach them. It might involve joining new groups and discussions on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Reddit, Yahoo Groups, Google Plus and anyplace in between. If you have any media contacts, try to line up interviews as soon as the campaign goes live. Remember that it takes time for a story to be developed, approved by an editor and then broadcast on television or in print, and a campaign can go by really fast. So make sure your media exposure will take place while the campaign is still live.

crowdfunding tree3. Appeal to your Friends and Fanbase

If you already have a fanbase or following built around your artistic or professional profile, you need to leverage it. You may need to contact each person individually, so start early. Customize your promotion to suit your platform. Don’t just ask your friends and fans for money – ask them to spread the word among their own friends and contacts. Asking them to donate a moment of their time to share your link (especially if they don’t have a job and money to contribute financially) is equally important.

4. Create a Winning Pitch

Be passionate about what you’re trying to create. Show your emotion and let people feel how important this is to you. Don’t hold back, and don’t just assume others will understand how critical it is. This isn’t a time to be subtle, so go forth with all guns blazing. Try to make an impression from the first paragraph. Don’t assume people will scroll down and read your entire pitch, so try to grab them from the first sentence.

If you have the ability to film your pitch – do it. The added human factor of your audience seeing and hearing you speak from your heart about what you want to accomplish will make a huge difference. I’ve seen fantastic videos and poorly-made ones, and in my opinion if you don’t have the skills or equipment to produce a good video, it’s probably better to skip it and focus on other visual imagery such as photos. At the bare minimum, you absolutely must have a photo of yourself so that people can see who they are backing.

5. Project Confidence

whether-you-think-you-can-henry-fordIt’s crucial that you maintain confidence in your vision. You have to believe that you can accomplish this – because if you show any doubt, how are you going to inspire confidence in others?

Above all – can you deliver on your pitch? Do you have the experience or credentials to get this done? If you’re pitching for a movie, do you have any knowledge of media production or camerawork? If you’re pitching for a book – have you ever written and/or published anything before? In essence – are you qualified or equipped to get the work done?

“People don’t want to back a campaign that’s not going to work,” says writer and entrepreneur Seth Godin about his crowdfunding experiences. You have to convince your potential backers that you are a winner, that cool kid who’s going to re-enact a David vs Goliath epic battle and triumph in the end. Most people want to support others succeed and vicariously join in that feeling of triumph and success.

6. Show How the Money will be Spent

Don’t just talk about how important this is to you. people need to see a detailed explanation of how exactly you’ll be using their money. The more detailed the plan, the more credibility you’ll gain for your project. Make a ballpark figure on what it will cost to supply materials, or what the travel and research costs might be, within reason.

7. Get your Hands Dirty – Promote Every Day

It still surprises me how many people think they can just launch a crowdfunding project and it will magically get funded. For every idiot who wins the Kickstarter lottery by pitching a harebrained concept like making potato salad and gets $50,000, there are thousands of worthwhile, well-thought-out projects that go unnoticed and unfunded. So don’t assume that yours will be the one that gets lucky, because the odds are against you.

This mentality of “If you build it, they will come” is just plain wrong, because it enables you to get lazy about soliciting donations from everywhere around you. Remember: close to 50 percent of donations will come from people you know. Yes, you read that right. For campaigns to go viral, your friends have to share with their friends, who in turn tell all their friends and relatives about it.

Email everyone in your contacts list. Tweet about it every other day. Contact people who aren’t normally on social media – email them at their regular email addresses. Ask them to check out your campaign link and tell you what they think. I’ve received cheques in the snail mail and Paypal donations directly. Don’t just rely on Kickstarter or Indiegogo – money can come from unexpected sources!

8. Don’t use Social Media exclusively as a Promotional Tool

crowdfunding offlineDon’t start friending new people and joining new groups to just post a link to your crowdfunding campaign. Some group moderators might consider such an approach as spamming. Worse yet, new friends and potential new acquaintances will see your approach as not entirely genuine. So take the time to build new contacts and relationships with people before telling them about your campaign. Build meaningful engagements that will last well beyond your campaign’s expiry date.

It might take a lot of time, but you have to make the time to contact people individually. Personalize your emails and Facebook direct messages to each person – don’t just mass-email a “Hey guys, I need your help” message, because it will be ignored. It’s much harder to ignore a personalized request than a spam-type message. Yes, this involves tailoring your messages to each person in your Facebook or LinkedIn account, but you’ll likely get people’s attention that way.

9. You might need to use Social Media Advertising

The average crowdfunding campaign earns less than $10,000. If you have a significant goal, you will need to buy ads. From my experience, Facebook ads (and to a smaller degree, Twitter ads) are likely the best option to target consumers, but getting the right key words to target a particular audience is crucial. Don’t make your reach too broad or too narrow, but also remember that you can’t spend too much money – the whole point of this is to earn donations for your project, not spend for advertising. Create a budget for the ads – say, $50 – and stick to it.

10. Set a Reasonable Intention

If the project costs will be very high (say, over $10,000) consider breaking up the crowdfunding campaign into several chunks. This is especially important on an all-or-nothing platform like Kickstarter, where if your goal is too high you risk losing everything you’ve already raised. It’s something I’ve seen over and over, and it’s really sad considering how much energy and hope people put into their fundraising.

Even if your funding model is flexible, such as on Indiegogo, don’t consider it an invitation to set an unrealistic goal. I’ve recently seen an Indiegogo campaign for a book by a first-time author set its goal at $40,000. This is excessive and will be perceived as unreasonable by almost anyone who reads that pitch – the author didn’t mention any travel plans or particular reason why he would ask for such a high figure and, given his lack of a writing background, it appeared like a delusional request. When it comes to crowdfunding books – where there isn’t a high cost for manufacturing materials and the most expensive item on your list might be a laptop or word processor, you have to be especially careful to be realistic. Even if the project involves travel for research, try to keep your budget as tight as possible.

Remember that people naturally and subconsciously want to side with a winner. Don’t let them smell the possibility of a failure by making an unreasonable demand.

11. Your Success or Failure at Crowdfunding does Not Reflect Your Project’s Intrinsic Value

light brightlyThis is the most important thing I can tell you – don’t take it personally if people you thought you could count on don’t come through for you. In my mind, this is the most important thing to remember – it hurts far more to be ignored by people you’ve been friends for years than by casual online acquaintances.

There were girls I went to school with, women I had histories with, old classmates who were employed in good government jobs. People who frequently posted photos of fancy restaurant dinners and weekends away at exotic retreats. People who always seemed to be online on Facebook….except for the month I started posting about my fundraising campaign. It’s a phenomenon I’ve read about on other people’s blogs — your so-called friends mysteriously vanish, make up some excuse about not having seen your post, or promise to take a look later and then never respond to your messages….until your campaign is finished. Then suddenly everybody is talking to you again. There’s no more awkwardness about not wanting to cough up $5 or $10 to support your vision.

I don’t consider people like these friends anymore. It’s a harsh statement to make, but in this age of social media we often fool ourselves into thinking we are more popular than we really are. You can boast of a thousand Facebook “friends” but in reality have less than ten people in your close circle who really “get” who you are.

tree dont give upCrowdfunding has a funny way of revealing who is really in your court. I can understand the reluctance of people who don’t know me personally to get involved in supporting my campaign (although donating a single dollar wouldn’t kill them). But I have to admit that yes, I did experience disappointment and feelings of betrayal when individuals I considered friends for decades (and who were gainfully employed) wouldn’t even acknowledge my messages or offer a single dollar as a donation. Even as a gesture of faith.

In fact, I noticed an interesting juxtaposition between friends in lower-income brackets and those making higher figures – in general, the ones with less money actually donated more to my campaign. With a couple of exceptions I’m very grateful for, many of those who considered themselves upper-middle class or in the highest income bracket were actually the stingiest.

It’s next to impossible not to take this personally, not to see the lack of donations as a correlation to someone’s lack of faith in you. Because it is. I’m going to be frank here, but if someone who’s known you for most of your life, is privy to your hopes, ambitions and passions and recognizes what this project means to you and still makes an excuse or refuses to help, it’s not about not having $5 to give.

Support comes in many ways – people can still share the link to your campaign on their Facebook wall, with their friends or Twitter network. They can send you a message of encouragement, if nothing else. Someone who doesn’t offer a single dollar and doesn’t share the link with anyone cannot claim to have any support for your dreams. This is a hard fact to accept, but in the end you must understand that it’s not to do with you. Their unwillingness to help is more due to stinginess, jealousy or perhaps one’s lack of faith in their own ability to crowdfund successfully. No matter what the reason, it’s not your fault.

Forget the nay-sayers and the unsupportive. Show them how they missed out on being part of something truly wonderful and possibly even revolutionary. Above all, remember this: Someone’s rejection of your dream isn’t a judgement on the strength or worthwhileness of what you are trying to accomplish.

The famous Greek philosopher Epictetus once said, ‘In prosperity it is very easy to find a friend; in adversity, nothing is so difficult.’ When you’re popular and on top of the world, everybody is your friend. But when you’re down and need support, be it emotional or financial, the herd thins out and you begin to see who your real friends actually are.

12. You’re Not Doing This Alone

Whether you get all the funding you need, or a small portion of it – it’s important to be grateful. Even if you asked for $10,000 and received only $100, it’s a hundred dollars you didn’t have before and it brings with it the knowledge that others have faith in you. Don’t think about those who didn’t support you – think of the people who did. Persevere and get the work done. Over-deliver on everything you promised.

Even when things get rough, remember that you have a crowd of supporters behind you – these people implicitly understand and support your vision. Some will be close friends, others new acquaintances and even complete strangers who donate anonymously. This is the beauty of crowdfunding –you are embraced by a strong circle of supporters who are your motivation and a battalion for your self-esteem. Your campaign backers are walking with you at every step of the way. You’re doing this for them as much as you’re doing it for you – so use their willingness to take a chance on your dream as fuel for your fire.

imagination meme

Posted in crowdfunding, media, social media, writer, writing | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Artist’s Basic Guide to Establishing a Social Media Presence – Part 1: Build Your Brand

Posted by E on August 22, 2015

PART 1 – Build your Brand

Social-Media-Branding social media ideas

There is so much to say about this subject that I couldn’t do it justice in a single blog piece, so I decided to break up my points into a series of articles that I will be posting over the months to come. There are literally thousands of useful articles all over the internet on the topic of social media and developing an online presence, so I will mainly tailor this series to the artistic community – writers, media artists and anyone in the arts who is interested in building and/or expanding their artistic platform.

In my mind, there is no better place to start this conversation than at the very beginning – as Maria Von Trapp would say in Do-Re-Mi, it’s a very good place to start. And when it comes to the ABC’s of social media marketing, in my view there is no place better to start than the art of establishing your personal Brand.

Most of you are already familiar with using internet search engines like Google to expand your knowledge and drive your own self-taught process – that’s how you probably stumbled onto my blog. But I write this basic guide for the people I’ve met over the years who, on various author forums, boast with confidence that there’s no need to develop their brand until their books are complete and ready for publication.

That’s what a publisher and their marketing department are about,” is a phrase I’ve heard over and over. “I’m not going to be one of those shameless self-promoting ‘indie writers’. I want to go the traditional route so that all I concern myself with is my writing – and someone else takes care of everything, i.e. the editorial work, cover design, marketing, building my website, taking care of my press releases and book tours.”

Regardless of whether you plan to publish independently or have secured a trad contract (or are a hybrid author like me) if you still believe that someone else is going to hand you a career simply because you wrote a great book – and that’s earned you a free pass to publishing stardom – you are living in a dream world.

I am here to shatter that myth – both as an independent writer and as someone who was courted by a traditional Big Five publisher. This is not the case. Unless you’re already a bestselling writer, a highly-grossing celebrity or nepotistically connected to a publisher – in which case ghostwriters will actually write your books for you – everybody is expected to perform well past the moment you type “The End” on your manuscript.

 

pink typewriterIn my meetings with the editorial and marketing department heads at Penguin Canada prior to me deciding to self-publish my memoir Race Traitor, the most recurring questions were related to my social media platform. The expectation was that I would bring my own fans and branding to the table – this wasn’t an optional thing. It was a necessity and an expectation.

Their marketing department was going to assist with arranging media interviews and that sort of thing, but they weren’t going to build me a website, a blog or anything like that – in fact, they wanted to make sure I already had those things already in place and ready to go.

So where do you start? Do you have to enroll in a college course on marketing, or hire one of the infinitesimal droves of self-described social media consultants out there in order to develop your presence? As artists, we don’t have the budget for this sort of thing and more importantly, these are skills you’re best to acquire yourself rather than pay others to do for you. Of course there will be a learning curve – isn’t there one in everything? – but the sooner you learn these basic tips, the faster will you be on your way to having your own platform.

world before social mediaThe wireless world is expanding at an exponential rate, and whatever has been taught in a social marketing course two years ago is often obsolete or replaced by a hot new medium – Periscope and Snapchat, for instance, are products of the last couple of years. Social media, in general, is all about the next great fad. It’s about buzzwords and ideas, newly revolving angles that give birth to new opportunities.

In other words, social media changes on a daily basis. Everything you knew yesterday is now wrong. That is what’s most exciting about it – having to stay on your toes. So unless you are continually learning and keeping up to date in the field, degrees in social media marketing (which cost thousands of dollars) are going to become useless rather fast.

A 2015 article featured in Business Insider titled “The 10 Most Useless Graduate Degrees” placed marketing at number 2 on their list of the most degrees one can possess. And according to a 2013 Workopolis article that included a segment titled Ten jobs that won’t exist in ten years, ‘ Social Media Expert’ topped the list. Given all the contradictory media coverage of what constitutes an “expert”, it’s easy to see where anyone could grow confused.

Social-Media-ConfusionThere is nothing inherently wrong with hiring a pro if you’re stumped about what to do next – the right publicity expert, strategist and PR firm can be worth its weight in gold. But no matter how you proceed, you owe it to yourself to acquire the basic set of skills that you’re going to need in order to maintain a public image – and this goes far beyond having a Facebook Page and an Twitter account.

You can ask questions and acquire skills just by sitting in on a #hashtag Twitter discussion or participate in a LinkedIn group. You can look up new trends on Reddit. Don’t be afraid to ask questions! By doing your research online, you can develop enough expertise to navigate the turbulent waters of the ever-evolving social media world – you may not become an expert, but you can attain many of the skills needed to establish a successful platform on the world wide web.

confusionSo where do you start? Simple – buy your own name domain. If you have a common name, put your middle initial in it, or use a diminutive. But no matter what, have your own domain – this is crucial. You don’t have to build a website – but you can point the URL to your own blog, or Facebook page, or wherever you want it to redirect.

If you’re developing a brand along with your name, buy the url for that brand. Don’t just assume that you can wait until you’re ready to build a site, because good domain names are hard to come by, and even if you own a trademark patent on a term, it doesn’t mean someone hasn’t already purchased the domain.

It’s not necessary to buy every url extension you can – but if at all possible, buy the .com. Let’s face it, .com is where it’s at – it’s the oldest and most recognized domain extension you can have. I strongly encourage you to also buy your own country’s extension – for instance, as a Canadian I own both the .com and the .ca to both my name AND my blog, as well as publishing company. Why your own country extension? Well, it wouldn’t really matter to me if there was an Incognito Press in Australia, would it? But I certainly wouldn’t want to compete with another Canadian company by the same name – this could lead to my own brand’s dilution and confusion among clients.

The first step I took before I started this blog was to make sure that incognitopress.com was available for purchase. It was only after I had purchased the domain that I began to develop my blog and brand identity. I own a couple of dozen domains – both for my real name and my pseudonyms, and various businesses. It might cost me a couple hundred dollars a year, but it’s a business tax write-off and a vital part of my brand development.

Few things are more heartbreaking than to have spent years building up a brand, put in the hours to write blog posts, form connections on social media platforms, and then realize that you didn’t pony up the $10 or less to register your brand name url. Sadly, this sort of thing has been overlooked even by people with degrees in social media marketing.

I’ve seen this type of situation happen over and over – with business owners having to fork over thousands of dollars to a cybersquatter and/or lawyer in order to recover their brand. However, if you haven’t patented/trademarked a title and you are not a well-known brand (i.e. your name isn’t Disney, Coca-Cola, Michael Jordan or Kevin Spacey – who incidentally spent over $30,000 to get the rights to kevinspacey.com back) you might be out of luck.

social media  social media expert

So to sum up:

1. Educate yourself online. Make sure you have a Facebook account, a public Facebook Page (these two are actually different things, don’t confuse them), a LinkedIn profile and a Twitter account. For people trying to build a professional brand, these four things are no longer optional. Remember that most sites have built-in tutorials and Help sections, so if you can’t figure out how YouTube, Reddit, Pintrest or Instagram work, they make it easy for you.

2. Start a blog if you can. My favourite platform is WordPress, but Blogger is very reliable as well. I’ve used both, and each has a plethora of customizable templates to choose from. I’ve heard good things about Tumblr.

3. Start a website. The most idiot-proof platform I’ve found to create a speedy website – even if you haven’t a clue what HTML is – is weebly.com. I’ll discuss it at length in a future post, but suffice it to say it’s a beautiful and very affordable drag-and-drop web-builder system that will have you online in no time.

4. Buy a) your name domain, and b) your business name domain. Either of these will help people reach you. You can point them to your blog or weebly website.

5. Make your business name easy to remember – that means NO dashes. People won’t remember if you tell them “my website is Elisa-dash-the-dash-writer-dot-com”.

6. Don’t make your domain name too long or confusing to spell.

7. If people constantly misspell your domain, consider buying the misspelled domain as well. (For example, if your surname is MacDonald vs McDonald). In my case, the Romanian form of my first name is Eliza. When Romanians google my name or enter the url (I get a sizeable amount of traffic from Romania), they often type “elizahategan.com”. So guess what? I bought that url and now point it to my current website. No more confusion – and no other Eliza can steal away my name domain!

8. Don’t let your domain ownership expire! There are lots of people who wait for domains to expire and buy them up, only to resell them at outrageous prices back to business owners desperate to get their branding back. Do you really want to be at the mercy of this new owner? Worse yet, what if they take your domain name and point it to an x-rated site? What if it’s a competitor who works in the same field as you?

9. Your social media skillset should not consist of merely posting to Facebook or Tweeting about your weekend. Nor should it take the form of constant self-promotions. When all I see in my feed is an author screaming ‘BUY MY BOOK! ON SALE TODAY ONLY’ ad nauseam, I either mute them or unfollow them. Some self-promotion is obviously okay, but why should I buy your book if you’re not interested in getting to know me and my own work? We’re all trying to establish a significant presence in our field, and there are good AND bad ways of going about it. Do not risk alienating potential friends and readers by badgering them with non-stop advertising. It’s transparent, it doesn’t work, and it actually hurts your brand’s self-respect.

10. Not all marketing takes place online! Old-fashioned human interaction is still one of the best ways to sell yourself and your work. Look up your local writing circles and artist networking groups. Read the flyers pinned to billboards at hipster hangouts, go and attend poetry reading nights, have fun at street fair events.

11. But before you go to all those conventions and register for those free talks, you’ve gotta have yourself some cool merch – i.e business cards or any kind of stuff to hand out so that people remember you. And for business cards, it’s Vistaprint all the way, baby! I’m one of their early adopters. Ten years ago I started buying business cards for practically nothing – just the cost of shipping. The quality and price are unbeatable – I’ve used them for business cards, postcards of my book covers, holiday cards and everything in between.

12. If there’s nothing in your area, start your own group! When I first joined Facebook, I didn’t see any GLBT writers groups present in my area (Toronto) so I started my own group, GLBT Writers in Toronto. Now we have about 200 members, and some of us have actually met offline!

So ultimately, remember that it takes a lot of time and effort to be an ‘overnight’ success. Here are some of my social media profiles, if you want to check them out for reference – and if you are active on any of these platforms, I would love to connect with you 🙂

My Author Website

Incognito Press Website

My Facebook Page

My Twitter

My LinkedIn profile

My Instagram

My Blogger Blog 

Me on Reddit

ts-elliot-risk-quote

READ PART TWO: Crowdfunding Your Project

READ PART THREE: The Importance of Blogging

READ PART FOUR: The Author’s 10-Step Guide to Creating a Media Kit

If you enjoyed the read, please consider dropping a dollar in my Patreon donation jar 🙂

Posted in art, artist, life, perseverence, politics, press release, publishing, thoughts, writer, writing | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Journey to Judaism: The Day I Became A Jew

Posted by E on August 10, 2015

Elisa Jerusalem cropped

I became a Jew on the day I was born, December 17. Thirty-eight years had passed between the moment my mother gave birth to me in Romania and the day I was formally accepted as a Jew by rabbis in a North American synagogue.

After I’d completed a year of study, my mentor rabbi informed me that I was ready to take the next step toward conversion – writing a formal essay explaining why I wanted to embrace the Jewish faith, and meeting with a Beit Din. For those reading this who are unfamiliar with the term, a Beit Din is a rabbinical court assembly made up of three observant Jews (at least one of whom is a rabbi) who decide if a convert is fit to be accepted for conversion to Judaism.

Embracing Judaism was the last step along a journey of self-discovery that had taken me many years to explore, and I wanted to do this right – it was important to me that I should have a conversion process that followed the halacha (Jewish law) closely, which meant having a Beit Din made up of at least one rabbi, followed by a ritual immersion in a synagogue mikvah – a pool of water derived from natural sources.

It was the beginning of December and with my birthday right around the corner, it was only natural that I would schedule my Beit Din and Mikvah day on my birthday. How could I choose any other date? What better day to experience a spiritual rebirth and be formally acknowledged as Jewish?

The sun was shining brightly when I woke up early in the morning – too early in fact. The excitement and nervous butterflies churning in my stomach made it impossible to go back to sleep. ‘This is the last day I’ll wake up and not be Jewish,’ I thought. I busied myself by having a long shower, brushing and flossing my teeth, washing my hair and scrubbing my fingernails and toenails free of any traces of nail polish – there was to be no barrier between the body and the Mikvah water.

Brilliant sunshine illuminated the path toward the Beth Hillel synagogue where I would be formally interviewed. I knew it would be a beautiful day, and it turned out exactly as I’d imagined – how could such an important day ever be shrouded in clouds?

The rabbis met me in the lobby of the synagogue at noon. My Beit Din was composed of three ordained rabbis, all active members of the Rabbinical Assembly, although one had retired from his congregation. After everyone arrived, we walked over to the meeting room in the back of the synagogue. A long conference table split the room which could have seated twenty. The three rabbis sat on one side of the table, and I took a seat across from them.

“As we begin, I’d like you to tell us what brought you here and why you want to become Jewish,” Rabbi Levine said.

I summarized some of the key points that I wrote about in my conversion essay:

“The feeling that propels me toward Judaism isn’t as simple as breaking it down into words. It’s a feeling, an echo of something within myself that I am just now recognizing and giving voice to.

I feel that I have always been a Jew. I was born in the mid-1970s in communist Bucharest. Under Ceausescu’s dictatorship, Romania didn’t prioritize religion, choosing instead to indoctrinate their people to worship the State. I don’t remember either of my parents being religious in any way. We never went to church. I identified with my father’s family much more than my mother’s side. I stood out among my maternal cousins by being the black-haired, dark-eyed child who didn’t fit in. People said that my father and I ‘looked Jewish’.”

 Iosif Hategan age 15 Iosif and Ana

Above: me at age 11.  Centre: my father Iosif (Josef) at age 15.  Right: My father and grandmother Ana.

We emigrated to Canada when I was 11 years old. My father subsequently decided to return to Romania and died there when I was 13. I never had the opportunity to ask him all the questions I would have liked to know – Why did he hide his own heritage? Why did he feel ashamed of who he was?

I’ve had people tell me, Why bother to convert. Your father was a Jew, you don’t believe in Jesus as the messiah, so what’s the difference? But it bothers me that I am not recognized by all Jews as a fellow Jew because of my patrilineal descent, and I feel the need to undergo this formal process so that I can both learn much more about Judaism, and to feel like a “real” Jew.

In my soul, heart and mind, Judaism is more than a religion for me. It’s a shared history, a family and a connection that has always been there, just outside the realm of my consciousness and yet was always there. Like a pulse that cannot be subdued.

After my father’s death, I lived in a rough low-income neighbourhood with my mother. As time went by, she grew increasingly abusive and I had no choice but to run away. Between the ages of 14-16 I lived in several Children’s Aid homes. In time, I ran away from an abusive foster home and returned to my mother’s apartment. At age 16 I was friendless and desperate. Eventually I became recruited by a neo-Nazi group, the Heritage Front. They became the family I felt I’d never had, and looked after me at a time when my only choice was to live on the streets. They also put me in touch with an internationally-renowned Holocaust revisionist and Hitler sympathizer, Ernst Zundel. Zundel gave me a job working in his basement printing press, fed me and looked out for me.

By the time I turned 18 I knew that what the group was doing was wrong. I wanted out of the organization but they were possessive of me and I didn’t know of a way out. I attempted suicide and eventually I turned to an anti-racist activist, who put me in touch with the director of a think-tank on extremist right-wingers. He, in turn, asked me to spy on the Heritage Front and Ernst Zundel and collect information that could be turned over to the police.

defection 1994-2Hategan articleMetro Toronto

For half a year I gathered as much information on illegal activities, weapons and dangerous persons, as well as stole Ernst Zundel’s national and international mailing list, which consisted of people all over North and South America and Europe who had sent in money to fund Zundel’s Holocaust revisionist projects. In 1994 I testified in court and sent 3 Heritage Front leaders to prison, effectively dealing a serious blow toward dismantling the group.

I was only 19 years old. I lived in hiding and attended university in Ottawa under an assumed name. Upon graduating Magna cum Laude with a Criminology and Psychology double-major, I taught ESL in Seoul, South Korea and subsequently travelled throughout Europe the following year.

I spent some time in Krakow and visited Auschwitz and Birkenau. Something stirred in me that summer – an inexplicable familiarity, a sense that I was connected to those places in some undefinable way. When I first heard Ladino songs, it was as though I could almost recognize them. The music seemed familiar somehow. Then there were the places in the south of Spain, as well as in Poland and Hungary that I visited – they felt as though I’d been there before. In Debrecen, the city my father was born in, I allowed my feet to take me where they wanted to go, and I ended up on a narrow, cobblestoned street, in front of a half-burned synagogue with smashed-out windows.

It felt like I had been there before. The feeling was strong, palpable, like a childhood memory – a memory that was just outside the realm of my consciousness.

I eventually returned to Canada and tried to lead a normal life. But something always clawed at the back of my consciousness, pushing me toward a Jewish path. I lived along Bathurst street, in a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood. I began to read books on Judaism and spirituality. Ten years went by since I first thought of undergoing a formal conversion to Judaism, but something always held me back – I first wanted to discover the truth about my father, my family’s past. I had to know our own past in order to go forward.

During a visit to my paternal grandmother’s village in Transylvania, I tracked down relatives, old family friends and neighbours, and asked questions. At my uncle’s house, among my deceased grandmother’s possessions, I discovered a box of mementos and photographs that I’d never seen before. The box was marked with the Jewish surname “Kohan” – the Hungarian version of Cohen. I finally began to believe that my suspicions had been true, and that my father had actually been Jewish.

Back in Canada, I ordered a DNA kit from 23andme, sent in my saliva sample and waited for a month to receive my results. When they came in, it was a surreal experience – one of the most significant days of my life. To realize that after so long, what I had suspected was actually true! I burst into tears of joy, knowing that I was no longer alone – at last I had a past, a history. And well over 20 relatives in the 23andme database with the surname Cohen, some of whom offered their help in piecing together our common ancestry.

23andme EH profile  23andme EH profile2 

Part of my conversion essay:

In my soul, heart and mind, Judaism is more than a religion for me. It’s a shared history, a genetic memory, a family and a connection that has always been just outside the realm of my consciousness, yet was always there. The more I learned about Judaism through my study, the more I felt my bond to the past grow stronger.

My father’s denial of his religion and heritage was like an invisible wall that kept me from my past. But with each day and each hour, the wall becomes increasingly transparent. The bricks fall apart and I begin to see a glimpse of something beautiful and mystical on the other side. The shadows of those great-grandparents and the whispers of their lives comes through to me, through me, and out into my very own existence.

I have had thousands of Jewish ancestors from Poland, Russia, Galicia, Ukraine and Romania, whose truth, lives and stories have been wiped off in only two generations. One hundred years. That is all it took to wipe out my family’s connection to their own lineage and heritage.

I look at the world and wonder how many others walk around unaware that the blood of Sephardic conversos or Ashkenazim forced to hide their religion runs through their veins.

I aim to reclaim that heritage.

“Please read your Declaration of Faith for us, Elisa.”

I stood up and read the piece of paper which I had practically memorized over the past year.

declaration of faith Iosif and Elisa Anna-Philip

Left: my declaration of faith. Centre: my favourite photo of me & my father.  Right: grandmother Ana with her husband.

Afterwards, they asked me to sign it and I did so, then handed it back to them. I answered several questions related to holidays and ritual, and recited a couple of prayers. Then one of the rabbis asked me more about my father’s family. “Did you know the biggest group of immigrants to Israel after the war were from Romania?”

I hadn’t known this, and he smiled at me warmly and told me a story about his friends who had come from the same part of Transylvania as my father. Then our conversation touched on the Holocaust, and I mentioned the profound experience I’d had in my twenties when I visited Europe’s biggest concentration camp, the largest mass-murder site in the world.

Rabbi Fertig sat up. “You were at Auschwitz?”

“Yes,” I answered.

“What was it like?”

I gazed into the distance, recalling the summer of 2001 when I had backpacked across Europe, and how my journey to find my roots had led me to Auschwitz. “I went in the summer, when the grass was this high.” I said, lifting my hand to indicate waist-height. “It was a sunny day. A very beautiful day. The sun was high up in the sky, and there was such a vivid a juxtaposition of life and death. The grass was buzzing with crickets and frogs, filled with life….right up among those terrible barracks at Birkenau. I walked inside the barracks and felt that emptiness….the void, the echoes of the lives that had been lost there.”

Rabbi Levine stared at me for a long time. “So many millions perished in the Holocaust – and now you are returning to the fold.”

“I am but one drop,” I said quietly, my eyes filling with tears.

We all fell silent. After some time, Rabbi Brief asked me, “Have you chosen a Hebrew name?”

There was never any doubt in my mind what my Hebrew name would be – Elisheva, of course. The Hebrew version of my own given name. Better yet, it somehow ‘fit’ me. It felt more right than anything else.

“Elisheva Sarah.”

Rabbi Levine cleared his throat. “I am obliged to inform you that although a Conservative Beit Din is accepted by all conservative and affiliated denominations, some Orthodox will still refuse to see you as Jewish.”

I nodded. “Yes, I know this.”

“Do you have any questions for us?”

I hesitated. “Do you think….will I be accepted by a Reform synagogue?”

The rabbis looked at each other in amusement. “They’re going to love you,” the oldest of the rabbis answered. “Reform already recognizes you as a Jew because you have a Jewish father – so just based on the fact that you still went through this when you didn’t have to.”

Rabbi Levine peered into my eyes. “I read your conversion essay and I have to say it really moved me. You’re a very good writer. A very gifted writer.”

Something stirred inside me. Trying to fight back the knot in my throat, I said, “I’m working on a book to preserve the memory of those in my father’s village who have been forgotten. I want to do this for them – I’m the only one left who still carries their stories. Everyone else has passed.”

He nodded, and his eyes communicated such a deep empathy, such a sense of recognition and understanding, that I had to bite my lip to keep from tearing up. My eyes swept the room – the other rabbis were nodding, acknowledging me. I felt, in that moment, that they were seeing the real me – that part of my core I had kept hidden for so long. The vulnerability. The sadness and the truth of what I’d always known to be true. The real core of me.

Rabbi Levine pushed back from the table. “I am ready,” he said. He looked to the others: “I know it’s cutting this short, but I’m satisfied with this. I’m ready to make this woman Jewish.”

my Mikvah my mikvah2

We walked out of the synagogue and around to the side of the building, where another door stood open. A tall, thin woman waited for us there, her hair covered under a beret-type hat. She beckoned us in and we shook hands. “Welcome Elisheva,” she said, smiling at me. “You can leave your coat and stuff here. I warmed up the water really well for you, and have everything set up for you. Come and let me show you around.”

I smiled back at her, and Carol’s eyes glided to my hair. “You have long, gorgeous hair,” she said with a smile, and I instantly read between the lines. The hair was going to be a problem. Making sure there were no tangles was going to be challenging enough. But then she added, “I’m concerned that it might float up when you submerge. Every strand has to go underwater.”

The rabbis sat down on a small bench in the narrow corridor that led to several rooms, including the one where Carol was leading me. It turned out to be a small but perfectly clean bathroom with a shower stall and all the toiletries one could imagine.

She closed the door behind us and pointed out everything, careful to inspect that I wasn’t wearing any nail polish. I started to remove my earring studs and put them in my backpack while she explained what I already knew – I was to scrub off everything once again, wash my hair thoroughly and brush it so there were no tangles anywhere. Then, when I was ready, to walk through another door wearing little bootsies to keep from slipping and only the towel.

“The Mikvah is completely private,” she assured me. “The rabbis will only listen to the submersion and I will be the only one in the room with you. They will hear you say the prayer, but they cannot see you. I am here to make sure your privacy is respected and I myself will not look at you – when you descend into the Mikvah I will hold up the towel and respect your privacy. You can rest assured that your privacy and modesty will be respected at all times. So take as long as you need to get ready, and I will be on the other side of that door.”

After she left, I tried to keep myself from shaking. To think that I was so close to the Mikvah I’d read so much about, so close to the completion of a journey that had taken me years to achieve!

The bathroom was spartan and super-clean. A shelving unit ran beside the sink, and everything I could possibly have forgotten was there: nail polish remover, cotton balls, extra soap, toothpaste, shampoo, dental floss, even a small vial of Air d’Temps perfume that I planned to spritz on after the ceremony was complete (but forgot to, in the ensuing excitement). As Carol had promised, two different kinds of combs lay ready to tackle my difficult hair. I chose the one with the wider-spaced teeth and bravely stepped into the stone shower stall.

The shower itself was as I’d expected, with the worst part being – of course – running the brush through my well-shampooed (but not conditioned) curls. Needless to say, when it was all said and done I lost more than my usual amount of stray hairs, possibly because I was so excited, nervous and emotional about the ritual to follow that I brushed a bit too impatiently and managed to snap off some more split ends.

The last thing to go were my contact lenses. The Mikvah rules were that nothing could stand in the way of the water immersing the body, not even contacts. I placed the case carefully on the sink ledge and wrapped the fresh white towel around my body.

Then I reached for the door handle and stepped into the other room.

The room was low-lit, with several pot lights illuminating only the water – which was as blue as the sea. The Mikvah was larger than I’d imagined, much larger than a Jacuzzi but not quite the size of a swimming pool.

Am I really here? Is this finally happening? I wondered, gazing in awe at the water that would soon immerse every bit of my being. It’s so beautiful.

I kicked off the bootsies and held still while Carol the Mikvah Lady inspected me in order to pick off any stray hairs that may have fallen down my back. I checked myself also and found an additional long hair that I handed her.

After she discarded the loose hairs, Carol came back and stepped behind me. “You can give me the towel and go in now,” she said, holding the towel I handed her up in front of her – as promised, to protect my modesty. Although I’d wondered what it would feel like being completely naked in front of a stranger, I realized that I didn’t feel embarrassed at all – this felt like such a perfectly natural, even maternal process.

I walked toward the Mikvah and began to descend the seven steps that led down to the main pool. I held the railing and stepped down the seven steps–each one representing a day in the Creation story. Then an unexpected challenge arose: by the fourth step I could already tell that the water was too deep. As in, over my head. I’m not a swimmer by any stretch, and have never managed to hold my own in the deep-end of a swimming pool. I would never be able to touch the bottom.

Over the past year I’d researched anything I could find about other people’s accounts of their conversion ceremonies, but had never read about the situation that confronted me now – being only 5’2” tall, by the time I reached the lowest step I was already immersed up to my chin.

I gazed into the shimmering depths of the main pool and realized, not without a fair amount of trepidation, that I would never be able to stand upright in it. The water was high enough to go over my head. Although I love splashing around in water, I’m not a swimmer and have never managed to tread water in the deep end of a swimming pool.

An irrational fear seized hold of my mind. Has anybody ever drowned in a Mikvah? I wondered, cringing inwardly at the ridiculousness of the question. Worst case scenario, Carol the Mikvah Lady was here, along with three rabbis on the other side of the wall partition. Surely somebody would pull me out if I didn’t resurface after a while, right?

My desire to become a Jew was now confronted head-on by my fear of drowning. The combination didn’t make for a particularly mystical experience. Did I want to convert badly enough to risk drowning? Would you rather live as a Christian or risk drowning to become a Jew?

The answer came hard and fast: YES. Yes, I wanted it that badly. Badly enough to jump off into the deep end, where the water towered above my head – not knowing if I would bob back up or sink right to the bottom.

Over the months that led up to this ceremony, I’d imagined this day to be a peaceful, holy, life-changing process. In a way, this was still partly true – with that tranquil blue water so warm and lovely, lapping at my skin, an aura of serenity had surrounded me. But suddenly another part of me was seized with fear. As anxiety mounted in my chest, I realized that in order to become a Jew I would have to conquer my terror.

I took a deep breath and tried to balance myself on the lowest step, which was really hard because the salt water makes you buoy about, making it impossible to keep your feet firmly planted onto the tiled ground.

“Are you ready?” Carol’s voice resounded behind me. “Take your time. When you’re ready, I want you to take a deep breath and jump away from the step. When you’re fully immersed under the water, lift your legs up so that you don’t touch the bottom to make sure that for an instant, you’re floating free.”

I sucked in a deep breath, steadied myself….and then stepped off the ledge. Water flooded into my eyes, mouth, over my head, and suddenly I was up again, sputtering and flailing toward the metal rail in the corner. I seized hold of it and clambered up onto the last ledge again.

Carol looked at my ungainly flop and smiled sympathetically. “We’ll have to do that one over again. Your hair didn’t go all the way under.”

Strands of my hair had floated to the surface since I hadn’t sank deep enough. “Does this happen a lot?” I asked her.

She nodded. “You’re very buoyant – we all are – so what you’ll need to do is really let go and try to jump up a little when you step away from the stairs. The force of you jumping up will ensure you submerge all the way down.”

I took another deep, shuddering breath, and felt determination flow through my entire body. I hadn’t come this far to allow fear to stop me now. I thought about my father, my grandmother, about our family friend Steve Bendersky and the relatives he’d lost in the war, about the numbers tattooed on his arm, about the heritage that had been denied me. I thought about the people who had been killed over the centuries for being a Jew, about all who had walked down this path before me as converts and embraced their Jewish neshama.

I had come this far. I was ready.

It still felt scary, taking that plunge – but I no longer cared about drowning. I wanted to leap as far into that water as I could, to take it all into my heart, to let it remind me of my strength and ability to survive anything.

I was enveloped in a cocoon of blueness and warmth – the perfect heat of a womb made of nature’s own waters that seemed to have always existed in and around me. I opened my eyes underneath the water which coated every pore of my being and thought, This is the day I was born. Back then, and then again today.

No sooner did that realization hit than a force propelled me upwards – the force of my own buoyancy. I hadn’t drowned after all. In fact, I felt stronger than ever.

Carol’s voice echoed throughout the small room: “Kasher!”

I repositioned myself on the last step, filled my lungs with air, and leapt up again. I sank down into the depths of the Mikvah and didn’t fight it this time – I gave myself to it in body and soul.

When I bobbed back up, Carol called out “Kasher” for the second time.

I half-swam back toward the steps, found my balance again and turned to face the blueness. This would be my third jump. When I came back up again, I would be a Jew.

“Take your time,” Carol said softly. “If you want to take a moment to say a silent prayer – just for yourself.”

I closed my eyes and felt tears brimming behind my eyelashes. I mouthed the words of the Shema silently, for everyone before me, and then again for myself – that I be worthy of that painful, beautiful legacy and that I might contribute toward making the world a better place.

And then I took the biggest leap of my life into the waters that had always waited there for me. I lifted my knees up to my chest and spread my arms out to my sides, and the Mikvah embraced me.

And as I came up to the surface as a Jew, Carol called out for the third time, “Kasher.”

My voice shook as I spoke the words of the final prayer, Shehecheyanu, a prayer uttered by Jews for two thousand years: “Barukh Ata Adonai, Elohenu Melekh Haolam, Shehecheyanu, Vekiyimanu, Vehigiyanu, Lazman Hazeh.”

As soon as I said the last word, “hazeh”, voices all around called out “Mazel Tov!” I heard the rabbis break out into applause from the other side of the partition carved in the wall, congratulating me.

I turned around and emerged out of the water slowly, its warmth following me. Carol was beaming at me, holding out the towel. “Mazel Tov, Elisheva.”

I pitter-pattered back to the bathroom where I was shaking as I toweled off, got dressed as quickly as I could, and put in my contact lenses once again. I was too impatient to take the time needed to blow dry my long hair, and as a result I was still dripping water when I re-emerged into the little room where everyone was waiting for me.

The rabbis surrounded me and put their hands on my shoulders, breaking into song. As they sang, said their blessings and gave me all the official conversion paperwork, tears started to course down my face. They sang the old traditional Siman Tov/Shalom Aleichem song and I just folded my arms across my chest and bit my lip to unsuccessfully stop myself from crying. The oldest rabbi, probably close to eighty, wrapped his arm around my shoulders in a way a father might comfort a daughter and as he held me while I cried, I felt the warmth of his joy – I had come home.

Elisa and rabbis my menorah

Above: me with rabbis after the ceremony.  Right: a beautiful antique menorah – my conversion gift

In April 2015, a couple of years after my conversion to Judaism, I left for Romania in order to research my newest book, Remember Your Name. Because Bucharest is only a two-hour flight from Tel Aviv, I decided to make my first journey to Israel. I also fulfilled a secret wish I’d carried since my conversion – to go to the Western Wall and recite the Mourner’s Kaddish for my father.

IMG_9298 Jerusalem arches IMG_9131

It took me a lifetime to realize that my parents had been a by-product of their time – they had suffered so immensely that they had absorbed their oppression and passed it onto others. They made others suffer because that was the only way they could relate, after the pain they had endured. They hurt me because they themselves had been hurt. And then I too, as a child of their hatred, had tried my best to keep that light of hate alive – because I’d never known another way. So many scarred, wounded people have created the world we live in today, where suffering and oppression breeds brutality.

When I was in Israel, a new understanding flooded me – that my story doesn’t end with dissecting my own family’s hatred and buried identity. It doesn’t end with me converting to Judaism. I’m also digging back further into the history of hidden Jews and forced converts in Europe, and the internalization of hatred, the transformation of victim into oppressor. We see this everywhere today – oppressed becomes oppressor, persecuted people turn the brutalization they suffered into outward brutality – from the peasant workers’ 20th century revolutions that turned into communist dictatorships, to the Jewish-Arab conflict in the Middle East.

It’s all a vicious cycle. A cycle where hatred and religion-fueled intolerance supresses the spark of divine essence, the oneness, that connects all beings. A cycle of hate and judgemental intolerance so brutal that it’s pushed me toward feelings of worthlessness and thoughts of suicide for most of my adult life. Until I realized that the future of humankind doesn’t rest with governments and profit-driven policies but within us – that love is stronger than hate. Unity is stronger than division. Kindness reveals much more courage than brutality. That is where everyone’s G-d resides. In deeds of loving kindness. In recognizing our mistakes and showing forgiveness to those who harmed us. And in understanding that our differences are nothing in comparison to the beautiful light that shines within us all.

Elisa TelAviv sunset yad vashem vista

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Posted in anti-semitism, family, hate, identity, jewish, life, news, religion, romania, thoughts | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments »

An open letter to my stalker

Posted by E on August 4, 2015

Elizabeth Moore shown in Choose Your Voice, 2005

Elizabeth Moore shown in Choose Your Voice, 2005

Hello Elizabeth,

for the record, I am deeply disturbed by the fact that you are stalking me on social media networks, and that you have communicated defamatory messages about me to other people in the last few months.

This cannot continue any more. It’s affected my health, stress levels, and has left me disturbed and fearing for my safety.

I recognize that you were upset by my February 2015 post White Lies: How the CBC Ripped Off My Story.

However, your behaviour since then has prompted me to write this post.

Over the last six months, I have noticed a pattern of stalking on social media networks such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, among others, along with my WordPress blog site and my personal/business websites, where you have stalked me and subsequently disseminated defamatory messages about me to other individuals.

I am hereby informing you that as of today, if you repeat any such stalking behaviour – to me or anyone else you disseminate defamatory statements about me – that I will have no choice but to contact police and take legal action against you.

I am frightened and disturbed by your stalking – and what amounts to bullying behaviour – and I will have to seek a restraining order against you if I receive any evidence that you are still persisting in continuing to stalk me on social media networks – or any members of my family.

So, Elizabeth — STOP STALKING ME! I know you’re reading this and I’m writing this notice as an official message that I intend to go to the police – and I WILL go to the police – unless your stalking behaviour stops.

Please do NOT make me contact the police, because this will leave a permanent record of your name in the police database,

Elisa

Posted in 1mooreliz, elizabeth moore, heritage front, history, stalking | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »