Gearing Up For Tonight’s Debate, Quelling Feelings Of Helplessness

Judge Robert Katzmann presides over the largest naturalization ceremony in Ellis’ Island’s history. Photo: Sasha Maslov for Observer

Judge Robert Katzmann presides over the largest naturalization ceremony in Ellis’ Island’s history. Photo: Sasha Maslov for Observer

On Citizenship Day, I had the opportunity to report on Ellis Island’s largest naturalization ceremony, what organizers told me was the Super Bowl of Citizenship. Timed perfectly to the centennial of the National Park Service and the anniversary of the signing of the Constitution, this historic swearing-in was coordinated with two simultaneous events at the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials in Washington D.C. During the week-long celebration at other national monuments, 38,000 new citizens would likewise pledge themselves “to perform works of national importance,” a phrase unknown to many life-long Americans like myself whose roots are not Native American.

The ceremony was moving. When I re-played my recordings, I wept as 298 new citizens recited the Oath of Allegiance in the Great Hall. If you’re a garden-variety American and occasional Walmart shopper like me, you might want to bone up on the Oath before tonight’s debate. Here it is:

I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.

I got this story idea by attending smaller ceremonies each Friday at a downtown courthouse. Over and over, I was struck at how well new citizens knew our Constitution and geography. In a time when 10 percent of college graduates believe Judge Judy is a Supreme Court Justice, I wanted to know what it’s like to consciously choose the United States over another land. In my visits to a Lower Manhattan court, I learned about the ceremony on Ellis Island. Excitedly, I pitched this article to the New York Observer, a paper owned by Trump’s son-in-law, whose deputy editor said “yes” and assigned an amazing photographer. Together, we followed several new citizens from the time they got on the ferry to the moment they held official papers.

It was humbling.

Immigration will likely be a hot topic tonight in the presidential debate. I can’t control November’s outcome. But I can know more about my country. And I can learn more about the systems that govern this great nation. I started by ordering a pocket Constitution. And by putting a copy of the Oath of Allegiance on my living room mirror.

Here are some of my own pics:

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It’s The Super Bowl Of Naturalizations!

Judge Robert Katzmann presides over the largest naturalization ceremony in Ellis’ Island’s history. Photo: Sasha Maslov for Observer

When taxi driver Richard Valdez boarded a ferry to Ellis Island last Friday, he filed past scores of tourists for what appeared to be a VIP wedding. As one of 298 candidates representing 53 countries, Valdez would soon participate in the Super Bowl of naturalization ceremonies, the largest in the island’s history.

A native of the Dominican Republic, Valdez, 26, relished postcard views of New York Harbor under a cyan sky. Tall and athletic, he wore a navy sports jacket with brown elbow patches. To quicken his long commute from the Bronx, he brought Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel García Márquez’ novel about love at first sight. Like many on the ferry, Valdez came to the United States for better opportunities.

Unlike most other new citizens, he stood alone. His grandmother back home could not witness the day when he pledged himself “to perform work of national importance.” In a few hours, he would be an American with the responsibility of jury duty and the right to vote in a heated presidential election.

Richard Valdez on the day he became an American citizen.

Nearby, Verna Genus, 66, who hailed from Jamaica, put Betsy Ross to shame in a white jacket, blue top, red lace skirt and crimson heels.

“I’m like the flag,” she remarked. With her braids piled high, she rattled off answers from her citizenship test in a heavy Caribbean
accent: “There are tree branches of government…The Speaker of the House is Paul Ryan.” Her son, Kirk Genus, 38, would also be sworn in. “I have never voted in my entire life, and I feel great,” said Kirk, who supports Hillary Clinton. Together, mother and son strode toward registration tables in the Great Hall, the cathedral-like space that once processed 5,000 immigrants a day.

This setting, with its relics and ghosts, moved Robert Katzmann, chief judge, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. His Russian grandmother came through Ellis Island.

“I admire new citizens,” Katzmann said before presiding over the ceremony. “I like seeing the joy on the faces. Witnessing the tears of their family members is always emotional. I think of it in terms of my own forebearers and their stories of sacrifice, service and patriotism.”

As the son of a refugee from Nazi Germany, Katzmann helped found Immigrant Justice Corps, a program providing legal assistance to non-citizens fighting deportation. Today, an IJC client would be sworn in as a citizen, a victory for the nonprofit organization.

After a presentation of colors and the National Anthem, candidates rose when they heard their various homelands announced. Among the first to stand at attention was Xinjie Quan, 24, a member of the U.S. Army National Guard, who emigrated from China and wore military fatigues. When the emcee announced the Dominican Republic, a large contingent moved to its feet—cheers ricocheting off the high, vaulted ceiling. Valdez was among them, raising his right hand.

I have no doubt that the spirit of liberty will thrive with you as citizens,” Katzmann told the beaming crowd. “To become a citizen, you passed every test. And as polls show, you know more about our Constitution and government than most native-born Americans. Because of your personal histories, you have a special feeling for freedom…You will keep this country great. You will make it better as you assume the responsibility of citizenship.”

After the ceremony, Verna Genus continued sharing a stream of impressive trivia from her citizenship studies, even after she and her son held their official paperwork to secure them to U.S. soil. “There are 13 original colonies,” she shouted. “And the longest rivers are the Missouri and the Mississippi.”

Valdez had fewer words. “I feel like an American now,” he said.

This article first appeared in the New York Observer.

E.B. White’s “Here Is New York” Classifies City, Future 9/11

images-1Bill De Blasio described his “Tale of Two Cities” during his successful election campaign. E.B. White, author of Charlotte’s Web, believed there were three. Here is a selection of White’s beautiful essay (1948), especially appropriate on 9/11:

There are roughly three New Yorks. There is, first, the New York of the man or woman who was born there, who takes the city for granted and accepts its size, its turbulence as natural and inevitable. Second, there is the New York of the commuter–the city that is devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night. Third, there is New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something. Of these trembling cities the greatest is the last–the city of final destination, the city that is a goal.

It is this third city that accounts for New York’s high strung disposition, its poetical deportment, its dedication to the arts, and its incomparable achievements. Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness, natives give it solidity and continuity, but the settlers give it passion. And whether it is a farmer arriving from a small town in Mississippi to escape the indignity of being observed by her neighbors, or a boy arriving from the Corn Belt with a manuscript in his suitcase and a pain in his heart, it makes no difference: each embraces New York with the intense excitement of first love, each absorbs New York with the fresh yes of an adventurer, each generates heat and light to dwarf the Consolidated Edison Company…

The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now; in the sounds of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest editions.

All dwellers in cities must live with the stubborn fact of annihilation; in New York the fact is somewhat more concentrated because of the concentration of the city itself, and because, of all targets, New York has a certain clear priority. In the mind of whatever perverted dreamer might loose the lightning, New York must hold a steady, irresistible charm.”

9/11 Stories: Rabbi Janise Poticha

Rabbi Janise Poticha holding the boots she wore on 9/11. Photo by Rick Wenner of The Observer.

Rabbi Janise Poticha holding the boots she wore on 9/11. Photo, Rick Wenner

“September 11 is still part of my life, but I don’t make it my life,” said Rabbi Janise Poticha, 63, the other day at a bustling diner near her Upper West Side apartment. “I expected to be a ‘pulpit rabbi’: to educate people, marry them, bury the dead and grieve with mourners,” she continued, her brown eyes a few shades darker than her cup of decaf. Her silver-streaked hair framed a tanned, youthful face. “Nobody ever thought somebody would hijack two airplanes and fly them into the most identifiable buildings in America.”

On the morning of 9/11, her doorman informed her that a plane hit the North Tower, probably a small aircraft gone off course. She thought little of it and set off for a meeting across town with the Archdiocese of New York. By the time she arrived, Flight 175 had crashed into the South Tower.

For the next four days, Poticha, who had EMT training, stayed around Ground Zero organizing triage stations. She placed the dead into body bags with first responders of all faiths. When a distraught firefighter noticed her kippah and chaplain vest, he asked if she would pray with him. “I said, ‘I’m Jewish, but we can pray together.’ We simply held hands and talked.”

More than 800 clergy mobilized after the 9/11 attacks—the largest multifaith chaplaincy effort in United States history.

“I felt compelled to be there, but I had to remember the high holy days were coming,” recalled Poticha, who has served as rabbi at Temple Sinai of Massapequa since 1998. “I had to take care of my congregation. On my last night as a responding chaplain, a construction worker gave me a ride home in his truck. It was 4 a.m. The moon was so bright. Looking up, I thought, ‘Things are still right in the world.’ The sun would rise in a few hours, and the moon would set. The organic sequence was still in place.”

Today, Poticha serves as president of Disaster Chaplaincy Services (DCS), a nonprofit that provides spiritual assistance in emergencies.

DCS provides pastoral support not just after tragedies but also during landmark occasions, such as the opening of the National September 11 Memorial Museum in 2014. In the museum’s first week, volunteer chaplains worked in shifts to care for survivors, family members and first responders who had a sneak peek of the site. “One man, a construction worker, saw his hat and pick in a glass case in the historical exhibition,” she said. “He had donated the items, but he didn’t know if they would be [displayed]. He broke into tears in my arms,” she said with a sigh. “There was a lot of that.”Ann Votaw for The New York Observer

PsychoBarn Is Home In NYC

Psycho HouseCornelia Parker’s site-specific sculpture, “Transitional Object (PsychoBarn),” is strangely at home on the Met’s rooftop garden, high above Central Park. I recently watched the sunset while leaning against the PscyhoBarn’s roped-off porch. Sipping beer and chewing expensive chips, I noted — once again — that New York is one weird city, especially at dawn or dusk when subterranean worlds collide with the respectable daytime veneer. Parker expertly caught the shadowy mood with her installation inspired by the Bates’ family home, the classic American red barn, and by the lonely paintings of Edward Hopper.

I just happen to be reading The Stand these days, a perfect summer epic about a world-wide pandemic. As a red sun flared through the trees and pleasant buildings of the Upper West Side, I thought of Rita Blakemoor and Larry Underwood stepping over dead bodies in the Lincoln Tunnel during a hail storm.

Like Parker, Stephen King knows a thing or two about fear.




Dirty Dancing Catskills

unnamedOwning a 1940s typewriter has made me a collector of antique stationery, the best frame for an IRL letter in inky font. On eBay, I stumbled upon a lot of five blank letterheads from The Concord, an old resort in the Catskills that featured stars like Judy Garland and Buddy Hackett. As the jewel of the Borscht Belt, The Concord was the largest, most lavish resort in the area, complete with a kosher menu for a mostly Jewish clientele.

As I typed the above paragraph, an older neighbor called to check on me in this heat. “God is well and in charge,” she said as soon I answered. I asked if she ever stayed at The Concord.

“Of course, honey,” she said. “Everyone went to The Concord. I stayed there once for five days when I was pregnant. We had to have a different outfit for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It was wonderful. That was when I was a rip.”

If you’re having a hard time picturing this, imagine the set of Dirty Dancing, a composite of these fabulous upstate resorts that included Grossingers, Kutcher’s, and The Nevele. Remember one of the last scenes of the film, when Max Kellerman acknowledges the end of an era? Before the last dance, Kellerman says:

You think the kids want to come take foxtrot lessons with their parents? Trips to Europe. That’s what the kids want. Twenty three countries in three days. It feels like it’s all slipping away.”

In the late 1990s, I landed my first professional dance job in one of these fabled resorts. I never knew which one. The gig fell through a few weeks later. I ended up dancing on a small cruise ship in the North Atlantic. I always wondered about The Concord, which closed in 1998, the time my upstate job fell through. Like so many other entertainers, I could have cut my teeth in the Catskills.

If You Meet The Buddha On The Road, Google Him First


After YogaCity NYC’s “Abuse of Power” panel at Yoga Union, I am chewing an interesting concept, brought up during the Q&A .

“Do we need to do background checks on our teachers?” a woman asked. Her question prompted “ohs” and “huhs” in the audience.

My answer to that — as a person who has had negative adventures in dating, kayaking, and yoga — is yes. While background checks may not be available, we do have google.

Google is Promethean fire on a smartphone. Few people use it the way they should. Let’s say I want to look up a teacher to see if he is an admitted sex addict at a prominent studio. (I’m not naming names, but I am using a real scenario.) I enter this teacher’s name into the search bar and voila, the creepy headlines appear in the second entry.

Let’s try another respected spiritual leader, the late Ashtanga master Pattabhi Jois, affectionately referred to by his students as Guruji. I scroll through accolades and obituaries. But on page four, I find this article, “Yoga Teacher FAIL…Is that Pattabhi Jois?,” contributed by Yoga Dork. This picture shows Guruji with his hands in the groins of two female yogis. I first saw the stock photo years ago on a male friend’s Facebook page. The meme made me grimace: “How do I get this guy’s job?” I never would have connected the dots to Pattabhi Jois.

After the YogaCity NYC panel, I know Guruji had another side. Women at the panel discussed misogyny and the culture that produced similar yoga masters. For the first time, I learned that travels to India may not always be the Eat, Pray, Love variety.

Do unfortunate actions take away from a teacher’s good qualities? Maybe or maybe not, depending on how students frame their own narratives.

My point is that when we first seek instruction, we are often hoping to repair a damaged heart and body. We are likely to hand our souls to the first person with authority. Some of that transference is necessary. As a respected colleague said to me, “When you find your teacher, it’s like falling in love.” I agree. Yet before trekking off to an ashram or teacher training, I recommend that if you meet Buddha on the road, google him before you shank him.

-illustration from YogaCity NYC



The Year In (Dead) Bodies

UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1900: Medicine - Anatomy - Musculoskeletal (locomotor) system - Muscles. Drawing. (Photo By DEA PICTURE LIBRARY/De Agostini/Getty Images)

Photo By DEA PICTURE LIBRARY/De Agostini/Getty Images)

In my personal research on donating my body to science, I encountered NPR reporter Fred Mogul at NYU School of Medicine’s most recent cadaver memorial in November. He was bugging the stage to collect touching speeches and songs sung by the Ketones, NYU’s medical school choir. I was representing The New York Observer for a 700-article, “The Kindest Cut.” My story centered around two second year students who lingered after the service to snack on bits of the remaining buffet. With me, they discussed the weirdness of dealing with disconnected hands and legs that looked like those of family members.

What impressed me was the admission that medical school was rewarding, but also really hard: “I never doubted that this was what I wanted to do,” said one of the future physicians. “I doubted that I was good enough to do it.”

Fred, meanwhile, had a longer-term project through NPR. He focused on a group of first year students and their relationship with donor Haig Manoukian, whom he met in a body bag on Table 4.

Haig was an Armenian-American whose parents fled the Turkish genocide of World War I. A musician, he played the oud and jammed with the New York Middle Eastern music scene before contracting prostate cancer. The choice to donate Haig’s body was his wife Michele’s. She considered many ways to remember Haig, who loved sharing his craft. Then she stumbled on body donation. “That pulled everything together for me,” she said. “I stopped crying. And I felt integrated. I felt like complete in some way. I just felt this is a real, this is the right decision.”

She said she hoped the students would make really good mistakes on him and feel all sorts of emotions, including humor.

“I didn’t want him to die, and I thought he’ll be alive in some way,” Michele said on NPR’s Only Human. “He won’t go into the dark. He’ll be in light. I didn’t care if it was fluorescent light. I wanted other people’s eyes on him. And I wanted their hands on him. I couldn’t let go. And so I thought, yeah, let’s do that. You know, it was selfish for me in a way, because I just wanted to think of him on 34 th Street. I didn’t want to think of him. I don’t know.”


Fred Mogul’s wonderful reporting has been released in sections on NPR, “Every (Dead) Body Has A Story” and “A Guide to Donating Your Body To Science.”

Does This MRI Make My Butt Look Flat?


I had my first MRI today and surprised the technicians when I asked for my CD. Apparently, most people want to leave after being jammed into a cylinder with their toes taped together for 30 minutes, but I really wanted to see my own body. As a result, I left the hospital with moonscapes of my innards. All that tapping and hammering produced great photography. From my home computer, I feel like I’m picking out a head shot, muttering comments like, “That’s the winner right there.” Maybe I’ll time the slides to Stars and Stripes Forever.

As I flip through the images, I can’t believe how much stuff is in my abdominal region: a liver, a spleen, just like in a drawing, except more compact. Also, I’m proud of my butt, but it doesn’t look good when I’m lying down smashed into a tube.

I’m tooting my own X-ray horn in this second picture, which proceeded today’s MRI. You may notice my right hip is a little higher. Not to worry. I have asymmetry going on. Yet I was surprised to see the whiteness of my bones with this X-ray. The doc snapped a picture and sent it to me via phone. A few guy friends got blushy when they saw my pelvis sans skin and organs. I don’t know what to make of males who are attracted to bones, but it does take all kinds, doesn’t it?


Yoga Is A Great Place To Meet Lots Of Attractive Single Women


photo from

To calm my urban brain, which was doing a series of jump backs and handstands, I recently attended my first class at MNDFL, New York’s first meditation studio with gym hours.

Upon entering the swanky West Village space, I was blown away by the lush decor and the group of four men sipping tea in the inviting living room area. These were normal gentlemen in V-neck sweaters and scarves who have long escaped the snares of my eHarmony search engines. I’ve rarely seen more than a few of this endangered species in vinyasa, restorative, ashtanga, hatha, Bikram, Kundalini, Anusara, yin, aerial, aqua, power, hot, or even naked yoga (although there were more than the average clothed class).

Yoga Journal, which loves nimble cover girls, noticed the disparity. Recently, the publication conducted a survey. As you might have guessed from all the athleisure-wear, yoga practice is stretching like a pair of factory reject compression shorts. As of 2016, 36 million Americans practice asana, up from 20.4 million in 2012. Of that large group, 72 percent are women.

In my experience, yoga is the best place to meet legions of really attractive single women. Yet I remember the days when boys weren’t just potential sweethearts, but brothers and confidantes. I miss male friends. Yoga should be the best place to find them, an incubator of healthy communities on and off the mat. Maybe meditation was less intimidating.

As I approached the cloud of testosterone at MNDFL, I noticed they were sitting Don Draper style, with one ankle crossed over thigh. I tried not to alarm them for fear they would break formation and disperse into the ether. Not only did I hear chatter about gainful employment, I also picked up on how they expressed feelings. I had to investigate further.

One extremely tall gentleman, a triathlete who called himself Fernando, allowed me to interview him for a feature in YogaCity NYC. Through our discussion at MNDFL and others to follow, I collected evidence as to why males don’t flock to studios.

Here’s what Fernando said to me that I couldn’t fit into my published article:

Me: What is it about meditation that may or may not be more attractive to men than a yoga class?

Fernando: Fewer yoga pants. We have to look at them all day on the streets. Fine. We get it. You’re on your way to yoga. Always. All day. Every day. But a room full of those. The concentration of yoga pants is simply too much for most men. The visual effect is basically a naked ass covered in black or grey spray paint. That’s not conducive to concentration or introspection or even lowering your gaze. If the women wore burlap dungarees, men would do more yoga.

Me: What is it about yoga that may or may not be intimidating to men?

Fernando: For men, the main problem with yoga is what to wear. Sweats are too loose. Shorts are too loose. Speedos are for the pool. I’ve gone to Reebok and Lululemon and Nike, and they just don’t make yoga pants for men.

Me: Why are there fewer numbers of men in yoga in your opinion? Is it flexibility? I’m aiming to be helpful to yoga teachers. We DO NOT KNOW!

Fernando: I do think that flexibility is one issue. When the instructor says to lay your face down on your knees, or if you can’t, then do something similar, that might be tough for men to take. One thing is tone of voice. Some yoga teachers can speak in a “calming” whisper which can be more aggravating than relaxing.

More to follow on this important issue. I did tell Fernando about Moon & Son yoga clothing just for men.