On the Water: Strength, Resilience and Everything in Between

my column for Epoch Times, originally published on Oct. 23 here.

New York City is a funny place. Politicians here are always talking about the city being “strong” or “tough” or “resilient.” In light of Hurricane Sandy, the mayor, city council members, and every city agency has used such phrasing ad nauseam in the last year.

As adjectives, there’s nothing overtly wrong with the words strong, tough, and resilient. It’s arguable, though, that they could be used to describe New York City at almost any point in its history. They come easily because they are inherently true.

The problem with the words strong and resilient is that they evoke a sense of power and dominance. As a metro reporter, I spend a lot of time out in the city talking with residents, and can attest to New York’s endless array of nuanced, multidimensional individuals. It would be a disservice to limit a description of them to just a few words.

Perhaps that’s why after the dust of the last two weeks of my reporting on the anniversary of Hurricane Sandy settled, I realized something surprising about this city. The source of our strength has nothing to do with plowing through difficulties with brute force. It’s quite the opposite. Hard to believe as it may be, our beloved metropolis is subtler than that.

The proof for me comes from my memories of interviews with Sandy survivors, of whom I interviewed 14. Those men and women described in great detail what happened to them that dark night, the day after, and in the year since. They came from all walks of life and all parts of the city, but their retelling was lucid and articulate.

Even with so many voices to recall, though, it seems I’m largely left with the indelible image of tears. That’s because three tough, strong, grown men cried when I interviewed them.

It wasn’t until days later that I realized how special those tears were. Those men and their pain are a remnant of Sandy’s awful legacy that’s greatly undervalued: our vulnerability.

All the talk of being strong and resilient makes it seem as though the city’s mantra is “We’re tough, we can take anything.”

But perhaps New Yorkers can be more accurately defined by their capacity to express life-altering trauma with open hearts. Even when they are being interviewed by a stranger.

Compassion goes a long way when reporting on tragedies like Boston & Newtown

By Genevieve Belmaker for Poynter

Journalists are often warned about the perils of getting emotionally involved with stories and subjects, but when reporting on a tragedy there’s always room to act as a human being first and a reporter second.

Reporting on the pain of the small college town of Blacksburg, Va., after the horrific 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech, my natural instinct was to grieve with the folks there. At the time, though, I didn’t know how to use my emotions as a compass to help me connect with people I needed to interview.

But six years later, I know that for journalists in such terrible situations our humanity is a strength, not a weakness.

Bill Leukhardt, a reporter with the Hartford Courant, has seen tragedy from both sides. His stepdaughter, Lauren Rousseau, was one of the teachers killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14.

Leukhardt, whose wife is also a journalist, said during a recent symposium at Columbia University dealing with breaking news, trauma and the aftermath that they understood why they received so many media inquiries after their stepdaughter’s death. But that didn’t make it any easier to open up for interviews.

The symposium was presented by Columbia Journalism School’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism and the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma on Monday in New York City for an audience of mostly working journalists and journalism students.

Leukhardt and many other panelists had an overarching message for reporters speaking to the grieving: show compassion and acknowledge loss.

“Kindness is what really resonates with families,” Leukhardt said, adding that when people who knew victims don’t want to be interviewed, leave them alone. “Be respectful, be kind.”

Read the rest here at Poynter

Israeli Musician Adam Ben Ezra’s Magic Sound

Sometimes subjects for feature articles come from the strangest and most unexpected places.

Late this past summer I heard an Israeli musician perform who blew my mind. I was at a work event with my husband, out on our first “date” since our son had been born more than 9 months earlier, and ended up hanging out alone. It was the opening of the Jerusalem Music Conference, and the first performer was a double bass player named Adam Ben Ezra.

I was in the ladies room checking my hair, a bit bored and trying to find a way to pass the time, when I heard this awesome sound coming from the stage down the hall.

“At last they started playing music!” I thought. The stage had been empty for a good hour while the VIPs and staffers of the music conference and other guests busied themselves with having a few drinks from the open bar. It was your basic awkward social/work function where nobody is really there to have fun, and almost everyone is “on” in their work persona. I think I was one of five people in the crowd of about 200 that really had nothing in particular to do.

But when I heard the music coming from the other room, I came out as fast as possible, expecting to see a band on stage. Instead, I just saw one guy with a contra bass and a fedora, jamming out to a highly distracted audience. Since everyone was huddled around or near the bar, I took up a spot in the audience pit in front of the stage and enjoyed hearing the jazz/funk/rhythm tune, even more so because I had the performer practically to myself.

After less than 3 minutes, I could tell this musician was something special, and turned to the only other person in the room watching him perform.

“Isn’t this guy amazing?!” I asked him.

“Yeah, I think so,” the rather slight, wiry man with dark hair and a huge smile answered back without skipping a beat. “I’m his manager!”

The manager, who turned out to be Guy Dayan of  Goola, stuck his hand out to shake mine.

What followed was one of those serendipitous moments that happens sometimes in the life of a reporter. I got to have a long chat with Ben Ezra and Dayan outside the venue while they took a cigarette break. They are charming, down-to-earth guys who love what they do. Ben Ezra is a true musician, largely self-taught and motivated to keep working, creating and improving on his craft. Dayan is the consummate business man and manger–always on the lookout for his client’s welfare in a business and personal sense (it helps that the two have been friends since childhood).

A few weeks later I was in Tel Aviv and spent two hours talking with Ben Ezra and Dayan about music, inspiration, and the artistic mind. Even though they were smoking almost the entire time (I hate cigarette smoke), it didn’t bother me in the least. I was so interested in what they had to say, who they were, and where they were going that I didn’t want the interview to end.

That intersection of interesting, talented and charming is what makes for good copy–every time.

Here’s the article as it appeared in print in English.

International Literary Festival Sweeps through NYC

By Genevieve Long Belmaker for The Epoch Times


NEW YORK—Literary luminaries and their admirers gathered in New York City all last week for a series of events, lectures, and presentations. It was the seventh year that the PEN World Voices Festival has brought poets, authors, and writers together.

The festival schedule boasted a wide array of lectures, discussions, and gatherings of all sizes.

Some of the events, including opening night events on New Yorks’ waterfront, feature world-famous authors and poets. Among them were Gioconda Belli, Iva Bittová, Mircea Cartarescu, Deborah Eisenberg, Evan Fallenberg, Malcolm Gladwell, Hanif Kureishi, Andrea Levy, Agi Mishol, Amélie Nothomb, Salman Rushdie, Wallace Shawn, Vladimir Sorokin, and Zha Jianying.

According to PEN, the festival included over 100 writers from 40 countries who came to New York City “to celebrate the power of the writer’s voice as a bold and vital element of public discourse.” Part of PEN’s mission, and running themes throughout the festival, include freedom of speech and freedom of expression.

During a talk on April 26 entitled “Solidarity with the Hungarian Theatre,” the discussion centered around the state of Hungarian theater and the performing arts industry at large. Featured speakers included Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó and Romanian-born Hungarian philosopher and essayist, G.M. Tamas.

During the discussion, Mundruczó repeatedly stated that the funding for the Hungarian filmmaking industry, which used to be largely state-subsidized, has dried up following recent sweeping changes in the government.

“The funding [for arts] was broken not because of government, but because it was corrupt,” said Mundruczó, who was speaking within the context of the political changes in Hungary. The country signed a new constitution yesterday.

G.M. Tamas, who is known for taking provocative positions on sensitive issues in his essays and writing, added that on top of Hungary’s new constitution, there is a controlling media law document that is over 200 pages long. He said it controls multiple aspects related to freedom of speech, from the dramatic arts to the media. Tamas warned that beyond that, there are also problems with the new constitution.

At another April 26, event Russian poets Igor Belov and Ksenia Shcherbino were joined by pianist Svetlana Smolina. Smolina performed selections from Russian composers—including some favorites from Rachmaninoff—in between poetry readings in Russian by Belov and Shcherbino.


Shen Yun ‘Exquisitely Beautiful’ Says Cate Blanchett

SYDNEY—Academy Award winning actress, Cate Blanchett and her husband, playwright and director Andrew Upton, took their children to see Shen Yun’s Sunday matinee at Sydney’s Capitol Theatre, Feb. 20.

The New-York-based Shen Yun is the world’s foremost classical Chinese dance and music company. Shen Yun seeks to revive and restore China’s 5,000 years of traditional Chinese culture, including the spirit and values of the culture.

Mr. Upton and Ms. Blanchett, who are both artistic directors of the Sydney Theatre Company, saw Shen Yun with their three sons, Dashiell, Roman and Ignatius.

“It was an extraordinary experience for us and the children,” Ms. Blanchett said. “The level of skill, but also the power of the archetypes and the narratives were startling.”


Israel Journal: National Stray Cat Problem

Reported for The Epoch Times from Israel

A Stray cat in and near a large public park in Jerusalem’s city center. (Genevieve Long/The Epoch Times)

JERUSALEM—There is a problem in Israel that even a casually observant tourist would notice: stray cats are everywhere, and there’s no stopping their reproduction since most are never spayed or neutered.

It’s hard to say what’s been more shocking for me—the large number of half-starved pitiful cats everywhere or Israeli society’s generally passive attitude about it. I’ve heard it explained away with an argument something along the lines that Israelis are not great cat lovers.

Read the rest of the post here: