David's Lessons

For David:

There are certain people I have come across in my life, who I know will be in my heart forever. In the face of tragedy, misfortune, even death, David’s lessons remain eternal. David is the kind of person that makes a God seem possible. David was put on this earth so others could learn from his story and wisdom. His wisdom will linger in the minds of everyone who had the honor of hearing his delicate voice. This is a tribute to him, to his immortal and precious soul.


It did not hit me until the second hour of his shiva. A recognizable face walked past, and then paused. He turned around and said, “You, I recognize you. Are you the girl in the picture?” He noticed my eyebrows clinch together, so he rephrased,  “You are the girl who interviewed David with your sister, right?”

“Oh yes! What picture are you talking about?” I asked. He responded with a slow and determined pace to a familiar wooden table. On the table sat two bottles of vodka, a bowl of herring, a glimmering candle with a blue Jewish star printed boldly on the front and three pictures, framed in two inches of detailed silver.  Two of the photos were with family, and the third was with me. They were the three photos David kept on his nightstand.

Seeing the picture, as one of three to honor his life, gave me a feeling I had never experienced before.  I felt humbled and grateful to have known such a momentous man. Yet, I was sad, almost to the point of anger, that I would never feel the warmth in David’s hands. If you have lost a loved one, you understand the contradictory feelings of celebration and pain. The last time I was at this table, I was sitting next to David, like in the picture, listening to his vibrant stories and passionate lessons. This time, I realized that I would never experience the picture and sit next to David, or see the eager kindness in his eyes, ever again. Moments of joy, sadness, laughter and tears I shared with David flashed through my mind.  I will always cherish the time I spent with David.   

David was a compact man. He was just over five feet tall, but his colorful personality seemed endless. His body was frail with age, but his hands were strong and warm. His voice was just soft enough soft to hear and his Polish accent was just heavy enough to understand. 

“Shayna mamelah (my little dear),  you learn something from everybody. In my life I learned a lot, otherwise I wouldn't be here to tell you about it. I have some rules for you that I have to tell you, I might not be here next week! I’m getting tired. I think I lived too long!”  Surprised, I responded “No David! Never say that. I love coming here and listening to your stories because I always learn from you. I want your advice.” 

“Nah, OK, mamelah. You are wonderful, so I will hang around a just a little longer for you…” he whispered delicately. And so he began…

*The following lessons were adapted from audio recordings with David in the weeks before his death.

1.     I remember the first kiss a girl gave me. I felt like I was king. Everyone needs to feel confident, somehow. Be it, from a compliment, a good grade or someone else liking them.  Try to make people feel confident.
2.     I am very happy with myself because I know how to say “thank you.”
3.     I’m walking slowly, but I’m still walking. That’s all that matters.
4.     I remember everything that happened, as if it’s right in front of me now. Yesterday and from 60 years ago.  People will remember the way you treated them forever.
5.     You ask, how do I remember? Start with the ABC’s…I’m not kidding! If I forget my name, I start with A. Then I think, no, that’s not it. B? No. C? That’s not it either. D? Oh yes… that’s D for David!”
6.     I was hungry in the camp. Whatever food they gave me, I gave to my children. Always eat what is on your plate.
7.     I am happy and nervous in the mornings. I wake up and read the paper. If I don't see my name listed in the back, I’m good, I know I’m alive!
8.     Life is one big game.
9.     I was meant to be dead. The Nazis killed my first child. They murdered my wife. I heard them shoot her in the forest when we ran away. They killed my parents. I survived. I always ask myself, “Why am I alive?’ I cannot answer this question. I should be dead. So, I do not take life for granted.
10.   The partisans took me in. For three years I lived in the woods.  I lived on bugs and animals for those years. It is hard to believe that I survived, as a Jew. Always believe in perseverance. That is why I am alive.
11.  I’m not a religious person, how can I be after what happened to me? But I still have faith in religion because I have also seen kindness more than evil.
12.  Be nice to other people, and expect other people to be nice.
13.  Life is very precious. Do everything you can to breath deeply and think. That is how I spend most of my time.
14.  I am not a scientist or a philosopher, but I have spent 103 years with myself. I have learned to like myself, and you should too.
15.  I wish I got an education. I never graduated from what would be your high school. I left because I made a little mischief.
16.  Don’t be afraid to make a little mischief. It makes for good laughs.
17.  A lion is lion and a dog is a dog. A dog alive is worth more than a dead lion. This is my philosophy.
18.  I do not feel any anger towards the people who caused me such pain, because I cannot move forward by being hateful to my past. Always forgive.
19.  I’m a very simple guy, destiny wanted me to be here, you cannot explain it any other way. This is true for all my life, if destiny wanted it to be, it was. Everyday, say thank you to your destiny.
20.  The nicest proposition a person can get, I got. My son, who was born in the Displaced Persons camp said to me 30 years later, “Do you want to live with us, Dad? Under one roof with my family?” And I said yes, and that’s why I’m sitting here now, talking with you.  Always be gracious.
21.  When people talk to you, listen. Truly listen.
22.  When I thought I could not love anyone, I found love in the Displaced Person’s camp. Life can preform miracles sometimes.
23.  Always be fond of your mother.
24.  It was chance that we were born into our situations. We had no control over that. What we have control over is our happiness and our ability to make other people happy.
25.  What is the secret to a long life? Be part of a family. Be good. Be kind. Be grateful.

Facing my worst critic.

Something common for students: you are on a streak of good grades and you suddenly receive a bad grade. That was me and I was my worst critic. This post is about how I moved on.

As I received my test, like a knee-jerk reaction, I pulled out a calculator to calculate the percentage. Isn’t it interesting that a range of numbers can cause us to feel intense happiness and another range of numbers can cause us to feel intense anxiety? Unfortunately, without this consideration, I asked that the percentage console me. It didn’t. Staring back at me was a lifeless screen that shouted, “You aren’t worthy.” In that moment I doubted my abilities, fell victim to the imposter syndrome, and bullied myself. As I reviewed my test and understood my mistakes, my automatic response was, “How could I have missed that?” and “I am so stupid!” 

While I did not explicitly say those words out loud, I internally bullied myself. Self-bullying seems much more dramatic when written or said out loud, but the reality is that most of us bully ourselves, whether conscious or unconscious, and the effects are just as damaging to our emotional health, as overt bullying. 

In a sense, the way we bully ourselves is similar to the cyberbullying phenomenon. It is easier to cyberbully because of a disconnection: a screen makes it easier to say things we would not tell someone in person. The same is true for self-bullying: it is easier to say harsh things to ourselves because there is no one to filter or stop our harsh words. 

This type of bullying feeds the imposter syndrome (also known as the “I am a fraud and don’t deserve to be where I am” syndrome). While the imposter syndrome can motivate us to work harder, it can also feed habitual feelings of discontent, doubt, and hesitation. 

Because of a percentage, I thought I was an imposter. Because of a small failure, I thought I didn’t deserve to be where I am. Yet, I have been trained to know that merit is so much more than a test score, that I am more than a percentage, and that small failures are nothing to fear. I know all of these things to be true; I have faced much smaller and much bigger failures and have somehow moved on, but this time I asked, “Why do I routinely bully myself and insinuate the imposter syndrome, when facing failure?” I found answers in my blessings.

As a recipient of the Princeton Prize in Race Relations, race is always on my mind. I recognize that 100% of my life is affected by my race. Consequently, 100% of my life is affected by my privilege. Given the vast blessings, opportunities, and advantages that my privilege warrants, failure seems like an offense. I told myself, “I must be a fraud.” 

More blessings caused more critique: 

How dare I obsess about a bad grade when someone else is reconciling being soaked in blood from the Bataclan attack in Paris. Shame on me for obsessing over a bad grade when accusations of terrorism are inhibiting desperate refugees from finding peace and starting a new life. Snap out of it, Daniella! The imposter syndrome is insignificant in comparison to my friend meeting the challenges of Down syndrome. This isn’t a self-bullying check; this is a reality check. And yet again, am I being too harsh on myself… or not harsh enough?

Doubt can motivate us and critical thinking is a blessing-- but we need to know when to stop, especially when critiquing ourselves.

I am reminded of the words of a good friend Jack Golub. He said, “You deserve the same compassion that you direct to others.” I would never call a friend stupid, tell her to doubt herself, or that she does not deserve success, because she failed once, or even multiple times. I would never tell a friend that her struggles are insignificant compared to the world’s problems-- I would try to empathize. Why am I so supportive to others, and not to myself?

I deserve the same compassion that I direct to others; I am slowly learning how to face my worst critic. Are you?

On the events of the past few days.

1.    Bombings in Beirut killed dozens and injured hundreds.
2.    An earthquake in Japan triggered a small tsunami.
3.    A suicide bomber in Baghdad killed at least twenty-six.
4.    A bombing in Thailand killed at least four.
5.    A mile separated my brother and cousins from the Paris terror attacks.
6.    Refugees in Syria and across the Middle East face the reality of terrorism, every day.

It took terror to reach my family for me to understand how easily we overlook the horrors that so many face, every day. Why don’t we hear about the victims in Thailand in the news? Why aren’t hashtags trending about the victims in Baghdad? Why do we finally place a spotlight on terror, only when it reaches the West? 

I am reminded of the words of Martin Niemöller.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— 
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— 
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

If we do not stand up against violence and terror when it happens to others, there will be no one left to stand up for us. So what can we do about it? Armed with our voices and social media, we we can demand coverage of forgotten victims. Our hashtags can portray morals; we can place a spotlight on silent victims.  “Il est très simple: on ne voit bien qu'avec le cœur. L'essentiel est invisible pour les yeux” – Le Petit Prince.

An Emotional Revolution

*This blog appeared on Born This Way Foundation's site, here

It has only been a few weeks since the Emotion Revolution and I am still shaking from a discussion I had with Lady Gaga and Soledad O’Brien. Let me take a few steps back:

I was at the Emotion Revolution  as a Youth Advisor to Born This Way Foundation. The foundation is working to shine a light on important, yet stigmatized subjects: emotional and mental health. At the Emotion Revolution, Gaga said she wanted “to explode the conversation” about emotions-- that is exactly what she did. The weekend began by learning more about the story behind the foundation. Lady Gaga and her mom, Cynthia Germonatta, were honest and bold when sharing their story. The foundation was started so no child is told they are “just being dramatic” or should “toughen up” when battling negative emotions. I was deeply moved by Lady Gaga’s words; she is a fearless, passionate woman and her genuine character is something I will remember forever. I am humbled that I was able to be a part of her vision. This summer, I worked with Facebook and the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence to develop InspirED. InspirED is an emotional health curriculum that directly addresses the findings of a Yale survey. The survey found alarming disparities between the way students currently feel and they way students want to feel in school. Specifically, “When asked how they currently feel in school, out of all the words respondents listed, approximately 75% were negative. The most common words these students used to describe their current emotions at school are ‘Tired’ (39%), ‘Stressed’ (29%), and ‘Bored’ (26%). When asked how they WANT to feel in school the top three emotions that students want to experience more of are ‘Happy,’ Energized,’ and ‘Excited.’”

Later during the closing session, I was on a panel discussion with Lady Gaga, moderated by Soledad O’Brien. The discussion was in response to what we learned at the Emotion Revolution and a recent study by the American Psychological Association. The study found that for the first time ever, the stress levels of teens are higher than the stress levels of adults. The discussion can be watched here:   (1:20:00) 

Here is what resonates with me:

  1. Mental and emotional health is just as important as physical health.  
  2. Battling emotions is a silent struggle; often times it is isolating. What I learned at the Emotion Revolution is that there are other people who are battling their emotions.  There are resources to get help. We are not alone!
  3. “Self-care is not selfish.” We deserve the same compassion for ourselves, as we give to others. 
  4. Learn to say, “no.” Our decisions and actions are our vote. Say “yes” to things that promote emotional health and happiness. Say “no” to the things that promote stress. 
  5. Sometimes the small things can cause us immense stress; but the accumulation of small acts of kindness can inspire happiness. Give a few more compliments, tell someone you care about them, or pay it forward- small acts of kindness are easy and can promote the happiness of those around us.
  6. “How are you?” is a powerful question that I am still learning how to respond to. Don’t have a knee-jerk response such as, “I’m fine.” When asked that question, pause and truly assess your emotions. If you are feeling inspired, say “I am feeling inspired right now!” If you are feeling sad, be brave and do not be afraid to say, “Actually I’m feeling sad right now, but I think I could feel inspired if you help me.”

Let's start an emotion revolution-- explode the conversation about emotional health.


As I lay in my bed, I feel sandwiched. Physically, I am sandwiched between a supporting mattress and covers. Mentally, I am sandwiched between two states of consciousness: wakefulness and sleep. Emotionally, I am sandwiched between the how I currently feel and how I want to feel. Historically, I am sandwiched between nostalgia of the past and my entry into “adulthood.”

As I lay in my bed, I also know I should be sleeping-- but my mind is racing. I know I should read a book or meditate to relax my mind. I know I have school the next day and need adequate sleep. I found myself in a typical high school dilemma, but this time was different-- I caught myself. Why do I define “healthy” in terms of what is physical? If I am to be a leader in emotional health, (especially after my involvement in the Emotion Revolution) I must change what I view as “healthy” and consequently change my actions. Going to sleep early would be healthy for my physical self. Listening to the the lyrics of my (racing) mind would be healthy for my emotional self.

After this reconsideration, I realized that sometimes I need to listen a bit closer to uncover what is truly “healthy.” Sometimes following our thoughts, without judgment, is its own form of therapy. Sandwiches are difficult to exist in; listening to what sandwiches us, can help us find balance.

A more literal and delicious sandwich from lunch (hummus, taboule and artichoke made by my mother).

A Poem For Distraction

This Shakespearean sonnet was written for my english class. The sonnet is 14 lines with 10 syllables each, follows the a-b-a-b, c-d-c-d, e-f-e-f, g-g rhyme scheme, and includes a volta. Enjoy!

Chipped Paint

Admiring a vast wall: delicate blue.
Amidst a plethora of perfection,
One subtle chip disrupts a holy hue.
Lost in thought, I shift my mind’s direction.

What is this chip’s story? Is she lost, too?
She was a rebel, breaking free from the
Shackles of conformity: I construe.
Interrupted- my conscious makes a plea:

“Be more productive! Stop the excuses.”
I am scared of distraction, however
Genius is what distraction induces.
This chip is an insightful endeavor.

Distraction is creative potential.
Granting my mind’s wander is essential.