ep. 58 - Joshua Safran: Author, Attorney, & Domestic Violence Survivor and Advocate
JJoshua is an author, attorney, occasional rabbi and nationally recognized advocate for survivors of domestic abuse and champion for the wrongfully imprisoned. His 7-year legal odyssey to free an incarcerated survivor of domestic violence from prison was featured in the award-winning documentary film CRIME AFTER CRIME, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and on the Oprah Winfrey Network. The film won over 25 awards, including the National Board of Review Freedom of Expression Award and the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award. Joshua has also received numerous awards and national media coverage for his pro bono advocacy work.
ep. 58 - Joshua Safran: Author, Attorney, & Domestic Violence Survivor and Advocate
Gail Davis: Joshua Safran is an author, attorney, occasional rabbi, and nationally recognized advocate for survivors of domestic violence and the wrongfully imprisoned. He is the subject of an award-winning documentary, [00:01:00] Crime After Crime, which premiered at Sundance and on the Oprah Winfrey Network. His critically acclaimed memoir, "Free Spirit: Growing up on the Road and off the Grid", has been compared to the best work of David Sedaris and Augustine Burroughs. Josh Safran's inspiring stories have been heard around the world on the BBC, PBS, NPR, FOX and CBS, and his essays have appeared in Salon, Huffington Post, [00:01:30] and The Daily Beast. I'd like to welcome Joshua to today's episode of GDA Podcast.
Kyle Davis: Hey Joshua, how are you?
Joshua Safran: Great. Thanks for having me.
Kyle Davis: Well it's great to have you on. We've talked about this, just prior to record, but I spent a lot of time talking to your wife. That's how I have an understanding of your story, and I think it is quite remarkable. But for our audience, and for the listeners who are just hearing about you for the first time, [00:02:00] give them some background, and tell them your story so to speak.
Joshua Safran: Sure. Today I practice as an attorney, and I'm an author and speaker on the side. I think part of what's kind of funny about that identity is the author and speaker venue or hat that I wear was not something that I ever sort of thought would be a public part of my persona. And it was sort of thrust on me, in large part because the more people found out about [00:02:30] me, I realized that I was really different. And just a simple conversation, "Hi, where are you from?" You know, and I would say, "Oh you know, well I was born into a coven of lesbian witches in the Haight-Ashbury commune in 1975, and spent my childhood until the age of nine, hitchhiking across the American West with my single mom. And my mother married a violent, alcoholic, Marxist guerrilla commander from Central America, and we survived him for four years. Then I ultimately [00:03:00] grew up on a separatist commune by the Canadian border in Washington State. Then went to college and law school. What about you?" You know.
And that was usually ... I never usually got to hear about the other person because they were like, "Wait. I have a couple of questions." You know. And my wife, for example, one of her favorite things, is she's like, "You lived in an ice-cream truck. Who else lived in an ice-cream truck? You have to write about this." That was part of her original, [00:03:30] when we were dating, that she was just like, "You've got to write this story." And I go, "Okay, I guess. It might be interesting, I don't know."
So that was sort of my background, but the latter half of my childhood, married to the violent, alcoholic, Central American, Marxist, guerrilla commander was not a part that I would ever really talk to people about, because it was pretty awful. It was four years of living with a violent drunk. So I kind of would gloss over that. [00:04:00] And that aspect, interestingly, of my story didn't really come out until I was an attorney and a professional. And I sort of, I guess, subconsciously was guided into advocating on behalf of women like my mother, who are in that circumstance. And through that process, ended up sort of realizing that I had to tell my own story in order to better advocate for the folks I was representing.
Kyle Davis: So I've lived in San [00:04:30] Francisco, but in the tech boom part of San Francisco of the last three to five years, so take us back to your time in Haight-Ashbury at a lesbian, Wiccan coven. I mean that's, I think, a great place for us to start.
Joshua Safran: Sure, sure, yeah. I mean one of the first ... People hear witches, and they're like, "Oh like Halloween?" Not really. So my mother, she has a fascinating story of her own, but she was brought up by members of the American Communist [00:05:00] Party, so you know the McCarthy line, you know, "Were you ever a member of the Communist Party?" "No, no." "Yes you were a card-carrying member." Her parents actually were card-carrying members of the Communist Party. Not only were they not embarrassed about that, that was sort of who they were. That was their identity. And they were in the 50s, blacklisted because of it. My grandfather was a professor, and he tried his hand, actually, for a time as a Unitarian minister. And he kept sort of being persecuted and prosecuted [00:05:30] literally for being a communist.
So my mother already grew up moving from place to place constantly and believing that the revolution could happen tomorrow. And interestingly, her rebellion was that part of the Marxist doctrine was that not only is there no God, but there's no spirituality. It's the opiate of the masses, right? So she kind of rebelled against them by becoming a highly spiritual person. That was a part of her personality that came out, and she [00:06:00] and a group of radical gay feminist in the 70s decided that they were going to reclaim the goddess, as they called the divine, from the patriarchy. So they essentially formed kind of a separatist movement, where everything was about women. I mean there were no men allowed in this group. And they broke into covens, which were collectives of 13 women per coven. An in fact, my mother's coven, [00:06:30] which for a while was called "the compost coven", that had to do with ... Was a euphemism of the coven that was getting their crap together. They were changing crap into positivity, essentially.
And they were more radical feminists than they were witches. So I was born into this coven, and they kind of freaked out because I was a boy, and they didn't know how to handle that because men were evil, [00:07:00] men were bad. And my earliest memories are surrounded by these gay women, and that's led to some funniness later in life. So in a sense I'm now a big guy, and I have a beard. My key comfort demographic is among older lesbian women. That's who I associate with being ... You know and I, "Hey what's going on ladies?" And people look at me like, why [00:07:30] are you here? Why are you talking to us? But that was my first parent group.
But I remember, they celebrated Samhain and Beltane and dropped a lot of LSD and did a lot of astral projection and spiritual work meditation. And some of it was scary as a kid. There were like animal skulls on magic staffs, and adults literally spinning naked on the top of hilltops at dawn out of control. And my mother [00:08:00] was in an altered state, but also it was kind of fun to be this little boy, in fact the only kid amongst this group of women. They were all sort of my parents. Of course, I had no idea that I was living anything like a unique life. This to me, was just the way things are, you know. That was all in and around the Bay area in the mid-70s until like 1980.
Gail Davis: You kind of started in jest [00:08:30] about when you meet someone and they say, "Tell me about where you're from." And you describe that. But at what point did you realize, this is not a typical life?
Joshua Safran: It took me a while, because in 1980 Reagan was elected. My mother was convinced that nuclear war was coming, believe it or not, that was a very real thing. Which now again, seems a little more possible because of North Korea or whatever. But you know, this was still the height of the Cold War. And [00:09:00] so we, and in part because I was now school age, and my mother didn't believe in school. She literally though school was no place kids. We were constantly on the road. So I really never had a chance to sort of see the way that everyone else lived. And my mother would sing me this Doors song and say, "They got the guns, but we got the numbers. We're the people." So I sort of had this just sense that somewhere out there everyone was sort of wandering around, and the minority [00:09:30] were these boring, what my mother called, "straight people", which didn't mean heterosexual, it just meant people who are subscribed to society.
And it wasn't until I was about nine, where we became more sedentary on this hilltop in Washington state, and I began to interact with other kids. Then when I was 10, I insisted on going to school. And that was just an amazing experience, because I realized not only did we not have the guns, but we didn't have the numbers. In fact, there was nobody. [00:10:00] It was just us. We're the only ones still out there. And it was a brutal ... I mean sixth grade is traumatic for a lot of kids. You know, first day of middle school, and here I am emerging from a wall of forest, covered in tree sap and spiders and pine needles, and going to school having no idea how to navigate a classroom. And marveling at school lunch and heated rooms [00:10:30] and bathrooms with hot water and toilets. You know all of this, not to mention the classroom.
So it was a shock, and I think at that point my mother had been my leader, like my sort of, not just a parent, but she was someone who I understood was training me in how to be a revolutionary leader. Sort of like Sarah Conner in Terminator 2, you know? Then I got to school and realized, man [00:11:00] what's going on? I don't understand. And as I slowly began to ... You know my mother, I wasn't exposed to things like sugar and television and all this.
And I was, of course, initially very wary because sugar was going to like rot my teeth out immediately, and television was going to rot my brain. But once I rebelled and began to experiment, I was like, wait a second. You've been depriving me of doughnuts? What's the point? [00:11:30] Why have I been suffering this way? And television was just awesome. And I began to realize ... And this was a progression through my teenage years, but a realization that all of this deprivation was just pointless. There was no reason to suffer the way we did.
Kyle Davis: So in talking about school, I remember having a conversation with your wife about the fact that school for you was a great way to escape the violent, Central American, [00:12:00] Marxist leader that your mom had been partnered with. So could you talk about what the home environment was like during that time, and then what school became for you?
Joshua Safran: Yeah. So we ended up living on one of the San Juan Islands, and we were squatting on some land supposedly owned by the family of a guy named Crazy John, who as is name would dictate, Crazy John was a pretty crazy guy. [00:12:30] Society felt that he was supposed to be medicated, and he refused to do that. So he was squatting out on this land with us. My stepfather, Leopoldo had been sort of living in the jungle with rebels in El Salvador, so to him the fact that we were living in this jungle was fine because there was no one actively hunting him. So for him, it was the good life. He was chopping down trees by hand with a bow saw [00:13:00] to build us a pyramid that would channel the healing energy of Ancient Egypt. And we were sleeping on this tarp, and it was this race to get the pyramid done before the rains would come. And I'd been in Washington State long enough to know that once the rains came, we were kind of screwed.
And the rains came, and we were still sleeping on a tarp, and we were just like surfing on a pile of mud. Then [00:13:30] my mother and stepfather stole some wooden pallets from behind a dumpster at Thrifty Foods. So we were sleeping on that, and I thought you know maybe school was a place for kids after all. Maybe that's something that I could go and do. And I knew enough ... I had a guy who I called my uncle, my Uncle Tony, who himself was actually not related to me and has a whole story himself. He was kidnapped as a child and raised by his kidnapper.
Anyway, so he had been advising me. He was a Mexican-American guy [00:14:00] who'd been raised by an insane Cuban lady, but he was sort of encouraging me to go to school. And I figured, you know what? At least it'll be dry. And yeah, the hot lunch and the shelter over my head, and quite frankly, the stepfather not beating my mother at school, made school attractive. Even though there were lots and lots of bullies, and lots and lots of kids who just couldn't get over what a freak I was, [00:14:30] which in all fairness, I was. But they were awful, most of these kids. So it was the lesser of two evils, and I probably had one of the rougher middle school experiences, let's put it that way.
Kyle Davis: I mean on the spectrum of roughness, I think saying it like you just did is a little bit of an understatement.
Gail Davis: How did your relationship with your mom evolve over time?
Joshua Safran: So people who [00:15:00] read my book, and who hear me talk about it a little bit in Crime After Crime. They're sort of like ... They form opinions of my mother, which I think my mother in static, in a snapshot from 30 years ago, I think maybe justified a lot of that criticism. But the truth is, my mother and I kind of grew up together. So I mentioned that she came from these Marxist parents, and she really believed that if you were a rebel commander, for example, [00:15:30] you were just an amazing, wonderful person. Even if you were a violent alcoholic, because you were a rebel commander. And that was the best thing that you could be, you know.
And I think after we escaped from my stepfather, she had a sense that, what if a republican ... Because Republicans were like worse than anything. What if a Republican was a nice person. Could they be a nice person, right? And I think her notions about whether your politics define you kind of changed. And her notions about whether the revolution was really gonna happen, [00:16:00] changed. So I've read about these Japanese soldiers after World War II, who like came down from the hills in the Philippines in like 1985 or something. They finally gave in.
So my mother kind of finally gave in. So when I went to college, she went to college. When I got a job, she got a job. And then she went on to sort of engage in mainstream society as a journalist. She's a writer and a journalist. She worked for about 17 years, and is still [00:16:30] writing and still doing investigative pieces. Mostly local news stories. And she sort of felt like journalism is a way where I can still be adverse to the straight people, to mainstream society.
And I'll tell you, the experiences that she had, "You're never going to believe what happened." "What?" "I did a ride-along with a cop. With a cop! And I was with him, and he pulled someone over, and can you believe it? He was scared. He was scared. The cop was scared." You know, my mother couldn't believe, because in her [00:17:00] mind the police were basically just these kind of like Nazis exercising the state monopoly on violence on poor black people. That was her conception of what a police officer was. So she really had a ... You know, and the next thing I know she's like, "Oh I was covering the mayors race, and now I'm invited to the mayor ...", you know whatever. And suddenly she's engaged and part of mainstream society.
So I have a lot of resentment, both about her choice of husband, [00:17:30] which I think part of what I talk about is the mythology of domestic violence. And I think I kind of fell into that and blamed her for bringing this guy into our home. And of course, it wasn't like she was like, "Who's drunk and has an anger management problem? I'll marry you." It didn't evolve that way, but it took me a long time to sort of get through that. Then to recognize ... This is the other aspect of it, is now that I'm now 41, [00:18:00] and I realize so much of my childhood was while I was deprived in a lot of ways, I actually had a great unconventional education. A lot of it things that I really value about myself, and quite honestly my abilities as an attorney, as an advocate were honed by my upbringing.
And I think that she actually made a lot of good points. Now today, my kids, I don't let them watch TV. I mean, there's Netflix, [00:18:30] so I don't know how much ... That's maybe a nuance that doesn't matter, but I don't let them watch TV. I try to limit the sugar they have. You know those kind of things. And I think that the older I get, the more wisdom I see in a lot of the things that she taught me. For a while, that pained me to admit. But it's true, and we're close today. But the process of writing the book required that I interview her every Sunday for a year.
And I'll tell you, I don't know how [00:19:00] much you guys talk, but to unpack your childhood, for anyone, to unpack their childhood that way, you gain so much insight into what maybe felt like a random or chaotic set of experiences when you're a child. And you sort of say, "Oh you weren't really mad at me that day. It was because such and such, the fact that I broke your clay piece of the lesbian killing the dragon instead of St. George. It wasn't really that I did that that made you so angry." You know, whatever it is, you kind of ... [00:19:30] So it's been an interesting conciliatory path for us.
Kyle Davis: Could you talk about, and they always say ask questions that you know the answer to, and I believe I'd remember it, but unfortunately I don't. Can you talk about the tipping point that led you to continue the path towards a more conventional education, once you entered school. And what was that moment like, and then more [00:20:00] importantly, where did it lead you to what you're doing professionally today?
Joshua Safran: When I was a teenager, people ask me when they hear about how I grew up, and then they say, "Well you're a corporate lawyer, and you're an orthodox Jew? How did that happen given how you grew up?" And my response, which is mostly accurate is, well every kids gotta rebel. So if you grew up with a mother like mine, corporate law seems like a really [00:20:30] cool ... So no, when I was graduating from high school, I was like, I want the full American dream. You know I was like an immigrant essentially, who had just landed on these shores. And in fact, the joke that I tell is that I'm exactly like Christopher Columbus. I discovered America, much to the surprise of everyone that was already in America.
But for me, the idea of owning a home and being a professional [00:21:00] and having a workplace and having an office and having a keycard badge to get in the door and being respected and being someone of note in society was really exciting. It seemed like, what an amazing experience. So I had a real drive to succeed academically. That's what kept me going in high school. I'm like doing my homework by candle light and kerosene lamp in a cabin with no running water and electricity. Then I got to college, and a lot of friends of course, who'd grown up with all kinds of privilege were [00:21:30] like, "Yeah I think I'm going to like backpack around Thailand for six years," or whatever. I was like, "Are you crazy? I want to like get a job and get married and have kids, get [inaudible 00:21:41], have a really high fence."
So that was my path in many ways, and I think the religious part of it was the same way. I really ... My mother at one point said, "The Judaism that you're subscribing to is a patriarchal rule-based tradition." [00:22:00] And I thought about it, and I was like, I grew up with no father and no rules, so that makes sense. Gail Davis: That makes sense. Joshua Safran: Then when I was in law school, so many of my friends again, whose parents were paying for their law school education, they're like, "Yeah I want to go do like public service and volunteer and like ...", whatever. And I was like, "I want to work in like a corporate law firm and represent Fortune 100 companies, and like be notorious." That was my ... I want the other side to tremble when [00:22:30] I enter the room, you know. And I got to do that, and everyone has to follow their path.
And I think for me, I no longer get the sort of same reward, psychologically, that I did, but there was a time when I enjoyed, I honestly enjoyed what I guess a lot of people would describe as kind of a boring or nerdy lifestyle. I enjoyed walking ... I would work for one of the 20 largest law firms at the time. It was called Bingham-McCutchin, and [00:23:00] we had offices from London to Tokyo, and our office had these white, plush carpets that you'd walk along. And if you spilled something, some guy would emerge from a closet and immediately clean it up in front of you. You know, it was like really ... And a secretary and the whole thing.
And I enjoyed that, because I felt like, part of it was I felt like I was such an outsider, and I'd always been excluded from society either because my mother intended it to be so, or I was just so [00:23:30] clueless. And here I was an accomplished part of what I thought was sort of the inner workings of the system, to be a lawyer and be able to take someone, even a sophisticated party, and navigate them through and succeed. You get the governmental approval or to win the dispute, whatever it was. That was really ... It made me kind of a law nerd for a long time. And I still practice, it's just I've sort of my [00:24:00] own roots have emerged. I've done more pro-bono work.
Gail Davis: We've mentioned your wife a couple of times. I'm really curious how you met her, and I'm also curious at what point you unveiled your background, because we're all taught in dating to look for red flags. I'm just curious how that all went down.
Kyle Davis: That's conversation one for me. That keeps them around.
Joshua Safran: Have you lived with a toilet your entire life? [00:24:30] I have an essay that I haven't written yet, but I don't think the Tarzan/Jane relationship would work in real life, and I was sort of Tarzan. Not as buff as Tarzan, but coming from Tarzan's background. And I don't think a Jane could have dealt with me or figured me out. I think a Jane would have been a real bummer for me to marry, because she would be like, "You've got to have your forks [00:25:00] and serviettes in the right ...", whatever. It just wouldn't have worked.
So my wife was sort of this God-sent, ready-made, in-betweener. Her parents were also the children of communists. They were also radical lefties. But unlike my mother, they decided to marry one another, settle down in a house, send their kids to school, have jobs. But my father-in-law was a career public defender [00:25:30] representing people accused of horrendous crimes his whole career. And my mother-in-law is a radical feminist artist who sculpts like three-foot tall glazed female genitalia. So there was enough of ... My wife on the one hand could connect with me, and make tofu the way that I'd been brought up, and understand kind of where I was coming from. But on the other hand, have a sense of like how refrigerators work, and how long you can leave [00:26:00] fish out before you have to throw it out. You know all those kind of things that I had no clue about.
You know, it was an amazing experience. We met, and the first thing that shocked me about her was how similar our stories were. Because I'd really, up to that point, either I met ... I call it criss-cross. But either I was meeting women who had come from, oh I grew up on Cape Cod in the summers, and you know Boston Latin prep school, whatever. [00:26:30] And now I'm like composting my own waste matter and have like 15 nose rings. Those people didn't interest me at all, because they were like heading in the wrong direction from a place that was alien to me.
Then most of the people that I knew who had sort of grown up in my milieu, had either stayed there, and they were just still on the land, still shooting at satellites overhead or whatever. [00:27:00] Or they had gone totally corporate mainstream and didn't want to have any connection with their past at all. And I always sort of felt like I'm this in-betweener and stuck between these two worlds. So my wife, I think, to some degree was and is a fellow traveler. We both kind of feel like we're between these worlds. On the one hand we really enjoy a lot of our counter-cultural roots, but on the other hand we need to go and take a shower [00:27:30] if we spend too much time there.
Gail Davis: Another thing that I'm curious about, the coping strategies that you must have learned as a child that possibly help you, maybe even make you different in your adult life. What might some of those be?
Joshua Safran: A couple of things. I think the biggest one for me was humor, and particularly when we were in [00:28:00] the hitchhiking phase of my life, about four or five years where we were just wandering around. If you're in the American West, especially the rural American West, it's not a very hospitable culture. So if you hitchhike into town, and you're going to crash in town for a few days, everyone's looking. Are you gonna rob my house? Are you hobos? Are you going to pickpocket? What's your angle? Why are you here? What are you doing? And I immediately picked up on [00:28:30] the fact that if you're a clown and you're goofy and you tell jokes and you do funny accents or whatever, you're harmless. People just ... Oh they're harmless, and yeah what's the harm of giving them a ride? Or what's the harm of inviting them in to use the phone? That was a ... Back before cellphones we were always like stranded somewhere and needed a phone or whatever.
And people just like you, even though they don't know anything about you, if you're funny. So that was sort of early on I developed that persona, [00:29:00] and I was good at doing impressions and making sort of observational humor, because I really was coming from a different culture. So I could walk into a room and immediately pick out what was unique about these folks. Then when I had ... Leopoldo, I mean, there's not a lot that will stop a violent alcoholic's rage, especially when they're in mid-swing. But boy did I come up with some characters and physical comedy and dances [00:29:30] that would sometimes distract my stepfather so that he was taking his aggressiveness, instead of taking it out on my mother, he was laughing and pointing at me and calling me an idiot. And you're so stupid. Look at you. Ha, ha, ha. And I'm doing like a Mr. Bojangles tap-dance routine wearing a dried macaroni box on my head. Fine if that buys us some peace, so be it.
So I think that was just sort of something that I learned early on. [00:30:00] And I think a couple of other things. For one thing, when you've been ... And I would in no way compare myself to a veteran or something. But you know if you've been in these really intense, violent situations, you really have a sense of perspective. So if today I'm in a mediation, and some crotchety lawyer on the other side starts slapping the table, and "I'm going to come after you personally, buster." Whatever their weird [00:30:30] threat is, "I'm going to see that you're disbarred." You know. Whereas, I think a lot of people might be shaken by that, from my perspective it's like, yeah I'm not really worried about you, and I could probably take you if ... You know it just kind of changes the dynamic.
And then I think the other thing that really allowed ... When you're hitchhiking, or you're staying at some strangers house, you very [00:31:00] quickly hone who's gonna be dangerous, who's not. Okay this person, they've been nipping off that bottle of malt liquor. Okay this is going to turn ugly, real soon. This person, I can tell by the way his spouse, his wife is looking at him that he's a wife-beater, and we're not gonna hang out with these folks in this trailer. You know you just kind of pick up a radar, and you also develop a sense of empathy, so that you can [00:31:30] identify quickly what's bothering someone, or what's angering someone. And you can sympathize with them and get them to sort of cool down.
So I think those were lessons that I learned and have been tremendously helpful in business and in my professional career. It's something, actually, I struggle to impart to my own children, because I think they're in many ways, kind of clueless, which is good because it means they haven't had to have the adversity. But on the other hand, I feel like, [00:32:00] "What's gonna happen when they get into that mediation? They're gonna be afraid," you know whatever.
Kyle Davis: So I have like a million questions in my head, as I always do. So the first question that I have for you, and feel free to switch the order up because of what you just said about being able to see how someone's dangerous. My first question for you is how does somebody with your background of going from a Wiccan or witchcraft coven [00:32:30] kind of upbringing into a atheist, if you will, communist kind of upbringing, go into Orthodox Judaism, studying the Talmud and becoming an occasional rabbi. So that's like, unpack that for me.
Then the next question is how ... You're talking about also these micro-expressions that people are having. You know the way that someone looks at somebody, [00:33:00] even if it's just for a moment, tells you so much. And there's countless studies in individuals looking at people like your background and how quick individuals like yourself, who've been in traumatic situations or quickly read a room. What are some things that you're looking for just generally speaking that tell you that it's okay to trust somebody, or maybe it's time to move on?
Joshua Safran: I'll take the second one first, because I mean it's a shorter topic. [00:33:30] I think one of the things that I always focus on is facial expressions, especially subtle cues. For me a lot, the flaring of the nostril, the grimness of the mouth or the shape of the mouth, and reading the eyes. And oftentimes, one of the things that I can always seem to spot is when the eyes don't match the mouth. So the mouth is smiling, but the eyes aren't. Or the mouth is [00:34:00] in an angry grimace, but the eyes aren't angry. So you can kind of see when someone is essentially being deceitful or has an emotion that's an artifice, or when they're really in it.
Then the other is just kind of the speech, the way that people talk. Particularly around drugs and alcohol. That was my specialty, right? Identifying who was too drunk or stoned or high to drive me or trust [00:34:30] around or whatever. And I think just those kind of neurotic behaviors. Then also being able to read the way that other people are interacting with that individual. Whether it's people they know, or people they don't know. Just to get a read on a room. I think that's ... I guess it's a form of street smarts, you know.
Kyle Davis: Have you, and this is just me, I had to Google it just because I'm an absolute nerd sometimes, but have you read anything from Paul [00:35:00] Ekman, like his book, "Telling Lies"?
Joshua Safran: No, I haven't. I haven't. But I'm writing that-
Kyle Davis: I think you'd find it fascinating.
Joshua Safran: Yeah, I'm writing that down.
Kyle Davis: Yeah. I'll send you the link and I'll, heck, I'll make a show note of it in the iTunes thing. He's awesome. He's all about micro-aggressions, and the show "Lie to Me" is based off of him.
Joshua Safran: Okay.
Kyle Davis: Talk about you know, stumbling into Judaism.
Joshua Safran: Yeah. So strangely-
Kyle Davis: Actually, can I ask that question again, because I think it would be kind fun. Tell me about wandering through the desert [00:35:30] that is life into Judaism. That's a better ... Oh that was a horrible joke. Okay, nevermind. Go ahead.
Joshua Safran: So ironically, part of the answer is in that, in the way you asked the question. My interest and ultimate involvement in the Jewish experience was not originally any sort of spiritual or intellectual thing. It was that I noticed, Gail asked me earlier, when did you sort of notice that you're [00:36:00] totally weird and different from everybody else? Well, one of the things that I noticed is that everybody was from somewhere, particularly in the rural west. "Well we're a quarter Cherokee, one-90th Comanche, Irish, German, Pennsylvania-Dutch." Everyone has their little laundry list of American heritage.
And we were like nothing. We were just nothing. My mother was like, "Oh we're from the Bay Area." That was sort of her thing. And my [00:36:30] grandmother, my mother's mother, who was sort of my only link to the past. I was like, "Where are we from?" "Who knew? They kept changing the border." I was like, okay we're just from nowhere then. You know there's nothing. My mother would never sort of talk about the ... I didn't have a sense of any ethnicity, not even ethnicity, but of family. I felt like I hatched from an egg.
So when I was about nine or 10, we were on this random [00:37:00] mountainside in Washington state, and this is where folks from Seattle who really wanted to like rough it and live out in the rustic wilderness, you know that's where we lived, but they would have these crazy cabins up there. So we ran into this guy on a trail, and we're talking to him. And he starts talking to my mother. "Where are you from?" "Oh we're from the Bay Area." And this guy goes, "Ain't no [inaudible 00:37:25] from the Bay Area." And I was like, I don't know what that word means. And my mother's like, [00:37:30] "Oh how'd you know we were Jewish?" And he goes, "Oh your kid's got a rabbi's nose. I would know. I was the only Italian kid in Brooklyn who had not one but two Bar Mitzvahs." And my mother thought that was hilarious. And they had this whole conversation.
And it was so weird because I had never heard ... You know my mother, she said that she was talking with people about the past, you know it was about, "Yeah we were in the march on Washington," or whatever it was. And here was this weird thing. So I asked her, what was that? What did he know? My nose, [00:38:00] what's going on? And she goes, "Oh yeah. I guess I never told you, we're Jewish." And I was like, "Well what does that mean?" And she said, "Well it's like Freud, Einstein, Marx, you know, Jews." And I was like, "We're related to them?" And she was like, "Kind of. Let's go to the library and look it up."
So I really had no sense of what any of this meant, and I guess credit to my mother, we went to the library. And it was basically, whatever it was, Encyclopedia Britannica. But here I was [00:38:30] wandering from place to place, sort of loathed wherever we went. Being told by my mother that we were special and leaders, but not really feeling like it. Then we get to this ancient tribe, they emerged from the mist of prehistory to teach the world about God and write the Bible, and wandering in adversity from place to place. As you say, wandering in the desert. And yet, sort of surviving by their wits and cunning. Surviving even unto this day, [00:39:00] scattered to the wind. And I felt, wow. That's like literally what I'm ... Jewish history is my history.
So I felt a real connection, and then the fact that it was sort of this bloodline. So I was related to somebody. I had some sense of identity, even though, with my stepfather and my mother and those kids at school at that point. I was being told that I was nothing, and I was worthless and these other things. I sort of felt like, well, sort of in the same vein [00:39:30] as a lot of the Black Power Movement. I'm the descendant of kings. My ancestors were kings. And that gave me a feeling of nobility and pride.
So that was literally my connection to Judaism in the beginning. and then I began reading Jewish history and Jewish history sort of almost ended with the Holocaust. Then there was sort of this rebirth, and Israel. And Israel is where the Jews had ended up. [00:40:00] So from an early age, I had this sense, well when I get older, I'm going to go to Israel. And I'm going to go there, and be part of the ingathering of the exiles. That was just a sense that I had.
And I did that. I did all of my summers in college, and then my junior year abroad. And then I went to rabbinical school between college and law school. And bless them. You show up [00:40:30] off the boat, and you're like, "I'm somebody, and I'm here." And everyone's like, "You are somebody. Welcome home. You're awesome." And I sort of felt like the experience that Moses had. Remember Moses was raised by the Egyptians, and then wandered around in the wilderness and had some experiences. And then sort of showed up unable to even speak Hebrew properly. And yet, he was sort of welcomed as a leader. And I kind of felt, in my own very humble way, that that experience happened to [00:41:00] me too. It was great. It was a tremendous feeling to have this sense of I am wanted. I am embraced. You know, I want them. They want me. Great. And that was sort of the beginning of it, of that transition.
Kyle Davis: So my kind of thought process, or my question for you is one, do these ties and links to the past that you found through Judaism and through your Jewish faith and ancestry really [00:41:30] help to ground you today? And then I hope I'm using the right word, but when you made the Aliyah, or trip to Israel, when you were met and received and brought in to go into rabbinical school, what was that like for you, and did you go ... Like some people, when they go to Israel, go live on a commune, Kibbutz in the middle of nowhere and just press olive oil and study the Talmud all day. I'm just curious as to how it went for you.
Joshua Safran: Yeah, I think ... [00:42:00] Sorry, so the second half of that, I was totally not interested in the Kibbutz experience because of my own upbringing. You know they're like, you can do manual labor, and sleep on a hard cot. And share your food with everyone. I was like, yeah, pass.
Kyle Davis: Hard pass.
Joshua Safran: That wasn't interesting to me. And I think the aspect that was so powerful to me, that got me into [00:42:30] the rabbinical school experience and the Talmud, and I think what the rabbis who I was studying with recognized in me is I had a real seriousness and passion for it, which a lot of people, you know they kind of come through and they're like, oh this is cool. I'll spend about two days doing this and then I'll change my mind and go be a Yogi or whatever.
For me the notion of being able to not just an archeological relic, but including an archeological relic or ancient scrolls, [00:43:00] which the Torah is, to be able to read that in the original language from 3500 years ago. And connect to it, and have it make sense was like this incredibly thrilling experience. I mean it was like ... And I had that through actually reading the book of Psalms, which as you know, purported to have been written by a young man, a young King David, wandering around in a wilderness in adversity, kind of writing poetry.
[00:43:30] And I felt like sort of the author of Psalms and other things was speaking to me across a gap of 3000 years. Not necessarily in the literal sense, but in that here was someone writing in an ancient, totally foreign, totally exotic language about the human condition in words that completely resonated with me and made total sense as though not a day had gone by. [00:44:00] And that was amazing, and it was a really moving experience. And I think that sincerity that I brought unlike ... You know I think a lot of American Jews or American non-Jews who go to Israel, they have an attention span of three weeks or whatever to be really interested in it, and then they kind of, okay I already kind of knew this or whatever. They move on.
But for me, I felt like I had so much catching up to do because I had been at such a disadvantage, not only with Jewish identity, but with [00:44:30] like American identity, that I threw myself into it with the same passion that I did as going to law school and being a lawyer and the whole process. So it was very rewarding.
Kyle Davis: So it wasn't the accelerated birthright trip that goes to all the cool posh place, but instead a deeply intensive, introspective kind of process for you. Right?
Joshua Safran: Yeah. I did sort of the opposite of birthright. There wasn't a birthright program. What I did, is I just got a ticket to Israel, showed up, and [00:45:00] decided that I was going to do things in Israel the way I'd done them in America, which was just backpack around, sleep on park benches and in the forest or camp. And that's what I would do. And that lasted about a day, when someone comes along, not a policeman, just some guy comes along and is like, "Hey you can't sleep here. This is a park. Kids play here." And initially very aggressive, as people in Israel often are. Then I'm like, well I don't have anywhere else to go, I'm here and ... And then immediately, because [00:45:30] it's Israel, they engage in this deep conversation with you.
And then the next thing you know the guy has invited you home and five minutes before he thought you were a dangerous homeless person, and five minutes later, you're like eating with his wife and kids, and they're giving you their office to sleep in. It's a very hospitable country. And I think those kinds of experiences were ... I mean I'm sure the birthright trips are awesome, and people really connect. But that kind of organic experience was, for me, really invaluable. And it [00:46:00] really, I felt, I got to sort of test drive what Israel was really about, because I was coming at it from the perspective of no program, no guides, no nothing, and it was really great.
And it was super fascinating for me to be, especially brought into the homes of people who are like, "Our family lived in Yemen for 1500 years, and then yesterday we came here." And you're just like, okay. And we're all brothers and sisters, and we're all hanging out. [00:46:30] So it was cool. It was a really neat experience. Kyle Davis: To kind of wrap this up, you're no longer wandering. You found yourself. You found your faith. You found your wife. You have your kids. What are you doing today that's bringing you fulfillment? And I'm referring to what we were talking about prior to going to record.
Joshua Safran: Sure. Yeah, I mean I think that [00:47:00] I love the stability and the normalcy that I've acquired for myself. And with thanks to all the people that have helped me along the way. So part of what I feel I have the duty to do is kind of give back, and I'm doing that through two prongs. One of them is writing and speaking to folks who themselves feel like they're trapped, or they're sort of disadvantaged in the [00:47:30] system. And to sort of help them with a hand up through just inspiring them or in the case of the law representing them doing pro-bono work, so that's one half.
And then the other half I think is speaking to folks who are the establishment. People who are thought and opinion leaders and business leaders and professionals and sort of explaining to them about how they can do good [00:48:00] in a way that maybe they aren't. And also, part of it is ... I don't mean this in the conventional sense, but sensitivity training. You know I walk with my girls, and they're like "Oh there's some crazy homeless guy." And I'm like, you do not know that person's story, right? Let me tell you. You've seen me when I was 10, today I'm a balding dude with a beard and wearing a suit and tie and talking about multi-family residential condo projects [00:48:30] or whatever I'm talking about. But I have a story. It could have been me, but for the grace of God.
And I think doing that, and one of the speaking experiences I got to have through GDA, which was awesome, was with an organization in Pittsburgh, who basically trains up big companies and small companies about domestic violence, and how it becomes or relates [00:49:00] to violence in the workplace. And people sharing their stories with me after my talk were like, "Yeah, you know I had this secretary, and one day she came in with a black eye. And I didn't do anything about it. And now I know what to do, and what the risks were," and whatever. Making those connections between the worlds.
And what's shocking to me in a lot of what I've been ... The folks who I've been reaching is I go into these super fancy, [00:49:30] super successful, corporate environments. And I think wow, these people have everything I have and more, and here I'm going to give my talk about my own experience. And then afterwards, the people who come and share their stories, and oftentimes, "I've never told anyone in my life about this before, but ...", "You see me today as the CFO, but let me tell you what happened."
And particularly with women, but talking to folks. I had a woman who was a [00:50:00] manager in this big pharmaceutical company in Canada. And she told me her story, and that she'd actually changed her name and had this restraining order against her husband, and she'd been too embarrassed and afraid to tell anyone about it. It's amazing the number of people that are dealing with this kind of adversity, and trying to balance it with corporate America.
I think what I'm able to do is encourage people to just be honest and open and speak the truth about it. Because part of what I went through, and part of [00:50:30] what I talk about is a sense that once people knew about my past and my background, I wasn't going to be sort of this notorious, gregarious, lawyer. They were going to see me as some kind of damaged-goods, crazy person. And just through experience, I learned that nope. That's not what happened. I wasn't relegated to the dustbin of my firm. I was celebrated, and that was great. And that was a big credit to them, and a big opportunity for me.
Kyle Davis: Well on [00:51:00] that note, I think it's time that we wrap this podcast up. But I will have to say, for somebody who's lived a life like you've lived, you have every right in the world in some people's mind to be an angry, disgruntled, absolutely frustrated person. And the fact that you're a beaming ray of sunshine through this conversation, and you have the ability to tell your story in a way that's humorous, detailed-
Gail Davis: Relatable.
Kyle Davis: ... Relatable, and utterly, [00:51:30] absolutely fascinating, I think is really quite impressive. So I just wanted to say that before I say this. If you want to book Joshua, you can do so by contacting GDA Speakers at 214-420-1999 or by going to gdapodcast.com. If you would like to read today's transcript, buy Joshua's book, maybe even I'll put a link in there to the documentary, and I'll probably put a show note for Paul Ekman's book, "Telling Lies" as well. You can do so by going to gdapodcast.com. With that a sincere [00:52:00] thank you.
Gail Davis: Thank you Joshua.
Joshua Safran: Thank you.