Jeanette Friedman is many things: mother of four, wife to a decorated Vietnam War Veteran, writer, editor, activist, woman. But what she excels at most is being real.
"You have a choice," she says. "Express yourself or perish."
Born to parents who are Holocaust survivors, Friedman credits her past for giving her the strength to deal with a slew of difficulties over the last few years. Her husband became ill and lost his job, driving up the cost of health insurance and prescription drugs. When the economy went sour, the couple's business nearly went under, and they were soon forced to file for bankruptcy and face foreclosure. But she's still fighting. That's why she is one of thousands participating in the Occupy Wall Street protests, she said recently.
"I am here because when things were circling the drain, the banks wouldn’t renegotiate our mortgage. The credit card companies hiked their interest rates. My husband got sick and lost his job. And the co-pays on drugs have become obscene," she said earlier this week during a protest at Zuccotti Park in Manhattan.
"My Nexium went from $30 for 90 pills to more than $640 on a co-pay. Full price for that formerly $30 bottle of pills is now $1080. I marched against Vietnam in '65 and married a Vietnam vet. I marched in the Women’s Lib Parade in 1970 because my Orthodox Jewish husband refused to grant me a Jewish divorce for seven long and bitter years. I marched on behalf of Soviet Jewry and for the State of Israel. Now I am marching for me."
Friedman has spent her adult life lending her voice and her presence to the silenced. She knows what it feels like, because she was once one of the silenced.
Married at 18 in an arranged orthodox Jewish marriage, Friedman walked down the aisle so heavily veiled that she had to be escorted by two women because she couldn't see.
"Talk about being 'blind,'" she remarks as she pauses to look at a picture from her wedding day many years ago.
It didn't take her long to realize that this man chosen for her to marry was the wrong man. A young mother with a newborn baby, Friedman struggled with depression as she was told divorce would not come easily. It became all too real for Friedman that as an orthodox Jewish woman, she had no voice.
That's when she enrolled at Brooklyn College. It was here that she was befriended by people who supported her and helped to move her and her child from her apartment and from the marriage she desperately wanted out of. It was also here that she met her current husband, Philip Sieradski.
Friedman and Sieradski are independent subcontractors specializing in writing and editing books with Holocaust survivors. Friedman also writes the "Celebration" section for The Jewish Standard and is currently the Director of Communications for the Museum of the History of Polish Jews.
But when the economy tanked, it negatively affected every independent contractor with near-lightning speed, from construction workers, to home health aides, to writers. Clients did not, or could not, pay for work already done. Other clients of Friedman and Sieradski were financially wounded by the investment fraud scheme of Bernard Madoff.
At the same time, Friedman and Sieradski owned rental property in Arizona with the intent of retiring there, but their tenant stopped paying rent. Once the tenant finally left, the economy was so bad in Arizona that it was nearly impossible to find anyone willing, or even looking, to rent.
Then Sieradski's health began to decline and medical expenses were beginning to mount. They decided that they had to claim bankruptcy and notified the banks to work out a plan to re-negotiate their mortgage so that they could remain in their home. According to Friedman, "They just refused."
Trustees from the U.S. Bankruptcy Court came and inventoried everything in the house—from books on shelves, to utensils in drawers, to pictures hanging on the wall. "Ordinary things that you'd find in any ordinary house that are now going to auction," Friedman said.
Lining the walls of her office are numerous framed letters from people like Steven Spielberg, Elie Wiesel, and Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Not only do they acknowledge Friedman's accomplishments, but their genuine respect for the work that she does.
Also lining the walls of the office and the hallways are magnificent works of art. Magnificent not in their monetary value, but in the fact that many of them were created by friends and given to her as gifts. The rest of the pieces she picked up here and there and have real sentimental value, but very little monetary value.
"The bankruptcy trustee asked me if I had any $150,000 paintings on my walls," she says incredulously. "If I had a $150,000 painting on my wall do you really think I'd be losing my house? I'd sell it!"
All of these things—the framed letters, the pictures, her shelves of books—are off-limits to her now. In fact, every item in her house is scheduled for auction right down to an old set of frying pans that are so worn from use that there could not possibly be any monetary value in them.
"The trustee told me I can buy all my things back for $21,500. As if I had that kind of money."
Hardest for her to accept is that her husband, a decorated Vietnam veteran, Department Commander for Jewish War Veterans who fights for vets who come home from serving only to find their own homes in jeopardy, a man who unquestioningly went to war for his country and put his life on the line, is essentially being put out onto the street.
As she surveyed her life's collection of books that no longer belong to her she says she hopes that the bankruptcy trustees won't take her computer away for auction, but she's unsure yet whether or not they will. "How can a writer work without a computer?" she asked.
Friedman says that being in these situations allows her to relate to others who suffer, and this is what inspires her to write, to speak, to march--all in the pursuit of justice. Justice not only for herself, but for all who are suffering whose voices are not heard.