Julie L. Kessler
lawyer traveler writer


What’s in a name?

Aug. 20, 2013

Some of you may recall that back in 2008, a New Jersey man made headlines when he made a ruckus about a bakery that refused to frost his son’s birthday cake with his name–which just happened to be Adolf Hitler Campbell. (One of Adolf Campbell’s sisters was named Joyce Lynn Aryan Nation Campbell.) Mr. Campbell was in the news again thereafter when his fourth wife got pregnant and they publicly discussed naming their unborn child Eva Braun. Clearly, there was a familial theme going on there in New Jersey.


All of these given names are, of course, perfectly legal. Their legality, perfect or imperfect, does not mean that it does not require herculean strength not to vomit up yesterday’s dinner at the thought of those morally bereft moniker selections. Not to mention the enormous parental curse with which one can endow one’s offspring in engaging in such naming practices. When parents do something seriously lame, regardless of context, one often hears the silly though often pertinent joke circulate that “a license is required by the state to drive a car, but not to have children.” But I digress.


In Tennessee last week, during a family court proceeding to determine paternity and child support for a toddler named Messiah, the child’s unwed parents also fought over his last name. The magistrate, in an act which can only be described as demonstrating unmitigated chutzpah, also decided to change Messiah’s first name to Martin. In doing so, the bench officer cited the often overused “best interests of the child” catch-all phrase for judicial imposition, arguing that since Cocke County, Tennessee has “a large Christian population . . . it is highly likely that he [the child] will offend many citizens . . . .”


Frankly, is the name Messiah any different from naming a child Moses, Mohammad, or Jesus? All of those are fairly common given names in today’s religious melting pot. But really, that’s beside the point. The point is that if a society’s culture can be viewed as a house (or, for that matter, a condominium or apartment), then language is the key to opening the front door. The question is, who gets to decide which language is acceptable? It is our duty as members of a sane society to open and have the conversation about the correctness of such names, and ultimately to judge people like Mr. Campbell, and to a certain extent, perhaps, the parents of baby Messiah. But society’s ability to judge a person’s character content or religious choices does not have legal repercussions, nor should it. Ever. Those decisions can never be made by judicial fiat determined in a court of law under color of it. Not only are courts not the place for religious promotion, they are also not the place for proselytization, religious dogma, or persuasion. It’s one thing for courthouses to have “One nation under God” plastered on their walls and even to use Christian Bibles to swear witnesses in before they take the stand to give testimony. It is, however, something else altogether for a judicial officer to say with regard to your offspring’s first name, “It’s my way or I’m changing the highway.”


As I come from a family some of whose members were Holocaust survivors, no doubt I would have very serious issues if I went, for example, to a school function and were introduced to the Campbell family by their given names. But that’s me, and I would simply have to deal with it. However, bumping into Jesus at Home Depot, Moses at the Israeli market I go to, or Mohammad at the local Lebanese restaurant bothers me not at all. But that too is me, since I am not religious. The key is that this is what rational, thinking people do: they decide for themselves what they can tolerate and what they cannot, and then adjust their universe accordingly in keeping with those sensibilities. God help us all if instead those choices fall into the hands of our courts of law to decide.

Kennedy’s Nomination as Ambassador to Japan. Really???

Aug. 12, 2013

When I heard late last month that President Obama had announced his nomination of former first daughter Caroline Kennedy as U.S. Ambassador to Japan, I remember thinking “Really?”


I have absolutely nothing against Ms. Kennedy, a fellow attorney, talented writer, and of course, daughter of Camelot, who is by all accounts, smart, dedicated, and an incredible fundraiser. However, as someone who has lived in Japan, and who has studied the language and culture, I am left scratching my head as to Obama’s choice for such a vitally important posting.


I understand of course the politics of these appointments. After all, Ms. Kennedy was instrumental in propelling Obama to the 2008 Democratic nomination, and in the 2012 race, served as one of 35 national co-chairs of his re-election campaign. That said, I’m thinking the more appropriate ambassadorial post for her would be something along the lines of, say, Belize, or perhaps, Bermuda. Or like her aunt Jean Kennedy Smith, to Ireland.


If Kennedy is confirmed, she would be the first woman in this post to a fellow G-8 nation. That of course is not in and of itself telling. Although Japan has a history of being quite slow to accept women in professional capacities, that stance is shifting, little by little. And besides, Japan holds gaijin in general, and gaijin women in particular, to a different standard than that of Japanese women. But the real issue is that Japan is one of America’s most important international partners, both commercially and militarily. To have someone at this level of posting with virtually no Japan experience, and about the same amount of foreign policy experience, is, well, just plain silly. This is especially so given that there is an abundance of professionals with far more foreign policy experience and with real and close connections to Japan that would make them far more effective in the Asian arena. Granted, they may not have the political panache or the household name recognition of the Kennedy clan. But from an economic and military standpoint, especially given North Korean nuclear capabilities and continuing disputes with China, do we really care?

As many Japan experts will agree, it is a wonderful country, but it is also a very complex one, historically, socially, culturally, and linguistically. And it takes a long time and a significant commitment to understand its ways and to be successful there professionally and personally. In my opinion, it is insufficient, as some have suggested, that Kennedy will overcome her significant deficiencies in foreign policy, language, and cultural connection by having an experienced staff and a Japan expert shadow aide her while she is ambassador. It is also offensive to me that Kennedy’s celebrity appeal, close relationship with Obama, and her gender have been argued as her main selling points for this position. This is form over substance at a time and in a place with no room for that.


Those selling points may be just fine for an ambassadorial post in Belize, but not for an envoy as important as one to the land of the rising sun, which also happens to be our greatest and strongest ally in Asia. Really.

The Hill Tribe Women of Vietnam: Progress

Aug. 7, 2013

I first went to Vietnam in 2006 with my then ten-year-old daughter in tow. As part of nearly a month traveling in the country we spent several days far up north near the Chinese border. Nine hours by train northwest of Hanoi to be exact. The over night train from Hanoi arrives in the small, but bustling and fairly charmless town of Lao Cai. It is in Lao Cai, not far from the main train station, where the tall, white “border bridge” with China can be seen from several points in the town. From Lao Cai it’s another 90 minute drive up a two-lane mountain road where you get to view some of the greenest terraced rice paddies in Asia. As the trees get denser and more green, and the road more mountainous, you arrive at the town of Sa Pa, dubbed by the French in the late 1800’s the “Switzerland of Asia” for its terrain and its temperate climate in a region where the normal lowland summer humidity is equal to or higher than its temperature. (The name Sa Pa derived from the French word sapin — fir tree — owing to their abundance in the area.)


During our 2006 trip, as I recounted in my book Fifty-Fifty, The Clarity of Hindsight, one of our most memorable experiences was a trek we took with a group of women from one of the Hill Tribes. Up, up, up we traveled along their mountain path, over the rice paddies, around the wild boars and working oxen and the nearby waterfalls to their villages. We were invited into their homes with a generosity unknown in western civilization, where we saw life pretty much the same as it had been for the previous 300 years. Stilt houses with grains and foodstuffs stored in second-story lofts, sleeping, working, and eating areas on the bottom floor with an open fire pit for warmth in the winters and cooking year-’round. There was then no electricity, and no running water.


Even in 2006, the Hill Tribe women made their way down the mountain daily to Sa Pa to sell their wares — mostly woven items, such as tote bags and satchels and filigree earrings, bracelets and necklaces. These are beautiful, petite women possessing an amazing physical strength, who all bore children very young and who appear many years older than their stated ages.


This summer’s trip to Sa Pa started out pretty much the same, except that my travel partner this time was my husband: the same overnight train, the same drive up the mountain; we even stayed at the same mountain lodge on a hill overlooking the town. And we planned on taking a similar trek to visit the Hill Tribe women. In addition to English, our accompanying Vietnamese guide also spoke two of the Hill Tribe dialects, H’Mong and Tay, which came in very handy, since in one of the Hill Tribe homes we passed along the mountain trail the woman only spoke H’Mong. She was so happy to see us trekking by that she invited us into her home, showed us one of the beautiful garments she was working on, made from woven hemp dyed with indigo, and offered us rice cakes and mountain apples. This lovely woman toiling alone in her humble abode with a 50,000 kilowatt smile was charming beyond measure and seemingly possessed a contentment some of us westerners could only dream about.


As the days progressed, we passed through several other villages, were invited into many other homes, and met several other families, dozens of children, and countless ducks, hogs, piglets, horses, dogs and oxen. Despite the intervening seven years since my first trip there, and the still very primitive nature of their lives, I was nevertheless shocked to notice that in many of the huts there is now electricity — albeit often only a single light bulb — a few of the huts had television with some jerry-rigged electrical/cable wiring which appeared ready to implode, and, I had heard, a couple of the huts had wifi.


Down the mountain in Sa Pa, many of the young Hill Tribe women still sell their wares along the sides of the roads, but because of their excellent English skills, they are now getting work as tour guides to lead treks to their villages. (Their unaccented English is superior in large part because it is learned not in a classroom from native Vietnamese teachers, but by communing with native English speakers who tour the region.) There is also massive construction of new hotels in Sa Pa. In the center of the town itself used to be the main produce market, but it also contained the “Love Market” which acted as the Saturday night social locale for the young Hill Tribe people to find mates — the equivalent of the church social, but without any religious component. On this latest visit, I found that the entire area of the town center was boarded off and one couldn’t tell what was actually being constructed there, although work was clearly taking place. My numerous inquiries never really gleaned a concise answer, though I was told by various people, in sum, that the town was building an oxymoronic-sounding concrete parkway for a new market. Across the street from the old Love Market sits the small yet regal and perfectly proportioned Catholic Church, which now boasted enormous neon lights strung along the outside that changed glaring colors every few seconds, similar to nighttime at LAX.


As our days in the region came to a close, I commented to my husband that I was so glad I’d had the chance to see the region in 2006, just a few years after the country had opened up to foreign travelers, and hence was able to see it in its most pure and authentic form. As this was my husband’s first trip to the region, he was still in visible awe of what he was able to see. An hour later, when I went to reception to check out of the lodge, I reflected to the clerk about the amount of change in Sa Pa in the last few years, to which he replied, “Good you came back now, as in twenty years, Hill Tribe life will be gone and there will be nothing left to see.” The winds of change. The signs of progress. Sigh.

Piercing the Veil of Culture: Cultural Competency in Family Practice

Jul. 27, 2013

On Saturday, July 27, 2013, Julie spoke at a day-long seminar held at the University of West Los Angeles School of Law. Sponsored by several attorney associations and many other professional groups, the seminar was entitled “Piercing the Veil of Culture: Cultural Competency in Family Practice,” and Julie spoke on “Getting Married in Israel and Japan.” This well-attended event included attorneys, judges, commissioners and mental health professionals from all over the state of California.


Shakespeare & Company

Jun. 24, 2013

About a week ago I received a long email from a woman in her mid 20’s who was traveling in Europe and who came across Fifty-Fifty at the venerable and old Shakespeare & Company bookstore on the left bank in Paris. In part, the reader wrote:


“I just wanted to let you know that I really enjoyed your book, and that it was so fitting for me to read as I finally begin to close off my travels being in Europe for the first time and the first time being away from home for so long. I hope that like you, I can travel much more and see more of the world, meet amazing people and learn more about myself and be able to encapsulate all those lessons learned in writing. I particularly loved your story of your friend Sophie from Paris. I think that in life, being able to influence those around you in a positive way just by the way you live is perhaps the greatest blessing you can endow on someone. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences and words of wisdom that I can replay in my mind as I prepare to go back home with all of my own new experiences and new found wisdom.”


While it is always wonderful to hear from readers who have enjoyed your work, receiving that note was particularly meaningful to me. First, due to the serendipitous nature of how she got the book. She had been working in Marseille for six months and was invited to Paris overnight and stayed with another young woman who showed her Shakespeare & Company. She went in but didn’t find anything of interest to buy. That evening (which was a few days after The 2013 Paris Book Festival awards dinner) and the night before I was to return to the U.S., I stopped by Shakespeare & Company and dropped off one copy of Fifty-Fifty for their lending library. Fifty-Fifty inadvertently was then mis-shelved. The next day on her way to the train station the woman again returned to Shakespeare & Company hoping to find a book to take with her on her last month of European travels. She then found Fifty-Fifty on the same shelf she had scoured the day before and purchased it. Second, when I wrote Fifty-Fifty I really had the over 40’s crowd in mind as a readership demographic. That someone in her mid-twenties was so moved by the book and took the time to write of its impact simply made my day.


A wise woman once said there simply are no coincidences. I would have to agree. I was meant to drop Fifty-Fifty off there on Sunday even though it would have been easier to ship it when I returned, Fifty-Fifty was meant to get on the shelf for sale instead of the lending library which I’m told rarely happens, and the young woman was meant to return there Monday to find it en route to meet her friends at the train station and journey onward.

The Fool Snowden

Jun. 19, 2013

Having spent a great deal of time in Asia, and in Hong Kong in particular, I was extremely suspect of Edward Snowden having gone to Hong Kong even before many of “the facts” of the matter were revealed. That said, what continues to fry my goose the most in this case is the concept that a foolish young man can decide, because of some tech-savvy, to become an unelected Attorney General and pose significant risks to our national security under the guise of some highly distorted sense of patriotism.


There’s a huge problem with so many in his age group considering they are cyber-citizens at the expense of claiming citizenship in the physical world. Chief among them is that there are precious few laws in place or which can be enforced that provide protection for breaches of laws we have come to rely on and to respect, as is the case for example with copyright law. And here I speak from personal experience; my book Fifty-Fifty, The Clarity of Hindsight is registered of course under U.S. copyright laws and was released by my publisher in September 2012 in print and in November 2012 in E-format. It was recently pirated and made available on-line through a Chinese hosted web site. Until that is the U.S. credit card company processing payments for the Chinese infringer was threatened with contributory infringement. The Chinese site remains up complete with the cover of my book, but the infringed material can no longer be downloaded and paid for by credit card, at least not in the U.S. While perhaps no national security issues are affected by breaches of copyright laws, the possibilities for damage on other avenues are nearly endless. And on this point Snowden and others of his ilk represents a far more complicated challenge. To national security and otherwise.

2013 New York Book Festival

Jun. 11, 2013

Fifty-Fifty, The Clarity of Hindsight won First Runner Up in its category at the 2013 New York Book Festival!!!

Foreign Book Sales

Jun. 10, 2013

I learned last week that the rights to Fifty-Fifty, The Clarity of Hindsight were purchased by LW Digital in Korea, Gardners in the UK, eSentral in Malaysia, and HyRead and BIG in Taiwan. The world is getting smaller indeed!!!

The New Hawaii

Jun. 10, 2013

While in Hawaii last month for the 2013 Hawaii Book Festival, I bore witness to a visual scene not often played out in my Hawaiian homeland. At the end of the first day of the Festival, my husband and I were relaxing by the beach in East Honolulu. Glass of wine in hand, we were just in time for sunset. About thirty feet to our left were three women covered head-to-toe in black abayas. The three women were approaching the water and entered, full abayas and all, until they were submerged to their chests. Near them, with facial hair that is trademark to a devout Muslim male, was, I presumed, one of their husbands. Or perhaps the husband to all three women. He was wearing traditional Hawaiian board shorts.


It was a day that had two torrential downpours and flash flood warnings on the South shore, and all I could think of that moment was that I hoped these women didn’t drown in their abayas with the pull of the Pacific. I had seen a group of head-to-toe abaya clad women swimming in the ocean before in Malaysia and though it was a stunning sight then, it was a tad less shocking, as Malaysia is, of course, a Muslim country. That said, the abaya clad women I saw swimming in Malaysia – also with one lone male in tow – were tourists; probably from Saudi Arabia, as Malaysia is a fairly common tourist destination for Arab countries.


I kept my eyes on these women, continuously counting to assure all three heads were above water. I then made a comment to my husband about the seeming unfairness of wearing that much clothing in the ocean. However, I quickly noticed that he was not paying attention as he was very busy making goo goo eyes to an utterly adorable toddler wearing the silliest possible hat and who was being held over her mother’s shoulder at the next table. It was at that precise moment that I overheard the toddler’s parent’s conversation: they were speaking in Hebrew, the native tongue of my mother.


It was one of those moments in life when you instinctively rub your eyes and pull at your ears as the scene before you just doesn’t seem to fit. Here I was sitting at a beach bar in East Honolulu, not far from where I passed many years of my youth, filled with Asians and Polynesians of every possible type and combination, watching this middle-eastern microcosm play out before my very eyes. It reminded me of the time I was ordering dinner in a Chinese restaurant in a trendy part of Tel-Aviv and the Chinese waiter spoke to me in perfect Hebrew. Something akin to ‘what is wrong with this picture?’


On this little beach in East Honolulu, the Israeli family and the Arab one were not within earshot of each other, though it was doubtful the Israeli couple could have missed seeing the Arab women’s abayas as they meandered back and forth in the nearby surf. Perhaps the Israelis didn’t give it a second thought; they can certainly see various levels of abaya clad women at several Israeli beaches. For me however, it was proof positive just how small our world has become since I started traveling the globe in 1973.


I somewhat irrationally wanted the abaya clad women to shed their onerous black sheaths so they could fully enjoy the splendors of the warm, blue Pacific. However I was thrilled to see my little Hawaiian island play a role, no matter how small or how insignificant, in a mini United Nations unfolding before my eyes, Hawaiian island style.

The 2013 Paris Book Festival

Jun. 6, 2013

The 2013 Paris Book Festival was last week and was a wonderful event. In attendance were author winners from Japan, Croatia, South Africa and the US to name a few. The awards dinner, held at Le Square Trousseau, had great wine and great food and was salon style, like in the days of old Paris. All that was needed was Gertrude or Anais to make an appearance to make it complete! It was a terrific evening with some heartfelt speeches. Merci mille fois!

The 2013 Paris Book Festival

May 28, 2013

The 2013 Paris Book Festival awards gala is this week. Fifty-Fifty, The Clarity of Hindsight was first runner-up winner in its category! Heading to Paris this afternoon for what should be quite a literary event. A bientot.

The 2013 Hawai’i Book & Music Festival Was a Great Success!!!

May 24, 2013

Despite south shore flash flood warnings and three torrential downpours, the 2013 Hawai’i Book & Music Festival was a great success. In fact, by 3:00 p.m. Sunday I sold out of copies of Fifty-Fifty. There was wonderful Hawaiian music and several hula halaus performing traditional dance. Warmest mahalo to event coordinator Amy Hammond for pulling and keeping it all together.

Fifty-Fifty Now Available at The Book Den in Santa Barbara

May 24, 2013

Fifty-Fifty, The Clarity of Hindsight is now available at The Book Den in Santa Barbara. Their address is 15 East Anapamu Street, Santa Barbara, CA 93101. Telephone 805/962-3321. The Book Den will also be hosting a book signing event for Fifty-Fifty on Saturday June 8th at 2:00p.m. Hope to see you there!

2013 Hawai’i Book and Music Festival

May 18, 2013

Julie returned to her home state to participate in The 2013 Hawai’i Book and Music Festival, which ran May 18-19, 2013 in Honolulu. Oahu Gold featured this great snapshot of Julie in its weekly brochure to advertise the event. Despite several torrential downpours that organizers were worried might keep people away, Julie’s booth had completely sold out of copies of Fifty-Fifty by 3pm Sunday.


2013 Paris Book Festival Award Winner

May 5, 2013

I am thrilled to report that Fifty-Fifty was an award winner at the 2013 Paris Book Festival. Given my history in France in general and Paris in particular, this book award is especially meaningful to me. The awards gala is at the end of May in Paris.

The LA Times Festival of Books is THIS WEEKEND April 20th & 21st at USC

Apr. 15, 2013

Saturday from 10 to 6 and Sunday from 10 to 5. I will be in Booth 195 in the Purple Section. Hope to see you there!


L.A. Times Festival of Books

Mar. 25, 2013

Julie L. Kessler, the author of Fifty-Fifty, The Clarity of Hindsight, will be exhibiting at the L.A. Times Festival of Books at USC on April 20th and 21st. She will be in Booth 195, which is located in the “Purple Zone” of the Festival (purple flags on tents), off of West 34th Street. See you there!

Tecolote Book Shop in Montecito

Feb. 1, 2013

Is now carrying my book "Fifty-Fifty, The Clarity of Hindsight." The venerable Tecolote Book Shop is located at 1470 East Valley Road, #52, Santa Barbara, CA 93108. Tel 805/969-4927. Happy Reading!!!

Politician as Artist

Jan. 28, 2013

While at a speakeasy at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica last Wednesday, actor Tim Robbins was asked by a member of the audience what advice he had for a struggling actress wishing to maintain her humanity while attempting success in Hollywood. Robbins responded, and I am paraphrasing here ‘As an artist you should have the relentless ambition of a politician. As a politician, you should have the soul of an artist.’


Given that we watched the 44th POTUS sworn in on Martin Luther King Day two days before, those words seemed particularly poignant. Regardless of from what side of the aisle you hail and remain, it was hard to be unmoved by the vision taking place in Washington, D.C. As the news cameras made its panoramas around the National Mall that chilly Monday, the tears in my eyes welled. Though many of us possess an unrelenting hope for the future, it is hard not to be affected by our country’s continuing, seemingly insurmountable challenges. That said, hope remains in abundance. While you may not agree with our POTUS or even like him, one thing is clear: his commitment to this country and its people remains undaunted. So while Obama may not be a painter, an actor or a singer, the admirable qualities he possesses make evident that his heart and soul are certainly in the right place. And at this stage in our country’s evolution, we need all the creativity we can get.