Interview with Leona Siadek
To gain perspectives on justice this month, I conducted phone interviews with two former legislators who are members of The Mussar Institute community. Leona Siadek spent six years in the California Legislature after being elected in 1974. We spoke in February about her political career, thoughts on justice and the impact of Mussar on her life today. Following is a slightly condensed transcript of our conversation. The full interview can be heard here.
Jason Winston: So I think as a good starting point, we’d like to know a bit about your upbringing and Jewish background.
Leona Siadek: I grew up in Tucson, Arizona. I had no Jewish background. My parents moved from New York, escaping from their Orthodox families and all of their responsibilities thereof. My mom had arthritis, which is why they moved to a dry climate, and they picked Tucson because my father was a cowboy aficionado, of cowboy movies. But I grew up without any formal background or training. My parents were not observant other than [lighting] yahrzeit candles and saying the prayers over the wine for Passover …
My Jewish background began when I joined B’nai Brith girls during middle school. They stressed religious programs, so we put on services and we observed holidays. … Then when I had my family and my two daughters were of age, I did join a synagogue and sent them to religious school because I wanted them not to be ignorant as I was. So I studied with them, became a scholar of pediatric Judaism, and studied their books. And didn’t do much else until many, many years later when both my parents died in the same year and I began to ask the serious questions: what is life about, and what is their life about, and what is my life about and what else should I do with the rest of my life? I was in my early 50s at the time, and I had had a great deal of success professionally, having not only been in the Legislature but also job-wise. I was doing government relations work. I’d had pretty much everything I thought I should have, but I was very ignorant about my own background as a Jew.
So I then began to study, fairly ferociously, and did so for the next 20 years. From siddur, to Hebrew, to kabbalah, to anything I could learn.
JW: So, how did you come to discover Mussar, and can you talk about how that study and practice impacted you once that came into your life?
LS: I read a great deal and came across Alan’s first book [Climbing Jacob’s Ladder]. I read it with great interest, and as a matter of fact, as I was somewhere in the middle of reading that book, Alan came to Napa to give a talk. … I kinda joined the Mussar community at that point and joined a va’ad and had a partner to study with. … I took the beginning course and then the next course, and it went on from there. Then I took the Pathlighters course, where you become the teacher. …
JW: That’s great. So how would you say the practices and the study have impacted your life?
LS: Mussar is an action program. It’s different than just reading a book or reading stories and saying a-ha, that’s an interesting lesson. … You need to have quiet time, either to just be quiet or to meditate. You need to put into practice journaling. You just need to do it every day. …
The biggest difference in my personal life has been awareness—awareness of the moment, awareness of my actions, the actions of others—and how that then impacts. I can’t profess to say that I have put everything in balance because I’m aware, but at least being aware you can then make those steps that attempt to put your middot in balance.
JW: Can you tell me a little bit about your legislative career? … Maybe some of the highlights and accomplishments that you’d like to point out that you’re most proud of?
LS: Well, I was elected in 1974 and I served until 1980, and there were very few women in the California Legislature at the time. … The election of 1974 was a pivotal time in politics throughout the country, and women were elected in greater numbers.
There are several theories about why that was. My personal theory is that prior to that, politics was sort of a masculine thing, so I’ll ask my husband, my father, my brother, “Who should I vote for?” And guess what? Last time they told me to vote for Richard Nixon, and look what he did to the country. So I’m not asking them anymore. I’m going to vote for someone I choose. And women all across the country did, so as a result there were many women—and I do attribute my election to the fact that I looked the least like Richard Nixon (laughter). …
The women’s groups throughout not only the state but across the country had been waiting for a long time for women to be in positions of power, to make changes in various programs. So there were [many] demands: You must do this about rape. You must do this about children. … I, for a variety of reasons, had decided one of my special areas was mental health programs for children, so I actually tried to make that my focus in the Legislature. … I think throughout my six years in the Legislature I tried to do what I could [about] the environmental issue. I have a Master’s degree in biology and was very involved in my personal life [with] environmental [issues].
JW: Do you recall if those were the issues that motivated you to enter the campaign in the beginning, or was it a broader interest in serving?
LS: No, it was actually environmental issues. I had worked in a number of local and state campaigns with what I thought were very promising individuals who, after they were elected, forgot their devotion and dedication to environmental issues and decided that it was far better to be re-elected than to stand out and push for things that weren’t popular. …
I was [also] involved with various women’s groups and women’s rights, in particular choices for reproduction.
JW: So, what does justice mean to you?
LS: Justice, first of all, is to look at those who have been unjust … and they’re part of the criminal or civil courts, and so the laws that mete out sentences or punishments need to continually be looked at and adjusted and be fair. So on a personal basis I was always interested in that, but I didn’t have the power to be in a position to do anything about it. Legislatively I was, if not a leader, at least someone who had to vote on all of those issues. So justice in the sense of just sentencing for those who needed to be both rehabilitated and punished.
And then there are all of the decisions to be made about the division of the people’s money, because personally I can make those decisions on where I write my charitable contribution checks. But when you’re dealing with huge amounts of the people’s money, there are all sorts of motivations that come into play when you’re trying to decide about the fair division. There’s never enough funds to satisfy all the needs; the needs always outweigh. So that anybody who’s in a legislative position constantly has to weigh the needs of certain groups or certain areas, and weigh them against who got the funds last time, how much should they get this year, the budget, all of those things. … Justice is sort of mixed up with social justice, but justice to me means fair laws, not only in the criminal and civil areas but fair laws in terms of budget disbursements and divisions.
JW: … As a lawmaker, did you apply to your work a sense of social justice that has roots in specifically Jewish values? For instance, you mentioned environmental issues, we talk about tikkun olam, heal the world. Or were you operating from a framework more about the broad spectrum of fairness?
LS: I had no Jewish education through that time, so all of my studies that I mentioned came later, after I was gone from the Legislature. So I wasn’t operating from a sense of having been taught specific values. I think the values I had were what I modeled from my parents and teachers and others I admire. As a young child, doing charitable works was important. It was not only a nice thing to do, but it was my responsibility to do it. So I think that my sense of social justice as I operated in the Legislature was based on wanting to improve the lives of people and understanding that you needed to distribute the people’s money fairly. You also needed to do something beyond just throwing money at a program. [For example,] not enabling people to continue to be dependent as adults when they could do something for themselves. So you try to tailor some of the programs that were not just giveaway programs but were some where they would gain work skills, for example. I didn’t know that they had labels in Jewish teaching until later.
JW: So, now that you’ve had a great deal of exposure to Mussar, are there middot that you see that are present or perhaps needed in the world of legislating?
LS: Oh, all of them (laughs). All of them. It should be a requirement for all elected officials, starting with equanimity … The fact is that in the world of politics people first of all need to know that they are doing the people’s business and they are not the heroes and heroines. They are occupying a position. It’s the position that’s important, not them. And if they could just get that through their heads (laughs), it would go a long way to dealing with the grandstanding. We have an opportunity in government to solve a great many problems that we don’t solve because nobody wants the other person to get credit for solving the problem. The Senate doesn’t want the House to get credit. The Republicans don’t want the Democrats to get credit. We fight over who’s going to be elected in the next election. All of that has almost nothing to do with the issue at hand.
JW: … Since you did come to your Jewish studies later and you didn’t have these tools when you were in the political world, are there things that you have learned in Mussar that you wish you had known when you were there?
LS: Oh, absolutely. This awareness that I mentioned before, and being in the moment, and … reflecting upon my emotions, my behaviors and being aware of them, if not as they were going on but certainly soon, so that I could make adjustments for anything at that time. … I would say that Mussar has brought me to the moment. And I wish I had had that skill during those years. I was running at a frenetic pace, and the calendar kept going. Every day you had a schedule. There was very little time for reflection, and that reflection has to happen during those quiet moments. And if you don’t give yourself those quiet moments, you never hear the still, small voice inside.
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