A Much Harder Place

“We just booked a trip to France!” people-mother-family-father

“Here I am with my bestie, looking out over the San Francisco Bay.”

“Nothing better than drinks with girlfriends in Porto, Portugal!”

Facebook is killing me.

For years now I have looked at people’s photos, at their family outings, travel adventures, even just fun times at home. And I have envied all of it. Not because I believe that every minute of their lives must be happy and perfect, based on the pictures they post. I know that no one’s life is perfect, whatever that means, no matter what it looks like on the outside. You can’t ever know what goes on between two partnered people, and you can’t ever know what it is really like to be in someone else’s family.

I spend a lot of time wishing people knew what it was like to be in my family. It is challenging, to put it mildly. I have two, maybe three nice pictures of the four of us. When we attempt to do typical American family things, it doesn’t usually work out. Someone will always be miserable and ruin it for everyone else. And who wants to take a picture of that? It isn’t possible to explain my family life properly, and any attempt to do so would probably sound whiny and ungrateful. Claudia and her first-world problems. But I am exhausted.

It used to be that my envy also came from a certain financial unease; we couldn’t do some of the things we saw our peers doing, because we simply didn’t have the money. Now the money is a bit less of an issue, though we still need to be careful (I am unemployed).  These days my envy comes from a much harder place. It cannot be fixed by earning more money, establishing financial security.

When I see families plan or go on trips with their young kids or even their adult kids, I know that will never be us. I think how great it would be, when my kids are young adults, to go abroad with them and sit in a bar or cafe somewhere we’ve never been, toasting the joy of discovery and togetherness. But it isn’t going to happen. When you have a child on the autism spectrum, your life can be seriously curtailed. I am sure this isn’t true for everyone, but it is true for us. My son’s diet is so limited, so inflexible, we really could never visit a foreign country. Certain places would be easier than others, of course. If there’s plain pasta, or white rice, or french fries. If not, he won’t eat.  When he is older, he will expand his repertoire somewhat, I’m sure. I can already see hints that his Bread and Jam for Frances lifestyle is wearing. But other things may never change.

My beautiful boy is fascinated by the great wide world and visits all of it regularly on Google Earth. He digs into people’s customs and holidays and traditions with great pleasure. He learns their languages and practices writing some very complicated characters. He watches opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympic Games (almost all are available online) to see the athletes from around the world and to hear whatever tidbits the commentators share about the people and the countries they’re from. He shares newfound information with us and sometimes gets frustrated that we can’t bank all those facts the way he can. He is terrified to board a plane or a boat, and sometimes still gets quite carsick. It has to do with his vestibular system, the body’s sensory system that contributes to spatial orientation and a sense of balance. Sometimes when I try to imagine him on an airplane, I can only picture that disgusting puke scene from The Exorcist. exorcist

Speaking of barf, it’s not just his diet that is resistant to change. Taken out of his safe spaces, without the items he uses daily, he is thrown off and unable to enjoy himself. Last summer we foolishly planned a long road trip, never thinking about how difficult it would be for him to “play it by ear,” to not know where and when the next meal would be and what it would consist of.  On all journeys, staying in the hotel room to watch TV and order (Papa John’s) pizza or going to the hotel’s pool are his favorite things. He is a creature of habit or even ritual. He engages in the same activities day after day, and does them in the same way, at the same time. And he likes it that way; he has no desire to do things differently. Most people, including medical professionals, will tell us that he needs to learn to get out of his comfort zone, and I agree, but only to a certain extent. I push him to do things independently. The smallest things present big challenges. Last night he argued for ten minutes that he would not be able to adjust the water temperature for his shower to his liking. He was positive he wasn’t capable. But he made a loaf of bread all by himself last week. It was delicious.

I also want him to learn the social skills that will allow him to be happy in a neurotypical world. And we push that, too, even though it’s painful, even though “normal” children say terrible things to him or are judgmental or stay away because they think he’s weird.  Taking him out of the spaces where he feels good—good about himself and comfortable—does not seem anything but cruel. It has taken nearly twelve years of raising this child to understand this. And that cruelty extends to the rest of the family, because when my son is unhappy, so is everyone else. There’s no way around it. The older he gets, the more difficult it becomes to deal with these moments. He’s a sweet and sensitive kid, so he cries, but he also shouts profanities at us, threatens suicide, destroys his own belongings and often things that belong to us, damages the house in some way, slams doors, tries to hurt himself, and gives us the finger. He also threatens to become a Republican or a Christian, and he likens his parents to Hitler and Trump, because he knows how insulted we’ll be.

This is terribly unfair to my daughter, who would love to travel, and would have a wonderful time seeing new places, trying new foods, and flying. I feel guilt about denying her things because of her brother, but how do we plan a family trip that excludes one of our kids? The answer is that we don’t. In recent years, my spouse and I have managed two international trips without the kids–both because they were work trips for him. We can’t afford to pay all that for both of us, and we certainly couldn’t afford to bring the kids. And if I didn’t have a sister-in-law within reasonable proximity who was willing to take them, I wouldn’t be going anywhere. I imagine my daughter’s first trip out of the country will happen when she’s in college–I hope she will want to study abroad. And then maybe she’ll make a birthright trip to Israel.

I have wondered before about posting things on social media, and if it is reasonable to think that people should take care not to brag. Who am I to say what anyone should post? I hate negative posts, too–we all have one “friend” whose life seems to be a complete misery, whose every ill, mishap, and misfortune is right there for us to read. I know people who like to post photos of grotesque injuries–not a bruise or a scrape, but swollen, suppurating things that belong nowhere but a medical text. Stitches, bits ripped off. I have blocked such people from my wall.

Years ago, an orthodox rabbi explained some rules of modesty to me in a way that at the time I considered ridiculous. He said a good reason not to hold hands with or (God forbid) kiss your partner in public is that you don’t know how very lonely that might make someone else feel, a passing stranger who is longing for a similar relationship. Now I see that differently. I don’t believe we can expect that people won’t hold hands out of sensitivity to the possible lonely-hearts around them; but it might not hurt, before we post our excitement on Facebook, to consider ways to share it that will hurt just a little less those who don’t have anything to counter it. Because some of us are running out of BandAids.

What a World

 

So little has changed, yet I feel devastated.  In my personal life and in the concerns outside my small house, the scales have dropped from my eyes.

And they keep dropping.

A friend of mine recently tried to buck me up, telling me that I would find my tribe. But my hope for this grows dimmer each day. Each time I commit to an ism, I find, eventually, that a huge percentage of its members hold a belief I consider reprehensible.

As the new president prepared to take office in the US, and things got uglier and uglier, I began to read. A lot of the pieces I read were editorials and essays by African American women explaining various things such as why they wouldn’t participate in the Women’s March, or why they distrusted mainstream feminism, or why they were frustrated by their participation in online feminist discussion groups. Initially, my reaction to these was just as they predicted, a kind of hey-but-I’m-nice-why-do-you-feel-that-way progressive liberal position. But as I read the knee-jerk ugly responses of white women, I began to see.

And then the Christmas season began, and it was worse for me than usual, probably because of the hateful climate. And I wanted to scream, “please, please leave me alone! I don’t celebrate that holiday, I don’t care about that holiday, and I’m tired of having that holiday shoved down my throat, up my nose, and forced into all my senses!” As a Jew, I know better. I would never, ever do that. Suddenly, I got it. I heard where the African American writers I’d read were coming from when they asked that we just listen instead of responding automatically. And I decided right then that I would become a listener, even if I would never get the chance to have the shoe on my foot, so to speak.

My work seeks to give voice to and raise up those whose opportunities have been limited. (For details on this, check out the Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/islerink/). I believe wholeheartedly in the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. I am an intersectional feminist. I am a bisexual married mother of two, and one of my kids is gender fluid. I am the sister, aunt, and cousin of people of color. Everyone in my home with the exception of me and the dogs is on the autism spectrum. My husband and I have discussed “whiteness” at length. We don’t really consider ourselves so. We’re not foolish; we know what we look like, and we are fully aware of our privilege. But we also know where our privilege ends. And we  know the difference between our world and that of someone who is a gentile.

I wake up every day to news of bomb threats and swastikas. I wake up to news of attacks on gay people, murders of trans women, police brutality of African Americans. Each story is a personal affront; each one cuts me down and makes the day feel just a little more like dragging my feet in loose shoes through mud. I go to synagogue, mostly for the peace of it, and there is always a police officer there for our safety. When I drop kids off for Hebrew school, there is always a police officer there for their safety. I wonder how most people would feel if they had to have the cops at church just to worship freely.

littlecreekswastika

In Norfolk, Virginia

Up until now, I have been able to ignore BLM’s position on Palestine. I never really understood why the movement’s leaders felt they needed to take a position on that issue at all, given the urgency of the issues right here at home, but I could pretty easily wrap my head around why they took a side with the people they see an underdog. Besides, BLM is not my movement; it is one I respect and would like to assist, but it is not one I imagine I have a say in. The other day, though, everything changed for me.

If you’ve read my blog before, you know that my feelings about Israel are mixed. To me, Zionism is simply the belief that Israel has the right to exist. Therefore, I suppose I am a Zionist. I don’t believe anyone anywhere has the right to exist at the expense of anyone else, and I would like everyone to live in peace. It turns out, friends, that there is little room in the current feminist movement for the likes of me. The very belief that Israel should be allowed to be gets me labeled oppressor. If the bomb threats and swastikas weren’t enough to open my eyes to the level of antisemitism that’s been simmering away in America, the comment threads on articles regarding this issue took care of it. I was near tears yesterday, reading the poisonous, openly Jew-hating posts from my sisters-in-arms. It was so awful, truly.

And so I have only one ism left me, and it’s the one I’ll stick with. I’m going to call it Claudiaism, because I know what I believe to be right, and I know what I believe to be worth working for. Do not join me.

December Reboot

It’s that time of year, when I admire both tasteful and completely insane Christmas decorations, sniff people’s Christmas trees, hope for cookies, plan Chanukah gifts for my kids, nieces and nephews, and think about moving to Israel. This year, as we plan for Donald Trump’s America (maybe–this whole Russia-interfered-with-our-electoral-process thing is getting interesting), I am feeling the sting just a tad more. Not even that. I misspoke. I am feeling impatient. I am feeling Grinchy. I am in no mood. Why? Because I keep seeing stuff like this: http://davidduke.com/jewish-war-christmas-christmas-traditions-banned-jewish-symbols-erected/

Also, because of these:

And so, I am re-posting this piece from one year ago, in the hope that maybe more people will read it. Or maybe someone will re-read it, and see it in a new way. Or someone will read it and choose to leave me be. Because as I mentioned earlier, I am feeling Grinchy.

Happy Holidays!

Jews Are Ruining Christmas, Again

chanukahtree

Monday was a great day; in the morning I went with my work partner and friend to look at a senior center where we might offer memoir writing classes. Afterward, we went to a pleasant coffee shop to have a drink and talk. Then my friend showed me a great used book store–the kind I like, a real rabbit warren of a place. The only thing missing were creaky, wood floors and bookish tweed-wearing clientele in dark corners. We asked for art books, and the woman running the place, a short, plump woman with grizzled gray hair and an open face, showed us where they were. When I was paying for my books, I got into a conversation with the bookseller that I wish had never happened.

The Roosevelt Field Mall on Long Island had changed up its traditional mall Santa photo area, and instead of trees and elves and icicles and candy canes, there was nothing but Santa and a futuristic sort of clam shell, intended to be a glacier, to block out all the shops from the photos.

The comment thread on the article I read was full of angry customers talking about how ridiculous this was, and they were all suggesting in indirect and direct ways that “people” had complained about the traditional set-up, and that’s why this horrific change had taken place. As someone who doesn’t celebrate Christmas, I’m well aware of who these “people” are they’re talking about. One guy just went ahead and typed, “Keep the Jews out of Christmas!” Clearly, this man does not know too much about his messiah. And that’s really the part of the story I wanted to talk about, because it was funny–about the guy who doesn’t know Jesus was Jewish.

The bookstore woman, who is actively trying to restore a Santa tradition that’s outside her local mall said, “Oh, yes, I read that story too! Just ridiculous.”

We agreed; if you’re going to have a mall Santa, you might as well have the decorations that go with it. But that wasn’t all the bookseller had to say. “People complained,” she said, “you know, people, from…from other religions.”

Uh-oh.

“Actually, I don’t think so,” I said. “It was just some odd corporate decision to have this sleek, modern Santa setup.” I hoped I was right.

If Christmas weren’t an important holiday economically, I’d be a big fan of getting the whole thing out of the mall, out of my kids’ schools, out of public spaces generally. It’s hard for December revelers to know what it’s like to be so inundated and overwhelmed with a religious holiday not their own. And so very many people don’t treat Christmas as the religious holiday it is, so they don’t know why their nativity scene is a bother. Because they see it as an American holiday rather than a Christian one, they are frustrated by anyone’s no-Christmas-in-public-spaces stance. And if it’s an American holiday, where does that leave American Jews, American Muslims, American Hindus, American Buddhists, and all the rest of us? I like many things about the holiday; some of the music is lovely. I like that it makes my Christian friends happy. I like looking at over-decorated houses. In New York, I always enjoyed walking past the tree sellers and deeply inhaling the sweet pine scent. It always felt even more special somehow if there was snow on the ground. People were cheerful; my office was full of treats homemade and mailed in, and I was invited to parties. I also like to pick special gifts for the Christmas-celebrating folks I love. But at no point do I forget that the holiday celebrates the birth of the Christ child. And that’s why “Merry Christmas” is annoying, even if it’s well-meant.

Try to imagine how you might feel if it seemed the entire world was celebrating a Middle Eastern-style Muslim holiday; everywhere you went, from Target to the drug store, even the vacuum repair shop, the library, school, the office, the walls were decked with Middle Eastern decorations. America is Muslim, and you are the Christian minority. Every time you went shopping for anything, you would have Middle Eastern holiday music in your ears. This music would burst forth from loudspeakers on mosques and masjids all over your city, on the hour. Everywhere you went, people would wish you “Eid e Milad un Nabi!” Sounds interesting, actually. Year after year, though, as you waded through this tsunami of exclusion, you would begin to resent it. You might even say, “what about my holiday?” And then you might inflate a minor holiday on your calendar in an effort to combat your sense of drowning. You could get decorations for your holiday from niche market internet stores and be the lone house on your street decked out in the wrong colors. You would try to make this minor event exciting for your kids so that they felt less excluded, so they could feel good about the traditions from which they come, so they would not feel crappy about not being a part of the culture of their country.

But back to the bookstore. After I suggested that the new mall décor was a corporate decision, the woman behind the counter said, “Probably the Jews.”

I said nothing. What could I have said? “Uh, I’m Jewish”? I took the books I had already paid for (I dropped $47 in that goddam place) and walked out, saying nothing.

I got back into my car, and as I moved down the road, I realized I was in shock. I felt as though a stranger had walked up to me on the street and slapped me in the face hard enough to bring stinging tears to my eyes. I am used to reading anti-Jewish sentiment online, particularly as December approaches. But as much as I am aware of antisemitism, I have rarely had anyone say something so directly hostile to me about Jews. I’ve had people make stupid jokes and comments, and ask poorly worded, ignorant questions. But that is nothing to having someone look right at you and blame you for something–in a voice full of derision.

I have talked to my kids about white privilege, about the issues African American (and other non-white) parents worry about while their children are out and about, things that we do not think about. I have talked about the injustice of that, have tried to make them understand that encountering the world is different for different people. And I think they get it. But only as much as one person can understand someone else’s experience.

There’s no denying that this country has been far better to my people than most other places around the world; one might argue that it is still the safest place on earth for a Jew to live. The time when people put signs in the window telling Jews, Irish, and Blacks not to apply (for the job or apartment) has passed. There’s no sign in the window. Now it’s a secret.

Jewish people live with the secret every day. It doesn’t compare to the experience of a brown-skinned person in America, though. Most Jews (except Jews of color) live safely cradled by their white privilege. They don’t fear that their sons will be shot by the police for no reason. They don’t get followed around stores as though they were criminals. Getting a taxi isn’t a big deal, except at rush hour. They aren’t hypersexualized by the media. They don’t feel a need to live up to some notion of their existence imposed upon them by other people. They aren’t considered lazy or freeloaders or welfare queens or drug addicts. Mostly, Jewish people are ignored, except in December, when American Jews insist on playing up that pesky little festival, Chanukah. We are invisible.

And that’s where the trouble is. Because someone who has a problem with African Americans, or Latinos, or Asians, or Arabs, for instance, will always have a problem with us, too. We are on “the list.”

My husband used to find it very funny that I didn’t think of myself as white. But it is this list that makes me say so. Reasons to hate us are about the same as the reasons to hate the other groups; stereotypes, fears, ignorance, and intolerance are layered on top of one another so that such people walk around in a shell of their own stupidity so thick that knowledge actually just bounces off it. And of course, our presence means lots of annoying and hypocritical “holiday” parties and “holiday” trees and the like. Sometimes someone will mistake me for a white person and say something derogatory about blacks. They think I’m in on the joke, but the truth is, I am the joke.

I have thought before that I would write about being a member of an “invisible minority.” A man wearing a kippah is a man showing the world to what group he belongs. But for most American Jews, there are no outward signs. Unless you believe we all have big noses and bad hair. So people disparage us right to our faces; most would probably not say anything hateful if they knew who they were talking to. This kind of racism scares me because it is in hiding. And it’s terribly hard to fight what you cannot see.

Raped.

I think she was the assistant principal.

Mrs. Stein’s powdery perfume always settled in my hair for the day so that when I got home from school I could still smell her. She wore gold jewelry, maybe a chain or two. She had fancy hair, coiffed into stepped, rolling hills. She smiled at me a lot. She took me out of class periodically just to hang out with her. I was eight. In her office, where the venetian blinds were always turned halfway closed to keep the room dim, I sat in a grownup upholstered chair, and she played with my hair, sometimes sliding bobby pins in to pin it back. She talked to me about her nieces, whose pictures were on her desk. One girl was blonde, and her name was Claudia, too, and the other, whose name was something else, something with a J, looked so much like me that now I begin to wonder if the woman didn’t have a picture of me on her desk. She spoke to me about a surgery I could have to have my ears tucked back. I couldn’t understand why she thought I needed that—I had tiny ears and they did not stick out, but she was always playing with them, and pushing my hair behind them. I don’t remember anything else about this except feelings—discomfort, fear, a small pleasure at my “chosen” status, the wrongness of her actions, wanting to go back to class, not wanting there to be yet another thing that set me apart from my classmates. I don’t know if more happened that I have chosen to forget.

In the classroom, things were not much better, but they looked different. For most of my elementary school career, I was a minority—always because of my religious upbringing, and most years because of my skin color. Except for Jeffrey—he was white, too. Any time the teacher left the room, Jeffrey got up from his place to come touch me. Eventually, he was chasing me around the room, trying to kiss me, grab my crotch, my behind, while the other kids laughed. I told my mother, and she went into school, guns blazing. My crazy teacher tied Jeffrey to his chair. It didn’t work, though.

In those years, the 1970s, the apartment building where we lived was a red brick block with a column of balconies on each side, near the entrance to FDR Drive at the start of what is called Spanish Harlem. Families with children lived there, and there were always kids playing and yelling and getting their bikes stolen outside. Med students lived there, too. Mount Sinai hospital wasn’t far away, but even closer was Metropolitan, where gun shot victims and drug addicts bled or screamed their way into the ER. My mother told me that when I went in for stitches, the girl next to me had some bad acid or something and had cut up the length of her arms with a razor. It took a while before anyone thought to pull the curtain between us.

There was a playground and a basketball court across the street; the Stanley Isaacs housing project was just a block away. My friends and I always played outside, and a lot of us also went after school to Mrs. L for babysitting. For a little while, there was a boy there who was unusually small for his age. He loved to get me alone in Mrs. L’s bedroom (he hid behind curtains and then popped out at me), so he could touch me. He grabbed at my crotch, mostly. Eventually Mrs. L caught him, and he didn’t come to babysitting anymore. He was so young; I wonder what was going on in his home.

We played everything outside—tag; red light, green light; double Dutch; Matchbox cars; Simon says. One day we were playing catch with a ball or a Frisbee, and it landed in the gutter, so I went to get it. A man in a white car pulled up near me just as I stood, and he started asking me for directions. He had a big, 1970s afro, the weight of all that hair forcing it to droop slightly on both sides. He asked me which way was east, which way was west, that kind of stuff. I thought he was pretty lost or pretty stupid. I was answering all his questions, feeling knowledgeable, but then I noticed his jeans were open, and he was moving his hand up and down on the first grown-up, dark-skinned penis I’d ever seen. I backed away from the car quick. I was six or seven years old.

* * *

The tiny private school I attended in 1981 was British, despite its New York location. The four-floor brick building housed small classrooms that hold these memories. There were coats and scarves on the shelf above me, thrown there willy-nilly so that wooly sleeves and tassels of yarn and silky linings hung down in my face, mussing my hair, adding to the sense of chaos, preventing me from keeping an eye on my assailants. This time there were three boys—Daryl, who I kind of liked, and two others I can’t remember.

Their hands were all over me, moving quickly, trying to grab anything that felt female. There were brown hands inside my school blazer on my sore new breasts; pale, freckled hands up my pleated gray skirt so that my behind felt as if something was crawling on it and it was now in need of a wash, another hand pulling a bit at my underwear. I was thirteen years old and such a jumbled mass of hormones and emotions that I was both aroused and terrified, laughing and screaming stop, wanting the boys to like me and afraid of what they were doing.

When I look at pictures of myself then, I was a nice-looking kid, awkward perhaps, but not unusually so. I was pretty. But, oh, that’s not how I felt! I had long, frizzy brown hair and glasses, the worst glasses. I was in that part of puberty where everything is oily and sweaty and flaky, a permanent zit on my nose under my glasses, protected by a small round Band-Aid. Some days I thought I had a “pretty face” and sometimes I was hideous, but I was always overweight. Despite being quite slim, even skinny, I was on self-inflicted diets all the time. I wanted desperately to feel good about myself.

Before Chemistry class, we waited in the small fourth-floor hallway for the teacher to arrive; she was often a minute or two late because it took her a while to propel her generous proportions up the stairs. Across from the chem lab there was a classroom that was always unlocked and empty at the time. Whenever we waited there for Mrs. Field, a girl was selected. I don’t know if the boys discussed it ahead of time or if it was a spur of the moment thing. They shoved their prey into the empty room and there she was thoroughly “felt up” while the rest of the class waited calmly for the teacher. If chemistry class did not begin, maybe more would have happened.

It was not until I was well into adulthood that I recognized this for what it was—sexual assault. None of us would have ever thought of reporting it or complaining, viewing ourselves as complicit in it, maybe, or not even fully understanding how wrong it was. I remember feeling as though I were popular. I saw that classroom more than once, and sometimes there were as many as five of my male classmates. I had no choice, as I see it now, overpowered by them and their number. But I did giggle. Yes, I did.

* * *

It’s hot in the subway car, and someone has opened the little window that slants inward so we can enjoy the garbage- and urine-soaked breeze from the tunnel. The train’s clack-clack-clack-squeal is so loud I can’t think, and I am thrown forward, gripping the greasy metal “strap” as hard as I can so I don’t land in the lap of the woman in front of me. My left shoulder, weighed down by my backpack, is recovering from the jolt when I notice an unwelcome caress: a hand sliding up my thigh and slowly across my behind. In high school I rode the subway to and from school (go, Peglegs!), and I was assaulted on the train as reliably as my teachers gave homework—just about every day. There was no avoiding the men, because there was no type; they were Wall Street guys in pinstripe suits and wingtips, faces red from the morning’s shave; bike messengers of every race in ripped baggy shorts over their long johns; maintenance workers all in blue, ages twenty to sixty-five; college boys; homeless men–I was up for grabs. Businessmen liked to slide their briefcases up between my legs, lifting them suddenly when it was their stop; some guys just liked to use the crowds as a way to run their hands slimily across my ass. When the train lurched, there were men who liked to melt into me, so I could feel the length of their body against mine, their erection pushing into my back. By the time I was a senior I’d learned to shame them, yelling, “Get your hand off my ass!” Invariably, everyone looked at me like I was the crazy, but I didn’t care. I’ve seen too many women walk off the subway with semen on the back of their clothes to keep quiet.

* * *

Susan and I spread the blanket out on a sunny hill and lay on our backs to enjoy the blue sky and the early summer warmth. We talked and laughed and ate Doritos and maybe cucumber slices to make up for the Doritos, but then I got that feeling, the one that is maybe a New York thing, where you know someone is there who shouldn’t be, or you just become hyperaware. So I looked around, and there was this dude looking at us. He was half-hiding behind a tree, just past the big hunk of bedrock that juts out the top of the hill, but he wasn’t well hidden. He smiled at me and continued to masturbate, leering. So we had to leave. We had to leave. I write this story as a single incident, but really it describes something that happened so often that it has morphed into a generalized memory of a picnic-interrupted-by-jacking-off-stranger.

* * *

Once I chased a guy for three blocks in Greenwich Village because he ran up behind me while I was walking with two friends and shoved his hand under my skirt and into my behind and vulva. I caught up to him too, shouting every obscenity I know, and he turned around and apologized in the way that suggests I was making far too big a deal out of the whole thing. Three showers later I could still feel the imprint of that hand.

* * *

My boyfriend raped me. I know that now, for sure.

He was one of the friends who’d been with me in the Village when I got grabbed. He didn’t chase my attacker with me, or yell, or do anything at all. I never got an answer from him about why. He waited while I took shower after shower and seemed coldly unaffected by the incident.

Really, I’ve known for years that he raped me, but I never looked at it outside of the context of the free fall it was central to. I loved him, I was unhealthily dependent on him, obsessed, even. By 1992, we’d been together too many years, and all was high drama. Arguments, me screaming, he storming off, cheating, not coming back for days, alcohol, non-violent nonsense of all kinds, completely foreign to the quiet, buttoned-up way I’d been raised. One night it got especially heated. I said no.

I said it again. And again. But he didn’t seem to hear me, or didn’t care what I was saying. He put his weight on me so I couldn’t move, and I just stared into the pseudo-Aztec print on the futon until all I could see was thread meshed with thread meshed with thread.

I recognize it now as part of a relentless chain of sexual assaults that began when I was about five years old. It’s a history I am only beginning to examine, one I have always dismissed as not much different from most women, or maybe most women in New York City. I don’t mean that I ignore how fucked up it is that women live with this level of mistreatment as though it’s normal, but that I never thought of myself as having an unusual story, or experiences that had substantially shaped my sexual life in the present. One person after another has touched my body uninvited or dragged me into their own sex show. I have drawn no conclusion, yet; I have no literary bow to tie the ends here.

They are ragged, hanging loose.

Home for the Holidays

Every year during the Jewish high holidays, I look forward to hearing an inspiring message, but I find myself hoping I can escape any sermon about Israel. One Rosh Hashanah we went to someone else’s synagogue, and the rabbi’s sermon was entirely about how we all had to go to Israel. Forget if you wanted to, forget if you had the money. Maybe no one will talk about it this year, I thought foolishly—after all, there’s so much going on in the world, even right here (with that Oompa Loompa Klan member running for president), that requires our attention. But it is not to be avoided.

This year, we talked about our generation of Jews as one that had been raised without an automatic love of Israel, who were raising children without a built-in love of Israel. That we had been handed a beautifully wrapped, carefully sealed box and told to love and protect what was inside without being given any understanding of what was in there or why we should love it, value it, defend it. I thought that was a great analogy; that’s exactly how I learned about Israel. Some of my Hebrew school teachers were Israelis who had, in fact, gotten the hell out of there. What had I been taught? The language (though not in Hebrew school, to be fair; I learned it in Israel), and history based on Scripture. We were not taught “real” history, nothing about British interference in the Middle East, or all the wars that took place, or all the people (other than Nazis) who had tried to kill us and prevent the Jewish state from happening. We did not learn about those other people or what their arguments might be.

These days there is widespread hatred of Israel that looks a lot of the time to some of us like anti-Semitism, though not always, and the rabbi tasked us with changing the narrative, in the most modern way possible—with a hashtag. Get out there on the internet and tell people the one thing you love about Israel above all else. One thing, one sentence. I was puzzled by the assumption that we feel that love. Do I? Not really. I am not gung-ho the way he is, not at all. I am no BDSer, but I’m not the cheerleader for Israel that my rabbi is, for sure. He participates in AIPAC conferences. He goes to Israel with some regularity; I never go. He feels a religious connection that I don’t. He is not even scared to go; I actually feel that it would be irresponsible of me to take my kids there. He plans to have his sons become b’nai mitzvot there; I wouldn’t until they stop throwing chairs at women, yelling at women, treating women as though they are different from men in some way that matters to worship.

So it’s not love I feel. And sometimes it’s downright resentment. Like when a Christian finds out I’m Jewish and wants to tell me all about his trip to Israel as if this is common ground for us. As if this will matter to me, or mean something to me. And then the conversation goes one of two ways; either he wants to tell me he’s on my “side”; that is, fuck the Palestinians, or he wants me to own up to my guilt and collusion in their terrible lives. Because as a Jew, you see, either way, I’m invested. Is that fair? I’m an American, not an Israeli.

Then again. My family lived in Israel for a year when I was very little. Really little, three and four years old. My father had a one-year position at Tel Aviv University, and we lived in a rented house in Ramat Hasharon, which at the time was just a small suburb. For me it was lovely, it was home, because I was young enough to just go with it. I learned a babyish Hebrew, went to nursery, made a best friend named Hadar, crushed bugs and snails, ate halvah, disappeared for the day, made friends with soldiers, got covered in cactus spines, and had a good ol’ time. My memories are limited mostly to senses, but I do recall my nursery teacher Nechama, and the green canvas swing I had in our backyard, as well as the lizard that lived in a bush there. So if I love Israel at all, it is because of these memories, of early childhood happiness, with married parents, and playtime innocence, and the remembered love of my first bestie. I do not know what feelings might arise if I went to Israel today. I am too afraid to go.

I keep thinking, though–is expecting an American Jew, or any Diaspora Jew, to mechanically love Israel akin to expecting an African American to love the African country whence his or her African ancestors came? A place from which he or she is many generations removed? A totally foreign land, with foreign cultures, languages, customs, traditions, religions? The American might be curious, might be fascinated, might want to know more, might even want to be immersed in it for a time, but out of what magical place is this love supposed to come? If there is not love, maybe there is a feeling of connection, a deep thrumming in the soul? I wonder. I think we can will ourselves to feel such things, but I can’t imagine your average Brooklynite feeling a spiritual connection to mother Africa when dropped off on the savannah. Maybe more a sense of, “Oh, shit.” That might not be fair. I cannot speak for people whose experience I do not know. I think there are some similarities there, though.

This week I am in my hometown, staying with my mother in my old neighborhood. This was home, Manhattan, for the first thirty years of my life, with brief forays to other places. And so what that means now is that I can navigate the city without fear. I can find where I want to go, I am not overwhelmed by the people and the sights, and I can tell the difference between pleasantly odd and dangerously mad. I have not lived here since 1999. I suspect if I moved back, I could get used to all of it again, but now I know I don’t want to. It’s dreadfully loud here. The noise level in my mother’s apartment is so bad that it reaches comic proportions. Her street is wide, so the buildings form a canyon, and as the traffic comes out of Central Park, it roars up the street, motorcycles drowning out every thought in my head and every sentence my mother attempts to utter. Garbage trucks lift dumpsters and then bang them repeatedly on the tops of the trucks’ receptacles. Sweepers go by, and then building maintenance workers come out with leaf blowers just as the school children scream by with sharp-voiced nannies and buses hit air brakes. Still, there is the chatter of birds in the tree outside her window. And then the apartments above her begin their renovations and drivers hit their horns. And I know it is not home. I am a Diaspora New Yorker.

If I could find a way to take my favorite things about New York City and put them in a more tolerable setting, I would do it. The wacky and interesting people, the food, the culture, the public transportation, and a few other things would be great in a cleaner, quieter, less densely populated place. But I get pretty defensive about New York. I can say it’s too loud, I can tell you the subway smelled like human poo the other day (it really did–ugh), but if you’re not from here, you better not say anything negative about the place to me, capisce? I believe the people are friendly and helpful, and you should just relax and stop being such a baby, all right?

My feelings about Israel, though, are not as clear-cut to me. On the one hand, I’m defensive. When I hear people crapping all over Israel, I don’t like it. I read; I pay attention. I know how much attacks on Israelis have to do with the fact that the people are Jews. And I believe that Israel, like every other country in the world, has the right to defend and protect itself. I believe that every human has a right to live in peace and freedom. I wish everyone could. That goes for the people on the other side of that wall, too. Would that the wall didn’t need to be there. I know there are people on both sides who just want to live in peace. I know there are people on both sides who are full of hate. Walls rarely create friendships.

Maybe we are always seeking that sense of home, that feeling when your physical surroundings tell your body that you are where you are supposed to be, you are safe without big scary walls and razor wire, and all is right with the world. I have heard some Jewish people tell me that is how they felt upon landing in Israel; they felt surrounded by their people, safe. That is usually how I feel when I return home to my spouse and children from a time away, as long as I am not thrown back into action too immediately. Maybe this is the connection to Israel that some Jews feel. I do not know where that comes from. This is why my Hebrew school teachers should have opened that beautifully wrapped box to show me what was inside. I wouldn’t necessarily have felt Israel was my home, my birthright, but it might have been more accessible to me, and that’s a start.

israelbox

Touch Me, Please.

Two things have been occupying my thoughts lately, and at first I thought they were unrelated. First is the murder of so many people in Orlando, Florida, and the social media storm that followed. Rainbows are everywhere. I am happy that so many people see themselves as allies, or at least, lacking the prejudice that many Americans, as well as people all over the world, still harbor. (And of course, Senate Republicans did everything they could to make sure there would be no change to gun laws, even though no one has a good reason for ordinary citizens to own an assault rifle.) After a while, though, the digital sentiments seem shallow and unconsidered, like so many things one sees on Facebook and Twitter. Clicking “Like” or ♥ is not exactly taking action. Well meant, for sure, but lacking tangibility.

Also on my mind is touch. I think about this a lot for my own reasons that do not belong in a blog post, but recently some women in my yoga class and I were talking about the voice in our heads that shows up when the teacher walks around the room–“Pick me! Step on my feet! Press on my back!” Do we want to feel special? Singled out? Maybe. I  didn’t think that was my issue, because all my teachers at the studio have a way of making me feel that I matter, that my practice matters. I think we are all hoping to be touched for the sake of that human connection, for whatever chemicals that touch releases in our brains. We know it’s important for babies, so much so that hospitals have volunteers whose job it is to cuddle the newborns. Does that need ever end?

Ray Williams of Psychology Today writes  in his post, “8 Reasons Why We Need Human Touch More Than Ever,” that more touch leads to less violence, more trust between individuals, stronger team dynamics, (non-sexual) emotional intimacy, and overall well-being, along with some health benefits. There is even a study by a French psychologist that shows students who got a slight tap on their upper arm from the professor when they volunteered to work at something on the board were much more likely to volunteer to do so again compared to students who received only words of praise.

Dacher Kerchner of UC Berkeley writes, “We … know that touch builds up cooperative relationships—it reinforces reciprocity between our primate relatives, who use grooming to build up cooperative alliances. There are studies showing that touch signals safety and trust, it soothes. Basic warm touch calms cardiovascular stress. It activates the body’s vagus nerve, which is intimately involved with our compassionate response, and a simple touch can trigger release of oxytocin, aka ‘the love hormone.’” That’s it–oxytocin!

This neurochemical is released by the brain during childbirth to increase the motility of the uterus, and is also released when a mother’s nipples are stimulated, to help in breastfeeding. But, researchers say, its release into specific regions of the brain also affects emotional, cognitive, and social behaviors. It contributes to relaxation, trust, and psychological stability. Some researchers have found that it can reduce stress responses, such as anxiety.

I don’t mean to suggest that if the sick person who killed club-goers in Orlando had been hugged more as a child, this would not have happened. That is simplistic, and I know nothing of his childhood other than his religious upbringing and his homophobic father. Also, there are some perfectly nice people who don’t want to be touched–don’t want to give and receive hugs, for instance, or don’t like casual touches from people to whom they are not emotionally attached.

Those of us who do like that sort of contact, though, are deeply  and positively affected by it, I believe. There is comfort in it, as long as it isn’t in some way inappropriate. It offers reassurance, acknowledges that we are present and that others are aware of our presence and like it. It makes us feel safer and cared for. In some contexts, it helps us feel attractive and desirable.

There are memories tied to touch. I remember clearly what my mother’s cool, soft hand felt like on my forehead when I was a child sick in bed, and she soothed me and smoothed my hair back from my face. I remember exactly how it felt at a family event when she sat next to me and patted me on the back while we talked with everyone. I remember my father’s hugs as all-encompassing. I also remember exactly what it felt like when either of my parents hit me. Not just the physical memory–the feelings associated with it: fear and anger.

Touch, welcome touch, matters. Usually when someone touches us in a positive way, other things come along for the ride–a pleasant tone of voice, a smile, a sympathetic or empathetic word, laughter, congenial words. As a package deal, I have to believe this makes a difference in how we feel about ourselves and others and affects who we become. Maybe we ought to consider this  in our daily interactions. Our tone, the look on our face, the hand on a shoulder, might keep us more aware of the role we play in others’ lives and how interconnected we are.

It might save us all.

 

Keep Going

My bright and beautiful, talented, funny daughter, now just a few inches shorter than I, came into the room where I was sitting, tears in her eyes and mouth down-turned. She crawled into my lap, curled up, cried, and told me she was scared.

I thought it might be the passing thunderstorms. Once in a while the noise still scares her. I asked, “What are you scared of, Monkey?”

“I’m scared that someone is going to hurt me just because I’m gay.”

What is one to say? She’s not wrong. I wish she were. I held her tighter.

I’m scared, too. Because we live in a country where people of all sorts have access to guns, and some of those people, periodically, get it into their heads that a bunch of us have to die. I do not understand this hate. I was raised to be pretty accepting of all people. I maintain no religious or political belief that tells me anyone is less, sinful, damned, or even just confused and misled because of who they love or marry or adopt or raise. I don’t believe that my “values” are threatened by what other people do. They’re mine. No one can touch them. I don’t believe that people dressing in ways that are different from how I dress or how “normal” people dress threatens the well-being of this nation. These are the ideas I teach my children. They know that the only bad people are those who don’t care about others.

Just last night my daughter and I attended a “MasQueerAde,” the first event of its kind in our area. The brain child of a local high school student, it was a prom for members of Gay-Straight Alliances at local schools, and any other teens who wanted to eat, dance, and socialize in a space that was safe–where they could be who they are, wear what they like, love who they love. The kids had a great time. There were prom dresses and tuxes, and lots and lots of beads. The guests danced up a storm, strolled along the water, made friends. My kid was a social butterfly, and even met someone to dance with who she liked a lot. It was an event so full of love and good feeling, we came home tired but truly happy. An evening in a roomful of people who accept you just as you are is an empowering thing, an experience I was thrilled my daughter could have, at fourteen.  This was not my youth. I didn’t even realize until last night how great it would have been for me to attend a party like that back in the 1980s.

It’s time to take away the guns. The problem is not the people who are responsible gun-owners, I know, but those people will unfortunately have to suffer as a result of other people’s actions. That’s just how it is.

But my child? It hurts, this worry and fear, this sense of vulnerability. How do I offer her comfort when the world is so scary? I can’t promise her that no one will ever try to hurt her, gay, straight, or otherwise. I talked about living her life, just fighting by living. Create, love, think, work. Keep going. Be you. You are the best example of you there is. I talked about how Israelis get up in the morning, go to work, come home to their families, make weekend plans–while constantly living under threat of terrorism. I don’t know how they do that, I really don’t. But we’ll have to learn, and quick.

Or take away the guns.