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

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.

* * *

See a Facebook page devoted to boycotting all the malls owned by Simon malls: https://www.facebook.com/BoycottSimonMalls/timeline

The original description of their raison d’etre (since softened considerably): “This is a page dedicated to boycotting Simon Malls new glacier Santa experience. Apparently they’d rather please the minority [italics mine] & not the majority.”

The mall’s response: “We’ve listened to our shopper feedback the last few days and the idea that we eliminated Christmas trees in order to “not offend” anyone is simply not true. We’re still adding in key elements to the Santa set this week and after hearing our customer concerns we will now be including a traditional Christmas tree as one of those elements. Together, the mix of traditional and modern design will create a magical North Pole and a new family tradition. Come and explore this modern and interactive experience.”

FYI, it’s not just the defenders of Christmas, either; others have also called for a boycott of Simon malls: http://www.2acheck.com/boycott-simon-malls/. These guys are pissed that they can’t come to the mall fully armed.