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.

 

Uncomfortable

I’ve been thinking about history. The work of Martin Luther King, Jr. is history; his life and his death are blMLKack-and-white pictures and lines of text in schoolbooks children read, as remote for them as World War Two or the Mesozoic. That’s natural, of course. Jewish organizations expend a lot of energy on Holocaust remembrance because it is human nature to move on, to dilute the past as we do so, so that we look back at images reflected like ripples on water. So MLK has a day on the calendar. As he should.

But it wasn’t actually that long ago that he was murdered, shot down because he wanted brown-skinned people to have the same rights and opportunities as white people. Think about that–killed in cold blood because he didn’t think anyone should have to drink from a “colored” fountain, use a “colored” entrance, struggle to find a polling place, or sit in the back of the bus.

In 2016, the Oscar nominations have overlooked the work of African Americans in the film industry. There is talk of a boycott. I am torn between supporting a boycott and hoping that brown people show up and make speeches that make everyone wriggle in their seats. In my heart, I don’t care about the Oscars issue, because I long ago tired of all these wealthy people having televised self-congratulatory events at which they receive thousands of dollars worth of gifts, just for breathing. They believe they do important work (listen to their impassioned speeches!)–and they do, as far as we need the arts. We need these expressions of beauty, of political and social rebellion, these records of culture. But I can’t help feeling that most of the people in the shiny outfits have lost sight of the real work of this world, of the way non-famous, non-wealthy people live and struggle.

The exclusion of brown-skinned people from the Oscars, though, has made me wonder about the way that racism persists. How does it go on and on in this country, when so many of us believe it is wrong-headed, see ourselves as “not racist,” have a diverse group of friends? What is the mechanism that keeps it alive?

First, there are plenty of openly racist Americans–just read any comment thread on the internet. But the rest of us, those who acknowledge privilege, examine our own thinking, edit our speech, I think we are the people responsible for the fact that police kill black people at an alarming rate, for the jails being full of brown faces, for the schools in certain neighborhoods facing challenges they cannot hope to meet.

Think about it carefully, white people and Jews. Just privately, just in your own head. What would your life look like right now if at every turn, African Americans had had an equal shot–at getting the same attention (quality and quantity) from your kindergarten teacher, at getting into the specialized high school / college / graduate school you went to, at securing the job you have now, or the promotion you earned last year? How would your life look right now if the jails were not full of black men, or if whites guilty of the same crimes were also in jail? How would your neighborhood be different if there never was another side of the tracks?

Now, just to yourself, imagine all of that has happened, there really is this sort of equality. Maybe that makes you uncomfortable, because maybe you wouldn’t have gone to that school or won that position. I am not suggesting you didn’t work hard to get where you are; I am only saying the deck was stacked in your favor all along, as compared to others.

No doubt I am being too simplistic. Not long ago, though, I had the opportunity to see what happens when even the most liberal person is forced to see his privilege. It is different when someone points it out to you–much more icky than when you think of it on your own. Such a person is very quick to cut ties with the source of his discomfort. Even those of us who truly believe in equality are maybe not so ready to give up the enormous power that comes with being light of skin. Look at how stupid and crazy that sounds! And yet there it is. I know for sure the color of my skin has served me well, even if it’s just how I get treated in a store. Twenty years ago, I enjoyed the privileges of being an attractive young person. I don’t think I feel guilty about how I have been treated. Should I? Maybe. I’m really not sure. But it does make me feel uncomfortable in my own skin to consider how my world would look if all the systemic racism were gone.

And that’s why it doesn’t go away. Because quite simply, if you’ve always been handed the bigger slice of pie, what will motivate you to give that up? Your sense of fairness? On this blog, I have in the past written about belief, and how difficult I find it–I would like to believe in a God, if only for the strength this belief appears to give people of faith. But now I wonder if belief isn’t actually pretty easy. I believe people should be treated equally, without regard to race, religion, gender, sexuality, hair color, you name it. What practice do I engage in to support that belief?

It’s not enough to recognize your advantages. You must actively work to level the playing field, and you must do it not because of the way it makes you feel, and not because of how it makes you look to others, but because it is right. It is only right.

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.