The Sound of Music was my introduction to Nazis.
I can remember watching that scene as a small child, and feeling frightened. I can remember asking about what the flag meant and my mother explaining it. Even without seeing the clip I can recall how chilling the anger is in the scene.
The only thing I’ve ever felt when I see a swastika is fear. I see it and I’m suddenly cold. I’m queasy. My heart races. I blink quickly and begin looking around for ways to escape. It’s panic. It’s a relic of the generational trauma I feel as a Jewish person.
Safe to be Jewish
I grew up in a place where it felt safe to be Jewish. “Safe” is, of course, always relative. It was the suburbs of New York City. There was a sizable Jewish population. There were plenty of other Jewish kids, Jewish families around, we had access to many synagogues, could get Kosher foods easily, our public schools were closed for major Jewish holidays and included Jewish themes in our classes. Sure, we were existing in the world of Christian hegemony, but it didn’t feel oppressive. Even when my mother would describe something as “goyische.” Even when certain colleges were automatically crossed off my list because of the Jewish experience they didn’t offer–there was a sort of unspoken list of “schools that Jewish kids applied to” and “schools that Jewish kids didn’t really apply to,” and a little bit of “stick with your own kind,” that went into the process.
I worried a little about what it would be like to spend time in Germany on a student exchange program as a Jew, but it never seemed to be an issue. Antisemitism existed, but it existed somewhere else, mostly in places far away from where I was. It existed in New York–I remember Rev. Jesse Jackson’s “Hymietown” remark during the 1984 presidential campaign. This was probably the first real awareness I had of antisemitism close to home. Even during the Crown Heights riots, just a few years later, I still felt safely removed from the danger. Crown Heights is only fifty or so miles from where I grew up–but still, it felt like another world, and I still felt safe.
I learned to Laugh at Nazis… Sometimes… Sort of
So safe that I even learned to laugh at Nazis. I laughed at Mel Brooks with The Producers and “Springtime for Hitler,” and at History of the World Part I’s “Hitler on Ice.” I laughed at Hogan’s Heroes. And especially at The Blues Brothers, with lines like “I hate Illinois Nazis,” or the bridge scene where one Nazi tells the other that he’s always loved him. Antisemitism wasn’t a joke, but I could laugh a little bit at Nazis.
I went off to college, and spent a year avoiding Jewishness. I needed the space to figure out my own Jewish identity–what it meant to me, why it was important, and how it fit with the whole picture I had of myself. Well, I found it… but with it I also found new fears associated with my Jewishness. I was outside of my rather safe bubble and noticing things. Even so, the kind of violence I feared wasn’t physical violence… it was intellectual. It was verbal assaults, microaggressions, less violent things. A different kind of violence.
As I was writing this, I realized something. There’s only one synagogue I can remember going to where I never saw armed security. It was the schul my grandparents attended, and not one we attended regularly–only on certain holidays, and only when I was quite young. Armed security wasn’t necessarily present for “regular” days like Shabbat (that came later) but it was present on days like Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. The constant presence of armed security for all events is more recent. My children have always gone to synagogues with armed security… even for regular weekly services. They’ve never had that safe kind of bubble that I did.
Not the Jewish Part of Florida
When I think about that bubble, I think about how some people responded when they heard I was moving to Florida–people who understood the need I felt for connection with a Jewish community commented on how nice it would be that I’d be in Florida where I could find that community. Jews and non-Jews alike. How misguided they were in their thinking–while I’m sure there are parts of Florida like that, the part of Florida I am in is not like that.
The part of Florida I’m in is a place where I have collected all kinds of stories.
These Really Happened
I requested a Kosher meal for Passover after one of my children was born, and was given pork chops and mashed potatoes because “there’s no bread in that meal.” A Parent-Teacher conference was scheduled on Yom Kippur. Having to tell teachers explicitly that our family does not celebrate Christmas. That Santa Claus isn’t a part of our December holiday observance, other than observing that he’s depicted everywhere. Then finding out my child had been asked to write a letter to Santa for a school assignment. And the complete bewilderment when I reached out to the teacher to say “that wasn’t okay.”
People raised concerns behind my back that I wouldn’t “allow” our Scouts to celebrate Christmas because my family doesn’t. (I’m all about “embracing the ‘and’” as far as that goes. Sure we can have a celebration that includes Christmas and the other things people celebrate at that time of year.)
I thought I was well prepared for all of that. I’d even managed to navigate a situation where someone suggested that I couldn’t be a good person… Because I wasn’t afraid of going to (Christian) Hell. None of that prepared me for how to respond when a kindergarten classmate told my child that they would go to “the devil place” because they didn’t believe in Jesus.
When “Normal” is Feeling you Don’t Belong
When your “normal” setting is feeling like you don’t belong, it’s exhausting. It’s like wearing clothes or shoes that are too small… But you can’t just change out of the discomfort when you get home. You spend a huge amount of energy on pulling up your pants. And if you’re not pulling them up you’re thinking about how to do it discreetly. Or how you might be able to solve the problem of the ill-fitting pants with what’s available to you in the moment. Or wondering if everyone is noticing that you’re constantly tugging on your pants. And that’s just the beginning of the list of pants-problems that are a constant, running script in your head. And then you’re spending extra energy on trying to make sure that in spite of your pants, you’ve still got everything else under control. But you’re doing all the other things you have to do. You become overwhelmed. An alien in your own body.
I know what it’s like to live in a world where I don’t feel safe. As a rape survivor, it’s a familiar feeling. I’ve done a lot of work to learn to cope with PTSD symptoms, to not succumb to agoraphobia, and to be able to move throughout the world and make reasonable judgments about risk and safety. Nights are still hard, being in dark places, or spaces without multiple escape routes is still hard. None of the things I’ve done have prepared me for a world where just existing as a Jew feels like a constant threat.
The Violence is Getting Worse
For a long time, even though violence against Jewish people happened, it was an occasional shocking thing, but isolated, one incident here, one there, not large groups. It was mostly graffiti or verbal harassment, not knives and guns. I don’t know when it started to become more violent or when things became more frequent. Like most things, I suppose it sort of crept up, the incidents became more frequent, became bigger, became more violent. I just know it feels a lot scarier to be Jewish now than it did before.
It may sound strange to some people that I live with the expectation that I will experience antisemitic graffiti near me at some point (not just once, but again more recently, too.) There have been other local incidents, too. A few years ago someone’s car was keyed and the reason given was the Hanukkah stuff in the back seat. On school buses, or in classrooms. It’s terrifying that kids are just accepting that sort of thing in a matter of fact way as part of the price of existing.
Acceptance… Sometimes… Sort of
But I accept that the way I accept the fact that I have to be hyper-vigilant in the dark because I’m a woman. Or the way I have to make extra calculations about accessibility when I go places, because I’m disabled. None of these things are right but that’s the way the world is and so while I’m doing things to affect change, I still have to live in the world as it exists.
Maybe it was my age at the time. Or because children were involved. Maybe it was because there were more people involved or because of the kind of violence-a spree killing with multiple locations. But it seems that after the Los Angeles JCC shootings, things got a lot more dangerous.
It seemed to escalate from the kind of threats that were meant to remind you that you were “allowed” to be there, to exist, but that you had better stay in your lane… To the kind of violence that was meant to destroy. And it hasn’t stopped. Overland Park, Kansas. In fact, the threats have grown louder. There was a 2016 campaign ad with the racist use of a Mogen David. There’s Richard Spencer and Unite the Right. In 2017, there was a series of bomb threats at Jewish Community Centers. A local reporter I know actually called to ask for my response. To ask whether I was participating in Jewish community activities.
And, and, and.
When People you Care about are in Danger
Then Pittsburgh happened and things got even darker. Pittsburgh is a place where I have family ties. It’s a place that I feel connected to in a way that I haven’t connected with other places. The big tragedies keep coming. California. New Jersey. New York. Little things, too. Last year on my birthday, there was an incident in St. Petersburg, Florida.
And then it got very, very close to home. Right here in Orlando. Nazis. In my town. A Neo-Nazi rally, timed to coincide with International Holocaust Rememberance Day where people were shouting “The Jew is the Devil,” and far worse things. Politicians on both sides of the aisle condemned this. But not the governor of Florida, who used it as an opportunity to accuse people of “smearing him.” His press secretary, in a now-deleted Tweet posted a thinly veiled dogwhistle questioning whether or not they were actually Nazis.
How do you live with the constant threat that at any time things might blow up? And unlike in an intimate partner relationship, you can’t do the very hard work to walk away from it?
How do you move on from things like what happened in Colleyville Texas? How can you keep fighting when the battles seem to be the same ones again and again?
“L’Dor va-Dor” Is Hebrew for “Same Shit, Different Day”
Book burning and book banning (which I’ve written about in September and in December) This time it’s the graphic novel Maus, which is an incredible, true story about the author’s family, but which doesn’t have the redemptive “nice neighbors” or “good Germans that people like because they make Holocaust literature easier to digest. Antisemitism keeps sneaking into the classroom. Teachers hired to teach Bible-as-Literature courses instead bring in their proselytizing agendas. And teach lessons by writing a word on the board and telling students that they can torture Jews by asking them to pronounce the word. How can you stay brave or maintain hope?
I carry the generational trauma of the Jewish people who came before me. There’s power in acknowledging that. In admitting that there is trauma, that it carries over from generation to generation and that it does affect me. I find comfort in the rituals of Judaism, in knowing that people have done these same things, said these same words for hundreds of years. There’s something that ignites inside me because I know that people have survived, have persevered and have preserved Jewish culture, and have passed it on to me. It’s powerful and motivational. It’s important for me to take my turn at protecting and preserving and passing on the same.
Finding Community, Finding Ways to Laugh
Like other traumatized people, I find ways to laugh at things. Humor is protective. Humor insulates us, helps us avoid getting stuck in the terrible things. Keeps us from talking about the difficult things sometimes and so it keeps others at a safe distance where they can’t hurt us. It lets us release our own nervous energy. Being able to recall things like a favorite movie scene from the movie Torch Song Trilogy about sitting shiva helped me get through the process of preparing to sit shiva for my father. Goofy photos of Big Cat sitting awkwardly on my head helped Adam and me through some uncomfortable moments when we first began our work together.
I’ve also developed a deep appreciation for the connections that just happen sometimes because of shared cultural experiences. When you’re among theater people you don’t have to explain “the Scottish play.” When you’re with fellow-alumni from your school, you share a common pool of stories and in-jokes. Things everyone knows.
With many Jewish friends, I can tell a story about something I’ve experienced and not have to explain every excruciating detail. Instead, I can laugh with someone about things we both understand. Like going to see a friend of mine preach at her church. Picking up a hymnal to follow along, only to realize I’ve flipped it “backwards” as if it were a siddur. Or a sympathetic reaction when I talk about the feeling I get when passing the collection plate during a church service. Not having to explain all of these things can take away some of the exhaustion that comes from dealing with them.
Different Kinds of Survivor
Months ago, in an essay about being a rape survivor, I wrote, “So much of “surviving” is really learning to live with what’s different.” I firmly believe that. That “surviving” is learning how to make the trauma into just one piece of me, and not all of me. To let it become one element of the whole picture, like my nose, or the fact that my favorite color is green.
I sometimes think about how, when Maxine Hong Kingston was working on The Fourth Book of Peace, the only copy of her manuscript was destroyed in a fire. She took that experience and then went on to write The Fifth Book of Peace, which is a mix of memoir and fiction about renewal and recovery and destruction. “In a time of destruction, create something,” she says.
In darkness, I create things. I write poems, even good ones. I write the pieces we share here at 2 Rules of Writing–sometimes about subjects that are very difficult to talk about. I’m afraid of the dark because I can’t see what’s there. But to manage that fear, I can think of the ways others have done things to allow me to learn about my own power, to fight for justice, to work for peace, to make things better. I can light fires in my mind as I think about ways to make sure other people don’t have to deal with the same darkness I am–let them take the sparks I light to keep myself from retreating into my own fears and use them to light a new path to carry my work forward.
Something You Can Do
If you’ve read this and are inspired to help make change, thank you. Your contribution is valuable, whether that’s a phone call or an email to a legislator to try and prevent hateful or harmful legislation from passing, or volunteering on a regular basis, or through a financial donation. We’ve got a few suggestions here for organizations that The 2 Rules team care deeply about:
Education is a powerful tool for making change and we believe that, one of the ways to encourage that is making sure that people have access to books. We’re fans of Flamingo Rampant and hope you’ll think about donating to help them bring feminist, racially diverse, LGBTQ positive books to children. The Freedom to Read Foundation helps support the rights of libraries and individuals to collect and access information. Supporting them is also important to us.
RAINN provides support to victims and survivors of sexual violence through a variety of programs and platforms including online chat and an app. They also support prevention education and public policy. Supporting them helps prevent the trauma of rape and sexual assault, and helps promote recovery and healing after.
2 Rules of Writing might not exist if it weren’t for Buck’s Rock Camp. Through a unique creative and performing arts experience, children and teenagers from 11-17 have a chance to safely discover the many ways they are empowered to be leaders and make change in the world. As alumni, Adam and I both want to help make this experience available to all of the kids who would benefit from it.