When Anti-Semitism Becomes Mundane

We had a meeting with our son’s teachers this morning, just to check in on how he’s doing and he’s doing really well this year.  During the meeting, one of the teachers said to us, “Well, I’m sure he’s told you about the incident that happened in my class…”

My husband and I looked at each other, hoping that he hadn’t done anything wrong, our minds obviously cycling through every possibility.  We didn’t know about any “incident” in Chemistry class, but our son is 13 and while he’s a good, well-behaved kid, you just never know.

“Oh, well,” the teacher began awkwardly, perhaps a bit embarrassed, “we were studying chemical reactions in class and another boy, who really was just being a jerk, wrote something to your son.  It was…”

He paused, looking for the right words, the approved words.

“It was about your culture, you know, the history.”

It never ceases to amaze me how many people think the words “Jew” or “Jewish” are somehow bad words, as if we’d be insulted for him to use them.

“You mean it was antisemitic?” I went right to the point.  It wasn’t hard to draw the lines between who we are and why chemical reactions might be related.  Images of gas chambers probably came to mind.

“Yes.” the teacher seemed relieved that I’d understood without him needing to say the words, “Your son handled it really well.  He was upset, but he stayed calm and he gave the note to me and we’ve handled it.  The other boy has been disciplined and I moved him to another part of the class.”

It’s also odd that my husband and I were relieved at this point.  Oh…it was JUST ordinary antisemitism…and our son handled it well.  That’s all it was.  What a relief.

The meeting continued and another teacher mentioned how glad she was that Ian brought his “culture” into their class discussion of the book Animal Farm, how his “unique background” was really interesting.  I noticed how no one, from guidance counselors to teachers wanted to say, “Jewish.”  My son and husband were sitting there, kippahs showing and yet, the word for what we are, for what makes us different hung heavy in the air, made bigger by the fact it was unsaid.

When I was newer to conversion, I used to wonder at the casual way that my Jewish friends seemed to shrug off antisemitism and how my husband just kind of treated it as a mundane annoyance.  I couldn’t understand how having swastikas spray painted on the synagogue didn’t really provoke outrage so much as annoyance at having to figure out how best to remove them.  I didn’t think I’d ever feel that way, but today I realized I do.

The teacher stressed that my son really doesn’t seem to care if kids pick on him for other things.  He accepts that as just part of the age and maturity level of him and his peers.  This, however, he felt was different and needed to be reported.  I’m proud of him for making that distinction.  He also obviously didn’t feel it was a big enough issue to even tell us.  It’s just part of the color of his world at this point, which does make me a mix of sad and proud of him.

Just everyday mundane antisemitism, the kind that makes you more roll your eyes than clench your fists.

It does make me glad that we’ll be moving and that the kids will be in schools where “Jew” is not a word that isn’t spoken, just hanging there heavily, but one that has the joy attached to it that it deserves.  To me, that was almost more unnerving than something an ignorant teen decided to taunt my son with, the fact that the faculty at his school couldn’t use the proper language to describe what had happened.

After the Ground Shifts

Alaska has a lot of earthquakes.  Not everyone knows this, but Anchorage, Alaska, my current hometown, was leveled in the 60’s by the largest recorded earthquake ever to hit North America.  It was a 9.2 in magnitude and hit on a friday evening in 1964, Good Friday for most people.  It destroyed most of Anchorage and resulted in 139 deaths, some from tsunamis that followed the earthquake, wiping out whole Alaskan villages.  Had this earthquake happened anywhere else in the United States, the death toll certainly would have been higher.

Alaska is still active with earthquakes, but everyone quickly becomes used to them.  I no longer even notice anything beneath a 5.  There was one, however, a couple of years ago that was over a 7 that did wake me from a sound sleep.  A fear overtook me as the house continued shaking, particularly because we were on a different floor from our children.  I couldn’t hold them and comfort them as the house shook and I felt so powerless.  The next day, there were videos and pictures of the damage done to places closer to the earthquake, but, Baruch Hashem, our home and possessions, let alone our lives, were largely untouched.

This past week reminds me of that week.  Initially, when the ground moved beneath me, it was a shock.  I was suddenly reminded that what I took for granted as firm and immovable can actually buckle beneath me.  We take for granted most of the time that the earth beneath us will slumber quietly and support us.  It’s a shock when the ground beneath my feet suddenly becomes like a liquid, waves crashing.  There is a moment of disbelief as if what is happening can’t be reality.  Then, there is panic, where I try to figure out what the right thing to do is, what the correct response is.  Finally, there is the realization that I can’t control what is happening.  I can only hang on while the house shakes and wait for it to end to go and see if there is any damage.  I realize how powerless I really am and how all I can do is pray to G-d.  Earthquakes are humbling reminders of the limits of human power and the infinite power of nature and G-d.

Still, even the biggest earthquakes end.  When they do, there is a moment of disbelief as well, as if once the earth has shaken free then why wouldn’t it continue forever?  Then, there is a time to check in with friends and family, making sure everyone is all right, that no one is hurt or needs help, and letting others know we’re ok.  Finally, we look around us to see what needs to be fixed.  It’s only later that we sit and think about the earthquake itself and what we might do differently to prepare for the next one.  During and right after, the shaking is too present in my mind and there is the fear that an aftershock will send us shaking again or, worse, that this earthquake was just a precursor to one much more powerful.  It took days after the 7+ earthquake for me to realize it really was over and to take stock of the world I now faced.

I decided I wanted to move to a house where our bedrooms were all on the same floor.  I realized we really should check our emergency kit and supplies.  I looked at our bookshelves for how we could secure them better.  All these things helped me feel better, but the truth is that if a big earthquake like the one of 1964 came again, all of these things still wouldn’t be able to completely protect me or my family.  Our survival is as much in G-d’s hands when it comes to earthquakes as it is when it comes to brown bears.  It is up to Him if we will remain safe or if it is our time.

Today, when it comes to the awful events in Charlottesville, I’m past the earthquake itself.  I have passed through so many strong emotions.  I was afraid, angry, heartbroken, disappointed…you name the feeling from a chart of feelings and I probably felt it deeply at one part or another.  I cried out and argued with G-d.  When I couldn’t feel any more, when my heart was just too wounded, I would feel numb.  For the most part, all this was confined to my journal, my davening, and private conversations with my husband, who, having dealt with antisemitism his entire life, was handling everything much better.

Finally, I reached the end of all of it and I was finally standing on solid ground, the aftershocks over.  A new bit of news no longer held the power to shake me and neither did anyone else’s reactions to it.  Today, I feel so much lighter in my heart than I did yesterday, so much freer.  I began to look around me for what else I could fix besides my library project.  I know I have very limited power to fix this world, but I also know it is a part of my job as a Jew (hopefully soon to be) to try to elevate and fix the parts I can.

And so, today, I begin another new project.

It’s called 101 Things in 1001 Days.  I’m committing to do 101 new things, big and small over a period of 1001 days.  Some are small things, like leaving an inspiring note in a book for someone to find.  Others are a bit bigger, like learning a new Hebrew word every day.  Some are about charity, others about davening.  In all this, though, I have tried to add 101 things that will either make me a better person, a better Jew (hopefully soon), or this world just a little bit better of a place.  Some involve donating my time or money to help others while others involve doing nice things for my friends, family, or even for myself.  I’ve wrapped some of my conversion study goals in there as well.

It may not fix the world, but it is something that I can do to help.

As Lubavitchers believe, if we all just did just a little bit more…we could change this world and eventually bring an end to all the things that need fixing and bring in a time when the earth beneath us rests peacefully.  May it be soon!

A Week Ago

His eyes lingered just a moment too long
focused on the heads of my husband and son
their kippahs casually sitting there
a week ago, I wouldn’t have noticed
now, a chill ran down my spine

He was normal
we were in a store
were his eyes hard, predatory?
or did he even notice us?
I say nothing to my husband, but walk a little quicker

A week ago, I wore a scarf over my hair
I went to the grocery store
no thought happened between the two
no pause to consider
this week, it would have been a long pause

My wig could use a washing, but I don’t
what if it takes too long to dry?
a week ago it would have hung to dry days
I might even have forgotten it
but that was a week ago

I see a picture in a camping group
campers setting up their trailer while others look on
a mundane moment, but today I suddenly realize
their faces are so like those reflected in torch light
a week ago, they would have seemed friendly

A week ago, my Rabbi’s cautions seemed radical
as if I knew the people I was born to better than he
how dangerous could tzitzits being seen be?
why should our men and boys wear ballcaps?
now I turn to him for wisdom

The storm seemed so far away
a week ago was a lifetime ago
I tell my proud son not to doodle stars of David
not where they can be seen
I try to tell myself little has changed

But it has.
I struggle to understand, to grasp
to measure my response as the ground shifts
the world changed from that a week ago
and I wonder how I must change, too

What is too much?  What is not enough?
what is giving in and what is provoking?
and does it really matter?
questions that are hard to answer
that weren’t even in my mind a week ago.

I am no less proud, no less determined
no less aching to be fully Jewish
but I am more cautious, more guarded
I have been awakened with an ice bath
never to slumber innocently as I did a week ago

What Is It Like When Nazis March Past Your Synagogue?

I feel it’s important to share this article, written by the President of a Reform Synagogue in Charlottesville, Virginia about their firsthand experiences this past weekend.  It’s a really well-written account that captures all the complexity of their experiences.  It does talk about the fear as armed white supremacists marched past their Synagogue shouting Nazi slogans, but it also talks about the kindness of strangers who reached out to them to do whatever they could.  It talks about them protecting their Torah scrolls and people even as they accepted that white supremacist websites were calling for their Synagogue to be burned to the ground.  It talks about courage and compassion even in the face of hate and it talks about their spirit as they move forward.

My emotions reading all this are all over the place.  I’m so proud of how they handled such a terrifying situation and I’m also so heartbroken that they had to go through this.  For so long, we’ve said, “These things could never happen here.”  This is a first hand account of what it is like when they do and how one community came together to weather the storm.

In Charlottesville, the Local Jewish Community Presses On

May they all be blessed with peace and comfort this week and beyond and may the wounds of this world, so deep and painful, be healed.

When Darkness Comes, Light a Candle

If there is one thing I have learned from our long, dark nights up here it is that it does no good to dwell on the darkness.  The more you focus on how short the sun is up here in winter and the more you restrict yourself in what you do while it is dark, the longer and harder the winter will be.  The best way to deal with the darkness is to not hide from it or curse it, but to simply put on some lights.  Alaskans decorate trees with lights all winter long and those who handle the winters best go out and are active outdoors whether the sun is out or not.  We bundle up and bring some light to the long night.

It’s definitely a good life lesson.

Whenever you find yourself in darkness, whether it’s a lack of spiritual inspiration or a sadness brought about by the world around you, rather than dwell on the darkness, I find that focusing on how I can create more light is a quicker way to feel better.  With this in mind, yesterday and today, I sat and thought about what I could do in my own community to create a little more light for myself and my fellow (hopefully soon to be!) Jews.

One of my great passions is reading.  I love everything about books, from the feel of the paper in my fingertips to the smell of an older book that’s been on the shelf a while.  This is another area in which I found Judaism a perfect fit without any adjustment since Jews highly value books, to the point where there are customs on how you treat holy books with particular care and reverence.  The first time I saw Mr. Safek gently kiss his Siddur after praying and carefully put it back on a shelf, I knew that there was something about this people that was already a part of me.  In our family, we have more books than really anything else and receiving new books is always an event.

Our small Synagogue also has a library, mostly of books that people have donated over the years.  Unfortunately, most of those books go unread because there is no good system for checking them in and out and when they were lent out, they would sometimes not find their way back to the shelves.  After the Rabbis commented on the state of the library a couple of times in passing, I wondered if this was something I could help with.  Yesterday, I began researching systems to organize the library and lend the books out.

A quick search revealed that most of the software available was for much bigger libraries and far too expensive for the budget of a small Chabad house on the outskirts of civilization.  So, I brought my ideas to my coworkers, who are creative and also love solving problems.  Together, we found a solution that would be free, easy to put together, and virtually maintenance free!  I sent my email with links to the test application I’d set up to the Rabbis and as I clicked send, I realized that I already felt better, even if they preferred to use something else.  I had lit at least a small candle in my world.

How wonderful it would be to help other people find the books they need to learn more about Judaism, as I have, to help them find a book that inspires or comforts them just a little.  To me, that’s my best response to the rise of anti-semitism I see…to help light more candles where I can and help other Jews to light their candles as well.

Darkness is not stronger than light and the winter always gives way to spring, but winter does come and it’s important to prepare for it and find ways to make some light and warmth in the cold.  May we all find our candles before it becomes any darker and help each other to light!

The View Of Virginia From Alaska

The Sabbath still ends pretty late up here.  Havdalah was at 11:35 last night and we weren’t done until later.  There were a lot of visitors this weekend and things ran a little late.  By chance, we opted to drive home after havdalah, to sleep in our own beds instead of the RV.  I came home, bleary-eyed and tired and I logged on to my computer to stay awake until Mr. Safek arrived with the RV, to help him unload it.

I blinked, not quite believing what I was seeing, reports of Nazis marching, with lit torches on a college campus in Virginia.  Reports of clashes with counter-protestors that turned bloody, and reports of death at the hands of a terrorist who drove through a crowd of people.

It’s important to note the context in which this news came to me.

Our Chabad House hosts many visitors in summer and this weekend we had not only several families from NY and New Jersey, but also a large, rambunctious camp group of college boys.  This group spent more time at the Synagogue than most camp groups that come through, so we spent more time with these boys than many of the other groups.  For many of them, this trip was their first deep interaction with Judaism, particularly Orthodox Judaism.  Many were wearing kippahs and tzitzits for the first time, proud to show them.  They sang and danced and were loud and lively, with a youthful enthusiasm and idealism.  They had been camping all over Alaska and told us stories of using an icy cold glacial river as a mikvah, of climbing mountains while singing Jewish songs.  They stayed clear across town in a hostel in a kind of run down part of town, walking the whole way for services, tzitzits out and kippahs showing the whole way, unafraid.

Their unofficial theme was, “Jews Take Alaska!”

We laughed and explained that they were a little late.  Our Mayor is Jewish and Jews have been a part of Alaskan history since it was recorded, coming here first with the fur trade before gold or oil was ever discovered.  These boys, rough around the edges as they might be, represented hope, idealism, and pride and their presence challenged us to keep up.  They came from college campuses not unlike the one in Virginia.  As we waited for Havdalah, I sat and listened to them talk with our Rabbi about the possibility of starting Jewish clubs at their campuses or what the clubs were already doing, their fears about being “too pushy” or “too religious,” but also their obvious desire to bring back a little of what they’d experienced here in the mountains with all this inspiration.

As I drove back home last night on the highway, in the opposite lanes, I saw a police car stopped with flashing lights, I looked over and saw a moose that had been killed on the road, fresh blood spread across the roadway, it’s body torn as I looked away I felt a growing unease after the easy lightheartedness of the weekend, but I tried to brush it away.  Moose are killed on the roads up here, but something about this moose and the timing had me feeling on edge.

It wasn’t long after that I opened up my computer and read about the protests in Charlottesville.

I saw pictures of men who looked like me or my family and who were younger than I am, carrying torches and yelling hatred about my family.  I saw pictures of violent conflict on our own soil and even pictures of the car plowing through a crowd of people as if they were moose, bodies flying.  It was surreal.  I saw the columned buildings of the college campus in the torchlight and I immediately thought of those boys I’d spent the weekend with, headed back to college campuses this fall.  My mind reeled and I began to think about how I would explain this to my own children.

We are often sheltered from events in the lower 48 here in Alaska, separated by timezones and distance.  I am not naive enough, though, to think that the same hate does not also exist here, in the small communities in the same woods those boys were singing through.  I remembered feeling nervous when I saw that they were walking through the less desirable parts of town visibly Jewish and some unease when I realized they would have also been doing this in some of the more remote areas, places where people who seek to avoid the mainstream go and where the beliefs and ideas that made them feel the need to separate from the rest of the world are allowed to fester.  There are compounds built in the woods up here where all different kinds of armed people who believe this world is headed in the wrong direction wait.

This is all just 2 weeks or so after our own Rabbi counseled us to have our son wear a baseball cap when he can, to cover his kippah, and for him to tuck in his tzitzits, telling us that another boy in the Synagogue had been the target of racist graffiti on his school notebooks, swastikas scrawled across his notebooks as a threat…in elementary school.

Most converts are asked by the Beit Din (Rabbinical Court) that converts them why they would want to join the Jewish people and subject themselves to anti-semitism.  My answer will be an easy one.  We already are effected by it.  Already, those who would hate Jews hate us.  They make no distinctions for my husband’s murky halakhic status or my own lack of any Jewish status.  To them, we are Jews and to them, I am even worse than a born Jew because I once was like them, fully white, and chose to cleave to a people I was not born to.  If we chose not to convert, it wouldn’t stop people from hating us, but it would cut us off from support and inclusion in a community that understands what it is to be the target of such malice.

The contrast between the day of Shabbos and the night after was a stark reminder of the world we live in now, where hate has become more openly expressed again.  I don’t doubt that it’s always been there, but now we see them march with no masks over their faces.  However, we also see hope in young men who also no longer want to hide their Jewishness.

I can’t help but wonder where this conflict will all end and worry over my children.  There is no mountain far enough to shelter us from such a storm.


The Fast that Begins the Three Weeks

I write today because I don’t know if I will tomorrow
I know my mind will slow
the words will crawl from my lips
slowly, with effort
dragging each thought behind them
on a back bent and weary

On fast days, I drift from this world
closer to another, my mind stilled
my focus blurred to softness
I float from one thought to another
I land lightly on them, my touch gentle
The breeze blows me away to the next

On fast days, I am reflective
In a time outside of time, removed
With my thinking slowed, I can think deeply
turning a thought over and over
As if I had never touched it a hundred times
Learning its surface and depths as new

Tomorrow we begin to mourn
As my thoughts blur together, the sadnesses also blur
a temple lost thousands of years ago
A slur thrown a week ago
all drift together, gathering stormclouds
Is the storm on the horizon I’ve fled

Or the horizon I’m fleeing to?