I’m so scared of all the growing anti-Semitism in the world. I don’t even (or especially) feel safe in a major metropolitan city like Los Angeles. I’m scared of what I would tell my kids if things got really bad. How can I prevent them from feeling the anxiety I feel? What did parents do in the Holocaust to soothe and calm their children while also teaching them about the realities of staying safe and savvy? And lastly, do you think I should get passports for everyone just in case we need to get to Israel on the fly?
Freaked-out and angst-ridden yet extremely-grateful-to-be-part-of-the-eternal-Jewish-nation Mom
‘Twas a hot Chicago summer. 1994, I believe. I had a job as a junior creative arts counselor for inner city teens. Which meant I did a lot of sound and movement exercises and trust falls with kids who were just a few years younger than me, but most of them had seen a family member stabbed or had a boyfriend on parole or showed up for class with a black eye and wondered why I was making them write poetry with crayons.
We knew nothing about each other, except what we chose to share.
One day, we had a field trip to get cloth and paint for our final performance. The lead counselor borrowed an airless van and announced, “We’re heading to Peterson Park.” One of the girls in the back row said, “Oooh nice. That’s where people Jew each other down.”
I spun my head around dreidel-style. “What’d you say?”
“Jew each other down,” she explained with a snap of her gum. “Like, try to get stuff cheaper.”
Here was my Esther moment. Here was my chance to stand up for my people, to honor the legacy of all my ancestors who’d lived and died in the Holocaust. Here was my heroic call to action. And here’s what I did. I turned down the salsa music and shouted into the rearview mirror, “Guess what, guys. I’m a Jew. Check out my schnoz!” I traced a (long) line down my nose and then waited for an apology. All I heard were giggles and a grumbly, “Oh, dawg.”
Now this happened to be the same summer that I grew from a wide-gilled guppy to a sexually active gefilte. Yes, there was a boy who wanted to undress me and show me his dilly parts and I was in love or trying to be, and then as soon as we lay together, he said he wanted to watch “The Simpsons” and start seeing other people.
I was devastated. Demolished. Mushed and mashed and angry and self-pitying. I stole a bunch of crayons from my junior counselor job and wrote page after page in my journal about my heart never beating as boldly again.
Then I went to a barbecue party where I knew my ex would be with his new blowfish and I challenged her to a basketball game. Which was 10 bad ideas rolled into one, since I have nightmares about dribbling. The blowfish was wearing a bikini top and a huge smile and she tried to steal the ball from me and I just lost it. The heartache and hurt and hatred came lurching out of me and I punched her in the kidney.
She was stunned.
I was stunned.
As a side note, gefiltes are not known for their arm strength so this was not a high-impact injury I caused. But it was scary for both of us. Because I saw what I could do. I saw that I could truly hurt someone.
Freaked-out, I hope you’re still reading. I know it’s a long stretch from the hot summer nights of Lisa Loeb hits and O.J. Simpson chases. Just for perspective, here are a few other events that might ring a bell from the summer of 1994:
*Terrorists attacked Jews in Buenes Aires, killing 85
*Israel and Jordan signed a peace treaty
*Chandler, Joey, and Monica met up at The Central Perk for the first time
The reason why I’m swimming back in time to make sense of your question about today is this: That summer taught me so much about the ways we can express love and hate. By the time the cicadas started retreating, my camper with the black eye asked if I could help her leave her boyfriend. We piled her duffels and teddy bears into the van while he shrieked, “I love you! I swear! You can’t go! I love you!”
I stopped going to barbecues that involved bikinis and basketball. I vowed to never make a fist or write another poem entitled “Foul Line” again.
So how does this connect to our current tide of prejudice and anger? How does a black eye compare to hatred and violence that topples the highest towers and consumes entire countries in atomic clouds? And where’s the nearest passport photo booth?
It all starts with human emotions. Freaked-out, you and I are part of a continuum. Our kids are growing up in a world that is incredibly loud in its likes and dislikes. And with great exposure comes great responsibility. There is no resolution to be found in a comments section. So here is the only antidote, from my side of the fishbowl:
The next thing you do, Freaked-out, make it loving. Compliment a stranger. Buy a cookie for the next person in line. Draw a smiley face in the dirt on your windshield.
You may say I’m a dreamer,
But I’m not the only one.
Yeah, Lennon got shot. But his words are bigger and more resonant than even his death. His message was human and simple and has the power to envelop the world.
Love starts from a seed, just like hate. This is true wherever you go. So you can buy your plane tickets to Israel, Switzerland, or Who-ville, but the choice will still be yours—how can you create more love? How can you teach your kids that over 3,000 years ago, there was a symbol called the swastika, and many cultures used it to represent life, strength, and good luck. It took one angry man to change that. It’s up to you and me to change it again.
In fact, here’s your homework assignment, Freaked-out. Instead of getting a new passport, print out a swastika and look at it. Give it a really full-on gaze. And before you register fear or vengeance, hot or cold, love or hate, just pause. There is infinite softness in this in-betweenness. It’s scary and shaky and sweaty and uncomfortable. It’s also where we can start over.
I love you, Freaked-out.
With love and schmaltz,
Have a question for Gefilte? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org, and you might just get an answer.