My funny, glamorous, gracious Aunt Lola was enslaved in Auschwitz at 16.

[Today is Yom Ha’Shoa. Yesterday I was at lunch and my Aunt Lola was brought to mind, so I thought I’d share this post from 2015: My funny, glamorous, gracious Aunt Lola died last night. She was enslaved in Auschwitz at 16. The full text I wrote then follows.]


I just learned that my Aunt Lola died last night–great aunt, technically, the wife of one of my father’s uncles. Although we’ve lived in the same town for twenty years, Lola and I, I had only seen her a small handful of times during those decades; there’s been bad blood in our family. Not with Lola and me, but elsewhere, and we wound up on different sides. That’s just how it goes.

I loved her very much when I was small. She was small–putting her at my level, as a tall dweeb in a clip-on tie and penny loafers–and glamorous and funny. She glowed. Her rich, thick Czech accent always reminded me of Dr. Ruth Westheimer, which is a not-super-insane association for a boy who watched a ton of TV in the ’80s. I remember one time, at a summer party at my Aunt Denise’s house, at the end of the party, she slipped off her shoes–fancy gold, sharp-toed, high heels. Her toes were twisted and calloused, almost as though her feet had been bound–which I guess they had, although by American women’s fashion, not some out-modded and backward cultural obsession with ideals of beauty (ha! Joke!)

I remember her gingerly stepping from foot to foot on the thick shag in her hose, “Ooh ooh ooh ooh ooh!” as though it was hot as coals–and she wasn’t play acting; her feet were aching from the shoes and the standing and the heat of the day. She looked up to see me sitting on the sofa across from her, looking on in dismay.

“Oh David,” she smiled, “Sometimes you need to suffer to be beautiful.”

I didn’t know then that, at 16, she been shipped to Auschwitz like a crate of shoes–a slow three-day train ride, because of the congestion on the tracks created by shipping so many other folks to camps, like cattle or shoes or some other commodity. There she’d been disgorged onto a ramp, and at the bottom stood Dr. Mengele. He was making a selection. Some were sent right, other left. Her folks went one way, she the other. She became my aunt, they became ash. She was stripped and shaved and tattooed and beaten, and sent walking to her new life.

She ended up in the barracks closest to the crematory ovens, and so her job was to sort the belongings of the dead–the clothes, the luggage–searching for jewelry and food and blankets and meds and anything of use. To sort it, to box it up for storage, or to be redistributed to widows and orphans.

There’s more, there’s lots more–heck, there’s a second run-in with Dr. Mengele. You can read and listen to her testimony here.

But I didn’t know any of that when I was small–I mean, I knew all of that, because such stories were not rare where I grew up, nor such survivors. But I did not know her story until I was much older–older than she was when she was enslaved–and I’m still learning bits and pieces, because I never heard it from her.

Which I don’t take personally; there was never a good time to share it with me, and there was no bad blood between us. When I last saw her, even though the folks around her were shooting me and my sisters daggers–gosh, even though one of my cousins later sought me out to hassle me about that chance encounter–Aunt Lola was still as charming and gracious as ever.

And I still loved her very much. Let her name be a blessing.

Her name is Lola Taubman; she sorted the laundry in Hell for a time as a teen, and then lived 72 years more, largely here, largely in good health.

FUN FACT: Moderating Facebook Gives Facebook Moderators PTSD

The question for me is this: Does Facebook provide anywhere near the social value to justify what this man suffered?  Does it provide enough value to justify the suffering of the likely thousands of workers who Facebook employees to protect us from Facebook?

As you reflect on this, you probably want to check out The Facebook Files, an ongoing investigative series from the Wall Street Journal (articles are paywalled, but the related podcasts are free and worth your time and attention).

Plainly put, Facebook profits from hate and misery. Further reads:

Brass tacks question: Given what social media companies like FB can and will do, in terms of exerting editorial control when it is in their interest to do so, I’m left wondering if they really deserve Section 230 protection?  

FB, of course, is far from unique here—or, maybe, is uniquely awful only in the magnitude and clarity of their disfunction and viciousness.  For a Twitter-centric rumination on the fundamental design aspects of social media that are making it so damaging to both individual humans and larger human societies, please read Noah Smith’s rational (and, in the case of the later, research-backed) articles “The Shouting Class” and  “The Shouting Class 2: Last Refuge of Scoundrels”: 

“In other words, society has always had about the same number of shouty jerks. But with the rise of social media, we have moved our society’s political discussions from spaces in which the shouty jerks were at least somewhat marginalized and contained to spaces that preferentially amplify their voices.…In pursuit of personal glory, bad people turn neighbor against neighbor.”

Noah Smith in “The Shouting Class 2: Last Refuge of Scoundrels

This isn’t antisemitism—but, straight talk: It’s really hard to argue that Ann Arbor gives a shit about its Jews

This vexes me.

Just for the record, this isn’t antisemitism. I saw this Saturday, soon after it was painted, while driving past with my kids on the way to the river. I’m one of the chairs of the Jewish safety committee for this area, so it’s safe to say that my anti-Jew radar is exquisitely well tuned.

Fuck Israel” written on a public Rock that, for decades, has been a locus of political speech?  That isn’t hate speech.

The fact is, Israel is a goddamned country.  You can say the nastiest words in the world about Israel, and as long as you keep it about the nation-state of Israel, we’re all good. It’s just like how you can criticize China or the Democratic Republic of the Congo without being racist about it. 

Meanwhile, standing outside a synagogue and holding a sign that reads “Israel Has No Right to Exist”? That is antisemitism. And folks have been doing it just a few hundred feet up the street from the goddamned Rock for 16 years and Ann Arbor has done shit about it: 

anti-Jewish protest in Ann Arbor, MI, around 2019

[source]

Bigots: Please Use Punctuation!

I’ve got no clue if your message is the command “KIKE: FREE PALESTINE 卐!” or the wish for a “KIKE-FREE PALESTINE 卐”, and that’s driving me nuts. Please, parents: Don’t just teach your children to hate Jews; teach them to use hyphens and colons properly!

Vandalized synagogue door, spray-painted: KIKE FREE PALESTINE [swastika]
[This message brought to you by
British Vandals for a Kike-Free Palestine,
and the Letter 卐]

Straight talk, though: If you’re vandalizing a synagogue in England—regardless of what words you paint—it really doesn’t have shit to do with Palestine or Israel or whatever.  Likewise, if you are holding a protest outside a synagogue (as has been the case at the synagogue ~1 mile for my house for the last 16+ years), it has nothing to do with what’s written on the signs. 

Similarly, the extremely high likelihood that right now you’re thinking “My Gosh! That is so clearly and obviously wrong, but you have to admit that Israel blah blah blah…” —that thought, it doesn’t have shit to do with Palestine, either.

The vandalism is anti-Jewish. 

The protest outside a synagogue is anti-Jewish. 

Expecting Jews in England or Michigan or—hell, anywhere OTHER THAN ISRAEL—to bear some special responsibility for Israeli domestic policy is anti-Jewish and, frankly, crazy. It’s literally the same as protesting outside a Black church because you’re upset about the ongoing lack of accountability or reconciliation from the Liberian Civil Wars, or protesting the Xinjiang internment camps by picketing outside of a Chinese restaurant.

The fact that any of what I’m saying maybe makes you uncomfortable, that’s for you to sort out.

But if you’re afraid I’m maybe implying you harbor anti-Jewish sentiment, here’s a test you can do in the privacy of your own head, and never tell anyone the outcome.  Do you agree with the following statements: 

  1. I feel weird acknowledging the 3000+ rockets Hamas fired at Israeli civilians in the past month without also acknowledging the 20x difference in Israeli and Palestinian casualty rates.
  2. When someone mentions the 58+ Palestinian children killed in this latest paroxysm of violence, I don’t even think for one second about the terror of ~3000 rockets coming at you in a single month.

If you answered YES to both, congratulations: You’re pretty much like every other person in the world.  If you’ve ever wondered how something like the Holocaust happens, now you know.  

Sorry to be a bummer, but real talk and then we’re done: Did you feel worse about the thousand rockets, or the 58+ Palestinian kids, or the fact that some Jew in Michigan called you out about it?

You probably feel attacked right now, so I want one last thing to be crystal clear: My answers to those two questions were “Yes”es, too. If your culture has a bias, you have that bias as well—even if, in your heart of hearts, you despise the bias.  Even if that bias contributes to your own destruction.  None of us get to stand outside our culture; there are no free passes in this game.  It’s noble to want to fix Israel, or Liberia, or China—but sorta weird not to give a moment to healing yourself, too. 


Incidentally, my source for the image above includes some interesting history (which I’ve touched on before) specific to the town where this happened:

(here’s an easy-to-read “unrolled” version of his eight-part tweet, which is worthwhile)

What Comes After the Paint and Swastikas

(N.B. I originally wrote this for my congregation, but I figured some of the rest if you might benefit from the message, too.)

You almost certainly heard about the desecration of a Jewish cemetery in Grand Rapids shortly before the election,“TRUMP” and “MAGA” spray-painted over the names of the honored dead.

[source]

Maybe these pictures worried you.  Maybe they frightened you.  Maybe they embarrassed you—because, let’s be honest: it’s shameful to be bullied, to get the “Kick Me!” sign pasted to your back again and again, century after century.  

Or maybe you didn’t feel much of anything. Maybe you’ve grown numb; one more slap in the face at the tail end of four years of unprovoked suckerpunches, it can all sort of blur together. I get that.

I don’t exactly have words for how it made me feel.

I saw these pictures of the Jewish cemetery in Grand Rapids, and I immediately thought back to the swastikas spray painted on Temple Jacob last winter, way up in the Upper Peninsula town of Hancock.  And I thought about the dozens of swastikas and slurs defacing our local skatepark back in 2017.   

(I go to that skatepark a lot.  It was hard not to take it personally.)

And I thought about the increase in anti-Jewish hate-crimes here in America over the past four years.  I thought about the increasingly violent nature of those crimes.

I thought about the bomb threats. And the synagogue shootings.  And the stabbings.  And the rallies.  And the men with guns in the capitol.  

And so on.

And I felt hopeless. And I was afraid.

So I emailed the rabbi of Congregation Ahavas Israel (who maintain the cemetery in Grand Rapids that was desecrated on election’s eve). I wrote to voice our support and solidarity, and ask what they might need to restore the cemetery.  

Rabbi David J.B. Krishef replied almost immediately:

“Hi Dave — the cemetery was cleaned by a small group of people who live around the corner and took it upon themselves to clean the stones without even letting us know what they were doing, and a few other people, including one from Ann Arbor, who drove in and decided to wash the paint off. We are grateful for all of the love and support and positive notes we’ve received.” 

It dawned on me that this second half of the story is rarely reported, but often the case:

A lone jackass skulks around smearing his petty foulness in the dark; the whole community—not just Jews, but people from all over the community unwilling to let ugliness linger—return in the light to set things right.

That’s what happened in the cemetery in Grand Rapids.  And when I went back and checked, I discovered it’s what happened at Temple Jacob in Hancock.  

And that’s what happened here in Ann Arbor, too; I know, because I saw it:  I went to the skatepark the day after it was tagged. The city had already power-washed away the paint. And unknown members of the community at large had come through with colored chalk and, evey place where there’d been a symbol of hate, replaced it with a message of welcoming and love:

[source]

What I saw in Ann Arbor was not the exception; it was the rule, even now, in this time of widely reported “unprecedented division and unrest.” And maybe it feels like we’re mired in a time of unprecedented division and unrest because we only report the first half of the story—the smeared paint, the thrown punch, the shots fired—and then move on to the next catastrophe, without checking back to see what comes after the paint and the screaming: a nation of folks ready to take it upon themselves to fix whatever any single angry loner chooses to break.

Well, I guess President Trump was right: Illegal immigrants *do* come here to hurt Americans…

… he was just 100% wrong about which border they crossed illegally, and what they looked like:

“Derail some fucking trains, kill some people, and poison some water supplies. You better be fucking ready to do those things.”

Patrik Jordan Mathews, December 1, 2019
Patrik Jordan Mathews: AWOL Canadian Demolitions Expert and neo-Nazi

Accused Neo-Nazis Arrested Ahead of Virginia Gun Rally

This is the age of war. This is the age of entire this is the age of strife, this is the century upon which this current civilizations rotting Jew infested country comes to a collapse. You were born in the wrong century for complacency. That’s all for now.

Patrik Jordan Mathews, on or before December 13, 2019

Feds: White supremacists hoped rally would start civil war

While residing in Georgia, Mathews stated that he “only exists for the White Revolution now.” Mathews further stated that he wanted to remain a “ghost” and oversee safe houses for Base members who need to disappear. Mathews stated that once there are a few “ghosts,” they could begin doing “jobs,” by which Mathews meant targeted violence or attacks.

excerpt from the legal motion requesting Mathews’ detention pending trial

Based on other statements in the legal motion, these targets were likely to be Jewish- or African-Americans. I’ve mentioned Mathews’ had been hiding out in Michigan, yeah? And I live in Michigan? And my family and I, we’re the kinds of Americans he came here to kill?

Contact Your Reps: The PotUS Needs to Stop Sanctioning Bigotry🇺🇸🔥

Here’s the email I sent my reps last night.  Maybe you wanna tell your reps something similar.  It’s been more than a year, and the President is no better at this than he was before he was sworn in. Maybe Congress needs to try something different—’cause all the nothing they’ve done thus far hasn’t had the intended effect (*grumbles* lousy beatniks).

SUBJECT: The PotUS sanctions bigotry, assists persecution

Dear [NAME TK],

I was truly and deeply dismayed this morning to read the President’s remarks on the recent NFL decision to fine players who kneel during the National Anthem.  Specifically:

“You have to stand, proudly, for the national anthem. Or you shouldn’t be playing, you shouldn’t be there. Maybe you shouldn’t be in the country.”

Just to be clear, I don’t particularly care for football, nor for labor practices within the NFL.  If that employer wants to set a weird (to me) rule about how to comport oneself during pre-game musical performances, then that’s for those employers, their employees, those employees’ union, and the courts to sort out.

I’m not even that concerned to hear a President so blithely unaware of existing First Amendment precedent; sure, I learned about cases like West VA State Board of Ed v. Barnette in middle school, but not everyone benefited from my fine education, and not every President can be a noted Constitutional scholar.

But I’m extremely concerned when I hear a sitting U.S. President breezily opine that a group of people who believe differently than he “shouldn’t be in the country.”  I grew up in a community with a very small number of Jehovah’s Witnesses—folks who, for religious reasons, do not pledge allegiance or stand for the National Anthem.  As a Jew, I did not share their beliefs—but I was taught, by my family, my faith leaders, and my teachers, that their beliefs were worthy of my respect.  More to the point, I was taught that their beliefs were due equal protection under the law—just like mine.

President Washington promised us a government “which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”  President Trump, meanwhile, sanctions bigotry and assists persecution—with these words, and with countless other utterances and decrees, tweets and executive orders.  In the decade before Trump my local Jewish Community Center received zero threats. Within 18 months of his nomination, we’d had two.  We hadn’t had run-ins with white supremacists here since the mid-1990s.  Last year our skatepark was festooned with dozens of swastikas and emblazoned with “JEWS DIE” and “WHITE WOMEN NO NIGGERS OR JEWS.”

Violent crime in general is trending down in the U.S., but hate crimes continue to climb—and speaking out against any element of that rising tide of hate and bias seems to run the risk of having a target painted on your back by a big bully, who we inexplicably permit to continue to bludgeon private citizens from his bully pulpit, uncensured.

What the hell are we supposed to do to feel safe?

Sincerely,

David Erik Nelson

SOURCES:

(This "America golem" is Nazi propaganda from WWII, but remarkably apt these days.)
(This “America golem” is Nazi propaganda from WWII, but remarkably apt these days.)

On Micro-agression and Macro-depression and Xmas/Xanukah (with bonus tracks!!!)

Hey All,
I continue to write a monthly column for the Ann Arbor Chronicle. This time around it’s on math and Jews and *The Holidays* and microagression and Thoth and Ganeesh and Hobby Lobby and so on. Somewhere in the later half I say something like this:

The Ann Arbor Chronicle | In It For The Money: Happy Holidays!

. . .
This is incredibly frustrating – because the equivalence, driven by a well-intentioned desire to be inclusive – is so needless. Xanukah isn’t a “Jewish Xmas.” It’s Xanukah – a relatively minor religious holiday celebrating a military victory. If anything, it’s sort of a Jewish Fourth of July – which is more apt, but just as nonsensical. Similarly, Ramadan isn’t a “Muslim Lent,” Diwali isn’t “Hindu Halloween” – or even a “Hindu Xanukah,” despite the fact that Diwali is also the “Festival of Lights.”
Inclusion is nice, but you do it by including others in the stuff you are doing, not by arguing that their things are sub-functions of yours. We’re not idiots; we haven’t failed to notice that the entirely secular “Holiday Break” from school conveniently centers around Xmas and the Gregorian calendar roll-over date, and that “Spring Break” is aimed to coincide with Easter – not Passover.
One of the principal privileges of being in the Majority is that you get to be, by definition, “normal.” You don’t find yourself constantly contradicted by outsiders – well-meaning television shows and well-wishers and folks planning office parties – as to what your holy days mean. You don’t have to wrestle with autocorrect about the spelling of your holidays and well wishes. You don’t have to disclose a lot of personal details to explain why this or that day is no good for a meeting, because no one schedules a meeting for December 25th.
. . .

BONUS GIFT! Back in the day I used to record Holiday Music of my Own Devising, because it was fun, and because when push comes to shove, from a strumming-and-singing-and-programming-sequencers perspective, there are *a lot* of great Xmas songs. Here are my offerings, in reverse chronological order. Enjoy!

(FUN FACT: I wrote this while hanging out with my infant son all day, and have played it annually ever since; my son believes it is an accepted part of the general Xmas Music Canon.)

  • Dreidel Bells (FUN FACT: The beat here is an original GameBoy running an early German Nanoloop cartridge. Both voices are obviously me, but the filters for the robot voice badly overburdened my iBook, causing significant lag–which is why Mr. Roboto struggles so badly to hit his marks.)
  • DreidelDreidelDreidel (FUN FACT: The beat here is a vintage analog Boss DR-55 once owned by POE, crammed through a heavy-metal distortion stompbox.)