Xappy Xanukah! ♪♫♪♬

I’m a Jew—born and raised—but I come from a “mixed” family (they say “interfaith” now).  My dad is a Jew, but my mom was raised Christian.  Both my maternal grandparents—with whom I spent a lot of time growing up—were practicing Christians. Far from shockingly, my own marriage is mixed (my wife was raised Catholic, our kids are Jews who end up participating in a lot of Xtian traditions).  Interfaith families are really common now, but were much less so when I was young.

As you’re likely aware, back when I was a kid there weren’t a lot of Xanukah songs for us Jewish kids. There weren’t many songs for Jewish kids, but there were some; there were absolutely zero songs for mixed half-a-Jews with an Xmas tree and a Xanukiah and a cat that managed to catch fire in the Xanukah candles every year and Xtian grandparents who came to town on Xmas Eve specifically to partake in the Jewish tradition of Xmas Chinese food.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but we’re sort of a nation that always wants everyone to be one thing or another thing—black or white, nerd or jock, Jew or Gentile, girl or boy—and doesn’t have much patience for things that are mixed and ambiguous and a lil-o’-both.  I was in my 20s, and in a Women’s Studies class, before I learned what the hell “intersectionality” was, and my identity began to make any sense to me.

This year—for the third year running—my local Jewish Community Center is collecting donations of Christmas presents, to be given to the Syrian refugees relocated here.

On the one hand, that sounds almost too perfectly absurd: Jews giving Muslims Christmas presents.  On the other, it feels like basically the most perfect possible introduction to America.🕎🎄☪🇺🇸

Anyway, there weren’t many mixed kids like me when I was growing up—and there weren’t any songs or holiday specials or children’s books that reflected what I saw and felt and loved about wintertime.

So these are my songs, for all the little intersectional mixed kids out there, who don’t have any holiday songs to sing.

Enjoy!

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.)

I wrote this lil essay back in 2009, during what turned out to have been the low-water mark for global anti-Semitism…

…boy oh boy do I miss those days.

Anyway, here’s a snippet from the middle:

“A Jew?” they asked.

“Yes,” I said, “Probably the only one in this room right now.” (I thought one of the gringo lawyers was Jewish, but she had gone out to smoke, so I felt pretty safe with this claim.)

The tico husband nodded his head sagely, smiled, and said, “The Jews control all of the money,” and then his smile froze and eyes went wide as his ears registered what his mouth had just said.

I want to stress that I didn’t feel there was any actual anti-Semitic content to the statement. During both this most recent visit to Costa Rica and my last, the groom had cause to emphatically insist that there is no anti-Semitism in Costa Rica, sorta out of the blue, which I take to be an indication that it’s pretty common in some circles. But ticos are, on the whole, the least aggressive or confrontational people I’ve ever met. As far as I’m concerned, they can hate Jews with as much vigor as they might muster, as I can’t imagine that ever building up to the point where someone would even bother scratching a swastika into a bathroom stall door, let alone killing my entire family and incinerating the corpses. It’s just not a tico thing to do. They don’t even yell at stray dogs, stupid drivers, or smarmy guys whistling at female joggers from passing cars.

And here’s the rest: “International Relations” by David Erik Nelson.

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Beats per Week #09: “The Excitation of Sympathetic Song” (Russian monks? Aliens? Cthulhu cultists?)

Found this in a stack of unlabeled 78 rpm records I bought off eBay, like, a billion years ago.  No time to lay down a new track this week, so I just digitized this instead.  Mysteries within mysteries, etc.

Given my level of ethnic paranoia I’m sorta shocked . . .

. . . that it never dawned on me that the dwarves in Snow White, etc., are Jews—especially because I was already familiar with this and this and a slew of earlier print sources (see e.g., the “Lead” section of Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table, Richard Wagner’s descriptions of Jews, etc.) as well as stuff like this, and so on.  

Anyway, just no idea where my game was at for this one to have given me the slip for four decades.

Continue reading “Given my level of ethnic paranoia I’m sorta shocked . . .”

Not to be ungrateful or anything, but here’s the thing about neo-Nazis and antifas…

…They both make me feel like my life—and those of my son, daughter, wife, and co-religionists—are these little bullshit plastic tokens in some game they’re playing.

All the fists and spray paint sorta feel the same to me. They all make me think “Who’s coming to hurt us?

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(Just to be clear: All of these pics are from the last week in my home town, Ann Arbor, MI.)

(see also: Profiling White Supremacists Won’t Stop White Supremacist Terrorism“)

What Can I Do About Hate?  Just Take a Baby Step, White People!

The "fine people" protesting in support of Confederate statuary—AND NOT AT ALL  RACIST!—in Charlottesville, VA, August 11, 2017
The “fine people” protesting in support of Confederate statuary—AND NOT AT ALL
RACIST!—in Charlottesville, VA, August 11, 2017

In the weeks since Charlottesville there’s been a fair bit of “What can we[*] do about hate?” talk—on social media, in NYT and WaPo and Slate op-eds and think pieces, out on the street and around supper tables.  As someone in a class of folks disproportionately on the receiving end of the most resent paroxysm of hate, I have a suggestion:

Take “Awesome Baby Steps”

EXAMPLE: Last week the skatepark in my town—the one my son and I go to, the one lots of kids in this area (and, notably, lots of brown kids) use—got hit with motor oil (intended to ruin the concrete for skating) and dozens of swastikas and slurs.

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Photo Aug 18, 3 22 26 PM Photo Aug 18, 3 22 34 PM

The city, of course, responded in no time, and had it all clean in hours—God bless ’em. 

I went to skate there the next and found two things:  1) that the park was uncharacteristically busy for an early Saturday morning, all happy families showing resolve; and 2) it was covered in this new chalk graffiti

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It’ll sound dumb, but this made me feel better.  This, in fact, moved me to tears. Folks punching Nazis in Charlottesville did not move me to tears or make me feel safer.  Neither did folks tearing down statues (although I nonetheless applaud that, and more so applaud the many cities who have covered and removed statues in the meantime—because tearing down the participation trophies handed out to white supremacists, nominally honoring traitors, is what you should do after winning a war). 

But kids coming out with chalk to make sure I knew that they continued to welcome me in civil society did make me feel better.  In fact, it made me feel better in excess of the amount the defacement had made me feel awful—and that slap in the face had left me livid and enraged and absolutely nauseated with a dread so atavistic that I sorta imagine it’s more akin to what a mouse exposed in vacant stubble feels than to any un-fun emotion an employable White man might know.  (This isn’t to say that White men don’t know bad times; it’s to say that there is a very specific flavor to being history’s perpetual prey).

Those kids with their chalk, that was an Awesome Baby Step. It didn’t take much—not much money, not much time, not much risk—but it made me feel a great deal better.  The pay-off was totally disproportionate.

You're not helping, autocorrect!
You’re not helping, autocorrect!

Again, I know this likely sounds silly. “Dave,” you’re thinking, “You know us! We see you every day when you’re walking your dog; we nod at each other and wave.  You know we’re cool with you!”

Listen: You can never, ever presume that the folks targeted by hate can continue to feel confident that you are OK with them being Americans. Don’t argue with me about it being stupid or paranoid or insulting—it’s just a fact of life.  In fact, the ability to look at rank-and-file White people with confidence and feel that this person has your back is the first thing to slip.  After all, someone voted for Trump, despite all the things he said.  Someone buys those Confederate flag stickers, someone goes to those rallies, someone breaks out the spray-paint, someone dials in the bomb threats.  It’s just not a possible state of affairs that every White person I see is one of the “Good Guys” and all the bigots are magically somewhere else—but also close enough to trash my skatepark, flyer my streets, drive through my neighborhoods, vote in our elections, etc., etc., etc.

So, here’s one example of an Awesome Baby Step you can almost certainly do almost immediately:

Start being super friendly to people of color every day

Nothing crazy, just always make a point to smile and acknowledge and greet—like, constantly: When you pass on the sidewalk, walk into a building, at the checkout line, whatever. 

The best case scenario is that these folks—who may have taken some hateful shit recently—feel less on the outs with the country. The worst case scenario is people think you are just a super friendly person.  Either way, none of us think “This person is coming to hurt us.”  It’s either a win-win, or just a win.  The odds are with you.

(If this seems disjoint—what with me mostly talking about anti-Semitism to this point, and now I’m talking about people of color, and the Venn Diagram of “brown” and “Jewish” in America is frightfully close to just being a pair of tangent circles—just know this: My lived experience, and that of most Jews I know, is that White people who are shitty to people of color are fairly likely to be shitty to Jews, too.)

Another Baby Step in Being Awesome:

When folks get targeted with words of hate, take a moment to counteract that with words of support

EXAMPLE: Our local Jewish Family Services got a bomb threat last Monday.  (In case you don’t know JFS, they aren’t an agency specifically offering services to Jewish families, but rather a non-profit founded by Jewish families to offer services in general, sorta returning the favor for the support many of our families received as refugees in the 20th Century). Our local JFS is the primary agency handling refugee resettlement for Syrians here in Ann Arbor.  That particular building is also a food pantry for struggling families in general.  So, threatening to bomb them isn’t just an attack on Jews: It’s an attack on the poor in general, and immigrants of all sort.  It’s a mean, small-hearted, fucked-up thing to do.  (Not for nothing, but if you are a White person pissed off that White families are struggling, I can tell you for a fact that JFS is handing out food support to just those exact White families that you, as a White Supremacist, want to see helped.  So, really, what the fuck?! Let us feed your people, OK?)

You probably feel bad learning that some jackass felt the need to totally derail a day of JFS trying to help immigrants and poor people (people who, more so than most, can hardly afford to “come back tomorrow; we’re closed because of a bomb threat.”)  Maybe you want to bend the arc of the moral universe back toward justice—but don’t know what to do.  Try this:

Call JFS, tell them you support what they do, and make a donationeven a tiny one.  Multiples of $18 are a traditional sum among Jews (it’s symbolic of Life), but anything is fine—or just voicing your support: 734-769-0209

I see a lot of White people and gentiles crying because we don’t know the “content of their hearts,” or whatever.  But I’ve got to level with you:

As a Jew—as one of the JEWS that was told last week that his skatepark and his wife (a “white woman”) were not for him, that he should DIE—I don’t particularly care what is in any of your hearts, because your heart isn’t going to kill me.

It’s your hands that will kill me.  And so I’m watching your hands.  I am wary, because wariness is what got my grandfather (Z”L) out of Ukraine before he joined his father in a ditch.  Wariness is what got my Aunt Lola (Z”L) through Auschwitz and to these shining shores.

Right now, your fingers dialing the phone, your voice, your words, your eye contact and smile are THE MOST IMPORTANT THING.  Use them to take awesome baby steps.

It is 2017:  You can take baby steps toward white supremacy, or baby steps away.  There’s no standing still anymore—because there never really was.

Thank you.


[*] “We” in this case has disproprtionately—sometimes explicitely, more often implicitely—been White people (and nominally White people, like myself). So I’m addressing that crowd—but let’s be real: These baby steps work for all of us. See also MLK’s 8 Commandments.

A Brief Tale of Uncertain Moral for Yom Ha’Shoa

I wrote about this via Twitter back in January.  I’ll more-or-less re-iterate what I shared then here.  I don’t know why I feel compelled to do this (again), apart from the fact that, as the years go on, I realize that this anecdote is, more so than the Torah or Midrash or anything else, the primary text by which I attempt to understand the nature of God.  And Judaism is a religion that has, despite poor odds, survived, and it has done so on the basis of repetition: I say the words that my dad said that my grandfather said that his parents said; I teach them to my children to repeat, maybe out in front of a crowd, maybe in candlelight away from windows.  But the words are repeated, and we persist, a thin red thread stretching through human history.  And when I cannot believe in anything else—as is frequently the case—I can believe in the worthiness of that task, and my fitness toward taking it up:  I can persist in the repetition of the words, I can take them a little farther down the road.

I’ve got a lot to say about this but I bet you can guess most of it. And the parts you can’t guess… there’s no room for them here.

Like, for example, here’s a thing: When I was in college I used to participate in this thing in the Diag, where for 24hr we’d read names of…

…Holocaust victims. The names were on these ledger sheets in a big, thick binder. I’d always take an overnight shift, 3 or 4am, reading out…

…into the dark, telling cold air and trees and sleeping crows the names of the dead. The ledger sheets, there were columns for name, number…

…birth place and date, death place and date. Maybe some other stuff. The first time I did this, I hit a patch where there were no names…

…just numbers. The birth and death dates were close together—not much more than a year, as I recall, some much less—and the birth and death…

…places were both camps. These were infants born in camp, numbered, and then taken elsewhere to die or be executed. No names, so I read …

… their numbers, told them to the cold air and the trees and the sleeping crows and the dark and the handful of Jews standing around w/ me…

…I know a lot about the Holocaust. I know numbers, I know places, I know people. I’ve seen pictures and films, I know stories that are…

…published and well known, and others that are between me and the person who no longer remembers them (z”l). I think about all of them…

… often. But I think of those pages of numbers, the empty column for names, those infants, that dark, the crows most often. B/c I feel…

… more than any other, that fact, that moment, has something important to tell me about the Nature of God and the Nature of Humans. And…

… 20 years on, I still have no idea what precisely that is.

Except for maybe that, nowadays, I think of it and, for no particular reason, I think of Malachi 3:18—which you can look up on your own.

I lumped this into my “Take Action” category, not because there is any particular action you should take today, but so that you maybe might seraphchamsa-IMG_7181meditate on this story further, as you go about your days.  Because someday you will need to take action, and all I can do for you is prime you for that not-at-all-good moment.

Actually, on reflection, there is an action to take today:  Tell this to your sons and daughters.  This is thing, it was a grand—almost inconceivably grand—project humans undertook.  Not monsters.  Not one Very Bad Man—worse even than Pharaoh or Bashar al-Assad—but just normal human beings—tons of them, whole nations of them, doing their jobs.  No more, no less.

Human beings like you and me.  No more, no less.

I don’t know what bugs me more: the vicious anti-Semitism or the terrible math

Just a quick take here.  These flyers were found posted around the University of Illinois Chicago:

Whoa! Racist, but persuasive—there's even footnotes!
Whoa! Racist, but persuasive—there’s even footnotes!

The argument looks kosher—there’s a neat graphic, and even footnotes to a reputable, impartial source!  But if you actually look at the link indicated for footnote #2, you find pretty much nothing other than this graphic:

Actual facts once again wreck a perfectly usable racist trope. Also, way to go, American Hindus!
Actual facts once again wreck a perfectly usable racist trope. Also, way to go, American Hindus!

While this graph does show 46% of Jews to be in the top 18% of earners (the largest percentage for an identified American religious group), it is not possible to extrapolate what percentage of which religious persuasions occupy the 1% from this graphic (i.e., those earning in the $500,000 to $1.2 million range).

Anyway, just another reminder that on November 8, 2016 me and my kids were fired from being White—again. 🇺🇸🔥