My funny, glamorous, gracious Aunt Lola died last night. She was enslaved in Auschwitz at 16. Z”L

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.

When the Machine Knows You’re a Jew

Yesterday I hit Amazon.com to see how steeply they were discounting my book, and was met with this home page:


Check out that row of suggested titles above; they’re all Jewish children’s books. This stopped my heart. Because I am indeed a Jew, and I do indeed have small children.

Just for comparison’s sake, I switched my browser to Incognito Mode and reloaded Amazon. Here’s what I saw:

Still got Megan Trainor and the GEICO gecko, but now my above-the-fold pitch is for a bunch of HD movies that were big blockbusters that I’d never, ever watch. I.e., pretty generic.

Maybe this seems like no biggie to you. After all, algorithmically suggested purchases are a cornerstone of Amazon’s business model. I respect your position. I know that I’ve got more than a little paranoia and clinical hypervigilance informing my thought process. So, just to break down why this greeting from Amazon was so disturbing:

    1. All the titles are Jewish kid’s books. The algorithm seems *really* confident that these would interest me (and, shit, it’s right: We own an earlier edition of one of these books, and read it often).
    2. It’s unclear how Amazon would have reached this conclusion based solely on my interactions with Amazon: I’ve never ordered much in the way of explicit Judaica via Amazon, or had Jewish-themed items on my Wishlist or in my browsing history. I’ve ordered more tools and owl pellets from Amazon than explicitly Jew-themed items. This leaves two possibilities:
      • Their conclusion is based solely on my order size and timing–because I do indeed tend to place my big holiday order earlier than most, since I’m buying for both Xanukah and Xmas. But, man, that seems pretty thin justification to dedicate a major portion of screen real-estate to Jewish children’s books–items that would have basically no interest to huge swaths of the buying public.
      • Amazon can make some wicked-awesome inductive leaps based on buying patterns, the kind of stuff that you’ll never notice with the small sample sizes normal humans experience, but become glaringly obvious when you have Big Data to crunch. Like, maybe all sorts of people buy owl pellets and read Ben H. Winters ebooks, but only bona fide child-rearing Jews buy the second-cheapest owl pellet package that includes a bone chart and wait for those Ben H. Winters ebooks to dip below $2.99 each?
    3. Since the sub-points under #2 seem pretty far-fetched, we’re left to assume that Amazon is doing some very heavy-weight, semantically deep data correlation. Yes, it’s certainly “public knowledge” that I’m a Jew–not only does Google tell you so, but I’ve donated to Jewish charities, am active in my congregation, have worked for Jewish organizations, and have published essays and columns about being a Jew–but still, that’s some pretty granular cross-correlation for a site that mostly makes money off me by offering good deals on horror and SF ebooks and being able to quickly deliver the Slinkies my children adore and destroy at regular intervals. Which is to say that I’m left fretting not only about HOW Amazon determines I’m a Jew, but also WHY they bother, and WHAT might happen if someone else suddenly realized “Hey, I bet you Amazon’s data could cough up a pretty complete list of every Jew/homosexual/trans person/woman/Asian/whatever in the US! Wouldn’t that be a handy list!”
      • ’cause, you know, there’s never ever ever been a situation where a suitably motivated group of people with a pretty complete list of all the X-TYPE PERSONS in a geographic region has set their sights on killing all of them.
    4. As the kosher-market raid coordinated with the Charlie Hebdo massacre demonstrates, sometimes any old Jew is a good enough target.

So, that’s me, that’s my paranoia and hypervigilance, my over-reaction to a perfectly innocent commercial gambit. It’s just the free hand of the market, nothing more, nothing less. No one is coming to stuff me in a boxcar; I’m just a nervous guy with my nervous, paranoid fantasies (based on my relatives’ and co-religionists actual lived experience, and my own personal experience of anti-Semitic [micro]aggression and threats).

On the way out, I guess I just want to point out that this is an excellent moment to crystalize what “privilege” really means when we talk about “White Privilege.” As I’ve written in the past, 99.999% of the time I’m as White as any other pink person, and enjoy all those privileges. But when I see a thing like this, history indicates I’d be a supreme fool not to take a moment to meditate on the ramifications. No American Xtian or Athiest has to do that when Amazon greets them with a big fistful of Xmas items.

Simply put: “Privilege” means the privilege of not having to invest cognitive cycles in wondering who might be coming to hurt you and your children. This is why, when the fan starts getting shit-hit with things like Charlie Hebdo and Ferguson and GamerGate you need to be a little patient with us hysterical Jews and Blacks and women and whatever. We get a little worked up because, now and again we’re just completely worn out waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Anyway, this isn’t just a pity party for those of us who live in a protected class. This party is for you too, for you in the majority, you who sleep easy, because it’s instructive of the Shape of Where We’re At:

There are no more secrets.

Yeah, sure, you’ll get your little bullshit secrets–that you pooped your pants a little last week, that you kissed someone you shouldn’t have in 7th grade, that you’ve got some naked pictures, whatever. But it’s not like I got paranoid yesterday; I’ve been paranoid for almost forty years. I’ve sorta made a point at keeping the word “Jew” from being associated with my name whenever I suspected it might go into structured data (in my medical records, for example). But still, Amazon found me, and they weren’t even really, really looking. They don’t have some sort of ideology that rewards flushing me out, they have no demagogue promising that their God Thing will lavish them with heavenly rewards for hurting me and mine, they have no cosmology that holds that I’ve systemically dicked them over with interest rates and business shenanigans. Amazon saw it fit to sort me out and label me “Jew” in some arcane column of some totally banal, cyclopean spreadsheet because it means an extra $5 to $10 in sales a year to them, if even. That was enough to make it worth it to Amazon. And they did it on their own, without ever violating my “rights.” And if tomorrow Amazon switches business gears, and becomes the world’s marketplaces for demographic lists of people instead of the world’s marketplace for SF ebooks and horror anthologies and owl pellets, well I just better hope that no one running a bomb lab in Yemen or Boston or Paris decides to buy a mailing list.

Here’s the thing: I was fine with being “David Erik Nelson, Jew”–because that’s what I indeed am, what I’ve been my entire life. And for most of my life, when being a Jew has caused me grief, it has done so in association with being David Erik Nelson, as a response to something I did or said. Sure, it may not have been fair–when an Xtian gripes about Xmas, it’s because everyone is stressed out; when I do so, it’s because I’m a fucking whining Jew who should just be glad America tolerates me–but at least it felt personal and specific and, in some way, intelligible. When the threats came, it was because someone specifically disliked something I wrote or said or embodied.

But in Amazon’s datacenter, I’m a row in a table. The index on that row is something like “CUSTOMER #2045674” and the cells include “kindle-owner” and “SF reader” and “owl pellet buyer” and “Jew” and my mailing address. Just another row, among millions–until that table gets resorted by the “Jew” column, and then I’m a box waiting to be ticked off by God-knows-who for God-knows-what-reason. Maybe they want to send me free Xanukah candles! Maybe they want to send me a bomb disguised as a printer cartridge! I guess I’ll have to wait for the mail man to come and find out then! Oh brave new world that has such things in’t!

All of which is to say: The data got smart faster than I did.

The Four Bigots You Meet in the Comment Thread


So, my latest column is up at the The Ann Arbor Chronicle: In it for the Money: Chosen People.
It’s about my own personal experience of being a Jew in the midwest, and by extension (in an imperfect way) about being a Jew in America in the 21st Century. It is likely best summarized by this sentence, pulled from near the end of the column:

“Here and now, in this place, this is as good as it will ever get for the Children of Israel – and still, my daughter’s daycare needs an armed guard and blast-proof windows.”

The Chronicle allows comments, which are moderated by the editor or publisher prior to becoming made publicly viewable. As you might imagine, some of the responses to this column have not made it out of the moderation queue, and likely never will. Out of about 16 comments (at the time of this writing), only half were shit-canned (which isn’t to say all criticism was quashed; as you can see at the link, both critical and supportive comments were published).

But the unpublished comments are fairly indicative of the kinds of responses I’m used to seeing to pieces like this, so I thought it might be instructive to share some of those sentiments.

THE FOUR ANTI-SEMITES YOU MEET IN THE COMMENT THREAD

1) Straight Up Hate-Speakers:

Here I group both generic Phelps-ianGod Hates Jews! Hitler Had the Right Idea!” stuff and specifically-targeted “IM GONNA MURDER-RAPE YOUR JEW FAMILY, DAVID ERIK NESLON!!1!” notes. (PRO-TIP: Specific threats get immediately forwarded to the authorities and abuse@whatever.com; email and online comments are far from anonymous, folks, and this is shit up with which I will not put). In response to this column there was a little tiny bit of the former, but none of the latter (thus far), so that’s been nice. I mean, yeah, it’s maybe sorta fucked up to say “It’s pretty nice that no one is directly threatening to kill my family in response to an essay I wrote,” but for real, I’m pretty relieved.

2) Victim Blamers

These tend to come in the guise of Rational Debaters, but instead of rationally addressing anything I’ve said–by, for example, questioning if the incidence of violence against American Jews is high enough to justify the expense of the security, or asking what the sample size of this or that poll was–they instead choose to raise something like a “kernel of truth” argument: If so many folks hate Jews, they *must* have a valid reason, right? There’s almost certainly something the Jews did to earn this despise, right?

They tend to work their way around to suggesting that the real problem, for example, is that I choose to send my girl to a “Jew-only” daycare (PRO-TIP: JCCs are not limited to Jews–just as YMCAs aren’t limited to young Christian males. Our JCC daycare includes non-Jewish children [and staff, for that matter], and I know that JCCs in other cities are very popular with local gentiles who happen to like the quality of the daycare or gym facilities or whatever, and just dismiss the religious part with a multi-cultural shrug [as I myself so often do]).

I.e., the Victim Blamers are running in to point out–as I myself did *in the fucking article*–that if I’d just stop being such a fucking Jew, I wouldn’t have to worry about people hurting my family because we’re Jewish. Pardon me, but even if I hadn’t myself made this point, shouldn’t it be self-evident? And doesn’t the need to rely on circular reasoning draw into question the possible existence of a reasonable explanation for this animosity? In other words, the kernel of truth at the center of your circular argument is, in fact, a void–’cause that’s the thing in the center of a circle.

Nonetheless, these commentors treat this point as though it constitutes a stunning rhetorical victory, possibly because they are sort of gob-smackingly dense.

3) Palestine Enthusiasts:

There’s a tendency among some American Jews to treat any criticism of Israel as inherently anti-Semitic. In case you need me to go on record: I’m not one of those Jews. There are scads of things you can say about Israel that are critical, yet do not denigrate anyone’s ethno-racial creed. Go ahead, knock yourselves out.

But observant (read: functionally literate) readers will note that *my column was not about Israel*; it was about the United States. In 3,000+words I mention the nation of Israel exactly *three times*: Once to point out Nazi war criminals go to trial there, once to point out I get nervous when Israel does bad things because I’m afraid everyone is going to blame me and my kids, and once to say “[don’t] give Israel a pass on their awful domestic policies.”

Nonetheless, some folks race to the comment threads and their blogs to talk about all of the things I’m evidently saying in favor of Israel and against Palestine.

These are Palestine Enthusiasts. No matter what, once a Jew starts talking as a Jew, Palestine Enthusiasts desperately, desperately need that conversation to be about Israel. I spent more words in this column talking about a skinned cat than I did talking about Israel, and yet something like half the published comments focus mostly on Israel/Palestine.
Palestine Enthusiasts don’t think of themselves as anti-Semites–heck, some portion of them are in fact Jews–but the insistence that every Jew has something meaningful to say about Israel and shares some special responsibility for actions taken by Israel or on Israel’s behalf is inherently racist.
I am an American-born Jew. I have never crossed the Atlantic in my life, nor had any desire to do so, let alone go anywhere *near* Israel. Like most of my fellow citizens, I’m *woefully* under-informed on international politics. I’ve never taken any position on much anything that Israel has done or suffered–apart from generally supporting all humans finding non-violent resolutions to their conflicts. The only Israelis I know, or have ever known, are *ones who left Israel* (obviously, since I’ve *never been to Isreal and have no desire to go,* and thus couldn’t have met any Israelis in Israel).

I’m sorry to be tedious, but I evidently have to bend over backward to make it clear how little I have to do with Israel. In fact, that’s why I *didn’t* write a column about Israel: Because it doesn’t interest me, and I have nothing of value to share on the topic.

I’ve never extended Israel any political, material, or even vocal support (apart from my mealy-mouthed pacifist bullshit, which I basically offer all humans free-of-charge, because I’m a shaggy hippie).

And yet somehow I need to atone for Israel’s actions.

If you want to argue that, as an American taxpayer, I’ve supported Israel with my tax dollars, I think that’s a totally valid claim, and I agree that, like it or not, I have indeed done so–just like every other non-tax-refusing American citizen. So, I ask the gentiles in the audience: As a tax-payer, when was the last time someone asked *you* to explain anything about Israel, or personally apologize for something Israel did, or defend Israeli policy, or accused you of being a Zionist, or wanted you to “stick up for and protect those who need protecting in the occupied territories of Palestine”? Why don’t the Victim Blamers from #2 blame *you* as much as they blame *my toddler*? ’cause *she* doesn’t materially support Israel–she doesn’t even know what a nation *is*–but you do, and you do support that nation by paying taxes. Israel is as much your fault as mine–probably more so, because there are a ton more of you than there are of us, and to believe we–a scant 2% of the voting population–have some magical influence over US policy as pertains to Israel simply by virtue of our being Jews is a plain endorsement of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and all its heirs. There’s simply no way around it.

The fact is Israel seems to be overwhelmingly a White Christian-American issue, not a Jewish-American one. And those numbers are worse than they sound, because we’re talking about percentages of populations of very different sizes. In the end, that works out to 65 million White Evangelical Christians with a mad-on for Israel, vs. only 2.4 million Jews. Do you really think politicians are kowtowing to those 2.4 million Jewish voters, or is it maybe just possible that it’s the 65 million Christians that impress them?

Nonetheless, Israel is my daughter’s problem and not yours, and if someone wants to shoot her over it . . . well, shit, she maybe might just have it coming, according to those crack logicians in Group #2 above. We should really talk that all out, rationally, because every perspective is equally valid. Fair, balanced, etc.

When was the last time a writer talking about Christmas shopping or Hobby Lobby’s day in court saw his or her comment thread hijacked by questions about why the Greens hate Palestinian children?

Exactly *never,* because the Greens are rich-ass tax-paying Christians, and we all know that Israeli and US policy basically falls entirely under the purview of my toddler and wife and the folks we hang with one Friday Night each month. We share some prayers, drink some wine, nosh our challah and quinoa salad and potluck lasagna, then troop down into the secret vaults, don our black robes, fire up our babies’-blood-fueled Macs, and plot out Israel’s next move. That’s just *exactly* how the world works. Thanks for chiming in.

4) “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” Truthers:

These are folks eager to out the “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was a hoax” hoax. They are also Holocaust deniers–or deny that it was *really* that bad, or what have you. It would be sort of funny, if it wasn’t also sort of terrifying. I include this example (I found the link among the unpublished comments, twice I believe) for a few reasons:

  1. It was briefly syndicated by various like-minded blogs.
  2. It’s a really interestingly bizarre alternate-reality reading of what I wrote (as is generally the case in this genre).
  3. I like that I’m described like so:
“Detroit-born David Erik Nelson (Jewish) is an award-winning science fiction author and essayist.”

That’s inaccurate (I was born *near,* not *in* Detroit, and have never stated otherwise), but it’s nice that even the haters feel obliged to give me my propers.

Bonus: “Not All Gentiles!” Gentiles

Every time there’s an online discussion of sexism or race in America, a White dude has to swing in shouting “Not All Men!” or “Not All White People!”–as though the fact that not *all* of the Majority are *purposefully* doing something to harm the folks in these Protected Classes somehow lessens the hurt. “Yes, you were raped–but Not by All Men!” That must be super comforting. I don’t want to dwell on it, but I guess being brutalized by all of a major portion of the population is indeed worse than getting brutalized by some smaller subset of that portion. Thanks, “Not All Men!” Guy! You put it all in perspective!

I want to be clear that I feel where the “Not All Men” Men are coming from. First because, agreed: It’s not *all* men; according to reasonable figures something like 94 percent of all men don’t sexually assault anyone. But it certainly is *some* men, and it’s the awkward inaction of the Majority of men that gives that small percentage cover to go on being rapists and assailants.

Beyond that, I think the “Not All Men!” Men are maybe like the Righteous Gentiles that get huffy when we talk about the lingering face of anti-Semitism: Basically good folks who want the world to be basically good, and feel bad that the world continues to often be pretty shitty, and frustrated that they seem to be able to do so little about this state of affairs. Also, I think that sitting and just listening–which, really, is all you *can* do when someone is telling you about horrible things they’ve suffered at the hands of folks who look and act like you–feels like being scolded, and the “Not All Men!” Men need to make clear that they are *not* these guys, these bigots, these rapists, that these are things they would never, ever do or contribute to.

Again, it is because they have basically good (if naive) hearts that the “Not All Men!” Men make assholes of themselves and come off as totally insensitive jerks.

Anyway, I note the conspicuous lack of “Not All Gentiles!” commentors. Heck, I don’ think I’ve *ever* seen a gentile feel the need to rush in and point out that not *all* gentiles take pot shots at Lubavitchers walking to synagogue, or what have you. I don’t know what to do with that little kernel. It just sits there, being what it is: A very interesting silence.