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On Politics and Pain at the 11th Hour
My friends and I don’t really talk about politics. I think it’s probably for the best to maintain our love. After all, if you don’t talk about it, it leaves so much unsaid.
But then there’s the silence. The saying of nothing that says nothing at all.
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It’s all I could think about when I saw my Instagram flooded with news of the attacks in Israel and Palestine. To even speak of Israel is so difficult for me because it is that sacred to me. To the point it causes me tremendous pain even, at times, that I frequently fail to be vulnerable and confess any love of God at all, or investigate my own sense of spirituality and culture about for fear of ridicule, judgment, weakness or worse. Because sex, religion and politics are not polite conversations for the dinner table, so instead there’s silence.
My side-stepping of spirituality is also from years of entertaining the relentless inquisition based on false equivalences of how people were raised: were you in a spiritual household or not? How has that informed your outlook on the world and your openness to embracing the unknown? Are you a Jew or not a Jew? Are you a “good” one or “bad” one, but not “that” one?
Then, there are the people with spiritual fascination and intimidation based on their interpretations of an interpretation of the divine. It’s like someone eagerly wanting to engage with you about a book who has only read the Cliff’s notes or can’t be bothered to do additional research, wants you to become the cultural expert who explains everything, as if anyone has all the answers to the mysteries of life and even though you never signed up for that job. In this situation, my silence says, “Listen, if I’m going to be made to feel stupid by my own people for not doing my own work, I’m not doing yours. Get it?” Not everyone can read the silence, but sometimes it’s easier than wasting the breath.
You can’t really deny being a Jew, you just are. Sure, you can adopt the ideology, like marrying into a cross-cultural exchange, but there’s an inherent tribal ancestry laced with many layers of history and culture bound by sacred rituals passed down from generation to generation. To dismiss this as “yt” and weaponize that argument shows a general lack of understanding of what a Jew is, our history or culture, as well as the country of Israel. After all, isn’t this what every tribe does?
The current US understanding of race politics has a narrow lens within the States that it’s like people can’t fathom that what they see on the internet doesn’t tell the whole story of dynamics that are different elsewhere. People will have you believe Israel is just a timeshare for rich Ashkenazi Jews who all control the media, as if that country doesn’t exist with its own internalized issues beyond its conflicts with its neighbors. This is binary thinking and it is very reductive and unhelpful for otherwise smart people to think this way about any place. Ever.
People know you’re a Jew whether or not you even share the same ideology, so it’s not so not far-fetched for me to understand why someone would feel the need to assert themselves as a gay person or fellow minority—no one is a monolith and no one should hate themselves for it. And yet, I found myself pretty devastated by the immediate onslaught of anti-Semitic discourse in leftist circles. It’s been a minute—are neo-Nazis infiltrating leftist activist circles again? They’re so good at doing that. Very clever. And they say we’re the clever ones.
Because I grew up in the Midwest, I would often encounter this in my college town in central Illinois. It was filled with a lot of conservatives raffling off guns on the college campus to promote libertarianism or whatever and gun rights. Many students had never met a Jew before, but they might like Seinfeld, so they felt like they could make Jew jokes with me, just like the “make me a sandwich” guys who were smart enough to know misogyny was bad, but it was OK because they were being ironic.
The problem with the Midwest, though, is it’s very passive aggressive, so you have to learn to read between the lines. So if two of those lines are anti-Semitic or gaslighting you about it, you start to get the impression that people aren’t really interested and expect you to know more about them than trying to get to know you. Midwest Jews are the among the nicest for that reason, because they don’t want to be a bother. They can barely talk to each other about Judaism, and that’s why coming to New York and Israel was so refreshing for me.
Pop culture was how I had to relate to people who would check my head to see there were horns because this is what they were taught. This is a Big 10 school, by the way, that I had to share my childhood trauma with so I could afford to attend: an equal opportunity to receive an education alongside conservatives extremely invested in my death. Apparently, anti-Semitic rhetoric has become increasingly popular on campuses, including inviting noted anti-Semites to speak and turning a blind eye to swastikas popping up around campuses.
That meant I spent more time being forced to engage in reading these dipshits’ ideology to figure out why they hate me, taking away any time I would have preferred to have to get to know myself as a Jew and a woman and enjoy my fuckin’ life in peace. To sit down and have to explain more when I’m already barely touching my own traditions is the kind of emotional labor I try to spare other minority women—some of which don’t return the favor.
It is often hard to distinguish hate you for being a Jew or a woman, so I tend to assume it is usually both and try not to think so hard about it. This is where the silence becomes deafening sometimes. You don’t want to succumb to paranoia, but you also struggle to let people in and trust them.
When I finally felt my connection to Judaism, I didn’t really know what to do because my spiritual education made me feel like a historical target. How could you not empathize with other people who share these concerns against violence and tyranny? Passover is literally listening to four hours of all the ways people have tried to kill us, which requires a good spread of food. And you do this every year while hoping for some peace of mind. The self-hating Jews hate this narrative the most, I would assume, because it is exhausting.
Being a Jew is inherent in everything that I love about myself I am told to hate. That bothers a lot of people, presumably because of something they can’t rectify in themselves. Otherwise, why would you be so threatened by someone else’s spirituality unless you had been taught to hate? To feel envy or spite or any of those other terrible feelings? After all, spiritually is personal and sacred, isn’t it? It should motivate you to become a better person, not find excuses to weaponize it like a psycho.
Unfortunately, this is not the shared sentiment or education across the board with different religions. So you get a some dimwit that can’t use Google who decides that you should be the ambassador for all Jews as their sole representation of all the questions they’ve ever had or making off-handed comments while pretending to play dumb. “Oh, I didn’t what I was saying when I made that comment” is the common gaslighting technique because both Jew and Muslim women get it.
We might not get each other on everything, but we get that. In fact, after commiserating with a different Muslim friend about some anti-Semitic comments our mutual friend had made, she was empathetic while noting that even as a Muslim, she was aware of Jewish people and traditions because she attended school with many. It is not hard for us to wish friends an easy fast for Ramadan or send them good wishes to be mindful about people we care about or take an interest in someone’s culture.
Believe it or not, many Jewish and Muslim women are friendly to each other and have shared great social experiences until politics get involved. I don’t fully understand the nuances of their struggles, but support their self-determination against patriarchy. Even then, it would be overly idealistic to assume everyone can just get along. For that reason, I never spoke about Israel because I can’t even possibly begin to fathom what it was like growing up in that environment.
So, when I went to Israel a decade ago, I was a little freaked out. I didn’t feel super connected to everyone in the group from a American pop culture perspective, even though we shared the same identity. At the same time, it makes you feel closer to other people who are like you because you know there are not that many of you left.
Some of those friends still live in Israel and any one of them could have that massacre rave. It was painful to see these bodies desecrated, humiliated, and justified as a reasonable act of revolution with the same level of horror as I did watching footage of bodies being thrown into open graves during the Holocaust only to fight a 19-year-old on Instagram two decades later that doesn’t believe it was real. Then, when you realize this poison has infected the view of people you know, you understand, “Of course, this was how it all happened.”
The trip was with Israelis, so we got to learn a lot. Mostly, that they come in all colors and have many opinions about living there, the conflict, what it means to be a Jew. Many people couldn’t even distinguish an Israeli and Arab simply by looking because many are the same. We taught them about “That’s what she said” and shared Yiddish complaints about our neurotic mothers, which I appreciated was a universal experience. And when you visit the Holocaust museum, you realize that there are so many unprocessed meticulously documented files (something so anal that only the Germans could have done this) that even volunteers can barely tackle processing all 100 million of them in this lifetime, even when using AI to help—because that’s how many of your people are dead. That resonates with you, or at least it should, because it is privilege to be alive.
Protecting my Judaism and the one Jewish country feels like protecting an endangered species from poachers. That’s something a lot of Western Jews take for granted in their assimilation. Jewish when it’s convenient, but not when it’s a problem. Who could blame them for hiding? It’s probably the only way their families survived. And they’ll have to remember it all, whether they want to or not. It’s a second language embedded in your soul, connecting you to this sacred place that means so much to too many people—for better or worse. That’s a different kind of silence.
It was in Israel that I discovered my own identity, though it didn’t hit me until many years later, and once again, I certainly wasn’t going to talk about it. You visit this hippie Kabbalist in Tzfat to waxing poetic about the universe, to hear him blissed out on God and assume he’s gotta be high on some good stuff. But he claims that it’s just god and “God is Awwwweesssooommmeeeeee.” He doesn’t resonate with everyone, because his connection with God may be different than theirs. Or maybe they cut off their relationship with God a long time ago and would rather not have the reminder. My connection with God is different, but I still felt connected to him and his genuine love of God. It hurt no one to love God that much just for being awesome and he never tried to convince you to do it like he did. Just offering the perspective for your own journey.
Tel Aviv looks like old Europe on the Mediterranean and it is one of the most beautiful places on the planet. The markets make me weap and the terrain is so diverse, just like the people who live and work there. But it is also a very stressful place filled with a lot of tension, like an active volcano that could erupt at any moment.
Jerusalem, in particular, was where I felt that tension the most, and because I was 24, wanted to be on a vacation on the beach instead. This was the place of spiritual warfare? Don’t get me wrong, it’s alright, but I definitely didn’t see God there and was mostly a little pissed about the tiny little spot the women had at the Western Wall. But who am I to tell people where to find God?
I have complex relationship with God. So does my old best friend, who is Muslim. We haven’t spoken in over three years of the pandemic. I think of her when I think of the Middle East because we are cut from the same cloth, but always doing shit and being shitty to piss the other one off. She’s very stubborn because she is a Taurus, but also very into luxuriating with food, baths, massage and pleasure. And yet, it was always us against the world as fearless, sexually-empowered women and genius artists. We were not going to let any man, or God for that matter, get between us. God is a woman, even though she could be a little bitch. And we were all bad bitches: me, her, and God.
Our fights were explosive, and they happened all over the world. It happened in a snowy apartment in Evanston late one night and on a beach in Crete. It happened in Chinatown and in the West Village. Always intentionally poking and provoking. At a certain point, it’s hard to separate the person and the elements that form them in the same way I can’t tell if my mom is just mentally ill or also an asshole? Maybe it’s both.
We talked about our relationships with God like it was a boyfriend.
“My relationship with God is…complicated,” she said, drawing out each word with great contemplation as she stirred her piping hot tea with a spoonful of honey.
“Yeah, it’s like he lets you think he’s going to give you everything you want and wants you to love him, but is never there when you need him,” I said.
But there were always fundamental ways that we couldn’t understand each other. And eventually, we decided to stop trying. There was no way this toxic relationship could continue. I didn’t want to make it work anymore. I was tired of tired of trying to see eye-to-eye with someone who was not very invested in doing their part and didn’t see anything wrong with their own behavior.
Though I’ve always felt like a Jew, I never really belonged anywhere, so I hadn’t formed a very solid stance on my personal identity, specifically, as a Jew. If anything, I hung around a lot of intellectual atheist Jews from various parts of the world where God was both alive and dead, but we were all Jews. In this mix, we also had non-Jewish friends, as the idea of religion, spirituality, etc. were mostly removed from an academic lens and everyone was into hosting Seder mostly for the food. No one was dogmatic about anything, and everyone agreed that war is bullshit and leaders are bad. This was how we knew each other: bonded by our differences, our sense of individuality and critical thinking.
More importantly: everyone was constantly talking shit about everyone else. This is common in every circle I have ever been in, which is why I adamantly avoid them and keep my mouth shut about God. If God brings us together, then it shouldn’t not divide us, and yet.
I’ve never seen so many people united as a group of haters, but that’s exactly what a subculture is. Just callous enough to make you feel embarrassed to love God and say “Jesus loves your mom.” To intellectualize Jewry as a descendent of the outcast in great Mother Russia where God was dead. This is your higher purpose: producing the work that is of your highest potential and slays the ancestral glass ceiling of brilliance and excellence. It is a bratty, but inclusive bosom of hatred where people use prose to express their spiritual emptiness and rationalize it to avoid being anywhere near the opposite: fanaticism.
Except everyone was really lazy about it. No one would celebrate your accomplishments. You’d be called “embarrassing” to your face then shit-talked behind your back, and you’d always know it because someone else would inevitably drop by to tell you that yes, you were right, you were hated all along. Emotional hazing in still very strong in the intersectional sisterhood.
We all fell apart. All of the haters had moved on. Some of them became parents who said nothing; others resolved to their academia. Their hate had turned to numbness without the emotional hate-fuck to feed. Everyone fondly remembering, while hating each other and themselves. Through that hate, I would hope there is love. But you never know because this is the same person who would happily belittle someone else’s vulnerability out of contempt, but become defensive when confronted about it. I still love her and wish her well without any contempt, though would never be surprised if my ears suddenly started to burn, and that’s our eternal struggle between love and hate.
If you have ever truly experienced a certain level of spiritual resolve and self-reflection, then it is my opinion that you should pray that everyone finds peace and lives a good life. You should want your friends to be happy, genuinely, and seek to be part of that happiness. And I guess in the past few years, I’ve just felt cut off from everyone. You always hope they’re living peacefully and evolved a little since you last saw them, but realize the feeling might not be mutual in the idealization picture you had in your mind.
Part of that was me. I left. But I also didn’t know where I was going and became very fixated on the idea that it had to be New York. Being untethered provided months of being in my own head, which gave me ample moments to feel more consciously connected to God through unconventional means. To feel connected to the divine like all people should, to remind themselves of their own humanity and purpose. I liked being around who held this view, no matter where it came from, which is why you also many Jews intertwined with indigenous communities on pilgrimages throughout Central America, South America and India, bringing shamans, mushroom farmers, and musicians at hippie events and Shabbat, the safe space in a world that we all love and where we collectively feel unsafe.
God got me off more than men or women, and was in everything: music, my mind, my body. God was like pizza: never let me down, never cheated on me. But maybe God did cheat on me. Maybe God was never on my side. Maybe it wasn’t me or God that someone made a decision to hurt or avenge another person in the name of God.
I became possessed by the topic of weed witchery, which had become very intersectional and existential thing for me while on this journey of living out of my suitcase. I wasn’t really planning on going on a spiritual journey, but sometimes you get a collect call from the universe and have to accept the charges. How often are we afforded this opportunity in our modern Western society shaped by Christianity and capitalism as the daily grind?
Even though she never quite came out and said it, I assume she had been changed over the years living her own vacuum in a different part of Central Europe, and so had her connection to God. She was quieter and I think found safety and comfort within the arms of her friends after she experienced trauma. I didn’t blame her, though I did worry that it might make it harder to become closer again.
These were our loneliest years, we agreed, even though home to us was never where either of us were born. Just cosmic time travelers colliding in space.
We had both been strangers on similar, but separate journeys on the same timeline. In the pursuit of adventure, learning and purpose, I found myself reliving every formative experience of being Jewish within this lifetime and the ones before. I hadn’t had much experience being around the diversity of my own people and culture, which mostly made me feel like a moron for only half-remembering. I couldn’t read the Talmud or remember most of the prayers. All I knew was that our history was depressing because all of holidays are about the celebration of existence.
Jews have to have a good sense of humor because you really have to have a strong backbone to be history’s #1 most hated without feeling bullied into killing yourself all the time. I think my ancestors would actually kill me if I killed myself because it’s an easy way out. Not smart people behavior and not Jewish excellence. My immediate family does not think very hard about these things, but maybe the ones like Groucho Marx’s least favorite school teacher or the steamstress who endured the cold, bleakness of Russia. My great-grandmother being wheeled out to the Woolsworth for a labor protest fighting for civil rights or my grandmother, petitioning for the girls to wear pants. What a brat. Thanks for nothing, Carly. We thought you made it for all of us.
It is a true sign of disrespect to my people to kill yourself and that’s the kind of shame and guilt that keeps you alive exactly just long enough to put everyone in therapy, which is why I can’t understand why anyone would want to be a martyr. Yet, this is the kind of religious fanaticism that divides us every time a bomb is strapped to another child. (Ever notice how therapy makes you a better person? It’s pretty great, and all of my friends love it. We’re all traumatized and on medication. That’s how we remain the type of friends that become generational data points on someone’s marketing report).
As a side note: why is Auschwitz a tourism attraction people still visit to disrespect? Do you know how embarrassing it is to have lived in a place like Prague with such an immaculately preserved city untouched by bombs—not visited, but actually had to learn another language and date a few people cultural immersion—and not visited a single fucking synagogue? And yet, I visited two concentration camps—including Auschwitz on my 21st birthday—the Museum of Terror in Budapest, the Museum of Communism (across from the McDonald’s ironically), and these brightly painted brutalist Soviet bloc housing structures in the outskirts of Prague. Why?
God was on the very, very bottom of Central European to-do list that mostly included drinking a lot beer, being a depressed artist, and having casual sex, and the forecast was only becoming more dead the northeast you went. Everywhere reminded me of death and anti-Semitism. Judaism actually bummed me out so much every time I thought about it that it felt like another obligation I didn’t understand.
One of the things I do like about being a Jew is that we’re not loud about our faith. Sure, we might be loud in a neurotic way or self-preservationist, but not a spiritual way. You come to God when you’re ready, or in the case of our collective history, when we are forced to confess our love of God and meet our maker from the Inquisition and Holocaust to the Intifada (I swear, these people should try out Hulu and weed instead of whatever low-grade God juice they’re drinking, real game changer).
We embrace our atheists and when/if they choose to find God, it’s on their terms. After all, some of them may have been deprived the choice. But like most religions, that’s not true everywhere. If there’s one thing Jews can agree on, it’s that we rarely agree on anything. But from my own understanding, I also think in most households, an argument doesn’t escalate into violence. At within the company that I keep.
When I lived in Prague, I read a lot of Kafka and Kundera—when I had the time to read for fun, years and years ago, and could actually focus on the words. I love our people’s humor and our writing. It is dry and salient and comforts me in its existence because you are never given answers, kind of like my Russian psychiatrist when I asked her about existential dread. “Well yes, that never goes away,” she said. I have never so self-soothed.
Kundera wasn’t a Jew, but he was an honorary one who was exiled to France. By the time the Czech people realized they forfeited a genius thanks to the Soviet bloc, he had already become too accustomed to the French’s delicious cheeses, bread and wine, accepting the return to his homeland as a concession and not a single one blamed him. I think it’s both the exile and the weak apology for it that really cements that cultural co-sign for me and the Jewish people.
My friend is a massively lovable mess who is also completely unhinged. Her parents, who work in both oil and pharmaceuticals, spoil their baby child with anything she could ever ask for, but she prefers to suffer as a broke artist because that makes her work more real. When you remind her of this, that her PhD and last year of willful unemployment was funded by the privilege of oil and pharma money, she is unbothered as she makes another large-scale work about decolonization and makes an off-handed comment reducing my work to rubble. Somehow bonded by love and hate. Sisters neither of us had, but we each other and Kurt Cobain.
We have not stayed in touch or even attempted to rekindle after the three waves of crashing into each other over the past 20 years. I think we were both over suffering and realized our mutual love was also contributing to it. Every once and awhile, I’ll rub a drop of Himalayan musk on my wrist and think of her; how her skin smelled of musk and cigarettes because she was preserving her body from the inside like smoked meats. I’ll hope she’s doing well and never in pain, even when I’ll never be sure that the feeling is mutual.
When I think of politics and pain, I think some people just can’t conceive it. Their humanity has been numbed from a few lines of Twitter to understand the ties that bond and divide that run beyond geopolitical tensions. The ones where God is not used as an excuse to harm, or limit who is deserving of help. To make assumptions of a whole populous of people based on the actions of a few who create further divides between people who are more alike than different. To assume we all are enemies with fixed borders.
I felt compelled to write this because I had felt so alone in my grief. For my own people and the ones on the other side who have been tormented by war that has become a political talking point for people who no sit in silent judgment of things they do not understand and don’t want to. The things that are so complicated and whose rotten roots run deep, the actions that may never receive an apology. It is endless and messy and entangled, just like my words. The layers upon layers of history that transcend borders and time. To explain this in two sentences is not sufficient or begins to convey how deeply personal this hits in my core. I am not TL;DRing my spirituality, history, culture, or pain; I am not minimizing anyone else’s by expressing my own.
The people who immediately see violence and turn to justify it, in whatever form it comes, do so in ignorance. Their silence is not just from fear, but from ambivalence, resentment and hatred. We don’t treat our friends like abstract geopolitical concepts and pawns. We do not celebrate and justify the kidnapping, raping and murdering of innocent women and elderly people. This is the cycle of violence, not an act of liberation. That is anti-Semitism.
I realized, of course, that being so vulnerable potentially invites unwanted attention. It is not necessarily uplifting or comforting or doess not even provide a call to action. It does not provide clear-cut talking points for your next dinner party. But I do hope that it opens up the possibility to maybe reach out to your friends and just ask them if they’re OK. I can assure you everyone is scared from all sides feels the pain of politics and could use some love.
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