Sunday, October 28, 2018

Resilience, hope, and resisting hate

When I think back to my childhood, I remember my friends and the games we played. I remember the woods up the street and the courtyard of my apartment building. I remember my family, my mother dancing in the kitchen, and my stuffed animals. And I remember my father railing about the Holocaust and Nazis and antisemitism.

My father was the child of Russian Jewish immigrants. He didn't know much about his family's life in Russia; the only story he remembered was one of Cossacks coming for the Jews in the village, and his father hidden in a flour barrel. My father was born shortly before World War 2 started and I'm sure his childhood was full of stories of pogroms, Nazis, and eventually what we have come to know as the Holocaust. While he didn't remember (or want to share) specific stories, this colored his entire life and outlook. His response to a trip to Israel was relief at the young people with guns, saying that this way he knew "it would never happen again." We all knew what "it" meant.

As a young child, I knew that I was Jewish and this was dangerous. Because both of my parents were secular, my only understanding of Judaism was that 6 million Jews died in the Holocaust. I knew that from a very young age and writing that down here feels like a childhood litany. I knew that Hanukah was the Jewish Christmas and it had something to do with oil lasting eight days. I did not know what Passover or the High Holidays were other than "Jewish New Year," I had a vague idea that we weren't supposed to work on Friday but we still did. I didn't know much of anything about my religion, culture beyond pain, and that Albert Einstein, Leonard Bernstein, Sandy Kofax, and Benny Goodman were Jews. I knew being a Jew meant I was at risk, that I was special somehow, and little else.

By the time I was in my teens and 20s I was hungry for deeper meaning, so I began to explore what my spiritual landscape looked like. In my 30s I had a much deeper understanding of what it meant to me to be a Jew. I began to shape an understanding of Judaism that wasn't based in fear or in anger over past atrocity. I would rather live in the present and live out loud. Now, in my 50s, I think of myself as a witchy JuBu (look it up). I observe the High Holidays, Passover, Hanukah. I try to set aside some of the Sabbath and have a bit of wine and bread, taking a moment to be grateful. I now understand myself as someone who is Jewish, and that Judaism is a religion of resilience among many other things. There is a reason that many Jewish holidays can be summarized as they tried to kill us, they didn't, let's eat. 

Anti-semitism has hovered in the air, but I've been lucky. It's rarely touched me. I've had a few people say some odd things to me (one date kissed me then commented that he'd always heard Jewish girls were sweeter; that was the only date and only kiss). I've had to explain things from time to time (I once explained Passover and why matzoh is important to a fascinated crowd in a rural midwest supermarket. They offered me Saltines with all good intentions). I've occasionally walked away from heated discussions or on rare occasions been able to ask the right question.

My social justice work has come from a place of privilege, I know this. I've worked for the rights of others and will continue to do so, but it was only in feminism that I felt my own safety might be endangered; I did it anyway. I've not felt physically endangered or even all that concerned about Anti-Semitism in the U.S. My father's fears were not mine.

All of that shifted after the 2016 election. The day after the election several synagogues and Jewish cemeteries were vandalized in Kansas City, not 15 miles from where I lived. I overheard people in public places talking about how the election showed the Jews who was boss. I was afraid to put my menorah in the front window but decided I would not live in fear. I lit the candles every night and I will do so again this year. The U.S. President may be a hate-monger and understands the power of fear, but I will not let him and his toadies define me.

Since then I have been more aware of the ways my father was right. He wasn't right to make the Holocaust the only notable part of Jewish history, but he was right that hatred is a powerful drug and that Jews have been targeted for millennia. American culture has always had a thread of anti-Semitism, but in my lifetime, until very recently, it was something to hide. Now it's out in public, and it has killed people.

Three thousand years of history, culture, art, music, life should not be defined by acts of hatred. I will not be defined by an act of hatred. I would rather create my own definitions of my life and my culture. I mourn those killed yesterday in Pittsburgh. I will say their names. And I will stand up. I will put my menorah in the window and be visible. I will remember that it is three thousand years of resilience, endurance, love.

I will still stand with those who are being attacked, whether they are of color, women, LGBT+, immigrants, Muslims, etc. I trust you will stand with me. They tried to kill us. We stood together. They failed. Let's eat.

Dedicated to the memories of:

  • Joyce Feinburg, 75, of Oakland
  • Richard Godfried, 65, of Ross Township
  • Rose Mallinger, 97, of Squirrel Hill
  • Jerry Robinowitz, 66, of Edgewood
  • Cecil Rosenthal, 59, of Squirrel Hill
  • David Rosenthal, 54, of Squirrel Hill
  • Bernice Simon, 84, of Wilkinsburg
  • Sylvan Simon, 86, of Wilkinsburg
  • Daniel Stein, 71, of Squirrel Hill
  • Melvin Wax, 88, of Squirrel Hill
  • Irvin Yungner, 69, of Mount Washington

(c)2018 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Some thoughts on birthdays, mortality, gratitude, and resilience

I woke up this morning with another tick in the calendar. Today is my birthday and I find myself at 51. It seems impossible. Inside I am sometimes 44 or 36 or 5 or 19 or 30, but 51? That seems so adult. So old. So how-the-hell-did-I-get-here. I know I'm not the only one who experiences this, but right now, in this moment, I am swimming in it. I also know some of you will remind me that 51 is not old. I hear you, thank you, but right now? Yeah. I feel unsettled, surprised by both my age and my resilience.

Outside my window the cardinals are swarming over the lilac bushes, eating berries and jockeying for position. One pauses and seems to be looking back at me. I don't look away until the moment breaks. 

I have always believed that birthdays are important. We each should have a day when the world (or at least our immediate world) celebrates our existence and our impact, and birthdays seem like the right time for it. Our time here is so fleeting, taking a moment to acknowledge that we are here, we make a difference, we are enduring and connected and alive, that seems worth celebrating.

The trees are shedding leaves so rapidly now. It reminds me of the way a narrow stream can suddenly become a racing river. It is a flash flood of color, of time, of endings and hoped-for beginnings.

My feelings about my own birthday changed after Kevin died. I still believe birthdays are important, but mine now feels muted. It is hard for me to celebrate my place in the world when such a big part of the world is gone. This isn't to say my world is lacking in love or connection or belonging: Charley is his own big part of my world but having love doesn't mean the love that is gone is forgotten and unmourned. So my approach to my birthday has changed; I still celebrate but without needing the fanfare.

Looking to the top of my window I can just see the tail of a bluejay, perched in the gutter and no doubt eating one of the peanuts we put out for the local fauna. The bluejays line up in front of their offerings, so polite with one another while they call to the world in their rasping voices.

My birthday now is a time to consider mortality and the paths closed or untaken. It is a time to be grateful for all of the love, beauty, compassion, strength that surround me. It is a time to drink in the gifts I have been given. It is a time to appreciate what I have loved and witnessed and done. It is a time to accept the love that is offered to me. It is a time to consider all that has changed in a year and all that has remained the same. It is just another day and yet it isn't.

The sky is a flat cloudy grey; any texture is muted by the window screen. Even as it looks flat I know that there are ridges and bumps, castles and creatures all hidden in the clouds. I know that behind the clouds is the blue sky, and beyond that there are the stars. 

I am still here. I carry the cellular memory of everyone I love and so that alone is reason to celebrate. I am so grateful to the world for the beauty that is there for the seeing.
I am so grateful to the people in my life for reminding me that even when it is dark there is reason to celebrate.
I am so grateful for my own resilience and determination that keeps me moving forward, even if 51 seems like someone else.
I am so grateful for the love.

We are each a blessing and a curse; how we live our lives makes the difference. So many of you live your lives as light in the world, sometimes sharing that light with me but always radiant, and that is the best gift of all.

Thank you.
(c)2018 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License
True Stories, Honest Lies by Laura S. Packer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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