Thursday, December 20, 2012

Special holsters decorated with apples and school houses

I really want my children's teachers to be packing. That way, our teachers can be focused on guarding the children as well as teaching them. I want my child's kindergarten teacher to have to adjust her holster before bending to tie my little one's shoe. I want her shoving the butt aside to pull my wee one on her lap. 

We've slashed budgets for teachers, phys ed, the arts and school psychologist, but surely we can find the budget for guns and ammo, along with training.  Plus, there would be side benefits: we'd be creating a growth industry, special holsters decorated with apples and school houses. And we'd never have to worry about an appropriate teacher gift:  all they would want for Christmas would be a few more rounds of ammunition. This would also cut retirement costs, as they could take a later job teaching girls in Afghanistan. Maybe schools could even share their budgets with Foreign Affairs. 

Plus, think of teacher's newfound ability to use guns as a disciplinary tool. Probably a knock in the head with one would be effective, or if not, the click of the safety going off as a warning. This could be very helpful with recalcitrant kids, unless of course, the child overpowers the teacher. But what the heck, said bad child would only get to shoot until the teacher next door unholsters and races in.

And so what if some bored, impulsive eight-year-old makes a grab for it and kicks off maybe twenty rounds? The casualties would hurt, but in the end, it would cut down on education costs. 

Most of all, our children would be learning our nation's real values: fire power and saving money to spend where it really counts--on the extremely wealthy, who we hope and pray will give the rest of us jobs.


Monday, December 10, 2012

Why I started this. . .

Several years ago, we lived in a house much like this one, (but not quite as fancy) in West Adams, which at that time was a mostly middle class African-American enclave somewhat West of USC, in the heart of Los Angeles. We--white and Jewish, clinging to Middle Class by our fingernails--were fortunate to have found that particular neighborhood at that particular time.

The area had been built around the turn of the 20th century and ranged from mansions to more-than-comfortable homes. By the Great Depression, the fancy part of town had moved North and West to Country Club Park. During those tough years of the 1930's, many of the great homes of West Adams took in boarders while paint faded on their mammoth walls.

By 1947 and 48, the first Negroes (as they were then called in polite company) moved in. These were the educated and the well-to-do--lawyers, insurance company owners, teachers, nurses, doctors, some of them movie stars on the order of Hattie McDaniels, the first African-American to win an Oscar. That didn't matter.  The impolite response was burned crosses, minor riots and white flight. Soon the neighborhood was almost completely Black with a smattering of Asian, mostly Japanese.

But it turned out, our block had someone of color who had moved in long before 1947. According a neighbor down the street, her great-aunt had built their sweet Craftsman cottage in 1908, when that branch of the family was passing for white. Successfully--Nonny (not her real name) even mentioned one of them who was an Admiral. In the Navy. Yup.

Her story started me on the long road to writing my novel, "The Color of Safety," which is about a hundred years in one house in West Adams, and which is in part about someone in the first half of the last century who is "passing for white," as that slip across the color line is called.

But trying to research what it was like to pass proved tough. Oh, there are literary sources. Charles W. Chestnutt wrote of men who succeeded and women who were punished for crossing the line. Nella Larsen, who was scarred emotionally when her mother crossed over, leaving her behind,  wrote of passing in terms that screamed, "Danger, Danger." Chester Himes wrote a painfully hilarious almost-sketch of a story (Dirty Deceivers, 1948) in which a couple, both passing, believe they have married "up"(i.e. white) only discover that their beloved wife/husband is--yes--just a person of color, passing, like they are. Though at first, they are delighted--it turns out they are even distantly related--within paragraphs, they feel cheated that they didn't manage to catch someone 100% white. The very short story ends with them suing for divorce. So, yes, those literary sources certainly gave me insight, particularly Himes'.

But I wanted details. After all, if you're going to write a novel, you have to know about, oh, smells, sounds, tastes. What you're seeking are those perfect minutia, that pebble in the shoe that makes each moment come alive as someone reads it. Those--those just weren't there.

So I started calling around academia, history departments, looking for any kind of oral histories. And I ran, slam, into a stone wall. Sure, okay, I get it, white woman doing research on passing? In most well-to-do families, the idea of passing was a shameful thing. Only classless people would not want to be wealthy and African-American.

And today, it really carries a sense of shame, as if these people didn't realize that Black is Beautiful, without much understanding of what folks in the past were really up against.

So what I heard was, "Oh, well, that sort of thing really didn't happen. I mean, people would pass to sit in the front of the street car, or maybe to get a job, but then they'd come home and within a block, they could go back to being Negro again, return to the family, relax."

"But," I'd say, "What about what Walter White said in his autobiography?" (Ironically titled, "A Man Called White" since White was then the blue-eyed, blond-haired, fair-skinned president of the NAACP.) "In 1948, White wrote: 'Every year approximately twelve thousand white-skinned Negroes disappear—people whose absence cannot be explained by death or emigration. Nearly every one of the fourteen million discernible Negroes in the United States knows at least one member of his race who is “passing”—the magic word which means that some Negroes can get by as whites, men and women who have decided that they will be happier and more successful if they flee from the proscription and humiliation which the American color line imposes on them."

"And," I'd say, "What about Melba Pattilo Beals? You remember, she was one of the kids who integrated Little Rock High school. She wrote in her absolutely brilliant memoir, 'White is a State of Mind,' about her fair-skinned cousin, Griffin, who went north to college and on his first day, fell madly in love with a white woman, love at first sight. Knowing she was from Alabama, he was instantly sure she would never marry him if she knew he was Negro, so he called his mother and said he was going to live his life white.  And now this cousin, Griffin, was a sheriff in a small southern town by day and a member of the Klan by night. He had to be, or he would have been found out (and couldn't have maintained his place in Alabama society.) And he was calling to warn Beals' parents that the Klan was offering a reward to anybody to kill all five of the children integrating the school."

That was when my academics would start to talk. Not that they had much to offer. Because how do you get oral histories of people who have vanished into the whitewashed woodwork? Even Shirlee Taylor Haizlip couldn't do it. Taylor Haizlip, in case you missed the Oprah episodes like I did (because my kids leave me no time to watch TV) by dint of persistence and energy, found and reconnected with her aunt who had left the ranks of "Colored" around 1916. But--and for me, this was a huge but--though she talked with her new-found "white" cousins, Taylor Haizlip was too kind to ask her eighty-some-year-old aunt the questions that would have come out of me like a hail storm, rat-a-tat-a. Not. . .not ethical questions, no. I understand that there was--and probably still is--a tangible need to pass. After all, I am a blonde Jew who could easily pass for English or Swedish and I am married to the child of Holocaust survivors. Of the very few Jewish children who survived the Holocaust, almost all of them were able to pass. If those eleven cousins of my husband who died during WWII had been fair enough (and lucky enough--at least two of them were blond, so we're told by those who still miss them) and if parents' Polish or French had been good enough, and if all the stars had aligned enough, they might have survived the war.

What haunted me, though, was the idea that this cousin of Beals, Griffin, was not only a sheriff, but had joined the Klan. But of course, he would have to, wouldn't he? If you were passing, you'd have to be the worst of them. And you'd have to keep an eye on them, the way Griffin did for his little cousin, Melba, back in Little Rock. You'd have to brag about your pure white sheet and trash-talk Niggers--and maybe even lynch a few--in order to survive.

And then there was the rest of Walter White's introduction to his autobiography: "Often these emigrants have success in business, the professions, the arts and sciences. Some of them have married white people, lived happily with them, and produced families. Sometimes they tell their husbands and wives of their Negro blood, sometimes not. Who are they? Mostly people of no great importance, but some of them prominent figures, including a few members of Congress, certain writers, and several organizers of movements to “keep the Negroes and other minorities in their places.” Some of the most vehement public haters of Negroes are themselves secretly Negroes.”

My (Jewish) mother always said to me, "Be careful about marrying out of faith. Because if you don't teach your children to be proud of being Jewish, the world will teach them to be ashamed of it. And if you scratch the grandchild of someone who converted to Christianity, you're likely to find an anti-Semite." Of course,  Mom's rule doesn't hold true for all the world, but there is something twisting in  having to hide who you are. (And one other Jewish girl in my class (there were only about seven in my whole school) the one whose Dad had married a non-Jew, used to wear a cross on a chain around her neck, and pretend nobody at her house at matza around Easter)

And if you have to hide who you are in a world that holds who you are in contempt, then who do you become? What happens to you on the outside? What happens to you on the inside? Do you become that mouth-foaming, gay-hating politician who plays footsie in the Minneapolis airport? Do you become Griffin, the Klan Klegal, who is secretly black?

That was the origin of my complicated novel, the Color of Safety. I hope to lead you on the journey of discovery along with me as I finish the last section of the book.

Sara Selznick

Friday, December 7, 2012

Cory Booker: Empathy Training for Bureaucrats and Judges

Cory Booker, Mayor of Newark, New Jersey, is voluntarily living off food stamps for a week. 
What a wise move, both to understand what life is like for many of your constituents and to publicize same. I think living off food-stamps for a week should be a requirement for anyone who wishes to run for office in this country.

But I would add that said official should:
1) be given a small clothing budget and have to wear clothing for that week purchased at a local thrift store on a minimal budget.
2) have to apply for welfare in an area where they are not well known.
3) spend the week with no access to the internet via smart phone or computer except at the library.
4) be required to apply for several low wage jobs at spots that require at least four bus transfers--arriving on time for said appointments. (Or if living in a rural area, they should manage to get to a job interview thirty miles away without assistance from anyone they know.)
5) have no access to health care for the week unless they can pay for it out of their welfare.

I believe this should also be a required annual test for all judges, including Supreme Court Justices--they pass the test or they lose their job. This would be one good way to build empathy for the poor in this country and stop their demonization.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Jewesses in Blackface. The White Negress.

I have always shuddered at the idea of people in blackface. Blackface, for those of you who are unfamiliar with the concept, was a style of entertainment called a minstrel-show, where white people corked their faces dark and performed in stereotypical styles that mocked African-Americans as stupid, lazy, lascivious, etc. It was not only a Southern tradition, but was performed all over. Even black people performed in Blackface, and Al Jolson became famous for his "Mammy."

Jews in Blackface. Yes. And some of the most successful ones in the first part of the 20th Century. Perhaps it was a way to identify with the dominant culture and mock a subservient one, as Jews tried to become The Color of Safety. Perhaps it was a way to remain connected to the non-dominate culture, with "blackness" standing in for a connection to Judaism, as in The Jazz Singer, where Jolson is leaving behind his rabbi father's culture, but is still, via singing in blackface, remaining connected to it--and Jolson's "Mammy," like many Jewish blackface performers, was a more positive version of Blackface than many. 

Now, a lovely librarian recommended I take a look at a book by Lori Harrison-Kahan called White Negress:literature, minstrelry, and the Black-Jewish imaginary. Rutgers University Press 2011.

What Harrison-Kahan suggests is that for Jewish women, Blackface might have had a different meaning. Blackface was used in lit by Jewish women writers like Fanny Hurst, Edna Ferber, and Jewish singers like  Sophie Rucker, Fannie Brice, Sophie Mayhew and Nora Bayes all "blacked up" at some point. Harrison-Kahan suggests that Blackface was a way that Jewish women could break away from idealized female behavior. If you look at Sophie Tucker, who was forced into Blackface because producers thought she was too big and ugly to sing with her own face, blackface allowed her to perform at all, and may gave helped her create her public persona which was big, loud bawdy and allowed to seek sexual pleasure despite gender, looks or size. 

I don't know if Harrison-Kahan says this, but Eastern-European Jewish women (as opposed to German Jews) had come from a culture where women were expected to be active outside the home and were being shoved into the dominant culture's idea that women raised kids, created the home and that was that. It may be that the imagery of blackface was appealing because here was another group allowed to be alive and lovely outside their homes.   

Whatever the case, I am eager to read her book. When the budget allows!

Monday, December 3, 2012

More Research: refracting race, conflict in Japanese interment camps, the Imperial Russian Dental Corps, dentist testing at Walla Walla penitentiary

The fruits of research are so rich and so strange. And thank heavens for the Internet and the kindness of librarians. I can't afford the research materials I want, but the internet has been a gift from heaven, with librarians at the Seattle Library and at our local synagogue the angels within it.

I have learned that at several Japanese internment camps, there was not just conflict between kibei (First generation Japanese-Americans educated in Japan) and Nisei, (First generation Japanese-Americans educated in the U.S.) but this tension was some of the cause of violence, riots, and one family (that of the husband of the fabulous singer, Pat Suzuki) literally being pushed outside the boundaries of their camp after the father was beaten.

I have learned that the Czar had an Imperial Dental Corps in WWI--I think, but I'm not sure--and that other armies in WWI had their own dental corps, with wagons, uniforms, equipment, etc. Well, but of course. Remember the origin of the phrase trench mouth?

Also, that dentists in the Seattle Area in 1927 took their licensing tests at Walla Walla penitentiary, by special permission of the Warden.

And if you ever wonder if one person can make a huge difference in the world: the reason that Japan did not actively support the extermination of the Jews was because of one German-American Jew, a financier in New York who hated what the Czar was doing to the Jews in Russia during the pogroms of that era (back to that Czar again, the handsome one who was later murdered) and so this one guy helped to substantially finance the Japanese during the Russian-Japanese war (1904-1905). This one man's choice many years before meant that the Japanese a) could not be persuaded that Jews were evil incarnate who should be exterminated like rats and b) that although they now believed that all Jews had money and were powerful and pulled the strings of the world behind the scenes, these were qualities the Japanese wanted to emulate.

(I wish me and mine had some of the money and power Jews are supposed to have. . .I know I'd change a few things in the world, or even this country, like our growing child poverty rate.)

What I find most fascinating about all this research is the way that it Asian, or Black, or Jewish "racial" identity--seems, like a light through a crystal, to splinter into facets when you look at them carefully through an historical lens. Yes, dental exams at Walla Walla pen are fun, as are Jazz bands at Manazanar, but this perspective is to me, the most important thing.

Next post--about the Jewish concept of good and evil. Now that's really fun. 

Saturday, November 24, 2012

the joys of research.

Ah, research.  It's a good thing I like it. After all, I am writing a novel about 100 years that covers not just Los Angeles, but race history in the US and in Los Angeles, as well as the Holocaust, the Civil Rights Movement, the political tableau of Los Angeles c. 2003--unions vs. developers and how the Community Redevelopment Agencies, the SEIU, the Mayor and the City Council all interact--the Japanese attitude toward Jews over the last century, the Jewish response to Japanese internment, Jewish female education in the last century and on and on and on.

Two writer friends have said to me, "Why don't you make this stuff up?" And of course, I am making things up, lots of things. Research, however, is the ligature that supports the clay of my making. Without that ligature, nothing would stand up.

And quite honestly, that ligature is often so much more interesting than anything I could possibly make whole cloth. The details leap out, the things that make the past come alive, they spark from letters and journals, from oral histories and photos. The child who marched past the National Guard on her way to integrate Little Rock High despite her family's being warned off by a cousin, passing for white, who was not just the sheriff of a small southern town, but a high-ranking member of the local Klan. The interview with a teacher c. 1925 who speaks with disgust of the way she discovered her student was half-Japanese, by helping her style her hair for a little opera (Madame Butterfly) "And it felt just like a horse's tail--that was the texture. Of course, I dropped it right away. I didn't want to handle *that* kind of hair." The Jewish child in hiding in an attic who whispers in her big sister's ear, "I can tell you I'm Jewish, can't I?" Those are the details that set me free as a writer. I know the minute I have found one, the minute I have found what what it is I really need to write about, what is the heart's core of a character that I can use to express this particular idea in the most human way possible.

Yes, there are still so many materials that I long to get my hands on, though the budget does not allow for it--at least not yet. So many materials I wish I could travel to view, so many people I wish I could speak with.

Ah, well. I do the best I can. 

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thanksgiving -

Thanksgiving. The child's fever is abating. Our friends insist that Thanksgiving is tomorrow, so that, despite said child's illness, we can join them. My little one helped me make what turned out to be not one but two pie crusts. I have never used so much butter in my life. In a little bit, I'm about to start the pumpkin pies themselves. My writing critique group is so full of thanks for each other. The kittens continue to be a delight. I got to sleep in. I got a walk today. We live in walking distance from a lovely (though expensive) food coop. We can pay our bills, if we are very careful. Neither one of us has to go to work tonight at midnight, though, as always, my husband works tomorrow and as a parent, neither one of us ever really gets time off.

Israel and Hamas have signed a cease-fire. This is something to be hugely thankful for.

And for the writing. And the research. The joys of both.

Where, when, how, who--the population of Israel and Palestine through the ages

Should the Dakota people should start shelling the Twin Cities? We took their land, we pushed them into reservations, we yanked their children to boarding schools where they were often physically and sexually abused, let alone the emotional abuse of being taken from their homes, language and culture. 

In researching Jewish girls' education from 1921-1936, I typed Jewish girls, 1921, and pulled up images. It was thus that I accidentally stumbled on an image of a Jewish child in Jerusalem fleeing the Arab riots of 1936. 

I didn't know about the Arab riots of 1936. I didn't really think about Jewish children in Jerusalem in 1936, though I believe an uncle of my husband was there for awhile around that time, going back and forth between Tel Aviv and So, i researched Jewish population in Palestine, and apparently, over the last 2000 years, whenever whichever conquerers allowed Jews to exist in Israel, they did. 

Mark Twain spoke of Palestine as a vast emptiness, but other visitors in that era spoke of fertile wheat fields, etc. From the time of the British Mandate, it looks like Jews were at least 4% of the population, making up more like 20% of Jerusalem's population. Most of the feladin, largely peasants working property belonging to Jordanians, were replaced by Beduins for a time. Jews were buying land from Jordanian land-owners, which knocked more feladin off their tenant farms. I can't find the proportion of tenant farmers vs landowners yet, though tenant farmers can feel an ownership over the land they work but do not own. 

Even after those riots of 1936 chased out many Jews and killed others, the Jews returned. By 1941, Jews were 30% of the population of Palestine. That's something I didn't know. I thought the Jews "took the land." 

Then, the British announced the creation of the land of Israel, war was declared by all the neighboring countries, and present history began. It's interesting to me that so many Arabs stayed, given that fleeing Arabs were promised a swift return by neighboring countries that immediately declared war on Israel. Even at the inception of Israel, the state was about 15% Arab, as it was in 1950. Israel today is about 17% Arab. 

Meanwhile, between 1946-1970, neighboring Arab countries kicked out 820,000 Jews from their countries. That means 820,000 refugees. Their bank accounts were not frozen, but confiscated, as was all their land and property. Like the Palestinians, they had to leave their country, their language, their culture, everything, traveling thousands of miles to their new homes. that is more than the estimated amount of original Palestinian refugees, yet I have never heard someone talk about helping them reclaim their homes or even that these governments should compensate them for their losses, which amount to about $7 billion in today's dollars. Lost Palestinian property, in land, buildings and frozen assets is considered to be about 4.4 billion in 2012 dollars.

Also, I learned that for the first twenty years, the "reservations" for Palestinians were held and ruled by Jordan and Egypt. So okay, my comparison to the Dakota reservation was inaccurate.  It would be more like--let's pretend that the Dakota understood land as property, and sold some, and they were lured into reservations by, say, Ojibwe, and held there for twenty years in stinking conditions until the Twin Cities won a war and got control over them, too. Meanwhile, similar Ojibwe would have been kicked out of Dakota lands and would have simply been absorbed by other Ojibwe. 

Except that's not an accurate metaphor, either. 

Then, it turns out the UN has a different definition of refugee when it comes to Palestinians. So now I have to research why that is and how they are different. 

There was a letter to the editor in the Star Tribune that equated "Jewry" with whining, apologists and Nazis. I know this is common thinking. I know it is current in Norway, in much of England, in Sweden, and in parts of the U.S. Still, I was shocked to see this letter printed in the paper in Minneapolis so shocked that I looked up the writers up. They are self--described "passionate anti-nuclear Catholics" who have legally adopted an adult Israeli Jew, a forty-six-year-old man who is in prison for attempting to give away secrets about Israel's nuclear program. These are characters who would be believable in fiction only if we were writing farce.

I am grateful then, that I have grown up as a Jew, which means I have grown up learning to question. I am grateful for my gifts as a researcher, which allow me to try to see what is behind the "truths" we are presented with. I am grateful that I am surrounded by friends who will talk and listen about the ways they differ on important issues, like gay marriage and Israel and Palestine. I am grateful that I live in a country where I am allowed to speak freely about my concerns, both political and social. 

I am fearful, as always, of bigotry. The evil bigotry can create in the world is so horrendous, and the losses it has caused are so personal--the children we knew who were murdered in the Holocaust, the children we see who are victims of political coups, the places we have lived that were edged with violence which I believe is related to decades of bigoted policies. I am hopeful that those of us willing to listen to each other, to research, and to think can eventually find a way to a better world. 


Monday, November 19, 2012

west adams homes.

This is how I imagine the house in The Color of Safety, except it has spiderweb windows in the central windows. And here is the dining room c. 1909 probably.

Listen, our house wasn't *quite* this big, but it is a lot like our house in West Adams. 

Sunday, November 18, 2012

It's Complicated: The Current Situation in the Middle East

It's hard to get ready for Shabbat--for a day of peace, of rest and meditation--while reading about Israel shelling Gaza in response to Gaza shelling Israel in response to Israel assassinating the Head of Hamas in response to the Head of Hamas ordering shelling of Israel, after months of saying that they couldn't control the smaller groups who were regularly shelling Israel.

Still, on Friday, I drove my children to get a challah, the braided bread that is traditional for the Jewish Sabbath. The idea was that  we would find the dining room table underneath the clutter, set a pretty tablecloth, dig out the grape-juice and the Challah cover, and have a peaceful shabbat.

In fact, when we got to the parking lot, I had to wait and listen to the rest of the NPR report on all the missile attacks, and then I had to haul out the IPAD I use in lieu of a computer to show my children maps of Gaza and its population, of Israel and it's environs and try to sketch in the political situation in Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Saudi Arabia. I gave a hint of the differences in the governments of Gaza and the West Bank, the fact that Iran is arming Hamas while Egypt is allowing missiles and launchers  to cross over their borders, the new Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, the upcoming elections in Israel and how all of this might be affecting things. Inside, as they munched on their half of a babka (a rich cake laced with cinnamon and chocolate) I showed them pictures of the eleven-month-old who was killed in Gaza, the tiny body wrapped in gauze, and of the eleven-month old who was injured in Israel, the tiny face blurred for safety. Over and over, I kept saying to my children, "It's complicated. We can't 'just go kill them.' They can't just come kill us. It's not simple. It's so complicated."

We got back in the car and hit the main corner in our city, and there, we were confronted with crowds carrying banners that read, basically, "It's Simple." "Support Palestine," "Israel Human Rights Violator." I felt so angry and so sad.

Those crowds looked, to my eye, to be mostly white people, red-heads and blonds. In my experience, they are often well-to-do Protestant liberals who have been working to divest our state of Israeli bonds for the last twenty-years. I am not mocking Protestants. I know many, and respect a tradition of political engagement. I am not mocking liberals. I am one myself. What saddened me was the reduction of this complicated situation to "Israel, evil occupier; Palestinians, pathetic victims."

I thought of a recent visit to the theatre with a friend whose ancestry is Mdewakantan Sioux. Finally, we were able to get together, to see a theatre piece by a member of our local Jewish community, a one-woman play. The play, advertised as a personal journey, turned out to be a horrified declaration of the betrayal the playwright felt toward her father (who had died when she was young) and how she has now learned that the trees for which he had encouraged her to send money, trees for the new state of Israel, had been planted on the ashes of Palestinian homes, stolen by evil Israel.

Afterwards, we were invited to participate in a question and comment with the playwright. Theatrically, I had been very disappointed in the piece, which had seemed to me an exercise in navel-gazing rather than a piece of theater. Yes, her father died when she was twelve years old, and the woman I saw was still twelve years old, still thinking with that adolescent brain that he had abandoned her, spreading that horrified sense of betrayal onto the entire world. I approached my comments theatrically, speaking of metaphor--the play began with an old trunk holding a Hebrew lesson, which the playwright used to as a trunk carried by the kicked-out Palestinians.

But that trunk could have been used by the desperate remnants of the Jewish people, fleeing from not just one of the most horrendous and over-arching attacks on a people ever, but continued persecution after the end of the Holocaust, vowing, "Never again will we be at the mercy of other countries to let us escape the enemy. Now we will have a country of our own."

It could also have represented refugees within the countries--Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia--which refused to accept Palestinian refugees, kept them caged like animals for decades, still does not allow some of them citizenship or even to be legally employed. It could have been held by the many Jews who have had to flee those same Arab countries over the last sixty years. It could have been packed by Jews moving to Israel to reclaim Biblical territory in settlements while adamantly refusing to accept that people lived there first, or represented those Palestinians worldwide who have developed their own diaspora stories, their own next-year-in Jerusalem legend. It could have held the remains of Jewish soldiers sent home in pieces to their families, the remains of Palestinians assassinated by their own people because they were suspected of being soft on Israel. It could have stood for the coffins from the cult of the martyr that is part of Palestinian culture now, the idea that you want to tell your three-year-old to grow up to blow himself up for good of the people.

It could have been used to tell us all: It's complicated.

When I said as much to the artist, she looked startled. Her response was, over and over, "But this is my personal journey," as if a personal journey removed her from an artist's responsibility to strive for clarity or wisdom in this world of complications.

And yet, there is hope. We few Jews sat among a crowd of Muslims, many from countries at that time involved in the Arab Spring rebellions. And yet, when an Iraqi Jew told the artist of his family's rescued from the Iraqis by Israel, when he said, emotionally, what that had meant for his family, to have a safe place to go, to automatically granted safety when they had to flee, to even be assisted to that safety, I could feel the crowd listening, (though one woman insisted that the Iraqi Jews were chased out by synagogue bombings created by Israeli intelligence, a widely held legend in Iraq, despite a virulently anti-semitic police officer who was found with bomb-making materials in his home and blood on his hands.) But the majority I felt really heard this Iraqi speak, until he asked the facilitator, (a pale, well-dressed red-head, maybe twenty-three and reeking of money,) "Why this cause? Why not China's treatment of Tibet? Why not Burma? Why not Zimbabwe? Why you? Why is Israel the villain?"

His questions were valid, and I think worthy of pursuit, but they were also off target. I could feel the audience shut down. It gave the young woman the chance to invalidate his comments, turn them into personal attacks. And thus, the topic was changed, the ears closed up, and the Iraqi Jew and his family left, wordless, helpless, filled with fear and rage.

And yet, his questions ring in my ear. Why these people? Why this cause? Why can't these people see the complications? We are coming out of a state made more unified, more neighborly, because of a series of conversations with one another about gay marriage. How can we create a conversation within this state to allow people like that wealthy young redhead to see the complications? If we can't see the complications, we can never figure out how to heal the situation.

It occurred to me to bring hot cocoa to those narrow-minded people standing at the corner with their signs. To invite them to our synagogue to try to understand what leads them to harshly judge only one side. But I'm not sure if that would work. Like everything else, I suppose, it's complicated. 

Thursday, November 15, 2012

"I am your neighbor." Citizen's United for a real United Citizenry

The state of Minnesota just defeated an anti-gay marriage amendment through having a lot of conversations. Yup, people just talking to people, heart to heart, difficult talks, along with a famous basketball player's comments and a fabulous ad by a decorated war vet about his gay comrade who died fighting for his country. People making tough phone calls, people having awkward dinner conversation, people talking to people about issues close to their hearts, and listening to the uncomfortable in response.

This campaign has inspired me. I have been watching through the national and state elections as we as a country have demonized two sets of folks: the poor, and immigrants. I have been thinking that one way to further the conversation about these people would be a series of television ads.

One set of ads would take respected members of our local, state and national community, research their ancestral histories--when people came here, how their ethnic group was treated at the time, and how they coped. Narrated by these respected community members, the ad would illustrate their stories of, say, fleeing a war, or famine or financial hardship, of, "Irish and dogs need not apply," or "my parents never really got comfortable in English, so I was their translator," or "we lived in a community of other Italians." Still narrated by the respected community member, the ad would then bleed into images of someone who has recently immigrated. "My abuela doesn't speak English, so I translate for her," "We fled the war in Somalia." etc.

We wouldn't ever have to say that We are them. We could just show it.

The second set of television ads is a lot simpler. I propose that we find people of all colors, sizes and shapes, who are now or have ever received "Welfare." We show them all--folks from the country, inner city people, people who got sick and lost their jobs and homes, people raising bright-faced children, people struggling to stay above water. People who used their time on welfare to get back on their feet, to go to school. People talking about how hard it is to apply, and how helpful it has been or is now in their lives.

And at the end, we have each one say, "I'm your neighbor. And I am the face of welfare."

Now, I'm sure that these ad campaign would cost a bundle. But. . .we have two years before the next congressional elections. Want to change the tone of elections in Arizona and Georgia? Run these ads. Let people see who they have chosen to demonize. Let's use the Citizen's United decision to work for a real United Citizenry.