Memoriam


Hello, Internet.

It’s been a while since I’ve posted. A lot has happened. Namely, an election and an inauguration. And right around the time that those happened, I disappeared from this blog.

So why am I back?

It’s simple. I feel that I have held my tongue long enough. I have kept quiet about so many political issues. I have restrained myself to private group chats and one-on-one conversations. No one explicitly told me to sit back and shut up, but nevertheless, that is what I did. I have felt, in a word, silenced.

I am breaking that silence now. I’m not going to rant about policies or politics. Instead, I am going to tell you a story.

Around this time last year, I visited St. Louis with my family. We drove around the city, to every place my grandmother could remember having lived. We—my dad, my mom, my brother, my Grampa, and I—listened to my Grammy as she openly discussed her childhood with me.

We ended our day at the local cemetery, where much of our family is buried. We walked amongst the headstones, and my brother and I listened for what felt like hours to stories of family members we’d never met.

“She would have loved your writing.”

“You look just like him.”

“He was such a character.”

I’ve never met most of this side of my family, and I only dimly recognized most of the names etched into the stones. But there was a sense of connectivity binding us all together, a family both living and dead, strong enough that I felt an urge to pick up a stray rock and lay it atop the nearest grave marker. My brother did the same.

When we left the cemetery that day, I remember not knowing how to feel. I had gained so many stories, whole aspects to my family that had previously gone unexplained. And I felt some kind of loss, too, at the knowledge that I only had stories through which I could meet these people.

That cemetery was vandalized earlier this week. I was sitting at my kitchen table doing homework when I heard my father, usually so mild-mannered and polite, exclaim, “Shit.” with the kind of tone that can’t be mistaken for anything but disaster.

My head snapped up and I turned towards him, half afraid to ask what had happened, what was wrong. When he told me, something inside of me crumpled up into a little ball and hasn’t unfurled since.

My family’s headstones look to be okay, though we don’t know for sure yet. But the blow struck close enough to home to leave me reeling. I’m still reeling.

Names and stories and maybe a couple of photographs. That’s all the living have, to remember the dead.

By vandalizing the names, by destroying the places we go to tell the stories, a crime far greater than scrawling graffiti on a rock is committed. It’s the destruction of a memory, of history. It’s the attempted erasure of our ability to connect with our past.

I have kept quiet, publicly, at least, about a lot. But I cannot remain silent about this. Several of my Facebook friends—classmates, people I know personally—insist that anti-Semitism is gone and over with, that America-now is not a place of danger. I read comments and post to that effect every time I log onto social media in search of cute puppy pictures or stop-motion animation food-preparation videos. I scrolled through at least twenty of those sorts of posts the other night, as my dad sat in the other room on the phone with every family member we could think of to call.

The world is many things, but it is not yet a safe place. Anti-Semitism is not only very real and a very present threat, but it has dealt a blow to my family and to my community that cannot be un-felt, cannot be ignored. but I am not writing to rail against the world and its injustices.

Instead, I write to ask you—yes, you—to take a look around you, to see the incredible diverse world we live in.

This is not a time to turn our backs on one another. This is not a time to take out our anger. This is the time to stand together. Being divided helps no one.

Times are tough, but so are we. And the only way to make any change is to unite.

 

Protest and Celebration: Atlanta Pride Parade 2015

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It’s that time of year again…  October. Nope, I’m not talking about pumpkins. I’m not talking about farms or scarecrows or black cats. I’m talking about PRIDE!

(For those who may not know:  the Pride Parade is an event that celebrates LGBTQ+ culture in all its forms. I blogged about it last year if you want to check that out).

It’s kind of like a moving festival, a party that walks around a few blocks of the city, in all its rainbow glory…

But it’s also a protest.

I made a point of highlighting that in last year’s post. Pride may resemble a festival on nearly every front, but there’s more than that under the surface.

There are so many people who do not have the freedom to say “this is who I am, deal with it.” For every happy, out-of-the-closet, comfortable-with-who-they-are person I saw yesterday? There’s someone else, living two lives: one on the inside, and one on the outside. And as much as Pride is a celebration of the former, it’s also a show of solidarity for the latter, a kind of proof that it can be better. And above all, it’s a way of showing that it should be better, that no one should have to live in fear.

People like to make a distinction between “gay rights” and HUMAN rights. But can we all agree that such a distinction is utterly, and useless, because those two categories are one and the same?

There were some definite similarities between Pride this year and last year.

As always, the people at the parade are incredibly friendly, and colorful, and bright. No one shows up to Pride unless they’re comfortable with being who they are, or at least comfortable believing what they believe. There’s a reason the event is called pride. I, personally, am proud to be an ally. I have friends who are proud to carry a rainbow flag. I marched with the Jewish group again this year, and I am proud to be in that community as well, a community that supports PEOPLE. Because, really, we’re all people.

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Last year, I noted that the LGBTQ+ community in Atlanta is much larger and much more diverse than I had thought.  This year, I was expecting much of what I saw: hundreds of people. Flooding the streets and the lawns and the sidewalks. Bright colors.  From all different backgrounds. And every one of them, screaming at the top of their lungs, “HAPPY PRIDE.”

As we walked, I got to watch one of my good friends figure out  what I realized last year. No matter who you are or what you are, there is someone who loves you and someone who will accept you.

I marched with a group of Jewish teens last year, and I marched with a group of Jewish teens this year. But last year, I was the wide-eyed newbie, who had only ever seen the parade from the sidelines. This year, I got to watch as my friends took in the scenery when we walked by.  I got to watch as they realized just how BIG and accepting the community in Atlanta really is.

I know that I tend to think of my city as much smaller than it is. But it’s actually enormous. And the number of people who showed up to march yesterday are only a small percentage of the people they/we represent.

The difference between this year and last year is also decidedly present in the protest itself. Last year, we were marching for the purpose of changing legislation, for shifting societal ideals, for making the world a better, more equal place. This year, all of that was still true. BUT IT WAS A CELEBRATION, because of the Supreme Court’s decision regarding gay marriage this summer.

We’re still fighting, and it’s a long and arduous struggle, no doubt about it. But we’re making progress, which is something that is really important to remember.

I talked about the Pansy Patrol last year. We were protesting, yes. But other people showed up to protest our protest, saying that the community we represent is somehow fundamentally wrong. They were carrying signs, on long poles. Within seconds of their showing up, the Pansy Patrol came to the rescue, holding signs with giant flowers on the ends of them, strategically placing them to block the nasty signs. But this year, the Pansy Patrol was about half the size it was last time. The reasoning? The number of people they were blocking was about half the size as well. One more small triumph.

Another difference, on a more localized scale: I, personally, was much more comfortable reaching out and talking to new people. Not just exchanging perfunctory “hellos,” but actually listening to what they had to say. NOTE: there are some unbelievable stories out there, and they all deserve to be heard. Snapchat-4850517411537377966

Fun fact: two people can always find a commonality if they talk to each other long enough.

In most cases yesterday, we were playing “Jewish Geography”, and finding common acquaintances. But in some cases, it was a lot simpler than that. I had a quote written on my arm, from a series of books by Jacqueline Carey. “Love as thou wilt.” In the books, this pretty much means: “Love whoever the heck you want. If it’s love, and you’re happy, then the rest of us don’t give a flying flip.”

I wasn’t expecting anyone to actually get that reference. But what do I know?

At least four people stopped me and said something about the words. Something like “OH MY GOSH I LOVE THAT SERIES,” or “you have good taste in books.”

That’s the thing about Pride: I wasn’t just a walker or a gawker. No one is. I was a participant. This is the point I am trying to hammer home: it’s a community, one in which it doesn’t matter who or what you are, because you’re a person, you’re strong, and you matter—and at Pride, people get that, from Republican politicians to Rabbis, to the Pansy Patrol.

I’m a straight, cisgender, female. I’m an ally. I love this community, and I am so far beyond proud to see my city embrace it.

Speechless: National Day of Silence 2015

Today was a strange day, in a lot of ways.

First of all, I should explain that it is National Day of Silence, as a protest for LGBTQ+ rights. The idea goes beyond simply raising awareness—people feel silenced, incapable of speech, and this day is also supposed to give those of us who are allies a better idea of what they may be going through.

I participated, along with a few other students at my school. And for me, at least, it was very, very strange.

The not-speaking part was actually not the most difficult part of the day, which may come as a surprise to many of the people who know me. I’m not a quiet person, but I still managed to communicate reasonably well—I was astonished at how many people understood what I wasn’t saying.

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The strange part was in the conversations that happened around me, that on any other day I would have actively participated in, but today I simply followed along.

I learned more than I expected to.

For one thing, I discovered that not a lot of people actually know very much about an issue that matters a lot to me (that being, LGBTQ+ rights). I had to explain what the Q stands for via whiteboard and miming more times than I can count, and all the while I couldn’t decide whether the appropriate response was to pull all my hair out in frustration, or to just convince them to look it up—it’s not like I’m the most authoritative expert out there when it comes to this subject.

I also learned how easy it is to lose track of a conversation when I was not directly participating in it. I had to mime half of what I wanted to communicate, and that got so frustrating that I ended up simply not bothering. It was really chilling, how easy it was to simply check out of the conversation altogether. It was truly isolating, even though I was surrounded by some of my close friends throughout the day.

But the most surprising part of the day was, weirdly enough, my Bible class. I attend a southern Presbyterian school. It is never in question that I am probably going to be in the definite minority when to comes to religion or politics. This sometimes makes Bible class… not the most comfortable place on the planet, but usually leads to some interesting and surprisingly deep conversations. Today was no exception, and the conversation we had certainly lent me some insight into a mindset that I tend to avoid at all costs.

I am referring, of course, to the opposition against LGBTQ+ equality that can be found basically everywhere on this side of the Mason-Dixon Line, especially in the very Christian and generally Conservative high schools.

I didn’t have to explain what the Day of Silence was for—enough people were asking that question that my teacher was answering it. But I did get to look on in astonishment as the entire classroom of people began arguing over what equality means and what it really means to be a person or to sin. No one really referred to the biblical text itself. Instead, everyone began talking about their experience with the topic, or about how in their family, they believe such-and-such, and why everyone should or should not be treated equally…

Some of what I heard, I found genuinely upsetting on a lot of levels.

But other parts of the conversation were really comforting.

People whom I would never have expected to deviate from the typical derogatory terms and ideals turned out to feel very passionately about the issue, and spoke up about it very articulately, and had clearly put a lot of thought into their rationale.

In its own very small way, it was exactly what a protest should be.

I know that perhaps I did not grasp the full truth of what it means to not be able to communicate, to feel completely silenced. I had friends and faculty around me who knew exactly what I was doing and why. I had an end time in sight. I knew that when the day was over, I would be able to stop what I was doing and speak again. I had few qualms about comedic miming and laughter. I even resorted to Morse code and finger-spelling in American Sign Language, at one point, when I was trying to communicate what time a class ended.

In a lot of ways, I ended up treating it like a puzzle without even realizing it. I was coming up with ways around speaking, instead of letting myself simply fade into the background– so, not exactly the experience that I was trying to emulate.

But I think that it ended up okay, because this protest, small as it was, had an effect that I did not see coming. I got to watch the ripple of understanding spreading outwards, and I got to listen.

It’s crazy how much you can hear when you aren’t speaking.

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History left me shaking (NFTY Convention Post 3)

If you read this blog, or if you know me—at all—then you probably know that I care a lot about human rights. And I’m from the South, and Jewish. So the civil rights movement of the 60s has been deeply ingrained in me since I was ten years old, as something to know, to understand, and to learn from.

I’ve wanted to visit the National Center for Civil and Human Rights (a museum in Atlanta) ever since I heard of its existence to begin with.

Las weekend, as a part of the National NFTY Convention, I got the opportunity to go.

Words cannot describe the experience, not in full.

I’ve been trying. I’ve written several poems, had countless discussions with some of the people who were at the center with me.

I’m still processing the experience.

The museum itself is divided into three levels.

The top floor is dedicated to current, unresolved human rights crises, and there is a station to record your own human-rights centered message. There are lists of aid organizations, ways to get involved. There are maps, personal stories from around the world that people have recorded, stories of trial, of betrayal, of survival, of hope, each featuring a different issue.

The bottom floor contains a small library of Martin Luther King jr. speeches. Not the recordings, not transcripts. I mean real, physical pieces of paper, covered in his handwriting, or words typed out on his typewriter, his signature on each one.

Original documents, paper that has yellowed. Tangible—through glass—pieces of a history close to my heart.

In this room, a screen dominates the furthermost wall. The words “I have a dream” drift across it, in more languages than I could count. The other walls are covered in MLK jr. quotes, including the iconic ““Until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream,” and the quote that I live by, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

It is a room of words, words of struggle and of triumph. They are the words on which my version of the South was built. Without these words, my life and the life of anyone else who lives here would be very different, and significantly more hostile.

But I read and I listen. Specifically as a Jew in the South, I am particularly attuned to issues of racism and anti-semitism. I know about the Temple bombing and its significance today. I know the story of Leo Frank, a name mostly forgotten by my own generation. I do not forget that it wouldn’t take much for this peace I experience to collapse.

And that is what ties the middle floor, the main floor of the museum, together with the rest of it for me.

It is the floor that brings the point home.

The group I was with began with this floor, and then we came back to it again, because it was so impactful. The reason it hit so hard, so close to home for me, was a simulation experience. A lunch counter. Perhaps you are unfamiliar with the lunch counter sit –ins of the South. Nonviolent protests, wherein people sat at white-only lunch counters until they were served.

These people withstood injury, screaming, threats, humiliation— pretty much every mechanism of degradation that exists.

Most people think that simply “sitting still” is easy.

I know that I’ve thought so a few times.

Now, after this simulation, I know that I will never think that thought again.

At first, it seems innocuous.

There is a small, simple queue line. A small simple platform, with a set of chairs with high backs—and a counter, with sensors for you to place your hands.

You step up to the counter, and sit in the chair, read the instructions written on the wall. You will put on the headphones witting on the counter in front of you. You will place your hands on the sensors for as long as you can manage it. The simulation ends the moment you remove your hands.

You slide the headphones on.

At first, you hear only static.

Then a rough, harsh voice slides in, tense with indirect threat. But it’s quiet. You think that maybe this won’t be too bad.

But more voices join in, begin threatening you, promising to stab you in the throat with the fork at your place setting if you do not get up. Your chair begins jolting, as the men—all men—in your headphones describe that they are kicking you and will eventually kill you. You, as a teenage girl, are only thankful that they do not describe the things that they would do to your body. But you can imagine it all too well. They scream at you, “get up, get up.”

You fix your eyes on the clock, counting your time at the sensors with red dashes. it is the only way to keep yourself from closing your eyes, you think, because if you close your eyes then you will begin to picture the scenario, and you can’t bring yourself to do that more vividly than you already are doing.

One minute, thirty-six seconds.

The recording ends with sirens, and you doubt that the person at the lunch counter managed to survive or not.

You look at your hands and realize that you are shaking.

One minute and thirty-six seconds.

Half an hour later, you still tremble, and you jump at the sound of chairs scraping on the ground, when you see a metal fork at dinner. Someone bumps your seat by accident, and you discover that you do not have enough moisture in your throat to scream, no matter how much you want to.

One minute, thirty-six seconds.

People in real life lasted five to eight hours.

I did this simulation twice. The second time, I knew what was coming, and while I might have been able to brace myself for it better, I was also dreading it even more.

It was one of the most powerful things I have ever been through.

I still can’t quite capture it. I have come to the conclusion that it is not a thing for words. It is a thing for experiencing, and one that I believe everyone should go through, for the sake of learning, of knowing, and of understanding—even if it’s only on this tiny scale.

What makes a leader? (NFTY Convention Post 2)

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Leadership is an interesting thing.

I mentioned in the last post that I was a part of the national convention for my youth group, NFTY.

While there, I attended multiple workshops on social justice, and also on leadership—specifically, what it takes to step up, and what it means to be a leader once you’re there.

In my region, we have an extensive elections process for those who want to be on the leadership teams in NFTY.

In other regions, the process can be more or less arduous, but no less legitimate.

And it got me thinking. Because leadership can be strange—sometimes, the true leaders in a community are the ones who have never been anywhere near an official title. Sometimes they are, in fact, the elected officials. But they are always there. Which raises the question: What is it that separates a leader from someone who isn’t?

I think that there are many, many different types of leaders.

The first is the obvious. The ones who walk into a room and immediately take charge, who have enough confidence to stand up and declare “I want to be a leader!” These are the ones who will be elected to some position sooner or later, and even if they aren’t, they will probably serve on a committee before they leave the organization. People are drawn to them. They know it.

The second is considerably more subtle. The people who never run for a position, who never state that they want any type of power. These are the people with quiet strength, who say little, but when they do speak up, it means something. These are the people to whom everyone looks, but perhaps the rest of the group is not actually aware of that.

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Both types of leaders are valid, and there are a hundred more types in between.

The question is… What makes a leader who and what they are?

Is it confidence? Is it charisma, the ability to hold the attention of everyone in the room? Is it simply intelligence, the power of a high IQ and good ideas?

Is it the ability to take a loss?

I attended a workshop on how to select the leaders, from within a community.

It turns out, there are many different ways to do that, and no system is perfect.

For some groups, the system is self-selective. The leaders step up, they form a little interconnected community, and they go from there, somehow being perfectly functional. Some people do it through nominations. My group does some sort of combination thereof.

But we learned about another group, Netzer Olami, which is our umbrella organization (you might call it a parent organization). For them, everyone is a leader, from the day they first join the organization, until they are eighteen and they age out. Older kids are in charge of the younger kids, and younger kids are in charge of themselves. They are groups, they are committees, run entirely by themselves and by each other.

And it works.

I don’t know what the most important trait is that a leader has to have. I don’t know what the best way is to select a leader.

What I do know is that everyone has the potential to be one.

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Never Forget This You (NFTY Convention Post 1)

It is no secret that I have been an outsider, despite how deeply ingrained I am in my school’s community and in various groups. I’m an outsider because I’m a Jew in a Christian school, and often the only Jew in a given room.

Religious community is incredibly important, especially with the religion that I am a part of. Most people I know went to Jewish day schools every school day, either until or through middle school. Even those who didn’t, at least they attended Jewish summer camps.

I went to religious school once a week.

They had this community deeply ingrained into them from every angle, every day of their lives from the day they were old enough to understand it.

I… didn’t. At least not in the same way.

Obviously, I still had some aspect of the community growing up. Some of my closest friends are people I knew through religious school as a first grader. My parents insisted that Judaism always be a part of my life.

I had a community, and I know that.  But the community that was, to me, the only one I knew, was simply an aspect of the community to those who grew up with religious summer camps, or with day school. Mine was never the full experience to them, and some part of me probably knew that.

I do not, have never, and will never regret the route that my religious education has taken. I owe who and where I am today in part to that route.

But the fact remains, much of the time I still do not have that close-knit community that most of my peers do.

That’s one of the main parts of what makes my youth group, the North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY), so special to me. It’s a community where I can loudly, freely, unabashedly, be myself and love every second of it.

I’m used to regional NFTY events. Before this past weekend, the largest convention I could conceive of was 350 people. Maybe 400 if I really pushed it.

And then this weekend happened.

All 19 regions, all under one roof.

More than a thousand teens.

The largest community I have ever been privileged enough to know.

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I made friends from other countries (shoutout to NFTY NEL), and other states. I became significantly closer with members of my own region, who quickly went from being “acquaintances” to being “friends” and then from “friends” to “family.”

I had the chance to see my city in a whole new way, and to experience that from inside a community that is simultaneously the most expansive and the most whole I have ever known…

“Incredible” doesn’t hope to sum it up.

To add to that, the event got even more special.

NFTY has a “rival” (it isn’t really fair to call these two groups rivals, they function completely separately and differently from each other) called BBYO. There’s a long history of NFTY and BBYO disliking each other.

This past weekend served to change the negative perceptions for a lot of people.

That’s because, the same weekend as NFTY had our national convention, BBYO was having their international convention, and we attended limudim, or study programs, together, creating the largest gathering of Jewish youth ever seen in the US, and probably in all of North America.

I participated in meaningful discussions, laughed and joked around with people I had known for all of fifteen minutes, and felt closer with than some people whom I have known for years.

It was a weekend of singing songs in a language that few spoke natively, yet everyone knew that words.

It was a weekend of human contact and instant connectivity, of hugging strangers and crying four days later, when I knew that they’d become some of my closest friends.

A weekend of texting the NFTYites who weren’t there, of inside jokes and of universalities.

I’m so unbelievably lucky to have been a part of this convention, and I cannot put into words how much I miss it.

NFTY is my home, wherever it is, whenever I happen upon it.
I love it more than anything. Not just my synagogue’s small segment of it. Not just my friends. Not just my region. All of it.

My love cannot be counted, for it consumes me.

“NFTY” is an acronym of many alternate meanings (“never forget these years” is a popular one), but I learned a new one this weekend. Never Forget This You. I’m a different person from who I was before this convention. I like this post-convention me. I’m more centered. More complete.

I have my community, and I carry that with me.

Every NFTY convention has an evening—or a morning— where we wrap our arms around each others’ shoulders and sway in time to a music we create ourselves, and it always burns a in me with the flame of a candle, close by and comforting.

I carried that feeling with me, through all of the national convention, and into the week afterwards.

I never want to let go.

NC15

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NOTE: This post is one in a series of three about NFTY Convention. I wanted to write just the one post about it, but honestly, I can’t contain what I want to say in so few words, so I’ve separated out the main topics I want to talk about, and each of those will get their own post.