Red

The soup my ancestors made
was not like this.

Beets withered from cold storage
haven't changed, nor

the sharp bite of cabbage,
potatoes blinded by a paring knife

but who had tomato paste
in Stolpce or in Krasnopol?

They didn't store their broth
in freezer-safe Ziplocs

or browse a dozen recipes
for just the right black bread.

And when they heard
somebody hates the Jews

they might have said, so what?
Lake sturgeon swim upstream.

Some make it home to spawn;
some spill their gleaming jewels

at the tip of a fisherman's knife.
They don't complain. The water

that they breathe is all
they've ever known.

 


 

Hot Ukrainian Borscht is the Winter's Most Restorative Soup, Cook's Illustrated, January 2023.

A Family Finds Swastikas on the Lawn as Antisemitism Surges, The Washington Post, January 2023.

 

Also, it does look like tomato paste has long been a Russian staple -- though I'm guessing it was more likely to be homemade than to be the kind of mass-produced stuff most Americans eat now.


Whistling in the dark

Ca-times.brightspotcdn

When the pandemic began here, right after the unveiling of Mom's headstone, I remember feeling an odd sort of gratitude that she was already gone. Her lungs were already compromised. If she'd gotten Covid, she would have wound up on a ventilator. Her death would have been far worse than it was. 

When a mob stormed the United States Capitol, I remember feeling deeply grateful that she was already gone -- and that my dad was by then in the grips of some dementia, which meant he wouldn't read about it in the paper, or if he did, he'd forget. They would both have been so horrified.

Today in New York Times headlines, there's this: Between Kanye and the Midterms, the Unsettling Stream of Antisemitism. Surely this is only "news" to people who are not Jewish. My grandparents fled from Hitler in 1939, with my mother in tow. This country was their safe haven. And now...?

For Jews in America, things are tense indeed. Next week’s midterm elections feel to some like a referendum on democracy’s direction. There is a war in Europe. The economy seems to be teetering. It is a perilous time, and perilous times have never been great for Jews.

In some way maybe this makes my rabbinate more like others throughout history. (Aside from, you know, things like my gender.) Was it an anomaly to grow up at a moment when it seemed as though antisemitism were disappearing? I don't want to believe that, but I can't rule out the possibility. 

Today it's normal and expected for rabbis and synagogue leaders to enroll in active shooter trainings, so we have a better chance of protecting our communities and perhaps surviving if an antisemite with a gun finds his way into our synagogues. (And it's usually "his.") It's just part of the job.

"This isn't why I went to rabbinical school, but here we are," I joke. "I'm learning a new skill eleven years in!" It's an attempt at a whistle in the dark. My friend and colleague R. Mark Asher Goodman wrote recently, "Should I feel creeping dread about next Tuesday? Is that normal?" I replied, "It is now."

And I thought: living with dread has become normal. Antisemitism continues to rise. Trans lives are under attack. Election denial -- "if we lose, it must have been rigged" -- is rampant. Most Americans believe the founders intended this to be a "Christian nation." These are not "good for the Jews."

A poll by the Public Religion Research Institute in 2021 found that almost a quarter of Republicans agreed that “the government, media and financial worlds in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global child-sex trafficking operation.”

By now we all recognize that as QAnon propaganda, which is deeply antisemitic. We all laughed at "Jewish space lasers" because laughter is a defense mechanism, but as those views become less fringe and more mainstream, it's become harder for many of us to laugh around the clench of panic. 

As a child, I used to lie in bed before sleep and think about what I would take if we had to flee in the night. (My diary. A lovey. Could I find a way to save my cat?) That's not particularly healthy, but it seemed normal, at the time. I had read The Diary of Anne Frank more times than I could count.

My mother loved this country fiercely. She believed in the dream of America. And yet she also insisted that every Jew should always have a passport in case we need to flee. I used to tell her she was being paranoid, that would never happen here. I wouldn't say that now. But where would we even go? 

Europe is again war-torn. Israel's elections this week returned a right-wing government to power. If this nation isn't safe for us, I'm not sure anywhere really will be. And besides, what about those who don't have the resources to flee? Don't we have an obligation to stand up for them?

"[Our area] is a place people are going to flee to," a local pastor remarked to me a few days ago. "Get that air mattress now." We were talking about the climate crisis at the time. But it might be true for other reasons too. Bodily autonomy. The freedom to practice one's own religion -- or no religion.

I think what I really want to say is, if you're feeling anxious, you are not alone. Meanwhile, having written this, I'm letting it go before I make challah. I can't wait for Shabbat: an opportunity to tune out the anxiety and tune in to something deeper, something that endures even in the worst of times.

 


The history of the bagel and the antisemitism of now

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On Shabbat I was reading up on the history of the bagel, and I ran across this: 

In that era it was quite common in Poland for Jews to be prohibited from baking bread. This stemmed from the commonly held belief that Jews, viewed as enemies of the Church, should be denied any bread at all...

The shift started to take place in the late 13th century [with] the breakthrough code that came from the Polish Prince Boleslaw the Pious in 1264 that said, "Jews may freely buy and sell and touch bread like Christians."

(Source: The Secret History of Bagels in The Atlantic. Bagels: A Surprising Jewish History at Aish is also good.) I'm always a little bit horrified to discover yet another way in which the Christian world has mistreated Jews. Even when I think I have a handle on antisemitism, there's always more. 

My first reaction to this cropping up in the bagel article was disbelieving laughter: seriously, not allowed to buy, sell, or touch bread at a bakery? I'm not surprised that we weren't allowed to bake commercially. I know we were banned from most trades in Europe. But not even allowed to pick up a roll?

The laughter is a defense mechanism, of course. Behind it are rage and tears. I'm reading about the history of the bagel as Putin gaslights his nation and the world, making the absurd claim that he's destroying Ukraine in order to rid it of Nazis when this could not be further from the truth.

I'm reading about the history of the bagel as I also swim through Twitter threads where (some) Christians are refusing to understand how trash-talking the Pharisees harms Jews. (Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg / @TheRaDR has written beautifully about this -- see this excellent thread.)

I'm reading about the history of the bagel as I struggle to adjust to new security protocols at my small-town synagogue. Bulletproof glass, panic buttons, trainings on how to identify threats and how to stanch bleeding, just in case we become the next Colleyville or Poway or Squirrel Hill.)

It's safer now to be Jewish than at most points in our history. We're less likely to be killed for being who we are. (Less likely doesn't mean impossible, but our odds are better.) Still, I suspect a lot of people who aren't Jewish don't understand the weight of collective trauma from centuries of this.

"Not allowed to bake commercially or touch bread" is laughable, minor compared with pogroms and blood libel and Eastertide massacres and all the rest. (See, e.g., Hundreds of Jews Massacred in Prague on Easter, 1389; Lisbon Easter Slaughter, 1506, Kishinev pogrom, 1903.) But it's all of a piece.

And that's why sometimes little examples of antisemitism in our daily lives can tip us over the edge into a kind of post-traumatic stress response. Because other people's hatred of Jews, historical and present, is in the air we breathe. It shouldn't be, but it is, and it unconsciously weighs us down.

For years I resisted creating an "antisemitism" category on this blog. I wanted to focus my attention on what's beautiful and meaningful and rich about my traditions, on Jewish joy and spiritual practice and resilience, not on those who hate us. But ignoring antisemitism feels irresponsible to me now. 

How do I walk and work and pray in this world, knowing that this ancient irrational hatred -- visible throughout our history in ways both big and small -- persists and might touch my son, or the Jews-by-choice whom I welcome into our covenant, or any of us? With the quiet defiance of making bagels.

I'm being flip, and I'm also telling the truth. I make these pumpernickel bagels. (Which I've made before.) And I bake challah most Fridays. And make gefilte fish at Pesach. And keep Shabbat. And sing and pray, and build a sukkah each year, and teach my son to be proud of our ways.

The only way I know to respond to "Jews will not replace us," to antisemitic caricatures in books and video games, to all of this, is by doubling down on Jewish spiritual practices and values -- continuing to be who we are. So this morning I made motzi over my own bagels, and I savored every bite.