Poem written in my parked car outside the synagogue waiting for the bomb squad to sweep the building again

My first thought:
every single time
you craven cowards
hit us with
false bomb threats
I will become
more visibly Jewish

though on reflection
what more could
I even do?
I mean c’mon
I already wear
a knit kippah
and hamsa earrings.

Anyone in town
who doesn’t know
what I am
isn’t paying attention.
And more importantly
you don’t get
to influence me.

I let my
freak flag fly
and I won't
lower my Jewishness
to half-mast.
If I listed
everything I love

about the Torah
the 613 mitzvot
our holy prayers
our holy days
our holy languages
we'd be here
all night long.

Four thousand years
won’t end now.
We’re still here.
We won’t stop.
You can't quench
this eternal light.
It always shines.

 


Such times

I woke yesterday to a bomb threat at the synagogue I serve. Thankfully we established security protocols after the hostage situation at CBI Colleyville a few years ago, and those protocols served us well. With prompt and thorough support from local law enforcement, we quickly determined that the threat was false. But even when a bomb threat is false, its emotional and spiritual impacts are real.

The clench of fear is real. The surge of adrenaline is real. If you've experienced a bomb threat at a school you know those feelings well. A bomb threat at a synagogue also activates other feelings too. We all know that antisemitism is high, these days, but a bomb threat hammers that home. After the panic and the fear comes a wash of despair, a cry of the heart: why do people hate Jews so much? 

Trauma is "sticky," so the bomb threat feels connected with every antisemitic slur and insinuation and attack. We don't want to give the perpetrators the satisfaction of knowing that they impacted us. And yet, I know that many of you reading will go through this too, or maybe you already have. It feels important to honor the truth of how this feels, when it happens. And it happens a lot these days.

These days are activating for other reasons, too. This weekend the former president again referred to immigrants as poisoning the blood of our country. [Gift link.] Robert Reich notes that "claiming immigrants are 'poisoning the blood of the country' is the literal language of Hitler's Mein Kampf." It's so beyond the pale, it's hard to even write about without sounding hyperbolic.

Meanwhile we know that a lot of people who are angry at the Netanyahu government in Israel are misdirecting that anger at Jews worldwide. Shots were recently fired at a synagogue only an hour away. There's no connection between that and this bomb threat, but they may feel connected. Intellectual responses may not soothe us when our activation is in the realm of heart and feelings.

So what do we do? We honor our feelings (they are real, and pretending them away doesn't help anything) even as we remind ourselves that feelings aren't facts. We focus on feeling the truth that our friends and neighbors stand with us. When we really feel that, we turn the bomb threat into even more of a failure: it leaves us feeling stronger and more supported, instead of afraid. 

And we continue to be Jewish. Honestly that's the best answer I've got. Our spiritual practices, like Shabbat and prayer, help us maintain equilibrium. Our mitzvot, like loving the stranger and feeding the hungry, give our actions meaning. Our values, like pursuing justice and repairing the world, shine like a beacon. The best response to antisemitism is continuing to live Jewishly. 

And if that feels like a thumb in the eye of the antisemites who want to wipe us out, that's a bonus. I keep returning to this quote from Tolkien* -- the one where Gandalf points out that we don't get to choose the times we live in, we only get to choose how we respond. Tolkien wrote Lord of the Rings between 1937 and 1949. These words feel extra-resonant to me now.

 

6446588-J-R-R-Tolkien-Quote-I-wish-it-need-not-have-happened-in-my-time

 

*I know that the far right loves Tolkien. Which is further proof of how detached from reality they are, because he hated Nazis and called Hitler a "ruddy little ignoramus." But that's a subject for another post.


Foretaste

Last week I added wheat flour.
My son had asked for challah rolls
for his lunchbox. My mother's voice
in my mind's ear tsked to think
of all that white bread. Besides,
I reasoned, shouldn't I save
the best loaves for Shabbat
so he'll want to make motzi
on Fridays the minute he's home?
The rolls were fine. More heft
than usual, and stiffer -- still
better than most of what we buy.
This week I said screw it, made
a double batch of the real deal.
Life is short. I learned today
the wife of a friend of a friend
died without warning. When it comes
to obits, the newspaper runs over.
If he gets a foretaste of Shabbes
amidst the din of the cafeteria
is that really so bad? I could use
some Shabbat when I read how
that man called his opponents vermin.
May these knots of pillowy dough
soothe the shudder that word
sends down my Jewish spine
on this brief November day.

 

 

 

[H]is opponents vermin. Learn more at Forbes. (Content warning, Hitler.)


What Gets Me - a new poem for Tisha b'Av

Screen Shot 2023-07-24 at 2.00.39 PM
 
Not just the litany of destruction: Babylon, Rome, the first Crusade.
Forced out of England, and France, and Spain.
Or how on this day in 1941 the Nazi Party approved
"The Final Solution," the mass graves, the gas chambers.

Or the old claim that we make matzah with their childrens' blood,
or the cartoons that show us hook-nosed and greedy,
money-grubbing, conspiring, defiling the world
with our stubborn insistence that we deserve to exist.

What gets me is that these hatreds persist.
In every antisemitic flyer and QAnon meme.
In every synagogue shooting.
In the uneasy fear that we might be next.

And still somehow we’re meant to look inside, to do the work,
To seek justice for those who have it worse than we,
To make things right with those we’ve harmed,
And if we must, to die like our ancestors  –

– with the Sh’ma on our lips.
 
R. Rachel Barenblat
 
 

It's almost Tisha b'Av. This is the new piece I wrote this year for that somber day. If it speaks to you, feel free to use it and share it.

I wrote it after traveling in Israel this spring. (And no, I'm not writing today about what's happening there. This is not that post.) I was profoundly struck by the reminder of how many peoples have hated us and tried to wipe us out. It's history I've always known, of course. But it lands differently now. Once I had the luxury of imagining that antisemitism was outdated and fading away. With the ugly rise of white nationalism and "Christian nationalism" both here and elsewhere -- with the reality that my synagogue now keeps its doors locked -- with praise for Hitler coming from public figures -- every Jew I know lives with the sickening awareness that there are people who want to exterminate us. Most of the time I keep the fear and grief at bay. But Tisha b'Av is in part about letting ourselves feel the things we keep at arm's length. We let our walls come down and face what feels annihilating. From the other side of that brokenness we begin the ascent to the Days of Awe.

And -- this feels really important to say -- if you are a trauma survivor, do what you need for your own safety. If letting your emotional or spiritual walls fall would harm you, don't do it. I can't say this strongly enough. The spiritual practice of opening ourselves to what's broken is a different thing altogether for someone who already suffers trauma's shrapnel. If that is you, maybe it's not safe for you to break open, or maybe you don't need the reminder of brokenness. Stay safe and whole. 

If you're looking for other resources for Tisha b'Av, here are two at Bayit that I find deeply powerful:

May this year's Tisha b'Av be what we need it to be, and may it move us closer to a world redeemed.

Who's afraid of antisemitism?

 

Ugh

Wow, y'all. Is this really how they see us? 

I've heard from a lot of us who are activated by the anti-Soros rhetoric coming from the GOP this week. I happen to be a fan of Mr. Soros' philanthropy, but in this moment that's almost beside the point. Blaming the world's ills on any Jew strikes fear into a lot of hearts, and not without reason.

Conspiracy theories about Soros are rooted in lies about nefarious Jewish control. (That Washington Post piece is from 2018, but it's no less true now than it was then.) Hearing this ugliness during Holy Week, historically a season when Christian slaughter of Jews has surged, adds to the anxiety. 

The Catholic church officially blamed Jews for the death of Jesus until 1965. And for centuries, Eastertide passion plays blamed us for that death in no uncertain terms... which dovetailed with the popular conspiracy theory that we put Christian children's blood in our Passover matzah. 

The false allegation that Jews make ritual use of the blood of non-Jewish children was popularized in the 12th century, resulting in Eastertide violence against Jews in England at the time, and against Jews in Prague in the fourteenth century, and against Jews in Lisbon in the sixteenth century.

In the 20th century, as you might imagine, things got worse. See 1903:Easter Week | A Proclamation Inciting a Pogrom of the Jews, with accompanying write-up from Kishinev. And of course, Hitler and his Nazi propagandists were big fans of this vile rhetoric, and they slaughtered six million of us.

The claim that Jews kidnap and kill Christian children to put their blood in our Passover matzah is so ridiculous it's hard to take it seriously. But scratch the surface of QAnon's lies about a secret cabal harvesting children's blood, and it becomes clear that the lie of blood libel is still with us. 

So yeah, Holy Week is a time of heightened anxiety for many Jews. Even if we haven't experienced violence at this season, many of us know that our ancestors did... which becomes part of our inheritance, whether via epigenetic trauma or because we empathize with our ancestors' suffering.

(Christianity Today ran an article about this in 2004: Why Some Jews Fear The Passion. They were trying to understand why so many of us were afraid around the movie The Passion of the Christ.  I give them credit for recognizing that yeah, we had reason to be afraid. Unfortunately, we still do.)

I used to not be afraid of antisemitism. I thought it was a horror of the past. I thought humanity had finally reached a level of post-triumphalist spiritual evolution in which no one hates other human beings because of how we mark holy time or understand scripture or experience the presence of God.

(Of course, that's not actually why most of them hate us, setting aside for the moment those who shoot up synagogues because they hate Jewish support for refugees. They just need to blame someone for everything that's wrong in the world, and for thousands of years we've been a favorite scapegoat.) 

I thought antisemitism was old news. Then came "Jews will not replace us." And antisemitism at an all-time high. And antisemitism in schools. And did you know Ye has twice as many Twitter followers as there are Jews on earth? And now there's the antisemitic demonization of George Soros... again.

When I started this blog in 2003, people would occasionally ask why I didn't write about antisemitism. My answer then was that I didn't want to give it any energy by naming it, and besides, it wasn't part of my lived Jewish experience, honestly. But these days, I can't not mention it. It's everywhere.

I don't want to be marinating in the fact that some Christians hate us. Especially not during this glorious festival week of Passover which just began. I guess this reality is part of what I'm experiencing as this year's Mitzrayim, the "narrow place" of constriction from which I (and we) yearn to be free.

In the face of this, I want to say: your hatred can't stop Jewish joy. Your hatred can't stop the sweetness that is Shabbat, or the sparkling gems of our festivals set in the wheel of the year. You can't destroy the wonder of our encounter with that Mystery we name as God, or our tapestry of teachings. 

Today is the first day of the Omer, lovingkindness within lovingkindness. Today I'll eat matzah, the humble cracker of servitude and the mnemonic waybread of our flight to freedom. Tonight I'll light Shabbat candles, blessing the twin flames that evoke the light of Torah and the light of creation. 

I woke with Jewish words of prayer on my lips, and I'll go to sleep the same way. Today I'll serve my Jewish community as best I can, and parent my Jewish child, and I'll do so knowing that there is joy in my tradition that haters like you can't begin to imagine. No one can take that away from me.

 

For more on the appalling artwork that accompanies this post: here's a fascinating and distressing article about the original image and its origins "on a blog discussing the conspiracy behind Jewish ritual murder of Christians." In 2001, which is to say, in this century. I wish I were making this up.


Future

Images

In the car on the way to the orthodontist my son and I were talking about the future. What do we imagine the next fifty or hundred years will bring? He thinks the biggest problems facing humanity are bias (e.g. racism, homophobia and transphobia, antisemitism) and the climate crisis. And he's not sure we can fix either one. Of course, I started arguing for a hopeful outlook. Sure, we may not be able to "fix" either one, but we can make things better than they are now, and in fact I'd argue that we have to. "Sure, Mom," he said. "I mean, of course we do. But you're always more hopeful than I am."

That's normal for his generation, I know. I grew up believing in recycling plastics; he's growing up with climate crisis and coming ecological collapse. I grew up believing that antisemitism was over and homophobia was outdated. He's growing up in an era when our synagogue doors are always locked, with trans friends who know there are states where they can't safely go. I grew up with the certainty that I could make decisions about my own body. He's growing up knowing that every friend with a uterus has lost that certainty, and that rights we thought were solid and stable can be taken away.

I reassure my teen that humanity isn't destined for extinction... though I'm aware that the climate is going to get a lot worse during his lifetime, and that the devastation will likely be worst in places far from here. I reassure him that most Americans don't hate trans and gender-non-conforming folks, or queer folks, or people of color, or Muslims or Hindus or Jews. But antisemitic attacks have been steadily ramping up over the last five years; and so have attacks on queer and trans people, in Florida and Georgia and Missouri and elsewhere; and racism doesn't seem to be going anywhere either...

Can I really promise him that he and his loved ones will be safe from rising seas and worsening storms, from the next pandemic or superbug, from Christian nationalism and white supremacy, from the drumbeat of bigotry? Of course not. I suppose it's always been true. What parent has ever been able to truly promise their child that everything would be okay? Our work as human beings is to live and love and work toward repair even though (or especially because) the world is as broken as it is! But I wish I could give him the luxury of growing up with the kind of whole-hearted optimism I knew.

I've read a lot of articles lately about why kids are struggling with depression and despair. It strikes me that for many of the teens I know, the combination of climate crisis and bigotry (e.g. antisemitism, racism, transphobia) feels pervasive in the world as they know it. How can I tell my kid everything's fine when there are literally hundreds of bills around the country trying to legislate his best friend out of existence, or when a kid on his schoolbus starts praising Hitler (possibly parroting Ye)? All I can do is redirect us toward, "there's work to do to fix things, so let's do what we can, together."


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

Download

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.