On the Geography of Pain, and Good God, Could the Title of this Post be more Pompous?
I grew up in California, and it wasn’t until I was twelve that I even heard the word “Kike”. The girl who called me that would end up spray painting it across another girl’s house when they were in high school. There was no question that her feelings and her prejudices were not shared by anybody else. The school bus on Tuesdays dropped a load of kids off at the orthodontist’s office, and on Wednesdays, dropped another load off at the Synagogue for Hebrew school. There were always plenty of Jewish kids around. It was something that just was. In California, I was discriminated against, and very badly, because of my disability, but my Judaism, my Jewishness, was never even something to comment on. It never made me feel afraid, or under attack, and I thought about it when and how I wanted to, the weight of history seeming to be light on my shoulders.
Then I moved to New Mexico, where all of a sudden, nobody wanted to chase me out because of my disability. I couldn’t believe it. It was almost like paradise. Except that in paradise, there wouldn’t have been swastikas everywhere. I’m not talking about the nice friendly ones on the city’s pre WWII architecture, or in Indian restaurants. I’m talking about the ugly, black Nazi swastikas drawn in sharpie on the backpacks of nice white Christian kids, or between the pages of my high school textbooks. The year before I moved, Elie Wiesel came to speak at my school, and the night before he came, students broke in and spray painted swastikas and anti-Semitic slurs all over the school. Special care was taken to make sure that the lockers of every Jewish student were particularly well adorned.
So yeah, that wasn’t a whole lot of fun. And now I’ve moved again, to Alabama, and I haven’t heard the word “Kike” or seen a swastika outside of a documentary since I got here. It should be really great, shouldn’t it? I should feel really safe.
I don’t, which I’m sure surprises none of you, since I’m writing this essay. This spring, when I was trying to decide whether I was going to try to teach the Passover story myself, or let my students watch “The Prince of Egypt”, I was at the grocery store, buying the things for Seder dinner. And I got a Passover card for my mom. The cashier took the card, looked at it, and with a really big, sweet smile, asked if I was holding a Christian Seder. I smiled back and told her I was holding a just plain Jewish Seder. It took me a while to figure out why I was so bothered by this, or why it stuck with me. There have been a lot of little things like that since I moved here.
(I hate Christian Seders anyway. I hate that I’m supposed to be flattered that someone wants to get to know my culture better by celebrating our holidays without a single Jewish person around, and oh it was so authentic, we sung all the right prayers. You know what, don’t sing my people’s prayers if you aren’t singing them to our God.)
In Huntsville, where I live, and where my father and brother and sister grew up, there are dozens of buildings and landmarks scattered all over named after Wernher von Braun. It’s rocket city, and he’s a hero. But I can’t help but think every time I drive past something with his name on it that the skills he used to help the Americans into space were the ones he learned building V2 rockets for the Nazis, using Jewish slave labor. The city I live in honors a member of the Nazi party who participated enthusiastically in the Holocaust and the murder of millions, so long as he could play with his bombs and wring out every drop of usefulness out of my people before they went to their deaths. And no one talks about it. No one acknowledges it happened.
I’m starting to understand in this small way at least, what it must be like to be black in the South, where every monument and city park is named after someone who made their wealth from the bodies of black people, or fought to uphold slavery, or killed blacks for voting, or fought to keep black kids from going to school with white kids, where the suffering of black people is celebrated in a thousand little ways. And where you know if you say anything about it, you’re told to stop making a big deal about it. It’s such a little thing, and anyway, it’s history. I used to get angry when I would hear that there was say, a state park named after the founder of the KKK, but I didn’t realize the raw, sickening pain it brought until it was against my people. And I have only gotten the smallest taste of it.
And already I’m sick of living here, and would rather go back to New Mexico and the swastikas, because here, instead, it’s okay to be Jewish, but you know, don’t say a word against a man who helped kill millions, and really, everybody would feel more comfortable if you were just appropriating Jewish culture, instead of being a part of it. And it’s all these stupid little things that don’t stop.