She'd gone up to him at a cocktail party and asked for a moment of his time.
A powerful politician, he ordinarily might have brushed her off but this crowd was exclusive.
"My son was sexually assaulted in high school, and all of them are covering up about it."
She clasped one hand inside the other one. Her heartbeat was soaring. Her throat swelled up and it felt like she was choking.
There was a beautiful, polished wooden staircase where they stood and she stood very close to the staircase so that she could clutch its polished rails quietly.
He took her story in and looked at her intently. She felt a small wave of relief on the arid beach that was her body. Somebody is listening, she told herself. It does get better from the bottom.
But it was all in her mind. For he left her with this:
"I hope you got yourself a really good lawyer."
Then turned around, "as if he were fleeing a train wreck, where he'd been driving the train," she recalled later.
"I hope that asshole never sees elected office in his life."
* * *
What is it that makes us decide who is a friend or an enemy?
This is a crucial point in branding. For all success - for a country, for a company, for a family and for yourself - depends on knowing at the most cellular level who is in and who is out.
Here's another story: We landed in Fort Lauderdale the day before last, checked into the hotel and headed straight for dinner on the beach. Primanti's: Monstrous soft sandwich rolls filled with mayo, coleslaw, french fries and breaded fish.
We walk out. "Is there a place to get wine for dessert?" I say to my husband. I don't want to pay ten bucks to get a single glass of something I will never even finish.
Somehow there is a liquor store nearby, and we don't know what we're doing. My husband says to the man standing behind the counter: "Do you have any kosher wine?"
The man looks at my husband quizzically. "I have to ask the manager," he says. "I really don't know."
"Do they never get Jewish people in here?" I say to my husband.
"Maybe they do, but the people don't ask if the wine is kosher," my husband says back.
To be honest this place isn't exactly a wine emporium, if you know what I mean. More like a tiny dive...sandwiched between a novelty T-shirt place and a Subway.
It turns out that there is one kosher wine. Which we do not get, because although it says "sweet" it looks very "dry" and we imagine our cheeks pruning up like elderly people as this clear yellowish concoction is very not enjoyed.
Grapes are grapes, as far as I am concerned and I think G-d will understand if we go with the sweet one.
But as we are paying, the scene becomes one of intercultural halachic (Jewish law) interchange.
"What makes a wine kosher, anyway?" says the clerk to my husband.
At which point I valiantly step in, because as I said grapes are grapes and there is no issue of food here, but rather of the rabbis realizing that Jews plus non-Jews plus wine equals future generations where the lineage is mixed. "Um, it has to be supervised by a rabbi," I say quickly, hoping I don't have to produce a rabbinic factsheet.
"That's interesting," says the man.
It's quiet for a minute, as we shuffle the bag, eyeing the exit. Is this cheap plastic bag going to break?
"I am Muslim," says the clerk. "I can't ever drink any of this."
Of course the three of us, my husband, my daughter and I, are all thinking the same exact thing. How can you possibly work here and never take a drink?
But we don't say anything.
And then we do. My husband does it: "You work here all day and never take a drink?"
"Yes, it's true," says the man. He seems very humble and proud of himself, in a noble way. I think to myself, he works here because where will you work in Ft. Lauderdale and of course he needs a job.
"I made it my business to learn every single wine in this store," says the man. "The customers ask what to buy and I tell them, and they come back here, and they tell me I was right."
At which point he is beaming.
I think to myself that I really respect this guy, living in a really uncomfortable position for him religiously, making the most of it, treating the customer properly and living his faith.
Briefly I wonder what he must think of us, that we asked for kosher wine and then wound up getting the regular one. I think of the criticism I heard from another Muslim, that "Zionists are not real Jews because they took Israel without religion."
Briefly, I cringe.
But on the whole it was a quite positive interaction, one that left me thinking: This is what it means to be an American, that we can live with people of so many diversities, and we can talk to one another about it, in peace.
* * *
Last story, not a story but a halachic quote from Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, the rabbi of Ohev Shalom in Washington, DC. Keep in mind that Jewish religious kids are traditionally taught not to say "Merry Christmas" because of sensitivity, again, around mixing religions:
I now wish my Christian friends a Merry Christmas. I used to say the more generic term, "Happy Holidays," but now I say Merry Christmas.
Here is my reason:
Last week two different neighbors (of a different faith) went out of their way to wish me a Shabbat Shalom. It made me feel great. It made me feel that they cared about me and took the time to learn the proper greeting. I felt a stronger connection to my neighbors as a result.
In today's world, where so much hatred and violence is being spread in the name of religion, I feel an imperative to go out of my way to spread good-will and warmth and friendship in the name of religion. If I can bring a little more light into the world by wishing my friend a Merry Christmas, then it is an honor to do so.
As I write in a chapter in The Lieberman Open Orthodox Haggadah by Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld I strongly disagree with the paradigm of Christianity as an idolatrous religion, but even if I did not advocate for a new paradigm, there would be a basis for my position.
Tosafot (writing in the 12th c.) cites a tosefta (BT Avodah Zarah 2a, s.v. assur) that one who enters a town and sees pagans celebrating is permitted to partake in their celebration in order to better inter-communal relations.
Today as identifiable and religious Jews, we all have to take this message to heart--we have a responsibility to improve relations with other religions. As believers in one God we must remember that all of us on this planet are God's children. Sometimes all it takes is a simple greeting.
Merry Christmas to all my friends and colleagues.
May we recognize our true friends and enemies this year.
I have decided to live my life. Really live it. At the ripe old age of 44.
Where was I before? I think I was sleeping.
“The universe will show you the way you need to go,” said a friend to me many years ago.
And it is true. The universe shows the way, and it blocks the way, and the whole time you think that it’s you.
But maybe I wouldn’t hear it.
For how many times did I bang my head against the wall?
I thought there was something wrong with me, when I failed at things I was supposed to master.
To understand, understand that I grew up with the Holocaust as though it were a sister.
Try to visualize this: A respected, well-educated woman, hauled into the town square and raped before the whole town, not once but in an orgy, not by a few lone wolves but by a mass of recruited participants, who included the priests; not in a single nightmare of a night but over the course of many.
That happened, and I only found out this year because somebody wrote a scholarly article about it and my cousin sent it to me on Facebook. As it turns out my Zayde was on the burial committee for the Jews who were bludgeoned with shovels and massacred in a field not far away and not long afterward.
The legacy of years of destruction like that was physical, obviously, for the survivors. It was emotional as well – I can tell you that for my father’s parents (may they rest in peace), there was no such thing as discussing that time until they neared their very end. It was spiritual, because we could never look at things quite the same way again. Some of us couldn’t even look at G-d.
It was generational. My father inherited something, not just because he was born a couple of years after the war had ended but because he lived with the aftermath all his life. He learned from my Zayde never to speak in a direct manner, never to say anything unless it needed to be said, and yes, that the authorities were dangerous and that one must be prepared to live a whole lifetime of lives in secret. Even to lie.
Because that is what Zayde did in the war, he hid the freezing skeletal Jews under the horseshit in the hay, and that is how he kept them alive when the officers passed. “Nobody’s here.”
We had been beaten and exposed and violated again and again inside the Holocaust, and after it we all decided to move on.
But we didn’t lose the shame.
Jews – that is, the majority of us, not the few who insisted on the Old World ways - learned to be more American than American, much Whiter than White, and much more Christian-friendly than any Christian.
We would do anything to escape being identified as one of them. We would not be identified as the past, as victims, as people so weak and helpless they could very easily be dragged from their living rooms and prayer halls and the coffee shop down the street. Stripped and raped and almost lifeless, while everybody took a turn.
It is a lifetime of pain and it is in my skin, and I dealt with it however I did. But fundamentally, at the bottom of things it is fair to say that I denied myself an existence.
Everything, everything we did as Jews and as people who survived from the survivors was to fight and fight and fight our way forward and upward in this world. We would not be defined by the past. We would be creative of the future, a better future. “Never again!”
But in the process of that fighting something was sacrificed, was lost.
The ability to have a normal childhood, normal development, an arc of identity not tied to all the others who were kicked into the pit, spat upon and generally forgotten.
I am Rip Van Winkle, the old woman in the shoe, stepping out into the sunlight the first time.
It looks good. It feels so warm on my shoulders.
I love you so much, Zayde. I know you are watching me now.
Thank you for giving me your silent blessing from above.
Just like any ordinary person I might pass on the street, I am endowed with the right to be an ordinary person.
The weight – it is removed.
I now pronounce myself free to live.
All opinions my own.