Charismatic leadership is dangerous. Leadership needs to be shared with people who are NOT natural leaders.

How Can Our Networks Heal from Abuses of Power?

Man in Guy Fawkes mask with a sign that reads "Be positive. Accept others as they are."
Photo by Eduard V. Kurganov, CC 2.0

What Activists Can Learn from the Kink Community about Creating Safer Spaces

When I was nineteen, I worked as a janitor. My bosses were older men who I slowly came to adore. One was also a small-town sheriff who often borrowed our colleague’s student house for trysts with married women. He was handsy and inappropriate, but my colleagues and I laughed it off. We never felt threatened.

When I told another student about my work, she insisted I was experiencing sexual harassment. I told her to get a life. I was not being sexually harassed.

Turns out , we were
both right. I was not being sexually harassed because I didn’t feel sexually
harassed. My job was never threatened. I was never coerced into anything. I
never felt unsafe.

But over the decades, I’ve come to realize that laughing off bad behavior may have put more vulnerable people at risk. We might have been making it seem okay and normal, which could have contributed to an unsafe work environment for others.

***

Not too long ago, I was part of a small activist community that was scandalized by reports of abuses of power. To many, the man in the center was likable and charming. To others, he was an abuser and a charlatan.

The stories of his behavior circulated for years. Each person told was sworn to secrecy. The non-disclosure agreements guaranteed that the whisperings couldn’t go public.

Ours was a small community and the network was crucial to my work. The events it held were fun, engaging, and useful, primarily for connecting with peers.  Because of the events, we got to know the individuals behind the work and it helped us in our pursuit of common goals. Even so, I never stopped wondering what we could do to bring back those of our peers who had disappeared and had been victimized. Why was it, I wondered, that the abuser was protected by an NDA (non-disclosure agreement) and still an active member of the community, when the people he harassed were no longer welcomed?

The diagnosis

Once the abuse was publicly known, I hoped that we would openly discuss what we could do to make our community safe. I hoped that we would have rich and rewarding discussions about what had happened and why. I hoped we would interrogate ourselves. Most of all, I hoped that the organization at the center would strive to welcome back those who had been exiled.

As of this writing, there have been no organizational efforts to reach out to the people directly impacted by the abuse. Yes, they brought in a great consultant. Yes, they had an internal review process. Yes, they published statements, and yes they made their new guidelines public. But it didn’t feel like enough to me. It felt legalistic and shallow.

In order to learn more about healing networks after abuse, I began speaking to people, asking them what it would take to make the events and network feel welcoming and safe.

While talking to others, I came in contact with people in a kink community somewhere in North America. They had recently gone through an egregious breach of trust. I spoke with Carol (not her real name), who was one of the people who took on the task of reforming the community to make it feel safe again. As we spoke, it became increasingly clear that the dungeon she was a part of and our activist network had several things in common.

Primarily:

a) both have security issues that often require that the identities of people are protected;

b) both communities are demonized by the outside world and seen as threats to society;

c) both communities have reason to be concerned that the acts of a few can tarnish the entire group;

d) both communities are small and intimate, making it difficult for people who want to stay involved to find other networks.

In many places, being
outed as belonging to a kink community can get you fired from your job and
ostracized by the community. It’s true that the popularity of Fifty Shades
of Grey
has created a more positive view of kink in the the media, but that
is a very recent development.

If you think kink is demonized, try advocating for human rights. One only has to turn on the television to see how human rights activists are portrayed in popular culture. Fictional human rights activists are seen as barriers to justice or depicted as hiding their own evil natures. On screen (and in real life) human rights activists can seem shrill and annoying. In real life, human rights activists can be surveilled, stalked, tortured, killed, and imprisoned.  

It is understandable that members of both these communities are protective of identities and shy of public accountability. Both communities depend on networks of trust in order to be effective, despite the fact that this may mean extending that trust to predators.

The human rights community is especially vulnerable to divisions that would make it less effective in pursuing its end goals. It’s not unusual for outside forces to try to disrupt and discredit activist networks. For the BDSM community, consent and how it is enacted are absolutely crucial for maintaining health and well-being.

This post looks at
what small networks can learn from one particular kink community about
recovering from an abuse of power. It does not cover widespread systematic
harrassment and abuse.

The flip-side of security

Both the activist and
kink communities require security precautions and the protection of
identity.  Taking these precautions
protects community members from retribution from abusive governments and
intolerant societies. At the same time, they make it especially difficult to
enforce accountability.

The pressure to
keep a space safe from abuse needs to come from the community itself
. So the question becomes what can
organizations that depend on privacy and are demonized externally do to ensure
that the community remains safe?

Factors that lead to abuse

There are some factors
that can make abuse possible:

  • The community lacks of a culture of accountability. This makes it difficult for people to
    understand what’s ok and what’s not okay and and means there are no guidelines
    for dealing with abuse, especially those types of behaviors that could have
    different interpretations for different individuals.
  • There is one leader who is unchecked by a board or by others on the team. Usually this person is charismatic and seen
    as “someone who can make things happen.” This person can be particularly good
    at manipulating the situation to their own benefit and making it seem as though
    they are indispensible.
  • The target of abuse isn’t always as likable as the abuser. Often, the person targeted may have already had
    their contributions hidden, suppressed, and outright stolen. This can mean that
    they are less visible to the community as a whole and less likely to be
    protected and supported.
  • The target of abuse is dependent on the abuser for funding, work, and/or
    community
    .

The challenge

Consent is key to
the success of any kink community
, as is permission for  and
acceptance of difference. You join a dungeon to “let your freak flag fly.” When
your freak flag includes behaviors and symbols many in the community find emotionally
traumatizing, you have to find a way to respect their limits. It turns out that
the line between permission and consent is not as clear to some as to others.
Carol explains:

All of kink can be inherently traumatic to people- it explores power dynamics and violence. However, there are some kinks that are described as ‘taboo’ in the commuity because they have a higher tendency to be disturbing to swaths of the community, or make people feel attacked because of their identiy.  Things like raceplay, dark ageplay, or Nazi roleplay are especially sensitive. These kinks can in and of themselves be healthy to explore among consenting adults, but dungeon leaders and psychologists tend to agree that they are not for everyday shared spaces because one person’s healing cannot come at the expense of another person’s trauma. Especially if the trauma is related to unethical crimes that involve identiy, like child abuse or hate crimes. Many dungeons segregate or prohibit taboo play, and those that don’t often foster very unhealthy cultures as a consequence.”

For awhile, the
dungeon had been losing ethnic and religious minority members. The reasons were
many, but underscoring them all was a lack of respect for boundaries and
particularly for very real historical pain. The dwindling number of non-Black
minorities made people of color feel especially vulnerable and without allies. Many
had expressed their discomfort, only to be ignored.

Eventually Carol published a piece about the conflict in her dungeon on a popular fetish forum. She stated her case, explained how the consent of the community was violated, and demanded an end. “I was terrified of publishing the post, but I immediately got support from people around the world,” she stated.

This gave her the
confidence to build alliances within her local community.

Building alliances

Crucially, there was
already broad support for making the dungeon more inclusive. Most members
simply did not know how to make that happen. 

The case for changing policies was brought to the owner of their local dungeon. Carol stated: “I told him: the way you handle this will determine what you will be in the future. If you don’t create safety now, the club will not be safe in the future.”

The owner had to consider
a number of factors when making the decision to change the workings of the
dungeon. Each decision meant losing clientele. This was particularly the case
because taboo play had become normalized and those involved were very much a
part of the running of the dungeon. Eventually, it was likely profit that made
the difference. Would the dungeon be more profitable if it could create a
safer, more inclusive atmosphere? Would it continue to lose members or would it
be able to revive its community?

The owner gave Carol
and those supporting her efforts for change the space to test their ideas for
making the dungeon safer.

“Of course power relationships are important aspects of BDSM play, but who knew how important those same relationships would be in building alliances to change the nature of the dungeon and make it more consensual?” Carol told me.  “The good news is that people are more loyal to sex than to taboo play.”

Reaching out to those harmed

The next step was to reach out to those harmed by the abuses of consent within their community. “I’m not going to lie to you,” Carol said. “This wasn’t easy.”

Private discussions
were held. People were given the space to express their grievances and together
they worked out solutions for ensuring that their boundaries were respected.

The dungeon actually
changed its policies based on the content of those discussions.

What changed

The first thing to
change was the education committee. It was dismantled and a new one was put in
place. The new committee required that each new member go through training that
not only ensures physical safety, but psychological safety as well. Carol
explains:

All volunteers in positions of power or who interact with the clientele have to become aware of power structures in place in larger society that make certain individuals more vulnerable to abuse, and learn how to create an environment of safety for them. Once educated, they are held accountable for acting upon this education and can be removed for breaches.

Enforcing change

It isn’t always easy to get people to change their behavior. It is crucial that leadership stand firmly behind any new policies.

“In other subcultures, those who violate others would be thrown out. We cannot do that because our collective safety depends on people not bitterly attacking us from the outside.  We have to keep everyone in, which means finding ways to incentivize good behavior and reward those who look out for others.”

Complaints process

The first thing to do is to ensure that there is shared leadership of the community. Ideally leaders must answer to a board and to the community. In the case of the dungeon, there was no board, so the community had to take on this role. It’s the community that has to ensure that management has a clear policy for breaches of trust and actually acts on that policy. Carol states: “The people in the middle must keep management accountable while keeping the trust of the people who have a conflict.  It’s a delicate balancing act. One we still don’t have right.”

A system for dealing
with complaints must be put in place. And this is not an easy thing to do.
Especially when some complaints may actually be criminal. [1]

Break down the barriers between
cliques

A very important
aspect of ensuring the long-term health of a community is to actually foster
friendships. Create opportunities for people to reach out to each other across
the cliques that tend to emerge.

This takes work. It
doesn’t happen naturally. So the community actually has to commit to reaching
out and building unusual alliances. In the dungeon, that means looking at the
subgroups of kinksters who are naturally more inclusive and figuring out what
they’re doing right and then giving them the power to spread that attitude
throughout the community.

Share leadership

Charismatic
leadership is dangerous.

Charismatic leaders
come to represent the community and are often viewed as indispensible. They can
have a history of complaints against them, yet remain in power. Why? Because
people seem to think that the community would fall to pieces without them.

To stay healthy,
leadership needs to be shared, and it needs to be shared with people who are
NOT natural leaders
.[2]
You want people leading who are naturally cooperative and egalitarian. And because
those people are not natural leaders, you need to have a process in place ensuring
they are respected and heard.

Be patient

The best intentions
won’t make the community safe. Training won’t change things quickly. There will
be missteps and mistakes. It’s best to acknowledge that the process of
recovering from predatory actions will be difficult and painful. The community
will change as a result. Some people may never feel safe enough to return.
Others may not be comfortable with the changes.

Maintaining a safe
space and a safe community is a continuous project. Expect challenges and
blunders.

Wrap-up

Sexual harassment
is the abuse of power
. It’s
not misinterpreted flirtation. For this reason, it can damage the entire
community, not simply the people targeted for harassment. Those people who come
forward with complaints, or who leave the community entirely, are signalling a
larger problem. Watch out for absences and departures from the network.

It might not be
possible to avoid all abuses of power in a community, but we sure can try.


[1] For more on setting up a conflict resolution protocal, see How-to
Recognize and Deal with Conflict http://www.civilsocietyhowto.org/10-tips-for-dealing-with-conflict/

[2] See
Building a Network with No Masters, No Leaders: http://www.civilsocietyhowto.org/network-no-masters-no-leaders/


Love will tear us apart ... or not

On Friday, March 15, 2019, we wake up to the news of the white supremacist attack on Muslims in New Zealand. Kamran and I find ourselves one in anger and in grief, connected to people far away from us, but not far away from our own experiences of the world.

Kamran with his siblings

Kamran was born into a Muslim family in small-town Iran, and I was born into a Jewish family in small-town US. Revolution, refuge, art, and New York brought us together.

Me with my siblings

Pre 9/11 New York, of course. Today’s USA would prevent us
from meeting. Today’s Muslim ban would have altered his life forever. Mine? Who
knows what I would have become?

With all the forces trying to tear us apart, including our own personal idiosyncrasies, it is a testament to our incredible hardheadedness that Kamran and I remain together.

We are torn at by history, culture, and war. From our very different starting points, and our very different world views.

Kamran and I are torn at by the way the world sees us: as victim, perpetrator, pitiable, terrorist, threat, Muslim, Jew, man, woman, hateful, powerful, refugee, atheist, immigrant, revolutionary, and impossible.

We are torn about by the way the world treats us. We are torn at by the ways that treatment has been invisible to each of us.

Over the years, I have been slow to see the patterns that discriminate.

I have dismissed Kamran's experiences of being treated worse in the Netherlands because of his background. This is true even though I saw a letter from a potential employer telling him that they already had "too many foreigners" on staff.

For his part, Kamran has been slow to accept my fears that our current times rhyme with the rise of Nazi Germany. When I told him that I saw signs of growing violence that echoed the rise of the Nazis, he told me I was too worried. “The Holocaust was unique,” he told me. “Nothing can be compared to it.”

Now he says, "I was naive. I believed in western democracy. I believed in the strength of checks and balances. I was a naive immigrant."

On Friday, March 15, 2019, we share our fears. We cry as though tears matter. Kamran tells me that he is afraid that the violence will spread like a contagion.

...routine bites hard

Map of concentration camp and death camp locations
Map of concentration camp and death camp locations. Photo by Kamran Ashtary

Over the past ten years, Kamran has been researching the Holocaust, visiting sites of violence and suffering both in documents and in physical spaces.

He did not grow up in Europe. The Holocaust did not erase his history or have much of an impact on his society. Yet studying its history opened a vein of grief in him that allowed me to honor my own.

His witnessing gave me permission to unmute my generational pain. It had been bottled for so long. I felt I didn't have a right to it, that I was imagining it, that I should be grateful to have so many living relatives made safe by their good fortune.

Society says, Get Over It. And when you listen, you pack away your rage and sadness in a container too small to hold it. Eventually it breaks out. My childhood Rabbi, a Holocaust survivor, told Kamran that he built a cement wall inside his brain to keep the memories at bay. Even that didn't help. But it was the only way life was possible.

Love, love...

On Friday, March 15, 2019, Kamran whispers that he has so much reason to be optimistic. He sees the Jewish and Muslim communities in the US and New Zealand reaching out to one another in solidarity and compassion. He sees students marching for the climate, eager to make the changes we need to continue our lives on this planet. He sees love from others. Oh love...

A statue honoring the dock workers who shut Amsterdam down shortly after the Nazi occupation of the city. This was the only public protest against Nazi occupation anywhere.
A statue honoring the dock workers who shut Amsterdam down shortly after the Nazi occupation of the city. This was the only public protest against Nazi occupation anywhere.

I whisper back, Love is not enough, and think back to the dockworker strike that brought Amsterdam to a halt just after the Nazi occupation. At the time, one Jewish woman wrote in her diary that her heart sang with joy at the thought of the support of Amsterdam’s citizens.

I think back to a testimonial from a woman who survived Kristallnacht. She remembered going to school the next morning because she did not want to cower at home. She wanted to show her face. When she arrived, the other children formed a circle of protection around her and the other Jewish classmates.

This broke my heart. It somehow would have been easier to hear that the other children shunned her.

Love is what will be remembered by survivors of our hateful times. But it is not enough to stop what’s coming. It's not enough to stop what's already here.

Love is a gesture. A gesture we need. Don't stop loving.

And don't empty that gesture of meaning like Amsterdam did by projecting a flag of New Zealand on Central Station and calling it solidarity. That just hides our own complicity in platitudes. It won't stop the next attack. It won't change the gleeful cruelty we see around us. It doesn't help name the condition: supremacism.

As 16-year old climate activist Greta Thunberg says: we need to panic. We are in a burning building, and we are so afraid of naming our condition that we ignore the flames.

This is not fine by KC Green: https://thenib.com/this-is-not-fine

Tear us apart

It is so easy to destroy. Anyone who has slung a sledgehammer at a wall can tell you that it can fill you with power. It can be such fun.

Kamran and my other Iranian friends taught me the perils of revolution. How it eats its children. How using violence gives power to the violent.

And here we are. With violence in power.

...we're changin our ways...

These are the times my elders warned me of.

Unknowingly and knowingly they taught me the omens. They taught me the signs of dehumanization and the patterns in "disorganized" violence.

They taught me how easy it is to destroy. They taught me that home can betray you.

And then they fed me chocolate cake and kugel and filled me with love.

Love, love will...

For comfort, I remind myself of the notion of Tikkun Olam: repairing the world. Imagine the big bang as a universe inside a vessel. When the vessel breaks the light of that universe goes everywhere, even into our souls. It is love, love that is torn apart. And now that love and that light lives inside us. We use it to repair what is broken. No light is too small. No repair too insignificant.

When I need to remember things can heal, I remind myself that my childhood included rivers on fire and so much pollution that we thought we'd all be walking around with oxygen tanks by now. The rivers were cleaned. The lakes were cleaned. We can repair our world. We must repair our world.

As recently as last year, I would ask my friends to imagine this Europe from the midst of World War I. It is unimaginable. Now I am not so confident in that analogy.

We must never forget how broken the world is and has been. And then we must repair our world.

The repairs will take generations. We make them. We don't finish them.

That's the best hope I can give.

Love will tear us apart

https://youtu.be/674KGKRQBPE

"Trickster Crumb"

One day I woke up to discover that the imp in my story is a quantum being. It just occurred to me in a dream. The imp doesn’t travel in time. The imp is not measurable at times. When the imp is not measurable, strange things happen. Time changes shape. The imp divides into many. Unpredictable movement becomes possible. When no one is looking, imps ride photons.

The cone shows possible values of wave 4-vector of a photon. The "time" axis gives the angular frequency (rad⋅s−1) and the "space" axis represents the angular wave number (rad⋅m−1). Green and indigo represent left and right polarization. By Incnis Mrsi 10:15, 4 June 2008 (UTC) - Own work, Public Domain, Link

Quantum mechanics shows that particles like photons behave differently when they are observed than when they are not observed. I always thought “observed” referred to being watched by our very own two eyes. In fact, observation refers to the act of measurement.  We are continually being measured, whether it’s by a ruler, the eyes of onlookers, or the air particles we displace.

The very week I realized that the imp was quantum, physicist Paul Coxon sent out a message on Twitter that went viral:

“Hello my name is Paul, I have a PhD in physics and thanks to a random brain freeze forgot the word for photon so had to call it a “shiny crumb” in front of my colleagues 😐”
Paul Coxon on Twitter

Clearly a sign, right? I love that he called the photon a “shiny
crumb.” Thanks to Dr. Coxon’s brain freeze, I’ve taken to calling the imp in my
work in progress a “trickster crumb.”

The Imp in the Stone

The Imp in the Stone

Today I completed a story that tells of a time when the imp
locked their multiple selves inside a stone grotesque.*  On display in a public park overlooking  Lake Michigan, the stone imp encounters a
Holocaust survivor. Here is an excerpt:

“I saw Harry again? You know what he talked about? The camps, is what. Like we were some 1965 twelve year old reminiscing about summer camp. Like we remember when we all went canoeing and told ghost stories around a campfire. Like we weren’t the damned ghosts our own selves. Only, it’s oh, remember the time everyone taller than the unnamed asshole was shot, and I survived because I am so short? This is what he wants to talk about? He has diarrhea of the mouth, this one. And you know what else? He still keeps the spoon from those days. Never goes anywhere without his god damned spoon. Harry. He’s a piece of work. You know what he says to my grandkids? Here’s what: make sure you always wear a good pair of walking shoes. Your shoes are what stand between you and survival.”

Doris is wearing gold slippers. Her toenails are painted bright red. Her hair neatly combed. The scarf with the flowers looks happier on her head today. She leans towards me, “I am never wearing sensible shoes again. Even  if it kills me.”

Then she stands as still as I do and we listen to the children in the playground laughing. This is a good day.

*(BTW, GROTESQUE: isn’t that a wonderful word? It’s the word for the carvings we often think of as gargoyles but that do not double as gutter spouts. I love it.)  

The most wonderful thing of the month

My friend Christopher shared a dance routine from the film
Stormy Weather. Just watch the Nicholas Brothers own every dancer in all of
history with their acrobatics, grace, and sheer joy:

https://youtu.be/_8yGGtVKrD8

Things to read

Trevor Noah’s book Born a Crime is an absolute must. It’s cruel and smart and funny and compassionate.

I’m a huge John Le Carre fan. Pigeon Tunnel is a fascinating account of his life as a writer. He shares so much without revealing anything at all about himself. For anyone who is a fan of his many spy novels, that should come as no surprise.

Bob Dylan’s The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carrol is the poem of the month. Here is an excerpt:

Hattie Carroll was a maid of the kitchen
She was fifty-one years old and gave birth to ten children
Who carried the dishes and took out the garbage
And never sat once at the head of the table
And didn’t even talk to the people at the table
Who just cleaned up all the food from the table
And emptied the ashtrays on a whole other level
Got killed by a blow, lay slain by a cane
That sailed through the air and came down through the room
Doomed and determined to destroy all the gentle
And she never done nothing to William Zanzinger
But you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears
Take the rag away from your face
Now ain’t the time for your tears

In the courtroom of honor, the judge pounded his gavel
To show that all’s equal and that the courts are on the level
And that the strings in the books ain’t pulled and persuaded
And that even the nobles get properly handled
Once that the cops have chased after and caught ’em
And that the ladder of law has no top and no bottom
Stared at the person who killed for no reason
Who just happened to be feelin’ that way without warnin’
And he spoke through his cloak, most deep and distinguished
And handed out strongly, for penalty and repentance
William Zanzinger with a six-month sentence
Oh, but you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears
Bury the rag deep in your face
For now’s the time for your tears

Podcasts I love

I love to be read to. I subscribe to Pseudopod, Escapepod,
and Podcastle as well as Selected Shorts. One story I loved this month was
Suddenwall by Sara Saab: http://podcastle.org/2019/02/05/podcastle-560-suddenwall/

The Selected Shorts episode Dangerously Funny was a hoot: https://www.symphonyspace.org/selected-shorts/episodes/dangerously-funny-george-saunders-carrie-brownstein-guest-host-josh-radnor-1

Don’t forget to share!

Please like and share and subscribe to my newsletter. Thank you...


Photo from Jewish wedding

“Dina, it’s time we moved to America.”

A few years ago, I stood in front of a small group of people in an attic space in the heart of Amsterdam.  I was telling the people gathered for an afternoon of storytelling about the day my six year old grandmother learned that her family was about to move to the United States. I was using her words and her rhythm of speech. My grandmother was six and was in the market with her good friend, also six, when strangers attacked the shtetl where she was born. They set angry pigs loose in the streets, killing her friend right in front of her. My grandmother was unharmed. When she returned home, her mother looked at her and said: “Dina, it’s time we moved to America.”

Any adult hearing this story immediately understands that it is a tragedy and not a comedy. Yet I was a child of six the first time I heard it, and it sounded like a joke to me. It had the rhythm of comedy. The understatement, the lack of drama, everything made it seem like a joke. The humor is what I held on to for decades. I knew there was a happy ending to all this because I was an American child with a grandmother who was funny, warm, and enduringly optimistic. I was not afraid for my life and had never experienced antisemitic violence.

In Amsterdam, however, something fundamentally changed
inside of me. The people in the attic space were all immigrants and refugees. That
hadn’t been planned. It was an accident. As I told the story, I was overwhelmed
with the pain and the trauma of the familiar words. I watched as everyone in
the room recognized themselves in the story. Their eyes filled with tears. My
voice caught in my throat and all of a sudden, I was six years old, uprooted,
traveling to an unknown destination. I was on a crowded boat, hungry and
desperate.

Immigrants arriving to Ellis Island

I started to think of that particular moment in time, when
the borders of nations were fluid and before Europe’s wars became unimaginably calamitous.
I had always joked that I was lucky to have my roots in a place where the
dangers of antisemitism were apparent early on. My relatives were lucky to have
made the journey to North America when immigration was open.

As I began contemplating this history, Europe brimmed with
stories of the “refugee crisis.” Xenophobic public figures demonized the people
fleeing their homelands. They shared pictures of young dark haired Middle
Eastern men walking together in large groups. “Where are the women?” They asked
rhetorically. “Where are the children?”

When I found some of the entry documents from my own family,
I had the opposite question: where were the men? All four of my grandparents
accompanied their mothers on the journey to America: from Lithuania, Romania,
Poland, and Austria. Think of what it must have been like for those mothers
bringing a slew of children first across Europe to a port in Hamburg or
Rotterdam, and then on the long sea journey to the US. For the first time I
realized that they left their own mothers and fathers behind, never to be seen
again. The families would have had little food, little access to sanitary
facilities, and very little fresh water. These women must have been tough and
brave and desperate.

Lucky me, to be the grandchild of the desperate.

Ellis Island waiting area.
Waiting at Ellis Island

Just a few years after the last of my grandparents arrived,
the US border would be closed. The influence of the fledgling eugenics movement
in both the United States and in Germany would increase. Jews would be seen as
mongrels, dirty, and seditious. And things would get a lot worse.

For everyone. Everyone knows this.

From Henry Ford's paper The Dearborn Independent: The International Jew: The World's Problem. May 22, 1920
An antisemitic screed in Henry Ford's newspaper

I dug deeper. It turns out that Nazi death squads and
Lithuanian collaborators marched those who remained in my grandfather’s shtetl
into the woods and shot them. Children. 
Old People. Men. Women. Everyone.

The Jerusalem of the North

Street scene from the Jewish part of Vilnius
Street scene from the Jewish part of Vilnius

Just four hours south of the shtetl was the capital of
diaspora Jewish life, Vilnius. Its population was 45% Jewish with over one
hundred synagogues and was known as the Jerusalem of the West. Its Yiddish
library was filled with over one hundred thousand texts and even included
translations of Arthur Conan Doyle. This was a culture that was alive,
thriving, and fearless well after so many of the Jews living in the countryside
had taken a chance on a new life across the ocean to the west.

Sherlock Holmes in Yiddish
Sherlock Holmes in Yiddish

I had always imagined unceasing misery, punctuated with humor,
creativity, and sarcasm. I had never imagined a life fearlessly led or a
culture so fearlessly dominant.

This made me wonder about the years before the genocide when people could not imagine what was coming because it was unimaginable. The fundamental questions I’m asking in the book I am writing are these: what would it be like to be Jewish without the Holocaust? And what does it mean to know what’s coming and to be unable to change it?

A couple of articles:

This past year I received feedback from about 30 non-Native Dutch residents about their experiences with the Dutch way of welcoming Santa. The article based on their responses was published on Global Voices: How do non-native residents of the Netherlands view Zwarte Piet, St. Nicholas’ blackface servant?

Like many of you, I was overwhelmed by the shooting at the synagogue in Pittsburgh. I had much of the same despair as when African American worshippers in Charleston were attacked.  I reread my own article, A Home Safe From Fear: My American Dream.

What I’ve been reading:

I learned so many fundamental things about what it means to be a family from Karen Joy Fowler’s book, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. It was a revelation. Please don’t find out anything about it before reading it. You’re welcome.

I also loved the Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra.

And horror stories! I'm a wimp, but I still love a good horror story. I collected some of my faves available online in this twitter thread: https://twitter.com/ETori/status/1052817649044836352

Dear Beloved by Sumita Chakraboty explores the pain of losing a sister suddenly and forever. It touched me deeply.

Podcasts, lectures, and music

Check out Jewish History Matters: Roundtable on the Attack in Pittsburgh with Lila Corwin Berman, Maja Gildin Zuckerman, and Jacob Labendz.

Rabbi Ruti Regan talks about why Judaism is so autism-friendly:
“We are a wonderfully autistic people,” she says: https://youtu.be/qocZbokOgag

Finally Nina Simone’s Pastel Blues has been on repeat this past week. What an album!

Featured photo at the top of the post from a Jewish wedding in Ushpol from the site https://www.jewishgen.org/yizkor/dusetos/dus092.html


Tradition! Tradition! Who Has the Right to Ritual

Who has the right to ritual? That’s a question my entire life is asking. Does someone who keeps kosher and the Sabbath have more of a claim on defining what is or is not Jewish than I do? Or is it enough that my bones hum with Jewish identity? Is it enough that when I was ten years old and caught a high fly ball to centerfield I thought, “Hmmm, I wonder what it would feel like to catch this ball if I wasn’t Jewish?”

The novel I am writing is filled with Jewish characters living complex lives that are both in harmony and in opposition to tradition.

In that sense, my characters are living out lives that are not all that different from others in the mid-1700s. Jewish life was changing. Recently passed laws limited land ownership and access to professions. Hasidism was on the rise. It was manifesting in diverse manners: from rule bound to mystical to imitations of royal courts. There was an explosion of new tradition and new myth-making. There was also opposition to the new ways of expressing Jewishness. Identities were formed as a result of the opposition.

What a time. Not so different from now.  Just take a look at all the ways that expression of Jewish identity is taking. It’s an exciting time to be a member of the tribe.

Writing this book, I became curious about the history of women scribes in the Jewish tradition. Women certainly copied many texts and worked on marriage certificate. The notion that a trans man might have written a Torah at some point is not out of the question. But it’s only recently that women have begun writing Torahs. There are not many of them. In this article on Tablet, Marjorie Ingall writes about “the women of the deerskin:”  a small group of women who are now writing Torahs. My favorite part of the article was when one of the women described how she sourced her own hides for the parchment:

She explained how she avoided the problems other women had in getting klaf, parchment, and supplies, which religious vendors wouldn’t sell to women. She didn’t want to send a male emissary to buy for her like the other women did; to her, it felt like starting a spiritual project on a note of inauthenticity. So she decided to tap the huge number of hunters who live near her to get skins so she could teach herself to make her own klaf. (My jaw was on the floor at this point.) “During deer season, bucks are plentiful, and where I live, everyone’s a hunter,” she said. “Skins are worthless; they just throw them in the woods. So, I put out the word that I wanted skins and I got so many. I’m impressed with the ethos of hunters; they don’t want anything to go to waste. I get all the hides I could want. I just throw them in the chest freezer in my garage and process them over the following year. That was after my kids were all, ‘Mom! You are not allowed to hang hides in the laundry room!’ ” She added serenely, “Hides do smell terrible.” *

The requirement for a hide used for the Torah is that it come from a kosher animal, not that it be ritually slaughtered. Dozens of hides are needed to create just one Torah. And kosher hunting is quite a challenge given the fact that the animal, hunted or not, needs to be ritually slaughtered in order for the meat to be considered kosher. This may account for the paucity of hunters in the Bible. There are just two: Jacob’s brother Esau and Nimrod who was a “mighty hunter…”

I’m learning all this because one of my characters is a time traveling hunter who provides hides for the writing of a Torah. Imagine a 21st century person going back to a time when the Holocaust is not a defining feature of Jewish life. That’s why she’s there, to observe a relatively peaceful time for Europe's Jewish population, even in a time of upheaval and change.

That's why I'm there too. Writing this book is as much an exploration of possibility as it is of plot. It's a ritual. It's a call to our ancestors. It's a lost path.

More...

Just to prove I think about ritual quite often: Who Has the Right to Ritual

Here’s an interview with Julie Seltzer who is a scribe (sofer) and has created a Torah for the Contemporary Jewish Museum:

https://youtu.be/a5Brbqgngrc

My friend Simon introduced me to the Emergence Magazine podcast. Breathtaking prose and big ideas. Start here: Mud and Antler Bone

Speaking of podcasts, cousin Jacob Siegel hosts a podcast with Phil Klay called Manifesto. I always feel the need to talk more about the ideas they discuss. Start anywhere: Manifesto

This past week I listened to an engaging episode of Jewish History Matters with David Biale, the co-author of Hasidism: A New History. I can't wait to read the book in case anyone wants to buy me a gift.

From the series Connecting Memories by Kamran Ashtary

My partner Kamran Ashtary has been studying the Holocaust for the past nine years. Yes, he *is* a lot of fun at parties ;-). The artwork he is creating as a result is breathtaking. Please check it out: kamranashtary.com

Are you subscribed to the newsletter?
* indicates required




Zlateh the Goat, illustration by Maurice Sendak

The Rhythm of Tragedy

When I was little I fell in love with the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer, rereading our copy of Zlateh the Goat dozens of times. Poor Zlateh was getting too old to give milk and the family that kept her was flailing financially. They needed to eat. A decision was made to sell Zlateh to the butcher so that the family could survive the winter. On the way to town a snowstorm trapped the goat and the young boy taking her to the butcher. Zlateh kept the boy warm through the storm and provided milk.

Spoiler alert: they survived the storm and turned back to the house where Zlateh lived out her life as a valued member of the family.

Don't Let Me Read Miss Understood

When I needed more stories, I reached for the adult novels of Mark Twain, Sholem Aleichem, and Isaac Bashevis Singer. I under-understood them, like so many of the other books I read as a child. I wasn’t ready for the layers of plot and emotion and character. I wasn’t ready for the way that the comic became tragic. I wasn't ready for demons that weren't harmless. What I was ready for was the rhythm of the sentences and the shape of the words. And that's what I read for.

There is a rhythm to tragedy—especially Jewish tragedy—that feels comic. It begins with a set-up and ends with a punchline. This is the way that we pass our lore through the generations and relate our horrors to children without traumatizing them. The stories are four-dimensional, beginning with humor. With time, the stories unfold, revealing a new dimension of pain and tragedy. The stories unfold again, warning of coming harm and providing hints for survival. They unfold again, and the humor feels fresh and sparkling.

The imp in the novel I am writing is desperate to warn of coming harm. But does anyone listen? Of course not. Who listens to warnings? Not even the characters in my stories listen. See:

 “We’ve had it up to here with the warnings. Everything is a warning with you. And nothing can be changed. Fires come when they come. Hunger comes when it comes. Sickness comes to the hail. We run and run and run and still Death finds us all. Who knows what to do with warnings?”

If fictional characters won't listen, who will?

An Epitaph

Everything I come across during the research for the novel makes me wish to be a small part of a big community that can make the world laugh.  On my worst days, I am afraid that humor numbs us and keeps us from acting or taking danger seriously. On those days I treat myself to a few episodes of Brooklyn 99, and then I go back to the work of trying to repair the tiniest cracks in the world. I remind myself that there are other ways to communicate and that humor renews us.

This brings me to Sholem Aleichem's grave and the epitaph he composed for himself:

Do ligt a Id a pashutier - Here lies a Jew a simple-one,
Geschrieben Idish-Daitch fur weiber - Wrote Yiddish-German (translations) for women
Un faren prosten falk hot er gewein a humorist a schreiber
- and for the regular folk, was a writer of humor
Die ganze lieben umgelozt geschlogen mit der welt kapures
-His whole life he slaughtered ritual chickens together with the crowd,
(He didn't care too much for this world)
Die ganze welt hot gutt gemacht - the whole world does good,
Un ehr - ohoy vey - gewehn oif zuress - and he, oh my, is in trouble.
Un davka de mohl gewehn der oilom hot gelacht
- but exactly when the world is laughing
gecklutched un flegg zich flehen - clapping and hitting their lap,
Dought er gekrenkt dos weis nor gott - he cries - only God knows this
Besod, az keyner zohl nit zeiyen - in secret, so no-one sees.

Oh how fortunate he was to have died before the world burned.

BTW, it's not too late to sign up for my random newsletter!
* indicates required




Big announcement: I am writing a novel

Well, it's about time, right? It's not as though I haven't wanted to write a novel since I first took pen to paper way back when I was seven years old. So what's taken me so long? Where do I even begin to answer that question? Maybe with this list:

  • I started so many novels just because I had good ideas, but they lacked heart, and I lacked the perseverance to muddle through
  • I didn't trust myself enough
  • I was never compelled to write the way others are: now the demand is greater
  • Every word I typed was like drawing blood.

So what changed? Essentially, I changed. The biggest part of me that changed was the corniest part, the part realists will laugh at, and that is this: I finally allowed my ancestors to start helping me. It's not like we hadn't been in conversation for decades. We had been. We'd been talking, quietly, since I was four.

When I was four and my great-grandmother died, my mother explained that people live on in our memories. I was a completely literal child and took that to mean that I was responsible for remembering my ancestors, even if I didn't know them. From that day on, I began a memory project with imagined ancestors. I imagined the grandfather who died when I was two as Colonel Sanders. I imagined my great-grandmother the way she was photographed in a hat and wool coat. I imagined people I knew and people I didn't. I still feel responsible for the memories of the dead and now there is a cacophony of voices in my head. It includes friends and loved ones who died of cancer and car accidents, old age and heart disease, suddenly and slowly. They all live in me. They are me.

At a low point not too long ago, I was talking to a friend who sensed that I wasn't paying attention to my ancestors. He counseled me to light a candle and ask for help. I did.

Yeah, yeah I know half of you think this is ridiculous. I used to be you and that was exactly my problem. I no longer see any value at all in denying a connection to the past or in silencing a kind of genetic memory that has been undeniably part of me since childhood. I wonder now why I did so much work to suppress my connection to the past. Who did I impress by rejecting the magic inside me? Who benefited?

I'm done with that part of my life.  And now I'm writing. I will be blogging about the process here. If you'd like to be part of the conversation, sign up for the newsletter:

* indicates required