aria: (Default)
valinor spider party ([personal profile] aria) wrote2017-01-25 04:04 pm

punch more nazis

Dusting off Dreamwidth because I actually have a longform post! Here, I'm feeling helpless and sad this week in the face of current politics, so I wrote up a bunch of feelings about being Jewish American! Idk idk have some navel-gazing.

I don't remember learning I was Jewish. I also don't remember learning how to read. What I do remember are those moments when I slotted what I knew into context: in kindergarten, my teacher taught us about -ing, and suddenly whole vistas of words twice the length of themselves before -ing opened up before me. It must have been around the same time when my mother read me All-Of-A-Kind Family, which taught me about early 20th century New York, about Seders and Passover and sukkahs, and I learned that these things belonged to me.

I must have learned about the Holocaust at around the same time, I suspect from Number the Stars. I remember thinking to myself, it's a good thing I have blonde hair. I have brown eyes, but lots of people have brown eyes. If they ever came for me, I could probably lie, I could probably be safe, I don't look Jewish.

I imagine lots of people make these calculations. Six years old, how do I stay safe, how do I love the things that are mine. There were whole years I didn't make that particular calculation, because for every time I see someone in the news or on the internet hauling out that old Jews run the media/control the country conspiracy chestnut, there are five kids I meet with the exact same story I have, of an identity settled into their bones piecemeal, by at least one parent who wanted them to know their history and probably another who didn't bother to teach them. So many people I know are Jewish, subtly, knowing it for themselves without advertising it. I wonder how many of the parents who didn't teach them, like mine, were the Jewish one. I wonder how many of those are because of that calculation: I could pretend to be something else; I could tell my children nothing, and they wouldn't have to pretend.

Now I have other calculations, too: who I can hold hands with where. What's safe. What I can wear and still hide. More and more I have rising inside me a desire not to: in an ideal world I want to have a flat chest and bright red lipstick and the print of the Doc Martens I don't yet own fucking imprinted on some Nazi's face.

What I know about my Jewish family only goes back a couple generations. I know my great-granddad was first-generation American, grew up in New Jersey, ran away to the big city when he was twelve. I don't know where he met my great-grandma, but she was Jewish too. I know my other great-grandma's husband left her to go teach in some Southeast Asian country that got embroiled in civil war and he was never heard from again, leaving my great-grandma to raise my grandpa alone. I don't know where she came from, or if my grandpa's last name is hers or his vanished father's. Somewhere in all this, I know before them were the people who left Eastern Europe -- Russia, Poland, Germany, all the borders vague with history -- to escape the Pogroms. I know how lucky they all were. I don't know how much family they left behind. I don't think my dad does either.

My grandpa is friends with an old woman who lives in Manhattan. I don't know how he knows her, especially since he's spent most of his life in Los Angeles, but he and his girlfriend seem to know all the New York Jews their age. The old woman's name is Magda. She's from Poland too, but she didn't come to America until the 1970s. Maybe it's obvious where this is going.

One afternoon we were debating where to go for dinner -- my parents, my grandpa, his girlfriend, Magda. We were all thinking Italian, but my grandpa's girlfriend was hesitant, because she didn't want to be tempted by good desserts while she was watching her figure. Magda interjected with, "I wouldn't do that. There was never enough to eat in the camps, so I always eat as much as I want."

I don't know if there's a lesson here; or if there is, it's whatever I want it to be. It might be: you only live once, you might as well do what makes you happy. I think that's what I took away then. But the world is different now, and when I think of Magda, I think: the world is going to try to kill you, and if you waste it on worrying about your figure, you're not using that energy to eat some fucking cake and take the world on.

The day we did our Holocaust unit in the WWII section of World History my sophomore year of high school, I was fortunate enough to have it double block, last period. I was fortunate enough to have a history teacher who cared deeply for his subject matter and taught well. I took careful notes, the way I did on all that teacher's lectures. I dropped my things off in my locker. I went into the high school's common space and sat on a couch, waiting for all my friends to leave class so we could meet up and go to our after-school creative writing hour with my favorite English teacher. I waited, and I felt shaky. One of my friends came in, saw the look on my face, asked me what was wrong. I started crying -- sobbing -- and couldn't stop for the next twenty minutes.

At the time, I think I remember stammering something about how silly it was -- it wasn't me, my family got away, why was I taking this so personally, while my friends and my favorite English teacher told me it was okay, it was a human response, they loved me. Now I look back and I wonder whether I was the only one in that class who felt so rattled afterwards, so weighed down with tragedy, that I cried. I also wonder, if I was the only one, why.

A few years ago, when X-Men: First Class came out, I hated the way that movie wrote Magneto. The crux of the problem is the scene of his final showdown with mutant Nazi Kevin Bacon, wherein he admits that he basically agrees with Nazi Kevin Bacon's genocide-of-humans aims, but he still has to kill Nazi Kevin Bacon because Bacon murdered his mom. What a fucking violent stupid misunderstanding of Magneto's entire character -- how dare that movie pretend that Magneto is ever going to be consciously on the same moral page as a man who tortured and experimented on him at a concentration camp. I remember trying to explain this frustration and horror to the teenage sister of the woman I was dating at the time. "It's not about his mother," I think I said, "it's about the entire atrocity that was committed on him and his family and his people."

"Maybe," this well-meaning teenager replied, "the movie made revenge for his mother's death the reason because that way everyone can relate to what he's going through."

"If they have to make it personal because people can't understand why the Holocaust was horrible," I said, "we have much bigger problems."

We do; I mean, of course we do, I've been in superhero fandom for half a decade. I was also frustrated when the villains of Winter Soldier turned out to be cartoon Nazis instead of the worst impulses of your own government. (Funny how that goes.) I really hate Hydra because I'm really fucking tired of Nazis as a shorthand for evil divorced of any context for what, exactly, is actually evil about them. By the time Age of Ultron came out and I saw that it was going to feature Wanda and Pietro Maximoff, entirely stripped of their Jewish-Romani identity and then experimented on by, essentially, a fictional Nazi science division, mostly what I felt was tired.

That's a goddamn lie, though. Typing up all the exhausting ways in which fiction -- fiction that I really love, or really want to love -- uses the Holocaust and Nazis as set dressing, casual outlines of horror without any empathy for the horror itself, I don't feel tired. I feel really fucking angry.

Being disconnected from my own culture by my disinterested father by his parents who had raised him young and distant by their parents who had tried so hard and so successfully to assimilate and become good Americans, I want to make all the holy days have the meanings I might give them. So far, Purim has been easy -- get together with all your Jewish friends, and your nice goy friends who want to humor you, dress up and drink and yell celebratorily about Esther -- and Yom Kippur has been impossible, because I don't know how to fast in a way that's meaningful rather than just hangry. An old friend, a gentile Jewish studies major, has held earnest Passover Cedars attended by other polite friends; that, I want to try again with other Jewish friends in the same boat, groping towards meaning and community.

I did Hanukkah this year, though not as a substitute for Christmas; there was never any need for a consolation holiday, when we already did Christmas in my family as a pagan holiday of light. I did Hanukkah this year as a reminder of resilience: light a candle every day. Look, it lasted. Look, we lasted. Look, if we have to do this every day for the next eight years, your weird stubborn bloodthirsty ancestors did the same in their last sacred space, and they made it.

I think what I'm trying to say is, punch more Nazis.

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