Monthly Archives: October 2023

A Brief Primer on Jews and Israel

Here’s a little background on why many of your Jewish friends are not ok right now.

At this point, I think most people in the U.S. have heard about the monstrous, gruesome, horrific terrorist attacks in Israel that began the morning of October 7. Words cannot describe. And I know a lot of words.

I am not ok right now.

Not one of my non-Jewish friends reached out to me on Saturday. Or Sunday morning. Or Sunday afternoon. By Sunday night, after one of my sons posted something much more eloquent to the same effect, I posted the equivalent of “Why the fuck is no one reaching out or saying anything?!?” That got some response. As I’m writing this on Monday afternoon, 60-some people have put emoji reactions on my post, and 16 people have commented (12 of whom are not Jewish). 

One of the comments took me aback. It was sweet and supportive and simple and kind, but it hit me so strangely: “I’m so sorry, Abi. My heart breaks for you, your family and your country.”

My gut reaction was “WTF? I’m an American, not an Israeli!”

And then I thought for a few minutes, and I realized that the complexity of being an American Jew isn’t something that others just know, and how Israel might figure into that identity is most definitely something most non-Jews wouldn’t intrinsically understand, since it is so different and varying among Jews ourselves. And maybe this is why so many Jews have felt slapped in the face by the silence of their friends – maybe most people don’t get it and don’t want to say the “wrong thing.” The person who made the above comment out of kindness made a linguistic error that perhaps some people were afraid of making, equating being Jewish with being an Israeli. 

So here are some basics:

Jews are a religious group. Jews are an ethnicity. Jews are a people. Jews are diverse in thought, practice, religiosity, geographic roots, race, and other areas.

We are a religious group, but many of us are not at all religious. Doesn’t matter whether you observe anything religiously – if you’re born into Judaism, you’re Jewish. Once Jewish, forever Jewish, even if you converted to Judaism. 

Jews are big into symbolism. Our sabbath, our festivals, our holidays all have symbolism woven throughout. Wine, candles, spices, rams’ horns, menorahs, salt water, flat bread, braided bread, round bread, eggs, so many other foods, rituals, prayers, choreography of prayers, so much more – it’s all about the symbolism. 

The central text of Biblical Judaism is the Torah – the five books of Moses, along with the books of Prophets and Writings (taken together to be “The Old Testament” by those who include “The New Testament” in the “Bible”). There are religious folks who see the words in the Torah as the word of God, some who see it as the word of God as interpreted by men – “divinely inspired.” I see the words in these books as stories written long ago to transmit what was previously oral history, to serve as allegory, and to convey frameworks for what was seen at that time to be a just society.

“Israel” is the Jewish biblical homeland. It is spoken of throughout the Torah. It is a central part of Jewish liturgy (prayers) – the ancestral homeland, and Jews are “the people of Israel.” The biblical character of Abraham (the “father” of Judaism) had a son, Isaac, who had two sons: Jacob and Esau. Jacob later became known as Israel, and Jews (who descended from him) became known as the “children of Israel.” 

Israel is also a current country that received its official status as an independent country in 1948. It is the world’s only Jewish country, and contains between a third and a half of the world’s Jewish population. Israel is about the geographic size of New Jersey and has a population of about nine million people, seven million of whom are Jewish. Any Jew in the world has a right to move to and become a citizen of Israel, but non-Israeli Jews are not citizens of Israel unless they move there and apply for citizenship. 

There are very few Jews in the world, relatively speaking – like 16 million or so. For perspective, there are about 2.3 billion Christians, 1.9 billion Muslims, 1.1 billion Hindus. About half of the world’s Jews live in the United States. 

Jews have been lethally persecuted throughout history. Most adults in the U.S. know about the Holocaust, but there’s also a long history of oppression and of pogroms targeting Jews throughout eastern Europe and the Middle East. Antisemitism runs deep and it runs strong. It may wear a swastika, but it frequently doesn’t.

There is intense antisemitism in the Middle East. It is not hidden. Hamas’ charter spells out very clearly its hatred of Jews and its goal to annihilate us. Saturday’s barbaric attacks make clear that their charter is not rhetoric. 

Hamas has the backing and support of Iran. Iran also has its proxies in Lebanon (Hezbollah) with an arsenal of 130,000 rockets, dozens or more of which are precision guided.

Please look again at the population numbers above. And pull up Google maps and scroll over to the Middle East. Then look at the descriptions of what the Hamas terrorists did and proudly documented in photos and videos. Mass executions. Torture. Rape. Think about the viciousness and violence and targeting of Jews, the parading of Jews’ dead, naked bodies in the streets, surrounded by celebration. Think about the pictures posted by the murderers on social media of the bodies of their victims for their victims’ parents and families to see. 

That is hatred. That is barbarism. That is monstrosity. That is “antisemitism” taken to its conclusion.

Take a look at the celebratory rallies going on now.

Think about the population numbers.

There are only 16 million of us in the world. Seven million of us are in Israel, in a New Jersey-sized strip of land.

Think about Hamas’ proudly displayed photos and videos again. Think again about the people gleefully celebrating.

Think about who was targeted. Think about how they were targeted. Think about how their corpses were treated and displayed.

Look again at the celebrations.

Now think about that line I threw out earlier: Antisemitism runs deep and it runs strong. Well, it also runs wide.

And now look very closely at where there are celebrations and who is celebrating.

Jews know that the uptick in violence against Jews in their own countries will begin again. It always does.

So. Jews and Israel.

It’s not “my country.” But it’s my people. It’s my family. It’s me. 

I am not ok. We are not ok. Please say something.

A Man of Words

I’m sitting down to write this less than an hour-and-a-half before a funeral begins. The man being honored, remembered, mourned, is a dear friend of my husband’s family, one of those friends that’s like family. He was an English professor at the university where my father-in-law taught chemistry. He wrote plays. He created puzzles and games.

So many games! They were published in Games magazine, but what I loved was when we’d stop by and he’d excitedly run out of the room and run back in and hand us copies of his latest creations for us to try. 

The games and puzzles were fun, but what took them to another level was the enthusiasm with which he shared them. He loved seeing the “Aha moments” when we got the wordplay or the twist. It was that intellectual connection, that meeting-of-the-minds in an unexpected, unconventional way. He remembered the unusual, the quirky – he would always bring up a line my eldest child had uttered as a very young child, seemingly randomly, about a certain professional sports team not being his favorite. I’ve forgotten the specific line, but this man remembered it verbatim, decades later, because of his fascination with words and with thought processes, and he related to people through those patterns and networks and logic.

Which is why Parkinson’s, and specifically his manifestation of progression of the disease, was so particularly cruel.

As the disease degraded his neural connections, it progressively severed his specific way of connecting with the world. 

His wife is someone who projects strength and models dealing with things as they are. She doesn’t sugar-coat, and she optimizes what she can. When he was no longer able to cover his end of conversations, she was still covering hers. He was never alone.

The fucked-uppedness of neurodegenerative disease juxtaposed with the magnificence of the good side of humanity. Such a twist. Such a puzzle.

Life is certainly not fair. Which is what my family-friend-in-law saw and appreciated so clearly. What you would think should happen, what you would think should follow, frequently doesn’t. There are bends and convolutions in the arc of existence that can leave you confused, begging for an answer. He appreciated the struggle of the search. His wife and family continue the game, even if not knowing the whys, figuring out the hows. 

Sending all who knew this man of so many words a wordless hug. May his memory ever be a source of laughter and connection.