Congress, Culture, and a New Year’s Resolution

American religion has been in the news lately, specifically regarding federal partisan politics: we’ve seen stories about Democrats’ “religion problem” (as code for a problem with middle-American white Christianity), Congress’ increasing religious diversity but stable amount of Christian members, and just yesterday, an explanation for the latter phenomenon: the complex place of religiously unaffiliated voters within American religious politics.

It’s the last story that I’m interested in. The author is seeking to explain the “demographic mismatch between Congress and the rest of the country” – specifically, the underrepresentation of the “religiously unaffiliated”, who make up 23% of the country but are only represented by one religiously unaffiliated member of Congress.

The explanations for this are sensible and coherent: that religiously unaffiliated Americans tend to be young and therefore rarely vote; that they aren’t a demographically coherent group – they’re made up of atheists and agnostics, but also converts-in-progress, people in mixed-faith homes, and people who just don’t care very much about their religious identity – and are therefore unlikely to organize with each other; that it’s also difficult to organize based on a lack of identity, an unaffiliation.

It is these factors, the author suggests, which keep Congress’ religious demographics standing as they do – and if religiously unaffiliated voters are dissatisfied with the current state of affairs, “they can vote”.

The article is an excellent exploration of why the religiously unaffiliated are unlikely to be specifically represented in Congress. However, it does not explore what seems to me to be the more pertinent question: why this 23% of unaffiliated Americans should be almost universally represented by Christian members of Congress, instead of members of a variety of faiths.

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A Collection of Images and Sensations, In Order

Fall in Oakland meant the arrival of two things.

The first was a religious ceremony: Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. I would roll black tights with long runs in them up my pale legs, pull on a blouse the color of salmon, and along with my brother in his khakis and last year’s too-small button-down shirt, climb into the stuffy darkness of the car. We’d follow the click, click, click of my parents’ shining shoes down the sparkling pavement to the Paramount Theater. It would be late – or late for children; the September or October wind would bite at my cheeks, my arms. When I was small enough that I didn’t know what goosebumps were, that was where I learned – hurrying after my mother’s quick stride, watching my legs pebble pink under the sheer grey of my tights.

The other was a tradition that my parents had helped begin, and something that I assumed quite casually every block in every neighborhood in every city in America did until I was almost thirteen. It was a block party – a large block party, with nearly every house on both sides of the street bringing out food, setting up volleyball nets, filling water balloons, calling their friends and their children’s friends and their children’s friends parents to come and talk and laugh in the street. This, too, was a place of unexpected pain: I’d walk barefoot down the middle of the road, sharp rocks and the heat of the pavement pricking the soles of my feet. My sandals would be back at the house, just by the door. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t want to go and fetch them.

Where most of my childhood memories I see as through some sort of haze – a contextless image of an enormous redwood stump that surfaces whenever someone says camping, a bloom of preteen recognition at the smell of a particular brand of shaving cream, the vague and gently unsatisfying nostalgia of rereading Where the Wild Things Are – these are never blurred, never out of focus. I know, if you ask me, whose driveway would have a collection of mini-pumpkins waiting to be painted in anticipation of Halloween, and where the fire truck would come in just before the sun began to sink low in the sky; I know the exact shade and texture of the chairs in the Paramount Theater, how they felt when I wore velvet, how they felt when I wore cotton. I know how the apples they gave the children on Rosh Hashanah mornings tasted, crumbly and left-out-too-long, and I can sing the Hamotzi in the same voice I sang it as a child: hamotzi lechem min haaretz, we give thanks to God for bread. I know the slap my flip-flops made as I jogged through the aftermath of the water balloon fight, and the way my wet T-shirt felt on my shoulders and my stomach.

The block party was almost always after Rosh Hashanah, unless Rosh Hashanah came very late in the year. There was no danger of them being on the same day – though it was not true, as I assumed as a child, that everyone celebrated the Jewish holidays, there were certainly more Jewish families on the block than just our own – and besides, it wouldn’t be a block party without Yaron, our Israeli neighbor, cooking falafel.

It was a strange thing, though, that no matter how early Rosh Hashanah came, no matter how late we held the block party, the latter would be warm and the former cold. Oakland would fill up with fog and rain and cold winds for Rosh Hashanah, and on the day of the block party give us a perfect, golden afternoon.

Summer always did last longer in California than it did anywhere else. It was as if the sun, crossing from east to west around the planet, hung on a little harder to my little corner of the northwest – as if, even as the leaves turned brown and gathered in whispering piles on the pavement, the warm gold in the air and snapping blue of the sky that made the rest of America think of June and July came there when it was done with the East and the Midwest, and spread itself over October like a cat over a blanket.

Rosh Hashanah marks the end of the growing season. The prayers for its companion holiday, Yom Kippur, read, on Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: who shall live and who shall die, who shall die at his time and who before his time, who by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by beast… It is, in a more modern image, the moment when the Jewish people hand in our test to the teacher and wait, breathless, for the grade. It is the day when there is nothing more to be done for the crops, for the fields, for the harvest; it is the day when you put down the year, dust yourself off, and stand back to take a long look at what you’ve done.

It’s perhaps right, then, that fall should be a time of memory for me.

Fourth of July

The woman I was named after saw her family killed when she was twenty-four years old.

I think about her sometimes. She was born almost exactly one hundred years before I was, give or take a week; she was the daughter of a rabbi and a woman who owned a button shop; she lived in a town in what was then Russia and is now Ukraine. Her name was Chana Leah Rabin, and then Chana Greenstein of Proskurov, and then Anna Greenstein of Iowa.

Her name has survived. Proskurov’s hasn’t; it was renamed in 1954 to Khmelnytskyi, or Khmelnitsky, or Chmielnicki, depending on whether you speak Ukranian or Russian or Polish. Later, long after the woman I was named after left, it was invaded by the Germans. 5300 of its Jews were, upon invasion, shot by an Einsatzgruppe. The remainder were forced into a ghetto and subjected to forced labor, before being murdered almost a year later. It is likely that this group of Jews contained whoever was left of her family.

The reason the woman I was named after left Proskurov is because her father, the rabbi, had been shot and killed on Shabbat morning in February 1919. My mother says he was in shul at the time.

The Cossacks who killed him also killed her husband’s sister, and their child. The reason this is important is because her husband’s sister’s husband had been in America for years, saving up for the money to buy tickets for his family to come and join him.

When the Cossacks killed them, Chana inherited their tickets.

I know, logically, that Chana was likely not the one who made the decision to come to America. I know that it was likely more the decision of her husband, my great-grandfather; I know that they likely came because the tickets were already there, more than for any other reason; I know, I know, I know.

But there is still some part of me that is quite sure in my heart that the woman I was named after agonized over where to go, now that Proskurov was not safe and could never be safe again. Her cousin Yitzhak’s family had already gone to Palestine, another settler in the Holy Land; other Jews were flooding to England, to France, to Cuba. God knows there was antisemitism in those places, but God knows there was antisemitism in America too: colleges were attempting to establish quotas for the number of Jews they accepted, in 1913 a Jewish man named Leo Frank had been lynched, the Ku Klux Klan was rising. Jews were called traitorous Bolsheviks and greedy capitalists. Henry Ford, who is even today an American hero, was saying, “I believe that in [Germany, France, and England] the Jewish financier is supreme… here the Jew is a threat.”

And yet we came to America.

And yet we came to America, and yet we settled in America, and yet we made a home in America, as much as anyone can make a home in this stolen and merciless and beautiful country, and as much as we Jews can make a home anywhere. And yet we spread from Iowa to California to Illinois to New York, and built farms, and raised our children, and sent them to American public school and university and beyond.

The woman I was named after chose this country over all others. Over countries with history; over countries with holiness. And perhaps it’s silly to think she and I have anything in common besides a name, a name and birthdays almost exactly a century apart; perhaps it’s silly to imagine that she came to America out of anything other than convenience. Perhaps it’s silly to still, even after ninety-six years in America, think of my family as immigrants.

Sometimes I walk down to the southern tip of Manhattan, where the East River meets the Hudson. There’s a poem, written by a Jewish girl who was born and died on this island; she called the statue you can see from there the New Colossus, but she might have called it the Golem.

I remember, at one of my cousins’ B’nei Mitzvot a few years ago, a younger cousin talking to me about what she’d been learning in Hebrew School. “They’re asking us,” she said to me, “whether we’re Jewish Americans or American Jews.”

I was surprised, for a long moment – I didn’t understand the question. “What’s the difference?” I said.

“Well,” she said, “being a Jewish American means you identify-”

“No,” I said, “not Jewish American and American Jew. Jewish and American. What’s the difference?”

Well Hey At Least I’m In New York Again

It has been a week.

Various major world leaders gathered in Paris to stand in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo, which is interesting, since most of those world leaders are well-known for prosecuting journalists and the free press. President Obama was not one of the world leaders who went to Paris, which is a shame, but given that in the United States is ranked 46th in the Press Freedom Index (13 places below the UK, a government which recently sent agents into the offices of the Guardian and forced them to destroy files they were using to report on NSA and GCHQ abuses. We are also below Romania, South Africa, Australia of “censoring the Internet” fame, and quite a lot of post-Soviet countries, for the record) this may be for the best wrt: hypocrisy.

David Cameron returned from Paris and promptly announced that he would like to ban encryption, because UK citizens being able to communicate without their government being able to see what they say will allow the “fanatical death cult of Islamist extremist violence” to take over the world. However, he does not want to raise the terrorism threat level from “severe” to “critical”; that would be an overreaction.

The Oscar nominations are the whitest they have been since 1998.


Fred Armisen of Portlandia, Brie Larson of Short Term 12, Gerard Way of My Chemical Romance, Andy Samberg of Brooklyn 99, Natasha Lyonne of Orange is the New Black, Ellen Page of my lesbian dreams, and various other people who I love very deeply have all come together in the name of Sleater-Kinney, which I think is a cause we can all rally behind.

The video is below; here’s hoping it brightens up your day as much as it brightened up mine.

This Week Has Been Full of Torture, Police Brutality, and Snow

The CIA torture report was released on Wednesday.

I remember, in high school, taking a class on American history with a boy who planned to join the Army. He was incredibly, painfully patriotic, in the kind of way our little liberal Bay Area town rarely saw – he defended the Iraq War, he called America the greatest country in the world completely without irony, he wore an American flag to school the morning after Osama bin Laden was killed. I must have gotten in a hundred different arguments with him over my high school career; they were, ultimately, the best arguments I’ve ever had, and I certainly think we both learned a lot from each other.

The moment I’m thinking of- it was January, I think. We were slogging through the nineteenth century; we had just finished with the Civil War, and everything was railroads and robber barons, financial panics and forgettable presidents.

And the United States’ policy towards Native Americans.

And I don’t remember what it was; I don’t remember what we were reading or why we were reading it. I just remember this boy in my class looking at me from over his textbook and saying, slowly and sort of painfully, “This is the first time I’ve ever been ashamed of America.”

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The United States of America

I don’t have anything to say that’ll make this horrific week make sense. I can’t tell you that riots are justified, or that riots are evil, or that the testimony is true, or that the testimony is false. I can’t tell you anything besides that a kid is dead.

I’m back in Oakland for Thanksgiving, which I’m spending with my family. On Monday and Tuesday nights, before I left, I went to the protests in New York; I marched with the protesters up Seventh Avenue to Times Square, and down Broadway to City Hall and the World Trade Center and, finally, to the highway that runs up along the west side of Manhattan.

Out of all of those, it was the march along the highway that struck me the most. People driving home, people trying to get places- I thought they’d be angry at us. They weren’t. The drivers were smiling; some of them honked along in rhythm to our chanting.

Show me what democracy looks like, someone shouted; this is what democracy looks like, we called back.

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My Mother is the Republic

It’s spring today.

It’s been a strange few months. Tuesday the 20th will mark the end of my freshman year of college — an exciting one, and a thought-provoking one, and ultimately, I think, a good one. There’ll be time for reflections and memoirs. I don’t want to do that now.

For now, it’s spring. Washington Square Park is a riot of greenery. The sun is lighting up the edges of the world, turning my notebook into gold and bringing the leaves’ shadows dancing along the grass towards my hands, and I feel — as I usually feel, when the seasons change in New York —  as if I have been granted an incredible privilege, to witness something enormously and unspeakably good.

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