In a strange land

This week marks the time when the United States goes back to being The Stupid Country after a blessed eight-year reprieve. Two other things are happening: my grandfather’s yahrzeit, and a trip to Berlin.

My grandfather died when I was 19, so it has been some time, but I’m not sure what he’d make of the state of the country right now. The USA was very good to him. The first generation in his family to break into the middle class, in later life – through government work, at that – he survived polio, became a homeowner, saw my father graduate law school, and became a zaydie to me, my brother, and my cousins. The American dream, cliché as it is, actually became real for him. I know I’m incredibly lucky to have even known my grandparents, because history could have treated the Jewish half of my family so much differently.

When I was sitting in the educational session for Ashkenazi genetic screening at Montefiore a year ago, the woman next to me said she had no idea whether there was a history of breast or ovarian cancer among the women in her family because all her grandmothers and great-aunts died in the Holocaust. But my grandparents were the lucky ones in the United States while so many others, stuck back in Poland or elsewhere, were herded off to their deaths. For the added WTF-factor, the non-Jewish side of my family comes from Oswiecim in Poland, a town just west of Krakow. You probably haven’t heard of Oswiecim and I don’t think you’ll have much luck pronouncing it in Polish on the first try, but I’m sure you know it by the German name of the death camp the Nazis built there: Auschwitz.

So, yeah, I admit to having had a certain wariness about Germany when I was younger. It was the country of Beethoven and Bach, whose works I diligently learned on piano; of Kant (who I skimmed through for school) and Max Weber (who I actually wanted to read); but it was also the country that seemed to have let all that wealth of talent and genius warp its collective mind into the most twisted of ideologies, culminating in an attempt to wipe from the face of the Earth both ethnic groups that went into creating me. History seemed straightforward: a nation of people who had an admirable past, who thought they were so great, failed to cope with a changing world that knocked them off their pedestal, and ended up nearly destroying the world as a result. In a very cracked nutshell, that’s how it always looked. (And it sounds awfully familiar now that it’s happening in my own backyard.)

Germany hangs a strange shadow over many Jews of my generation. Growing up, I associated the country with the wholesale, indiscriminate destruction of all that was good in humanity, and I figured I didn’t owe them anything, let alone sympathy. It’s hard to read about the wall and the supposed spirit of people in East Berlin yearning for freedom when the question rolling around the back of your mind is, Where the hell was that yearning a few decades earlier, when your Jewish neighbors were being persecuted, disenfranchised, gassed? You couldn’t be bothered standing up for the defenseless when they were people like me.

Of course, we know it’s not that straightforward. Many Germans, at tremendous personal risk to themselves, fought back against the Nazis and/or protected Jews. We know all about Schindler, all about Hans and Sophie Scholl and the White Rose. We also know that while time doesn’t necessarily heal, it also doesn’t confer guilt upon those who weren’t born, whose parents weren’t born, when the atrocities took place. Guilt is not a mutated gene; it doesn’t pass through generations. Of course I wouldn’t blame today’s Germans for what happened 70, 80 years ago any more than I would expect someone to blame me for the sins committed by white Americans generations before we left Eastern Europe…! Guilt is the most useless of emotions, and in an attempt to not waste any more of my life with it, I decided there’s no way in hell anybody is going to ever make me feel guilt for anything I haven’t personally done. It would be the height of hypocrisy to insist on a different standard for other people.

What time does afford is an opportunity for reflection and for atonement – and more amazingly, for renewal. I began reading a few years ago about the revival of Jewish life in Berlin (and of the bizarre case of how young Israelis now flock there to work in creative industries in a fun city with cheap rent, when in many cases their grandparents did everything they could to get the hell out). There are congregations gathering, sometimes without synagogues of their own but with enough people to form a minyan. All this is a testament to how cities are places of constant change and constant potential, belonging to nobody in particular, and such is their strength and allure. Berlin, cursed with a wealth of history, has built a Jewish Museum and a Holocaust memorial. They have shown they are at no risk of forgetting what was done in the name of their country, by a government that came to power through its citizens and democratic institutions, and that is all I could ever ask. Germany has, as much as it is possible to even do this, atoned for the twentieth century.

And now here we are, sitting in the United States, watching our country fail to remember everything we said we would never forget, poised to do everything we said we would never do because we were a different country, a different people, we had learned, we knew better, didn’t we? How easy it was, as a child reading history books, to think all those Germans should have known better, they should have seen it coming, they should have done something, and obviously they hadn’t, so they must have overwhelmingly agreed with the Nazis, right? How easy it was to think that the dissenters were so tiny a minority as to only be visible when their actions crossed into outright heroism. How simple it was to think that resistance in the face of an instant death penalty could be, well, simple. That if you believed something, it would be easy enough to turn it into action.

I’ve tried to avoid hyperbole since the shock of November 8th, because 1) Panic is never beneficial in an emergency, and 2) I still have confidence that American institutions are strong enough, and the resistance to Trump mainstream and widespread enough, that no, he is not going to become the next Hitler. If I’m naïve or wrong then I’ll eat my words at a later date, but in all honesty, I don’t think we’re in the final days of the Weimar Republic as I sit typing in Manhattan. But what I do know is that for the next four years, the United States will be represented in front of the entire world by a petty authoritarian who didn’t even win the popular vote – yet the world will stare back at my passport and silently think, you wanted this.

I decided to go to Berlin over the Inauguration weekend because I wanted to learn from the past. I wanted to see how a country came to terms with the horrific actions it committed, and how it made constructive lessons of the past. I hope I won’t someday see my children having to apply those lessons in the United States. I will stay away from the media on Friday. I will go someplace in the city far from any television that might be broadcasting the proceedings so that I won’t have to see someone who glorifies ignorance and stupidity ascending to lead the country that once let my grandfather prosper by merit, not blood. I will take a stone from New York City and leave it on one of the plinths of the Holocaust Memorial, as is our custom at gravesites, for those who have nobody to observe yahrzeit for them. And then I will live my life as I want it, because I am lucky that I can.

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On (Ethnic) Beauty

Despite all the gains women have made in education and careers, there is still the perception that smart women can’t be very beautiful and beautiful women are not that smart. Furthermore, smart women aren’t supposed to worry about how they look. We’re supposed to be above such silly insecurities. We should not obsess about our physical flaws. We should be confident enough to shrug off criticism about our appearance. Well, no, it doesn’t work like that, because cerebral women are still human. We are not different creatures. We just so happen to have the same insecurities as everybody else.

Mine? Mine deal with my hair. I have long hated my hair. When you think of the typical Jewish woman, chances are your mental image includes the blessing of plenty of thick, dark hair. My grandmother on my Jewish side got it. My brother got loads of thick straight hair, and he doesn’t appreciate it AT ALL. But me? Nah, I got my hair from the non-Jewish Polish side. It’s thin, it’s lank, it’s so greasy that there is no way I can go without washing it every day. And, inexplicably, so many Jewish women I know with typical “Jewish” hair hate it! I don’t understand. What’s not to like? Volume, texture, everything I don’t have and never will without dropping a few grand on extensions, which I never will because that’s an entire other ethical can of worms. I see other Jewish women, and I think: IF YOU HATE IT SO MUCH, GIVE ME HALF YOUR HAIR. I will put it to good use. When I was younger, it felt unfair to me, in a way: I’m as Jewish as all those other girls (well, if you go by blood I’m not, but that’s the tricky thing about “Jewish” being both an ethnicity and a religion, and I have a big problem with people who hold fast to the definition of Jewish as being solely through matrilineal descent; specifically, they can tell it to my product-of-intermarriage tuchas), so why can’t I have a yard of glossy tresses like they do? Big upset in that battle in the gene pool, bro.

Eventually, I had to learn how to make my hair work for me. When I was 14 I got my first pixie cut, and with the exception of a few hopeful but ultimately fruitless experiments since then, I haven’t looked back. I’ve learned to embrace having hair short enough to ruffle up, spike, and spray into anti-gravity loveliness. In San Francisco, a Polish man who knew what to do with the little I have on my head cut my hair in ways that made it look as big as possible. So I’ll never have that long, luxurious hair that magazines tell us men prefer – and yes, like every other woman, I have days when I feel ugly and unfeminine, and there are people out there who do think my hair looks ugly and unfeminine – but over the years, I’ve become more and more comfortable like that, because I made the choice to keep it short. Yes, as a teenager it did bother me when I would be referred to as “her with the lesbian haircut,” but quite frankly I don’t care about that anymore. Anybody who thinks they know anything about my sexual orientation because of what I do with some dead cells atop my head is too stupid to be worthy of my time – that’s all there is to it. Funny enough, having lived in both countries, I have found there to be a huge divide between the US and the UK with regard to women having short hair; specifically, more women in the latter embrace it and love it and are confident enough to make it theirs. In America, it’s strange that when Jennifer Lawrence or Lena Dunham chop their hair short, it’s cute and stylish, but when a regular girl does it, it’s butch. Now, I’m never going to be a movie or TV star, but I am happy with hair that’s a little different. I can do so much more with my hair when it’s short, and it’s simply more flattering than long hair on me. Seriously, if it grows down my shoulders, my ears poke through and it hangs in strings. Why would I deliberately look worse than I do now just because women are “supposed” to have long hair? Get out of here. 

Hair is relatively easy. Specifically, it grows. If you hate one cut, you wait a few months so that you have something to work with and then you change it up. But your bone structure doesn’t change unless you take more drastic action. And that’s where we get to my nose. It definitely comes from my Jewish side. It’s big. I know it’s big. You don’t need to tell me it’s big – but for some reason, people do. I guess they think I don’t own a mirror, and that I have somehow gone through nearly three decades of life without noticing that I’m probably close to two standard deviations above the mean in that department. How very kind of them to inform me.

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Yes, there’s a solution plenty of Jewish women have turned to: cosmetic surgery. And the thought of it turns my stomach, not just because I’ve seen how it is done and the idea of someone going up through my nostrils to shave away bone makes me want to never, ever stand within ten feet of a scalpel ever again. The way I see it, if I got a nose job, it would be a betrayal. It would be a total denial of my background, of my ancestry. It would be an acknowledgement that all the people who say that ethnic is ugly are somehow right. My nose functions perfectly well the way it is. I mean, I can breathe through it. That’s its purpose. And if it works fine, if there’s nothing wrong with it, then why would it need surgery? It doesn’t.

There are some people who think a perfectly healthy nose is wrong. Those people have put countless children of plastic surgeons through very expensive educations. For some reason, plenty of otherwise intelligent women think that beauty has to involve pain, and, as if they’re saints suffering righteously for a higher cause, voluntarily put themselves into situations where they are cut and stitched and left bruised and bloody. This is madness. Anything involving anesthesia is A Big Deal. Any procedure where you have permanent alterations made to the one body you have should be done for a hell of a good reason, and I don’t consider “I don’t like my ethnic-looking facial features” to be a good reason. Every Jewish girl who gets rhinoplasty is playing right into the idea that we’re not good-looking just the way we are, and that we need to spend big money being “fixed” because we are somehow wrong by default. I refuse to play into that way of thinking. I will not be a pawn for people who think Jewish women are a target market for permanent alteration and that we need such alteration to be truly comfortable in our own skins.

Perhaps it makes me a horrible traitor to the current definition of feminism, but I am anti-boob job (and trust me, I’ve had plenty of people make fun of my small chest by insinuating there’s something deeply unfeminine about it) for the same reason I’m anti-most-cosmetic-surgery: performing major surgery on a perfectly healthy body makes no sense to me. I don’t think you’re a bad person if you get implants, and if your nose is stressing you out so badly that your mental health truly suffers then you have every right to do what you want with your body. But there is something very, very sinister to me about how perfectly normal body parts get pathologized, especially when there are ethnic implications to your nose or eyes or body type. At Columbia, I took a sociology of gender course that just so happened to be held at the all-women college counterpart, Barnard. That course was a barrel of laughs for a variety of reasons, but one particular episode I remember involved how the professor seemed to think that state-sponsored rhinoplasty for North African girls in the Netherlands (I think it was the Netherlands, don’t quote me on that) who were upset about their noses looking too “ethnic” was a wonderful thing. Yeah, forgive me for killing the new empowerment buzz, but how about focusing on racism being the problem, not the ethnic facial features themselves? Isn’t there a huge societal problem if these girls feel their noses are so wrong in European society that permanently altering them is the only way forward? I am not drinking the Kool-Aid if it means believing that woman are empowered because we can pay thousands of dollars to have somebody permanently alter perfectly healthy body parts. (None of this applies to plastic surgery to restore what your appearance used to be – like reconstructive surgery after cancer or an accident.)

I won’t criticise her for it, because I don’t have to live in the public eye the way she does, but I was disappointed to hear that Rebecca Adlington, double gold medalist and arguably the greatest British swimmer of all time (but not Jewish, I should mention), may have had a nose job. It means that people bothered her about her nose so much that she couldn’t shrug it off anymore. And now, of course, the press has to talk about her cosmetic surgery, making her nose into an issue again. Shame on Matthew Norman, who, in commenting, “Good for her” for having “the sense to buy a little artifice,” reinforces the idea that the problem is what’s on Becky’s face and not how people treat her. He asks, “Who wouldn’t do the same if they could?” Stupid question, Matthew. Barbra Streisand, that’s who. She’s got a big nose and she can afford the best plastic surgery money can buy, but she hasn’t gotten a nose job because it could change her singing voice. And that voice is her livelihood. She lives on camera, but without her voice, she has no career.

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“When I was young, everyone would say, “You gonna have your nose done?” It was like a fad, all the Jewish girls having their noses done every week at Erasmus Hall High School, taking perfectly good noses and whittling them down to nothing. The first thing someone would have done would be to cut my bump off. But I love my bump, I wouldn’t cut my bump off.”

And you can add me to the list of people who wouldn’t do it, either. I don’t care if I won the lottery and pretty much had a guarantee that nothing would go wrong in the process – I would not do it. I’d feel fake. Who the hell would I be trying to impress? Anybody who’d judge me on nothing but my nose isn’t worth my time anyway. Love me, love how nature made me. Apparently it’s not enough that Becky Adlington is one of the world’s fastest women in the water – she has to look like a supermodel as well in order to get a little peace. The problem is not with her nose, it’s with what people expect of her. And while I understand wanting all that constant criticism to just go away already, I think the only way those people are going to shut up is if we love what we look like and OWN what we look like. And step one of owning it is refusing to hand it over to a surgeon to shave part of it off. So if Becky is happy with a new nose, that’s her prerogative, but I wish people hadn’t bullied her so much so that her nose even attracted that much attention in the first place. I wish it could have been a non-issue. When we own our big noses, when we kick away criticism, we push that issue toward the trash bin where it belongs.

 
My idea of a real, unapologetic Jewish beauty, at least until she wrecked herself on drugs and alcohol, is Amy Winehouse.
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She wasn’t ever going to be the gorgeous pin-up blonde English rose, and she knew it, so she made what she had work for her. And while she was undeniably English, a daughter of North London, she was also distinctively Jewish. According to her dad, she loved going to the East End as a child and visiting all the places her grandparents and great-grandparents had lived and worked. Even as a famous adult, she went to her extended family’s Shabbat dinners. Her natural hair was thick, black, and frizzy – so she strapped a massive fake beehive to it and played into that sixties style. She transformed the stereotype of the loud, overbearing Jewish woman into a full-on personality with a soulful voice to back it up. If you’re going to be Amy freakin’ Winehouse, if you’re going to be one of the most outspoken and brutally honest singer-songwriters to come out of your generation, why not wing your thick black eyeliner all the way out? Amy wasn’t conventionally “pretty,” but she was unforgettable, she was unique. And she kicked ass in the long tradition of Jewish women doing what they have to do to make it in the world. In her lyrics, I hear echoes of a long Jewish tradition of blatantly confronting your sorrows and misfortunes and stating them in public, even the ones that are entirely of your own shameful making, because if you don’t, you might as well curl up and give up. Jewish women know they don’t make history being quiet. Can you think of a louder, more in-your-face British Jewish woman than Amy Winehouse? She’s dead, but you won’t forget her voice, or what she looked like, or the life she lived. (By the way, back in college, I had an internship at a magazine that shall remain nameless, and one of my first tasks was to transcribe an interview with Amy Winehouse. The staff in New York couldn’t understand her accent on the low-quality recording, but I could, and so I got to work on the tape. One sentence that ended up on the cutting-room floor was – I’m not joking – “Jewish girls, we’re hairy!” Yes, Amy. Yes, we are. But I don’t think you had to remind us.)
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Ditto Justine Frischmann, of 90s band Elastica. Expensively-educated daughter of a Holocaust survivor responsible for Centre Point, she could have all-too-easily been painted as a stereotypical pampered Jewish girl – and, let’s face it, we’ve done pretty well as an ethnic group, so nasty depictions of shallow, airheaded “Jewish Princesses” are still alive and well (most recently bolstered by the most revolting piece of television trash I have ever had the misfortune of watching). Instead, she darted to the opposite side of the spectrum, camped out there, and made it home.
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She wrote punkish, throwaway rock songs about topics that “nice Jewish girls” aren’t supposed to broach. I remember that when I read about her in the music press as a teenager, half the time there were snide jibes about her looking like a man, and hidden within them, insinuations that her musician boyfriends were perhaps using her as a stand-in for the men they would rather be with. Been there, had that – but without the fame, of course. I’ve heard the stinging comments about how, because my body more closely resembles a 14-year-old boy’s than the average adult woman’s nowadays, any man who wants it must be covering his desire for the real thing. Justine Frischmann is probably a big reason why, when I was younger, I wasn’t really bothered by such comments. Why? Because Justine was effortlessly cool and comfortable in her own skin. She projected the persona that if you crossed her, she either wouldn’t care at all, or she’d make you regret it. You couldn’t ever say she was “just a pretty face” because she wasn’t a pretty face, she was a bad-ass face, as she was happy being like that. You could call her mannish, you could point out her short hair and leather jacket, but at the end of the day, she was the famous one, and she was the one going home with the men that thousands of girls had pinned up on their bedroom walls. Perhaps she wasn’t the most skilful musician out there, but she made her mark, she captured the mid-nineties, that’s not bad for a nice Jewish girl.

Justine Frischman
So there. Thanks, Justine.

And as a “ethnic” woman, I try my best to make what I have work for me. If I’m going to say that I’m not ashamed of who I am, and that I’ve proud of what my ancestors had to survive to get me to where I am today, then I have to own the physical manifestations of my background – or at least show that there’s nothing undesirable about them. I have a big nose, so I wear it. It sticks out and so do I, because I don’t fancy hiding away from the world, I feel like confronting it head-on and sticking that nose everywhere I think it belongs. If you end up remembering me as Her With The Big Nose, at least you’re remembering me, at least I’m not anonymous. In my opinion, if my facial features are big and sharp and noticeable, then I have carte blanche to make the rest of my face follow suit – so if I want to wear bright eyeshadow or lipstick, that’s my prerogative. I’m never going to be a blonde bombshell, and I don’t want to be blonde. I think dark hair can be striking, and furthermore, it’s me. Blonde looks great on people who are naturally that way, or who can pull it off, but seriously, how ridiculous would I look with these thick black eyebrows and a bleached-out scalp? To me, looking like you’re trying way too hard is far worse than looking ethnic. My lank hair doesn’t work in a conventionally feminine long style, so I cut it off and make it look big with assorted pastes and hairspray, because it’s fun to try different things that I can wash away with simple shampoo and water if they don’t flatter me. It’s not that easy to change your nose, but hair grows back, hair is made for fun and experimentation. Ain’t it great to be a mammal? Sound.
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It works for me, and if other people don’t like it, they can move on to the next woman – and part of shifting from girl to woman is learning that not everybody is going to like you, not everybody has to think you’re fantastic, and it doesn’t matter. Getting the world to like you shouldn’t be your life goal, because it’s utterly unattainable. That’s life.
Drop out or get over it.

By the way, speaking of Rebecca Adlington, a few months ago she participated in a celebrity episode of UK quiz show The Chase. Guess who was a contestant in the new US version of the same show? That’s right, THIS LADY.

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…And yes, I can say it, WE WON! We split the winnings equally three ways. The episode aired at the end of January, but we filmed in August of last year, so I had to keep my big mouth shut about the result for quite some time. It was my first time on TV and I had a blast. I’ve always loved trivia and doing pub quizzes – I read everything in sight and so I ended up with loads of useless knowledge floating around; how else do you think I know how nose jobs are done? – and now I finally have something to show for it. I auditioned on a whim shortly after I moved to Boston, and I didn’t expect to make it to the second round…but then I did, and got called back for a third time…and then, OH MY DAYS, THEY’RE FLYING ME TO LOS ANGELES. I didn’t expect to be back in California so soon. My teammates were fantastic guys I got to know while we were waiting in the green room for a few hours beforehand – Louis is hilarious and Miguel is a brilliant lawyer who went to Berkeley for law school, so we had something to talk about. Winning that money feels like it kind of makes up for the earnings I forfeited by going back to grad school for three years. Most of it has gone into savings, because let’s face it, my very own shed-sized flat in far North London won’t come for free.

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It was strange seeing myself on television, because – to be completely honest – I didn’t really like how I looked. Cue plenty of moments of, “Holy crap, my nose looks huge, my jaw looks saggy, WHAT.” During every break, the makeup dude had to spray my hair to stop it looking completely flat. Plus, I wasn’t wearing my own clothes, the ones I had brought along because I feel attractive and confident in them – the cameramen said they looked distorted on screen (one was fuschia, one was orange, both had layers of ruffle-y fabric), so the wardrobe department had to rustle up something quick. So if you’re thinking, “Kite, really, that low neck on the dress and that cut of the waistline don’t do you any favors,” yes, I KNOW. And isn’t this the ridiculously silly part of it? That when I’m supposed to be proud of myself for finally being able to cash in on a skill, my attention gets occupied by my physical flaws? Why am I paying more attention to my less-than-perfect appearance and not to the fact that I just did well for myself? It’s natural to think like this, but it’s also ridiculous, it’s such a waste of time, and it’s an example of how we women play in to our own insecurity and hold ourselves back. And if I want to get a move on in life, I have to quit doing that. I have to think far, far more about what I can do than fixate on how I look doing it. That’s what matters. If anybody else has a problem with how I looked, they’re free to make jokes about it on the platform of their choice. And I’m free to enjoy my winnings.

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Bignose out.

 

 

Things Not to Be Bothered About, Part 3

The Winter Olympics! Controversy! Politics! Human rights, or lack thereof! Snow, or lack thereof! Happy Scandinavians! And more politics! And more controversy! CURLING!

While it pales in comparison to, say, just about everything controversial about the Sochi games, today the BBC brought up the question of whether Russian figure skater Julia Lipnitskaia’s routine to the score from “Schindler’s List” was in poor taste. My verdict? No. Not really. Leave the girl alone. BBC turned to Twitter, that repository of great human opinion distilled down to quickly-digested bites, to quote somebody asking if routines based on Anne Frank’s diary are next. I’m here in Super Jewish Lady mode to say: calm down.

Okay, I admit I did a little mental “uh oh…” when Lipnitskaia entered the ice and the announcer said she was skating to the theme from “Schindler’s List,” but that’s mainly because I don’t like having emotional reactions to sport other than hysterical glee when Tottenham Hotspur win. I definitely took notice of the red costume and immediately thought of the little girl in the red coat. But, you know what? It’s not a big deal. In the great big net of fish we Jews have to fry, this isn’t even a barnacle on the rope. Not bothered. I sat back and watched her land some jumps.

Fact: I was eight or nine years old when “Schindler’s List” was released, but I never watched it until well into my twenties. I suppose my reasoning is the same of that of a lot of Jewish people in my generation: Holocaust Overload. While undoubtedly the biggest tragedy and the most pivotal time in our history, it can sometimes feel like it’s our only history, and so we acknowledge that we can commemorate and remember our genocide but need to draw the line before we are completely consumed by grief. As an avid reader from a young age, I knew all about the Holocaust and had read plenty of accounts of the horror by 1993. I didn’t feel like I needed to see a film, even one as highly acclaimed as “Schindler’s List,” in order to know even more. For children, everything in moderation, including recollections of deportations, gas chambers, and shootings-on-sight.

But eventually I did watch it, and I was glad I did. It’s a work of art. Neeson’s portrayal of Schindler is brilliant. The cinematography could not possibly be improved. It’s a hard-hitting movie that never lets up and it should never let up. It’s a film that resonates with people of all backgrounds, not just my own Jewish-Polish one. And so “Schindler’s List,” as a Hollywood movie, pretty much belongs to everyone. You can’t draw comparisons to Anne Frank’s diary, which to me is far more “Jewish” than a film, even one from arguably the most famous Jewish director of all time. It’s the story, first and foremost, about the work of a German man, played by an Irish actor. The screenplay was adapted from the Booker Prize-winning Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally, an Australian Catholic. The music Lipnitskaia skated to was composed by John Williams, and I have no idea if he is Jewish, but that doesn’t matter – it’s a beautiful, mournful, moving score. Of course, the great Itzakh Perlman is the violinist on that track. The film tells a story of Jewish life and death, but it is not our exclusive property. It’s a story shared with the world, and for that it earned seven Academy Awards and a rightful place in the history of film. I find it actually quite heartening that a Russian non-Jewish girl who wasn’t even alive when the film was made had such an emotional connection with it. That only proves it’s a great work of art. 

Now, as for the costume, my main criticism is that it’s a bit too literal. Everybody knows the character of the little girl in the red coat. Figure skating costumes by necessity are made of skimpy Spandex and there’s nothing “coat”-like about that to me. But this is purely a criticism on the basis of fashion, not taste. Figure skaters are first and foremost athletes, not models, and she had to wear a short skirt with a leotard bottom just like everybody else. If she hadn’t worn red, then critics would have wondered why the hell not, considering how iconic that color is in the film. Something to get upset about? This isn’t it.

To Lipnitskaia and other skaters who sacrifice their youth to training for this sport, it’s an art as much as a physical activity. Skaters are taught to create that emotional connection with their audiences the same way a dancer (or hey, maybe even an actor) would. If this 15-year-old girl and her coach and choreographer thought she could do a great job of capturing the emotion evoked by the film score, then more power to her. It’s a lot to ask of a teenager, and I thought she did it well. So did the judges (although I have to admit I have no clue how the new scoring system works but so long as a pair of friendly Canadians don’t get ripped off again I’m happy to let them do their thing). It should also be emphasized that Lipnitskaia is not the first female figure skater to perform to this music – that honor goes to Katarina Witt, who happens to be German. And was a willing accomplice to the Stasi. Welp.

There’s a lot to be upset about in these Olympics. Julia Lipnitskaia’s routine really isn’t one of them. Carry on skating.

Here we go again

And with another outbreak of violence surrounding Gaza, I brace myself to deal with the inevitable flood of hatred against Jews, the accusation that we’re genocidal and commit war crimes, that we target children, that we have no respect for Arab life, that we are unprovoked aggressors. You name it, we’re accused of it. I know that sometime in the next few days, I will read of visibly Orthodox Jews in Stamford Hill and Golders Green being attacked, of synagogues being vandalised, because people punish Jews worldwide for whatever happens in the Middle East while at the same time claiming, “I have nothing against Jews, just Zionists and the Israeli government.”

Outside the Israeli Consulate not far from my apartment, people are chanting, “Zionist scum, your time has come.” Welcome to tolerant, liberal, progressive San Francisco.

No mention of over 12,000 rockets landing in Israel, targeting civilians, since 2001. Non-Israelis and non-Jews rarely consider the fact that their countries, if faced with the same attacks, probably would have retaliated a lot quicker. No mention that militants in Gaza deliberately aim at non-military targets. Nope. It would get in the way of their refusal to see any shades of grey in this massive mess.

This is me a few years ago, in London:

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It’s strange. I’m not really an observant Jew. I’m in synagogue maybe twice a year. But more and more I have to be a spokesperson for my ethnic group in the face of loads of bullshit. I have to explain everything to people who don’t have a clue. I don’t like it, but I have to do it because then otherwise I’m just rolling over and being complicit in letting people walk over us. Between this and Tottenham-Y-Word-gate, I’m feeling like I have to be SuperJew when I’m honestly not the best spokesperson, but, eh. Gotta be tough, Kite. Got to risk the fact that people are going to label you things that you are not, call you scum, dissolve friendships simply because you believe Israel has a place on the map alongside a Palestinian state. That’s life. Some people are going to love you and others are going to hate your guts, but the best you can hope for is that people are going to listen to your argument. Big shrug.

I hate war. Like any other person who isn’t a total sociopath, I want war to be the last resort. There are crazies out there who hate Muslims. I am not one of them. Extremists hijack Islam and use it to justify violence, and I know moderate Muslims feel the same way about that as I do whenever some crazy ultra-Haredi-Jewish idiot dehumanizes Arabs: angry that our background has been seized by people full of hatred, and eager to distance ourselves, rushing to say, “We’re not all like that.” I am saddened by any loss of human life, and I detest those right-wing elements of Israeli politics who treat Arabs as lesser people. But it is inexcusable for people to ignore the context, to ignore how many times Israel has offered to negotiate and been rebuffed, to ignore the barrage of rockets on towns like Sderot. People point to the skewed death tolls, at how few Israelis compared to Palestinians have died. That’s because there is an excellent missile shield intercepting them before they hit Israeli towns, and a coordinated warning system and network of bomb shelters. But that’s immaterial – does a government have to wait until a bloodbath has already happened to defend its sovereignity like any other country would? Israel has said enough is enough. Apparently, in the eyes of the rest of the world, it is not allowed to do that. It is supposed to sit there and take it and take it and take it.

I believe that the only way there is ever going to be peace is a two-state solution. Neither of us is going to disappear anytime soon so we ought to figure out some way to accommodate both groups. But Hamas won’t even come to the negotiating table. Palestinian people deserve better than that.

Hamas could help Palestinian people. It doesn’t. When Israel pulled out of Gaza, it left agricultural infrastructure intact so that Palestinians could use it. Hamas destroyed everything. If Hamas can keep Palestinians in poverty, if Hamas can place weaponry in civilian areas to maximize casualties in Israeli strikes, then it can continue to demonize Israel. Its charter calls for the extermination of Jews – not just Israelis, all Jews – and how can I negotiate my right to breathe?

I’m not going to apologize for my existence or to whom I was born. I am not going to be a useful idiot. There are loads of people who want us Jews to shut up and go back to hunching over our books in the Yeshiva rather than reacting like any other country would in the face of eleven years of attacks on its existence. Sorry – ain’t gonna happen. We Jews will negotiate land, we will negotiate policy, but we will not negotiate our right to simply be alive.

The rest of the world has a problem with that.

The rest of the world thinks that Israelis and only Israelis need to roll over and die.

Anyone who thinks this is genocide, read a book that has the definition of genocide in it. Look at Darfur, at Kosovo. And stop embarrassing yourself.

I was a teenager when the Good Friday Agreement was signed, and I hoped that within my lifetime a similar process would play out between Israelis and Palestinians as it did between Irish Republicans and Unionists. That hope fades with every year I grow older. If there is to be ANY hope for peace, there needs to be negotiation. Hamas doesn’t want to negotiate. Never has done and, sadly, never will.

A friend of my father’s is an American Jewish doctor. He’s also part of a group that regularly travels to Israeli hospitals to perform free life-saving surgery for Palestinian kids. Several years ago he operated on a child with a heart defect. After the successful surgery, he met the child’s mother, who didn’t have any money and who didn’t speak Hebrew (and the doctor didn’t speak Arabic), but she was so overcome with emotion that she began stuffing a bag full of sweets and crying and giving it to him. Things like this show that no two groups of human beings are natural enemies. We get warped by politics, by intolerance. Both groups have done plenty wrong, but the only way forward is to at least acknowledge the other side has a right to exist. Israel has tried this. Hamas has refused. And that’s sad. And civilians suffer. All people essentially want the same thing. They want healthy children and a safe place for them to grow up. They want them to live.

The world doesn’t want to see things like the surgery project. The world thinks there’s no good in Israel, that it’s not a truly multicultural place. The world thinks people like this simply don’t exist, can’t exist, because it sees Israel as an evil malignancy to be chopped out and thrown away.

And I feel sorry for the rest of the world.

In which your resident Jewish girl states an ambiguous opinion

My dad sent me this article yesterday about how the Society of Black Laywers is threatening to file a complaint with the police if Tottenham Hotspur does not stop fans from using the word “Yid” to describe themselves. I figured I would weigh in with my 2p, even if this is just my little blog.

I’m not terribly bothered by the use of “Yid” by Tottenham Hotspur fans. But I never use it myself, for a very basic reason: I’m a Spurs fan who is actually Jewish.

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Jew-hatred is not a thing of the past. Jews are still singled out for attack based on our ethnicity/religion, in the UK and abroad. “Yids” is still being used to refer to us that way (though, to be completely honest, I’m more likely to get “Jewish bitch”). For us, it’s not as if it existed only zillions of years ago so the word no longer has that sting of hatred in it. It’s still there, built in to the very sound of it.

I know very well that when my fellow Spurs fans use “Yid,” they mean no offense to Jewish people like me. I know they’re not being anti-Semitic (Some of my best non-Jewish friends are vocal members of the Yid Army, etc etc). But the word is so loaded that some of us can’t simply shrug it off, say we’ve taken it back, and pretend that it’s not problematic.

You can only “take back” a derogatory term if you’re from the group being targeted by it. “Yids” refers first and foremost to Jews, not to Spurs fans. The vast majority of Spurs fans are not even Jewish, so it’s not as if they are reclaiming this term to take pride in their ethnicity. Go anywhere in London and ask somebody what “Yid” refers to, and they will immediately make the connection to Jews even if they also are aware of the Spurs link.  It was only originally used as an insult against Spurs fans because that bit of North London used to have a large Jewish population. In essence, when “Tottenham” was synonymous with “Jewish,” there was no distinction made between the supporters at White Hart Lane and the shop owners on the High Road whose families lived in the surrounding streets. Most of the Jews of Tottenham, like other immigrant groups, have done well for themselves, and over the past several decades they have moved to elsewhere in North London as well as the Hertfordshire and Essex suburbs. The population addressed by the slur left, but because the football club is geographically tied to the neighbourhood, the slur remained. My point is: supporters of other clubs may use it against Spurs fans in general, but that was not its original nor its primary usage. Crucially, non-Jewish Spurs fans have never had to deal with it referring to their ethnic group, to their blood, and the consequences of that. If other JEWISH Spurs fans want to use “Yid,” that’s an entirely different story.

To draw the most obvious parallel, it’s like non-Black people using the N-word. If Black people want to use it, then that’s their choice because the original and enduring meaning of the word has always been against their ethnic group, used to disrespect them and keep them down. But there are a lot of Black people who hate the use of it, and likewise there are plenty of Jewish people who never want to hear anybody referred to as a Yid in any sense, ever again. Non-Jews don’t get to choose when it’s OK to use “Yid” because it’s not their insulting word. Down the road in Golders Green and Stamford Hill, Jews still get physically attacked because of who they are. Fists, bottles, even cars used as weapons. It’s a bit too close to home – literally, as Stamford Hill sits just south of Tottenham. “Yid” hasn’t been completely consigned to the past in North London, at least not yet. Even if Spurs fans mean it affectionately when they refer to themselves, it doesn’t change the fact that I typically hear that word used as a way to signify that my people are viewed as devious, sleazy scum taking advantage of non-Jewish English people because we’re obsessed with money and only care about our own people, or whatever is being said about us this year. I can’t forget that because it is still happening today. I don’t think we Spurs fans really need to take it back, either. We have plenty of other words for ourselves. We don’t need this one. Using it doesn’t improve anybody’s life – or fix our club’s issues on the pitch.

I am very grateful for the good will shown by the Society of Black Lawyers, but I think that “Yid” is by far not the worst thing people yell at matches. The bigger problem is the incidence of words which are flat-out hateful and have never been seen by the recipients of the abuse as a point of pride or defiance – like the abuse that Black players and those suspected of being gay get. I would also be a lot more concerned if Yossi Benayoun was getting abuse for being an Israeli Jew, or something along that line.

I’m not going to judge you if you’re a Spurs supporter and you call yourself a member of the Yid Army. I know you mean no insult by it. And to be honest, we Jews have much, much bigger problems to deal with than what people say at a football match. Just don’t expect me to join in with you.

I would definitely not go so far as to call it anti-Semitic abuse – it’s just football fans, who by definition need to show membership in the larger group, to signify a common identity. I’m a sociologist. I know how signs of group affiliation work. But I’m not going to say that hearing the word doesn’t leave a bit of a sting, and I would like Spurs supporters to at least take a second to remember that this word isn’t only their term of camaraderie. It’s my signifier that there are a hell of a lot of people out there who hate me just because of my ethnicity. For some of us, it’s far more difficult to see it as entirely harmless. It’s a massive grey area. I’m not a killjoy, I’m just Jewish. And we Jews have a good sense of humor when something’s actually funny.

I know this is not the most well-organised argument. I’m sure that plenty of Spurs fans are going to see me as some killjoy bitch who needs to shut up and stop getting in the way of their fun. As a Jewish fan, I feel obligated to weigh in with my opinion when it comes to this term. I wish I didn’t, but for as long as my people are getting stick – and worse – simply because of our background, I have to say something. I love Spurs and I want everybody to enjoy matches at White Hart Lane as much as I do (or did, because I moved to California in 2010). Can we do better? Yes, certainly. We can and we should. I’m not going to jump on you if you think my argument is crap, but I hold Spurs supporters to a high standard, and I think you can all live up to it. Think about it – if you respect the history of the club, and know the history of the neighbourhood, then you owe that tiny bit of respect to those of us tied to that particular part of history, those of us who have had to deal with the word “Yid” when it has been used in a not-so-casual way.