An open letter to American Muslims and Anyone Else Unsettled by the US Election: a Dispatch from the Land of Trumpelstiltskin

Dear American Muslims and others feeling unsettled by the possibility of no longer being safe in your own country:

There is no delicate way to say what I am about to say, so I am just going to say two things that have been running through my mind since Tuesday night.

  1. I am so sorry for what you are all going through. My heart is with you.
  2. You now understand, in a way more visceral than any Jew of my generation, the reason for the creation of a Jewish homeland – which, although originally posited for anywhere available, ended up as the State of Israel in the Middle East.

Regarding the current state of Israel, its prime minister, its issues around settlements and all the other complications and messy realities of statecraft and daily life, please set it aside for purposes of this discussion. Not because those aren’t valid topics for conversation – they absolutely are – but because it’s not the issue I’m addressing here.

In 70 CE, the Romans dispersed most (not all, but pretty much all but the equivalent of a tiny rural village’s worth) of the country’s Jews. From then until 1948, we were an itinerant crew, depending on the hospitality and governmental vagaries of the countries to which we managed to hie ourselves.

I think these two are my great-grandparents, who brought my then six-month-old  grandmother over from Russia in a valise. From what I understand, he was, to paraphrase our incoming president, “Not their best.” His offspring were better. Bobby married a peddler. They saved money, bought a farm and raised dairy cattle, cash crops and five children. My mother was the first to graduate from college.


It’s not a happy history. There’s a joke that so many Jewish kids played violin because you could pick one up and run when you got kicked out of whatever country you were living in.  Jews got really good at languages, because they had to learn so many. When we were allowed to live in a place, we were often made to keep to a restricted part of town, and wear visible clothing that marked us as different. (Note: It was a thing WAY before Nazi Germany.)

My lifetime has been a period of what is best described as a golden age for Jews. I live in a country where, for the most part, we’ve been pretty welcome. (Exceptions exist, but again, not the issue I’m addressing here.)

Some of that is due to what happened in 1948, when the Jews got what no generation for more than 1,000 years had had – a place of our own, a country of refuge in which we would never be “other.” A country where national holidays would be our holidays, our shared culture and religious observance would be the norm and not the exception, where we could raise our babies and care for our elders without having to explain what “kosher” entails. Most of all, it was a country where we never wondered when a mob would burn our neighborhood, round us up and run us out of town, arrest and/or kill us.

The great-great grandchildren of the people in the photo above. This picture was taken in Israel, with Shelli the Labrador retriever. The great-great granddaughter on the left is in medical school, the one on the right is getting ready to apply for Ph.D. programs in biology.


Everything else aside, it’s a terrible thing to feel unsettled in your own home, whether that means the space on the furniture-filled side of your front door or the space beyond it, the public space.

I live in the United States because my grandparents fled Russia and Ukraine. I don’t want my country to be a place where those of us who are different are made to feel “less than.”

That said, I’m not gonna lie. Knowing what  – and that – my forebears sacrificed to try and create a place that would take me and mine in without question  gives me a sense of place and security.

It requires something else too. Because of my history, I have an obligation to do as much to ensure the physical, emotional and moral safety of those around me. Whatever happens over the next four years, for better or worse, I’ve got your backs. We’re in this together.

Practical Gothic: an Ancestral Meditation

I like to think I grew up in a practical family, but as I get older, I’m realizing the truth is more that I grew up in a family that liked to think it was merely practical.

I’m in the process of working out exactly what to call us. For now, I’m gonna go with Practical Gothic.

My grandparents were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. They got to the United States in the early decades of the last century, just in time to raise their children – my parents and their siblings – during the Great Depression.

Dad’s parents settled in Boston. Mom’s were in Central New York. I never met Dad’s father, a cantor whose poor health prevented him from succeeding in business.

My mother’s father died just before my third birthday. I remember Zaydie. My sister and I used to crawl around on his lap as he lay on his recliner, his legs covered with a blanket. He called us “knaidlach,” the Yiddish word for dumplings. He was 25 when he married my then 14-year-old grandmother, the second-oldest girl in her family.

My grandparents
Bubby & Zaydie, my farming grandparents

My parents were the first in their families to graduate college. Mom’s parents were farmers who hadn’t gone past third grade. She became a teacher. Dad, from a long line of Orthodox rabbis and cantors, went rogue and became a Reform rabbi.

By the time my sister and I showed up, things were pretty much etched in stone.

We were the youngest of Bubby and Zaydie’s 15 grandchildren. The nearby next-ups were four years older than we were. The oldest, Larry, was born 20 years before me.

We spent lots at “the farm” where Mom had grown up. Mom’s older brother and his family lived there, but my uncle had stopped farming and become a photographer. Duke and Penny, the dogs, were the only animals. Calling it a farm made no sense to me, but I was a kid, and no one much cared what I thought.

Half a century later, with more information, I’m lurching toward answers.

The good news is that I have a few. The bad news is that they’ve raised a lot more questions.

My family’s practicality is a fact. My immigrant grandparents worked hard and stressed the value of education. They passed those values on to my parents, and my sister and I have passed them on to our children.

But they passed on a few other less socially acceptable things, too.

Some of those can be traced to money, or, more accurately, its pursuit, and the fallout of its absence. Some of it can be traced to mental illness, which definitely ran in my father’s family.

I’d like to think that that ran in my mother’s family too. Which might seem strange. But it’s so much nicer to imagine that your great-grandfather killed his children, beat his wife and got his oldest daughter pregnant because he was mentally ill and not just evil.

Unless, that is, you’re still figuring out whether to be practical about it all.