A Damaged Mirror: A Holocaust Memoir Unlike Anything You’ve Ever Seen

Dear Josep,

What do you get when St. Jordi’s Day falls on Israeli Independence Day?

This very silly post.

What do you get when St. Jordi’s Day falls on the first day of Passover? I answered that on LtJ’s Facebook page last year:

(That’s matzah ball soup, for the record.)

So what do you get when St. Jordi’s Day dovetails with Holocaust Remembrance Day (which begins tonight)…?

Hmm.

How about my thoughts on a mind-blowing Holocaust book?

I met author & publisher Yael Shahar¬†because of another book her company published, in which a poem of mine appears: Veils, Halos & Shackles: International Poetry on the Oppression & Empowerment of Women. She contacted me to give me my contributor’s copy, and we ended up meeting at Jerusalem’s First Station complex, chatting over a couple of fruit shakes and exchanging books. (This fateful meeting eventually resulted in a publishing contract for my upcoming novel. But that’s another story. ūüėČ )

Yael handed me¬†A Damaged Mirror¬†with a warning: “I brought this for you, but I’m going to let you¬†decide whether to take it. It’s uplifting in the end, but the first half… it really… really brings you to Auschwitz, in a way not many other Holocaust books do. ”

I wondered how much worse this book could be from all the other books I’d read and movies I’d seen.

“Is it… graphic?” I asked.

She chewed on that. “Not… exactly. It’s just very… vivid. I couldn’t bear to look back over it myself after compiling it.” She said that Don–her husband and our trusty editor–edited and polished it for her.

But I’m a brave soul, and I took it home and after a while of preparing myself emotionally, I read the book.

Suffice to say, it lived up to her warning.

I wrote last year about the gradual structure of my Holocaust education, from a gentle story in first grade¬†to my standing in the gas chamber at Majdanek at age 17. I wrote then that my trip to Poland was the climax of my Holocaust education. I didn’t think another level could possibly exist.

Well, it did, and this book is it.

A Damaged Mirror¬†is a “novelized” memoir that tells the story of Ovadya ben Malka, a Jew from Salonika, Greece, who was forced to serve in the Sonderkommando at Birkenau; and Yael¬†herself, who was born with memories she could not have lived.¬†Her quest to learn what and how she remembers intersects with Ovadya’s quest for forgiveness and atonement for the unspeakable things he was forced to do under the Nazis. It reads like a thriller and¬†offers a deep and very raw exploration of the unfathomable moral dilemmas of the Holocaust; of free choice & responsibility, forgiveness & repentance, memory & destiny. It’s such an important book, for so many different reasons.¬†When I thought about writing a post about it I was overwhelmed by the task because there’s just so much to say. I’m going to limit myself to two of the main things I took away from the book.

A Brutal Reality Check on What Really Happened at Auschwitz

Many of us know, in theory, what happened on the trains and in the camps. But¬†there are things we gloss over just because they are too awful to think about; things I think most Holocaust survivors never even saw, and those who did couldn’t bring themselves to describe them in detail.

For example… it seems naive when I think about it now, but before I read A Damaged Mirror, I had this image in my head that at least the Jews who were gassed died the way people die from carbon monoxide poisoning: slowly drifting into sleep.¬†I didn’t realize it, but I’d been holding on to that image as a tiny glimmer of solace in the face of the unfathomable fact that millions of Jews died this way.

Ovadya’s descriptions of what he saw while clearing away the bodies shattered my illusions. I didn’t think it was possible to be any more horrified and devastated about the Holocaust than I previously was. I was wrong.

And that’s just the gas chambers. There was more.¬†Some of the images¬†he describes literally kept me up at night. In the days and weeks after reading the book, I’d be in the middle of some mundane activity and suddenly one of those images would come back to me and I would need to breathe and ground myself, reminding myself that I am safe and my family is safe… as though it were my own trauma I was reliving.

And you thought¬†Man’s Search for Meaning was brutal. :-/

Difficult as it was, I think people need to¬†know those details. Especially these days when people compare everything from Syria to Trump’s election to the Nazi regime. Reading the book gives you a very healthy, if difficult to swallow, dose of perspective.

Questions of Agency & Responsibility Under the Worst Possible Conditions

Without giving too much away: Ovadya struggles to reconcile with the things he was forced to do under the Nazis. He feels culpable; complicit in the atrocities. Many would jump in here to say: but he can’t blame himself for the things he did. He did them under the worst compulsion imaginable.

Nonetheless, the book presents some very deep and difficult questions: is it really true that he didn’t have a choice? Couldn’t he have chosen to die rather than do the bidding of the Nazis? Would that have been the better choice?

If we say that he didn’t have a choice–that means he was completely helpless and had no agency. It means that the Nazis won, in that they completely stripped him of his humanity–the power of free choice, which, according to Jewish tradition, is what differentiates us from other living beings. We would rather believe that we always have a choice; that the Nazis could take away our rights, our freedom, and our lives, but they could never take away our humanity. I, for one, don’t want to accept that they could. I refuse to¬†grant them that victory.

But if we say that Ovadya¬†did have a choice–that makes him at least somewhat complicit in what the Nazis forced him to do.

Reading the book, I not only wanted to forgive Ovadya, I wanted desperately for him to forgive himself. I wanted to know that he could find some semblance of peace and resolution, not just for him, but for me; because who knows how I would have acted under those same circumstances? Would I have had the strength of will to walk into the gas chamber willingly rather than have to clear it out fifteen minutes later?

And who knows if that really would have been the right thing to do? What about the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren who would never have been born?

Moreover, I wanted Ovadya to forgive himself because I felt that would be his one final triumph over the Nazis.

The book doesn’t offer easy answers or tidy conclusions. It really makes you think.

Kasva Press produced an excellent discussion guide called¬†Moral & Religious Dilemmas in the Holocaust¬†which brings excerpts from the book along with questions for people to think about and discuss. You don’t need to have read the book; it stands on its own.¬†You can download it for free on their website here.

Yael informs me that Kasva plans to re-release A Damaged Mirror under a new title in the next year or so. In the meantime, it’s available through their website and all the major distributors, including Amazon (Amazon.es too ūüėČ ). Yael also blogs at¬†https://www.damaged-mirror.com/blog/.

Happy St. Jordi’s Day… and a meaningful Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Love,

Daniella

It’s That Day Again!

Just taking a brief break from de-Passover-ifying my kitchen to say: HAPPY BIRTHDAY, JOSEP!

Mmm, cake. I could do with some cake right about now.

Unfortunately because your birthday fell on the 7th day of Passover I am very unlikely to be able to recruit many random strangers to wish you a happy birthday, as is my tradition. Especially since Jews everywhere else in the world have another 24 hours of Passover to live through celebrate. But I would not want you to think I have forgotten. ūüėČ

I think I’ve been sufficiently mushy¬†about our friendship in recent months, including in our 10-year-friendversary post and my 1-year-book-birthday post. But I was flipping through a book of quotes by Rebbe Nachman of Breslev today, and, well, there was one that jumped out at me from the chapter on friendship…

It says: “The world was created in such a way that the pieces you need to complete yourself can be found with your friends. Be his student, and he will be your student.” (Likutei Moharan 24, 7)

It reminded me of a line you wrote in the foreword to LtJ: “…She has always been the teacher, and I have always been the student.”

Not so, my friend.

I have learned more from you than you can imagine.

Thank you for being you, and I hope you’ve been having a wonderful day!¬†Wishing you a year of good news, joy, satisfaction, and fulfillment.

Much love from the Holy Land!

pic of Jesus statue captioned with "oy."

What Do Jews REALLY Think About Jesus?!

Dear Josep,

With Holy Week beginning today and Passover beginning tomorrow night, this is a time of year that brings up not only joy and festivity, but also some complexity with regard to Jewish-Christian relations. In the past, Easter was a deadly time to be Jewish. All the focus on Jesus’s death¬†stirred up a lot of anti-Jewish sentiment, because until very recently, Christians believed we were responsible for his death. Many of the worst anti-Jewish riots occurred around Easter time.

Eitan and I have both had the experience of¬†meeting a Christian who has never met a Jew before. (I’m sure this is news to you. ūüėõ ) Especially if that Christian is a Protestant who grew up in a very traditional community, the first question we get, almost always, is:

So what do you think about Jesus?

pic of Jesus statue captioned with "oy."

We stifle a sigh and try to figure out how to answer that question as tactfully as possible.

Look–I get it. To most Christians, Jesus is God, except he’s the “personal connection” part that feels like your buddy and friend and father and confidante. For many of the people who ask me this question, their lives and the lives of their entire community revolve around Jesus. It’s very difficult for them to fathom how somebody could possibly live a deeply religious life with no Jesus.

Well… here is my complete and honest answer.

Truth Is–We Don’t Think Much About Him at All.

If a practicing Muslim walked up to a religious Christian and asked: “What do you think about Mohammed?”, many Christians would probably answer something along the lines of, “Uh… you mean that guy people got shot in France for drawing cartoons of?”

Mohammed is not even in their frame of religious reference. He’s not a figure involved in their practice, prayers, or religious contemplation.

That’s how it is for Jews vis-a-vis Jesus. He’s just not relevant to us.

We Think He Was Just a Guy

So there are a few things Christians believe about Jesus that Jews completely reject.

The first is that he was the Messiah and a prophet.

Both of these things are believed, to some extent, by Muslims as well as Christians. So give each other a high five. We Jews are gonna just… stay out of that party.

The reason we don’t believe he was the Messiah is pretty straightforward: he didn’t fill a single one of our traditional criteria. Our readings of the messianic prophecies in Isaiah, Ezekiel, etc.¬†are very different from the Christian interpretations.¬†See here for the Jewish concept of the Messiah.

We¬†don’t believe he was a prophet for two reasons: one, we believe prophecy officially ended after the First Exile and that there have been no real prophets since; two, Jeremiah explicitly warns that anyone who tells us to defy the teachings of the Torah is a false prophet, and… well. (It may be arguable that Jesus never did tell anyone to defy the Torah, and that it was only Paul who did. Paul is a whole ‘nother can of worms.)

If this was the only difference, however, Christianity would still be a messianic subgroup of Judaism, as it was at first. It was only when the theological stuff started to get weird (*cough*Paul*cough*) that Christianity split off and became its own religion.

So the second thing we reject is the concept of the Trinity, and of Jesus being the son of God.

This theological concept is totally beyond the pale of Jewish belief. We believe in one invisible, omniscient, omnipresent God. Not in one God who is divided into three “parts” and certainly not a God who ever manifested Himself in a human being. That’s just… no.

Thanks, but We’ll Atone for Our Own Sins

The third thing Jews reject about the Christian idea of¬†Jesus is this idea that he was the “sacrificial lamb” who died to atone for the Original Sin and all subsequent sins of humanity, replacing the need for animal sacrifices for atonement.

First of all–we have a very different concept of what the Original Sin was and what it means for humanity. You can read more about that here.¬†In short: we don’t believe anyone is born “tainted” with it and we don’t believe atonement for it is necessary. We believe people are judged by God according to the choices they make during their lives, not according to an ill-advised bite of fruit taken by an ancestor thousands of years ago.

Second of all–we already have a way to atone for our sins. It’s called¬†teshuva, and it is a deeply personal process that only the sinner can do for himself. You can read more teshuva about¬†here.

Third of all–atonement sacrifices were only one kind of animal sacrifice, and as far as we’re concerned, those are still “on.” Most of us (Orthodox Jews) believe that when the Temple is restored we’re going to go right ahead and do those again.¬†Replacing them with a dude who was actually God and sacrificed himself was definitely never on the agenda.

So If He Was Just a Guy–What Kind of a Guy Was He?

Right. So here’s where things can get a little hairy.

Jewish opinions on this range from the most generous: “He was a kind teacher who was misguided in his teachings, but they brought the world to an awareness of One God, more or less, and for that we can be grateful” to “He was a horrible person who defied his rabbis and tricked hundreds of people.”

The latter opinion I read in an essay in a collection of Jewish responses to missionaries, and I found it rather harsh. I tend to lean towards the liberal side, but… again, I don’t really spend a lot of time and effort thinking about this. I don’t actually care what kind of a guy he was. He’s not relevant to my life.

Why Jews Get Prickly When Christians Ask Us This Question

I really believe that most people who ask this question are genuinely curious and have the best of intentions. I’m even willing to forgive the gentle¬†missionizing I’ve gotten here or there–“You really should read the New Testament, I think it will be very meaningful for you” type things. I know this comes from a genuine concern for my soul, as according to traditional Christian theology, I’m going to end up in Hell for all eternity after I die for believing all the things stated above. They don’t want that to happen to me. I really do appreciate the concern.

But.

Let’s be frank: it was not so very long ago that Christians were burning us at the stake “out of concern for our souls.” Like, yes, I do believe many of them were genuinely¬†concerned and acting out of what they thought was kindness, but… my appreciation has limits, mmkay?

In medieval Europe Jews were forced to sit in our own synagogues and listen to preachers lecturing¬†about Jesus and salvation¬†as part of a general strategy to get Jews to convert.¬†Those days are over. If anyone, however¬†well-meaning, starts aggressively proselytizing me, I am going to walk away. Because it’s the 21st century and I can do that now without getting my throat slit.

Therefore, if I just met someone, and they ask me what I think about Jesus, I will be on edge. I never know what their next question or statement is going to be. It’s not at all unlikely that it will contain some subtle or not-so-subtle¬†attempt at soul-saving. And¬†that’s gonna be awkward for everybody.

Speaking of which, a note to our readers: any comments to that effect will be deleted.¬†You’re not going to change my mind about Jesus. Ever. Don’t waste your time.

“Jews for Jesus”

There is an unfortunate movement you may have heard of that calls itself “Jews for Jesus” or “Messianic Judaism.”

I prefer to call them, “Christians Posing as Jews.”

This group claims to be Jews who merely accept Jesus as the Messiah. They use Jewish lingo, Jewish symbolism, and Jewish rituals. But in practice, these people are not Jews, they are Christians. Many of them are not ethnically or halakhically Jewish and have no religious Jewish background. They claim outwardly to believe only that Jesus was the Messiah, but their beliefs about him are actually consistent with Christianity. They are aggressive missionizers and prey on lonely Jews with little knowledge. I know a few people who got involved with them and had a very difficult time getting out.

It may surprise you to hear me speak so harshly about a religious group. While I may have my disagreements with Christians, Muslims, Hindus, et al, I don’t have a problem with people who practice their faiths in earnest.

But you know me; if there’s one thing I have zero tolerance¬†for, it’s dishonesty.

These people claim to be a stream of Judaism. They are not. They are, at best, a group of people who think they are following Judaism but are actually Christians. At worst, they are a deceitful stream of Christianity that is trying to save Jewish souls by pretending that Christianity and Judaism are not mutually exclusive.

I am not cool with that.

What I am cool with, is Christians celebrating their own faith and traditions. So on that note, a blessed Holy Week to you and all who celebrate, and Chag Sameach to all our Jewish readers!

Love,

Daniella

Happy First Birthday, LtJ-the-Book!

Dear Josep,

…You may have noticed by now that I have a thing about anniversaries.

Well, here I go again.

I have this memory of sitting there, alone in my PJ’s, staring at the “publish” button.

The kids were asleep, and Eitan was off tourguiding for a few days. The morning before, I’d received confirmation from CreateSpace that the interior and cover files had been approved for printing. All that was left was to click¬†that button.

There’s this concept in Kabbalah that the holiest things attract the unholiest “covers.” It is the moment when you’re about to do something very brave that the self-doubt demons scream the loudest. When I got that e-mail, I was overcome with a sort of panic. Maybe I hadn’t had enough people look over it? Maybe I should proofread some more? Maybe I should wait a bit to see if anyone responds to my requests for reviews and endorsements? So I stalled for the next day and a half, paralyzed with fear.

But that afternoon I decided that there is no end to the perfectionism. You have to draw the line somewhere.

So on the night of March 29th, 2016, I clicked the button and sent Letters to Josep: An Introduction to Judaism out into the world.

It’s taken me a while to comprehend the full impact of that little act of courage.

As someone who had quite a bit of experience trying (and at that point–failing) to get published by the traditional publishing industry, you’d think I’d have jumped at the opportunity to publish my own book, now that self-publishing has become so mainstream and affordable. But there were a number of concerns that held me back.

The first, and probably the hardest, was¬†letting go of the need for¬†approval from a¬†“higher authority.”

When you’ve spent so much of your life thinking you needed an editor or an agent, or a piece of paper, to claim to be good at something… it’s not easy to convince yourself that¬†you are actually the highest authority when it comes to your work. I have come to believe that, but it was not an easy paradigm shift.

Then there were practical considerations. Self-publishing can be expensive. It required a whole new set of skills, including some I found particularly daunting. I had to take a loan to pay for the editing–and I was not very happy with the editor’s work, and needed to comb over the manuscript again myself to straighten out inconsistencies, which made it feel like a considerable waste.

And then there was the issue of dealing with feedback and criticism once the thing is out there. You don’t have a publisher or agent to shield you from any of that, or to bolster your reputation with their own reputation. I mentioned in my other blog, The Rejection Survival Guide, that the only person who responded to my attempts to get endorsements or positive reviews said he thought the sample post I sent him was “nothing special.”¬†(I am still fairly stumped by that incident, as he had called previous posts “impressive” months earlier.)

But after years and years of not being good enough for all the agents and editors I’d submitted to… I¬†finally decided I’d had enough of waiting for other people’s approval.

 

Clicking that “publish” button was a public declaration to the world and to myself:¬†I am good enough.

Even if I didn’t entirely believe it.

I hardly slept that night. I woke up at 4am the next morning and discarded all hope of getting back to sleep, instead going to check the Amazon sites to see if the book was available yet. Later that day, I made the official announcement, together with a little prayer I composed for the occasion.

I’m not organized enough to keep track for sure, but it appears that I did make back at least most of what I spent–which was my primary goal. I sold somewhere in the ballpark of 240 copies in the last year. Which is very respectable for a self-published book, especially considering I didn’t put much effort into marketing the thing.

But I received so, so, so, so much more than just that.

That declaration,¬†I am good enough, resonated through every area of my life, even ones that are only marginally related to LtJ. From the upcoming publication of my debut novel to the fact that I recently revamped my resume and felt proud of it for the first time in my life–I keep discovering new ways that small act of courage set off a chain reaction that made me happier, more successful, and more confident in my abilities as a writer and a human being.

I think that when you start to believe that you are good enough, the universe responds in kind, and it becomes a positive feedback loop.

I am very grateful that I have a publisher for my next book, because I don’t know if I would have had it in me to self-publish that one. I haven’t announced this officially because we don’t have the contract yet, but Kasva Press also plans to re-release LtJ under their imprint–something many self-published authors hope will happen eventually.

Nonetheless, I am so, so grateful that I took the risk and decided to self-publish LtJ. It changed my life in ways I never imagined.

And even if re-releasing it with Kasva means it will have a newer, snazzier book design, I will always treasure that copy that sits on my bookshelf now, the one I designed and published myself, that has a dedication in your handwriting on the first page.

You wrote in there that you are proud of me. I’m proud of me too. Thank you for all your support and encouragement along the way. I’ve said it before, but you really went well beyond the call of duty, and it has meant a great deal to me.

Much love,

Daniella

Q&A with Random Strangers on the Internet, Pt. 3!

Yes, ladies and gents, it’s time for yet another Q&A with Random Strangers on the Internet!

Every so often I like to collect some interesting, funny, or strange search terms that led people to my blog and respond to them in a post. In case you missed them, here is Part I, and here’s Part II. Enjoy!

“what are the jewish people with the furry circle hats called”

Those would be the Hassidim. The furry hats are called “streimels,” and are usually only worn on Shabbat and holidays. More about Hassidism here, and more about stuff Jews put on their heads here.

“why is jerusalem most treasured”

Well, I see you found my post called Why Jerusalem Matters, which answers that question pretty well–at least, why Jerusalem is so treasured by the Jewish people. The short answer is that it was home to our Holy Temple, which was the focal point of our religion in Biblical times.

Jerusalem bears significance for Christians in the context of Jesus’s life, death, and (according to their beliefs) resurrection. It is important to Muslims because of the Dome of the Rock, where, they believe, Mohammed ascended to Heaven.

“facts about zionism odd practises” / “weird zionist jewish traditions”

Well, Zionism doesn’t really have “practices” or “traditions” because it’s not a religion or culture, it’s a form of nationalism. These days it is often used by antisemites when what they really mean is Judaism. Because apparently these days it is frowned upon to hate someone for their religion, but it is totally A-okay to hate someone for their politics. (…???)

So let me make this clear: Zionism is nothing more than the belief that the Jewish people has a right to self-determination in its ancestral homeland. You can be Jewish without being a Zionist, and you can be Zionist without being Jewish.

There are some¬†Israeli national traditions, but I don’t think any of them are particularly weird. I mean, there’s the fact that they like to have ceremonies for everything, and the thing about reading bad poetry at every event, but that’s for another time.

“what do you say in hebrew against haman and hitler”

Oh I know I know! Jews often add “yimach shmo,” which literally means “may his name be obliterated,” after saying the name of an evil person. As a kid I thought you weren’t even¬†allowed to mention Hitler’s name without adding¬†yimach shmo.

“can religious people be good at sex”

*cough*

Yes.

Better than secular people, according to research.

Next!

“jewish sexuality sheet”

OH DON’T GET ME STARTED.

Okay, you got me started.

As I explain here, there is a prevalent myth that Jewish couples have sex through a hole in the sheet, and it is absolutely, 100% false.

Jewish tradition views sex as a powerful force that can be either incredibly positive and sacred or incredibly destructive, depending on how it is used.¬†The positive aspect isn’t just about childbearing, either. In the proper context, sex creates intimacy and enhances the sacred bond between a man and his wife. It’s not that different from the way we enjoy delicious feasts during the Sabbath and the holidays. We believe that the pleasures of this world, channeled for holiness, themselves become holy.

“things jews like”

Pi√Īa coladas and getting caught in the rain?

Okay, seriously though: Jews are people (contrary to what certain headlines on CNN may imply) and as such we have as wide-ranging tastes as any other group of people.

Still, if one must generalize, we do appear to have these loves in common:

  • Arguing
  • Eating
  • Complaining
  • Trying to save the world
  • Dark humor

“jewish custom open book random”

So there is a kabbalistic thing about opening the Tanakh to a random page to help make decisions or determine things. It’s called “Goral HaGra,” the “Lot of the Gaon of Vilna.” The method involves opening the Tanakh to a random page and following the last verse on the page; or, if it doesn’t answer the question, taking the last letter of the verse, and looking for another¬†verse that begins with that letter on the same page.

The story goes that Rabbi Aryeh Levine used this method to identify the remains of 12 soldiers who were killed during the War of Independence. They were 12 of the 35 soldiers who were sent to reinforce Gush Etzion, and were astronomically outnumbered and massacred by the Arab army. They were buried hurriedly because of the conditions of the war, and later, when they were exhumed and moved to a more respectable gravesite, some of them were impossible to identify. (This was before the days of DNA identification!) The families asked the chief rabbi of Jerusalem, Rabbi Tzvi Pesach Frank, what to do, and he recommended Goral HaGra. Rabbi Ariyeh Levine, a well-known and beloved rabbi in Jerusalem, was assigned the task.

I wouldn’t exactly rely on it when deciding, like, what stocks to invest in, or something. But all things being equal, I guess it beats asking an 8 ball?

There is also the following Chabad custom:¬†to “ask the Rebbe a question” by writing him a letter, folding it up, giving to charity, and sticking the letter randomly into a book of his letters. They then open the book and read the letter on the page where their letter landed.

“most weird ritual in jews”

I have to choose one?

Hmmm.

I mean… this is a very subjective question. I was raised with all these rituals, so there are things that seem totally normal to me that are really weird for other people. I guess if I had to choose one, I’d point to taking the Four Species during Succot. That one is pretty weird.

“how to wrap a pashmina on head jewish”

Well, all right.

(Here’s the post I tried and failed to link to in the video: A Blessing on Your Head: Jewish Headgear)

“hourly miracles that are keeping israel safe”

I don’t know about revealed ones, but hundreds of hidden miracles are keeping Israel safe every minute of every day! Nothing else explains why we’re still here!

“i love shmita”

Oh. That’s cool. Honestly I have mixed feelings about shmita. Like, there are aspects to it that are awesome and all, but some that are a pain in the butt or downright scary.

“im not ok letter”

Oy. I hope you’re okay now.

“how to indotruce topic o holocaust to children”

I do indeed have a post that answers this question! Here it is. I hope you found it useful.

“blessings from hair judaism”

Blessings… from… hair.

…Nope. I got nothin’. Sorry.

“basically anyone israel doesn’t like is an amalekite”

Mmmmmno. There are people who toss around the word “Amalek” the way people toss around the word “Nazi” to describe anyone they don’t like, and I think this is a very dangerous and destructive overuse of both terms.
Amalek, as a nation, is extinct. But we believe that the spiritual heirs of Amalek live on. These are not just anyone we don’t like; they are people who subscribe to the worldview that is the antithesis of everything Judaism stands for: equality, justice, and compassion. I go into more detail in this post.

“rrurh pitorri de morais”

What language is that even?

When I Googled “Rrurh” I found an entry from a Google book that had mistakenly digitized the word “truth” as “rrurh.” There’s a river in Germany called Ruhr?

Perhaps it’s supposed to be a Spanish name? The “de Morais” part sounds right, “Pitorri” sounds a bit Italian maybe?

Maybe Rrurh is the German child of an Italian immigrant who married a Spanish woman?

I’m gonna write a whole novel about this.

“israeli soldiers get book of psalms”

Actually they get a whole Tanakh (which includes the book of Psalms).

When Jewish soldiers are sworn in to the IDF, they receive a Tanakh as a gift from the state. Non-Jewish soldiers receive a holy book of their choosing (usually a Qur’an for Muslims and a Christian Bible for Christians; Druze soldiers receive a medallion, because their holy book is secret!).

At least when I was a sixth-grader, we received a Tanakh as a gift from the state for graduating elementary school. I guess they expect us to lose it in the six years between?

Any other questions?! Do feel free to ask!

photo of olive tree silhouette

Read My Short Story & Interview on Reckoning

Hey Josep!

Just a quick ¬†note that my short story,¬†The Olive Harvest, published in Reckoning¬†in December,¬†is now available to read online here. The editor¬†described it as “a parable about otherness and coming together, as told by an olive tree.” It’s a quick read, only 900 words, and I expect a full literary analysis from you by next Thursday.

I kid, I kid.

The editor interviewed me about the story, and I think a lot of what I wrote there is highly relevant to this blog. (Which is why this is an “on-blog” rather than an “off-blog” note!) We covered the Biblical references in the story;¬†writing about the Middle East conflict; environmentalism in Israel; the symbolism of the slow growth of the olive tree; and my childhood tree-hugging habits. ūüôā

An excerpt:

Michael: I want to ask what sources you were drawing from. I think immediately of Genesis 1:26, where God grants us dominion over all the earth, that phrase so hotly contested between capitalists and conservationists. But I come from an American Catholic background, and I feel like my grasp of the religious lore is very limited. Are there other references you’re making I’m not getting? What about more recent influences on your style and voice?

Daniella: Yes, this story actually draws on quite a number of sources.

The most recent one, the one that really influenced the rhythm and cadence of the story, is a famous folktale of unknown origin, about a pair of brothers who work on a field together and split the portions evenly at the end of every workday. Each brother is concerned that his brother needs more than he does, so in the middle of the night, each of them takes from his own portion and transfers it to the other’s. Every morning they are both mystified as to how the piles are even again. This goes on day after day, until one night, their paths meet in the field, and they understand what has been happening, and they embrace and weep together. Jewish legend teaches that the Holy Temple was built on the spot where those two brothers embraced.

Obviously, there is reference to the story of the Noah and the Ark in chapter 8 of Genesis. It’s a story about a global disaster brought about by human cruelty, and the image of the dove with the olive branch, signaling to Noah that the Flood is receding and that they will soon come upon dry land, has become a universal symbol of peace.

‚ÄúBetween Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Ebal‚ÄĚ is a direct reference to a mysterious ceremony mentioned in the book of Deuteronomy (chapters 11 and 27) and the book of Joshua (chapter 8). It took place just after the Israelites entered the Holy Land, on these two mountains, which rise up around the Biblical city of Shekhem, known now as Nablus in Arabic‚Äďa hotly contested area in our times.

The purpose of the ceremony was to demonstrate that if the Israelites followed God‚Äôs word and carried out His commandments, they would inherit the land and prosper, but if they ignored His commandments, they would experience famine and hardship, and may eventually be expelled from the land. ‚ÄúI call upon the heaven and the earth today as witnesses: I put before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, so that you and your offspring will live.‚ÄĚ (Deuteronomy 30:19) Every time I read those words I get a tingle down my spine.

Finally, there is a less obvious, but more fundamental reference to Deuteronomy 20:19. At the end of a chapter about the rules of waging holy war, a rather peculiar, out-of-place commandment pops up. God forbids the Israelites to destroy trees that bear fruit in the process of laying siege upon an enemy city. ‚ÄúFor you may eat from it,‚ÄĚ He explains. ‚ÄúIs a tree of the field a man, to go into siege before you?‚ÄĚ

In Jewish tradition, we believe that the Torah (the Jewish Bible) is centered around the experiences and actions of man. That is its focus. But I see this passage as a little peek into God‚Äôs relationship with the rest of His creation. ‚ÄúYou go ahead and wage your wars and cleanse the world of human evil as necessary,‚ÄĚ He seems to be saying. ‚ÄúJust‚Ķ leave My trees out of it, okay?‚ÄĚ

You can read the full interview here.

Shabbat shalom and Happy Purim! (It’s on Saturday night, and I still have no idea what my costume is going to be. :-/ )

Much love,

Daniella

A Jewish synagogue in Munich

Guest Letter from Naomi: An American Jew in Munich

When I posted about my recent experience in Frankfurt, I got a response from an online friend of mine who is an American Jew living in Germany. She was sorry to hear about my impressions of Europe, because they didn’t reflect her own experiences.¬†I was delighted¬†when she offered to write a guest letter about it, because I have been focusing a lot on antisemitism in Europe and I’d like to provide a different, more optimistic perspective.

I met Naomi on an interfaith group on Facebook. As you will see in her letter, she and I share many interests! The rest, I will let her tell you. This letter, like the last few, is in the form of an interview. Enjoy!


Dear Josep,

I’m Naomi, born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area and currently living in Munich, Germany (with some time spent in between in New York, Prague, and Jerusalem). Over the years I studied creative writing, history, dance, and social work–I currently have a master’s degree in social work–and my passions and interests largely lie in the arts, working with people, culinary adventures, and being outdoors.

My cultural and religious background is somewhat multifaceted, as I was initially raised as a Reform/liberal Ashkenazi Jew, then my parents became more Jewishly observant and joined a Modern Orthodox synagogue. From preschool through high school, I attended Jewish day schools (and was in the first graduating class of two brand new ones) where I learned Hebrew, some Aramaic and a ton about Judaism.

Though I’d consider myself “just Jewish” these days, I feel quite well-versed in my religion. And growing up in the Bay Area I’d probably describe my cultural leanings as “liberal, curious and open.” I ended up in Germany as my husband was getting his PhD here. I initially worked as an au pair for a year prior to grad school, then returned after I finished my degree right before our weddings. (Yes, we had two weddings!1) I spent a lot of time here in between as well.

I [Daniella] posted recently about a negative experience I had in Germany and the discomfort I feel as a Jew in Europe. (Josep also shared, in the comments, about a negative experience he had in Berlin.) We also had a guest letter from a French Jew who loves France dearly, but feels very uncomfortable there as a Jew. Your experience, in contrast, has been largely positive. Can you tell us about that?

My experience as a Jew in Europe has been somewhat unique, particularly in the context of most German Jewry; I have some knowledge and experience of Jewish life in the Czech Republic as well. So I have to preface this by saying that I can’t really speak for all of Europe as a continent, as it’s very heterogenous and Jewish communities vary wildly throughout the region.

By “unique” I mean the fact that I am neither German nor from a former Soviet Republic, the two communities that make up the majority of Germany’s Jewry, so I’m a bit of an outsider in that regard being an American.

My husband, son, and I belong to the liberal Jewish synagogue in Munich, which in and of itself has been a positive experience. It’s a very warm and welcoming community with a diverse membership; we have Brazilian, Israeli, and Australian members, to name a few countries. I started becoming involved in an organization called Rent a Jew2, where Jewish community members go to schools and workplaces to put a human face on the Jewish community and share personal anecdotes and experiences about Judaism.

As one might imagine, Jews are rather a minority in Germany (there are quite a few in urban areas such as Munich, but don’t make up a significant part of the country’s population), so being Jewish is a different experience than in a place like New York City or London, where one can often assume that people have heard of holidays like Hanukkah or know that there is such a thing as kosher food. You really can’t assume any kind of basic knowledge, so people often have questions for me if they find out about my background–or, very interestingly, people will often mention that they themselves have some Jewish heritage–particularly in Prague, where the vast majority of our friends have at least one direct Jewish ancestor.

Despite this, I have never personally encountered any direct anti-Semitism or prejudice, just occasional curiosity. Sometimes there is a sense of being left out during the holidays, but this is honestly a similar experience anywhere outside of Israel. I think being Jewish here in Europe has strengthened my Judaism, as we have to make more of a conscious effort to be involved, unlike somewhere like New York City where you’re basically Jewish by default just living there (kidding, kidding). I imagine that for the few observant Jews living in Munich, you have to be particularly strong, as there is only one kosher restaurant and grocery store, and no eiruv around the community to allow for things like pushing a stroller on Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath.3

I also find, on a personal level, something emotionally significant about pursuing Jewish life in Europe after World War Two. I feel strongly that it’s important for Judaism to continue to thrive here. It’s almost like a full circle, as my ancestors had to flee from persecution and now I can come back and, in a way, help “rebuild” within the community.

Also, unlike back in the US, there are hundreds of years of Jewish history here4, and as someone passionate about history, that’s been a fascinating exploration since I’ve been living in Munich.

You are married to a non-Jewish Czech. How have you acculturated to each other’s different backgrounds?

I would say pretty well. My husband probably knows more about Judaism than many Jews! He has learned quite a bit of Torah, is currently studying biblical Hebrew and Yiddish. One of our weddings was also Jewish. So in terms of acclimating to my family’s Jewish background, I’d say he’s very well integrated and very involved.

Culturally speaking, Americans and Czechs have a few differences (from my perspective)–Americans are often perceived as overly effusive and sometimes insincerely friendly, and Czechs are often perceived as being withdrawn and sarcastic. However, these are stereotypes that one side often has of the other, an issue with every country’s culture. My husband has spent quite a lot of time in the US, including two stays as a student, so I think we are each in the position that we have had a lot of time and opportunity to integrate into one another’s communities. Sometimes there are funny differences, like my American family’s bewilderment that most Czechs–and Germans as well–don’t have a dryer. Apparently living without a dryer is very un-American!

When your son was born it was important to you to have him circumcised according to Jewish tradition. Can you tell us about that experience? How did your husband feel about it?

Both my husband and I did feel it was important to have a Brit Milah for our son, to have him connected to the Jewish community through a very tangible and powerful experience. It really is very powerful, as it’s obviously not easy to have such a tiny baby go through that, and as a mom you are just recovering yourself from childbirth and are totally out of it–so it’s an intense day for everyone involved. It felt especially significant to have him have his Brit Milah in a country where the ritual is extremely rare and occasionally under threat (one of the few things that unites Jews and Muslims on a regular basis in Europe). To be completely honest, if it wasn’t such an important facet of Judaism, I’m not sure I would do it of my own volition. But in the end, I am happy he is part of such a lineage, and I’m proud every day of my Jewish-American-Czech-Bavarian little guy (or however else he may choose to describe himself in the future). He is a part of so many cultures, naturally from birth, that I’m almost a bit jealous.

Naomi


Daniella’s notes:

1. That’s nothing! My grandparents had three! …Never mind. Carry on.‚Ü©

2. I gotta say, I hadn’t heard of this organization, and when I saw their name I laughed out loud. Can’t decide whether I find it more funny or disturbing…..‚Ü©

3. An “eiruv” is a sort of legal fiction that helps us get around the prohibition to carry objects in public areas during the Sabbath. It’s a string connected through a bunch of poles, that acts as a “gate,” which makes the area technically a private area in halakhic terms. Most Jewish neighborhoods and cities have an eiruv. Barcelona does not, Josep, which is why I found myself walking to the synagogue on Friday evening with no passport, key card, or wallet. In retrospect, that was not a very smart thing to do. But I was hungry and hoping to be invited for a meal, and it never occurred to me that¬†anyone else would be interested in tagging along. I guess I didn’t know you well enough at that point! I could have been your ticket in!!! ūüėȬ†‚Ü©

4. Just to be precise–as I’m sure Naomi knows–there are hundreds of years of Jewish history in the USA, but obviously, far fewer than in Europe. The first American Jews were Sephardim fleeing Spanish persecution in the 16th century.‚Ü©


Are you a Jew living in an unusual place? Or any other person with something interesting to share? Please consider sending us a guest letter!

To view previous guest letters, click here.

Screenshot from the movie "Denial"

Responding to Antisemites: Was the Holocaust a Uniquely Jewish Catastrophe?

Dear Josep,

Now that I’m back from my trip and have more or less adjusted to being home, we shall hopefully return to¬†our regularly scheduled program. ūüėČ

On my flight from Denver to Orlando about two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to watch a movie I’d been really wanting to see. (This is quite¬†a rarity, as I hardly ever watch movies these days. Who has time?!) The movie is called Denial, and it’s a dramatization of the book¬†History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier¬†by Deborah Lipstadt. Here’s the trailer:

The truth is, I was¬†fairly disappointed with the movie. I found Rachel Weisz’s performance as Deborah Lipstadt unconvincing, the script clumsy and stilted, and the drama somewhat forced. And I felt that its exploration of the very complex questions it raised¬†was too superficial.

Still, I’m glad I saw it, and had the opportunity to think those¬†questions:

  • How do we strike a balance between free speech and our responsibility to stop the spread of hateful and dangerous lies?
  • Is it better not to dignify the opinions of Holocaust deniers and antisemites with a response? Or should we¬†engage with them openly, to keep the public informed and inoculated against the lies?
  • Should this kind of¬†discussion be allowed to take place in a court of law?
  • What if making it a discussion at all gives the impression that the¬†existence of the Holocaust is a “two-sided issue” and not¬†indisputable historical fact?
  • Should Holocaust survivors be given the chance to testify in a trial like this, even if they might be re-traumatized by the prosecution and ultimately harm the defense?

All very good questions, and the answers aren’t simple.

One of them came up again last week when I discovered the following comment (on my previous post) awaiting my moderation:


Tell me something.

Nazis killed over 10 million people.
 
Why is it that only the Jewish are remembered?
 
What makes you so special?
 
How are you better than say, Polish people?
 
I’m not a Polish, not a nazi, not a holocaust denier. But I am an European, and Im pretty tired of Jewish bankers controlling the world. Do you understand, that without the banker mafia there would not have been the 2008, and without 2008, there wouldnt be Trump?
 
The world domination of the “chosen people” is crumbling the whole world.

Well. That escalated quickly.

Nothing good is ever going to follow the words, “I’m not a Nazi, but…”

When I informed¬†you about the comment, I considered asking you whether you think, in your vast experience :-/ it’s worth engaging with such people. Can they be reasoned with? Is this kind of antisemitic drivel the result of ignorance, and if so, can it be corrected with information? But I decided that there is no way to reason someone out of the belief that Jewish bankers control the world. It’s like trying to tell an anti-vaxxer that vaccines don’t cause autism, a climate change denier that global warming exists, or a flat-earther that the world is round. No amount of evidence will sway these people from their opinion.

You agreed with my unspoken conclusion in your e-mail the next day: “As someone said long ago: Do not argue with fools. They’ll drag you to their turf and beat you with experience.”

So then I asked myself: if it’s not worth engaging this particular person, maybe it’s worth discussing the comment publicly and responding to some of the points.

Which brings me back to Denial. Ignore, or engage?

Each option has costs.

The cost of ignoring comments like these is that we (the targets) feel silenced and helpless, and the perpetrators get away with doing or saying whatever they want. It feels unjust, a betrayal of the truth. And there’s always the risk that your remaining silent will empower them, making them think you’re not responding because you can’t.

The cost of engaging with antisemites, however, is that in so doing, we grant them a platform. Treating their ideas as something worth discussing may seem to legitimize them in a way. At very least, it shows that their words had an impact. This can empower them, too.

…Well &$#^.

So,¬†the last part of the comment is not worth discussing. It’s just pure, classic antisemitic myth, and I already elaborated on that¬†in my Great Post of Jewish Conspiracies.

The first part, though, I decided to address, because in isolation, it’s a pretty fair question.

Why Is the Holocaust Considered a Uniquely Jewish Catastrophe when Millions of Non-Jews Were Also Killed by the Nazis?

I think this question stems from a basic lack of knowledge regarding the Nazi regime and its ideology.

Yes, the Nazis were racists. Yes, they believed that homosexuals, Romanies, Slavs, and blacks were inferior to them and therefore unworthy of any rights.

Jews, on the other hand, were not just believed to be inferior. We were believed to be evil.

This was a central tenet of Nazi ideology. Jews–not gays, Gypsies, or Poles–were held uniquely¬†responsible for all the world’s ills.¬†Therefore, “solving the Jewish problem” meant annihilating¬†every last Jew.

They did not believe this about other groups. According to their beliefs, their¬†purpose in the world as a “supreme race” was¬†to dominate¬†other races, not¬†destroy¬†them. They saw “lesser” races and other “defective” humans as undesirable, and killed them when they were a nuisance. There was never any organized plan to seek out people from those groups and exterminate them.

The Poles and Ukrainians, for example, were sitting on fertile land that the Nazis wanted, so they killed them to get them out of the way. Their plan was to enslave the rest. Individuals who caused trouble were sent to the death camps–but those camps were built with the express purpose of¬†exterminating Jews.

In other words: the Nazis were horrible, inhumane, and murderous towards all other people who they defined as being inferior to them. But the genocide, the efforts and resources poured into the systematic and complete¬†annihilation of every man, woman, and child–that was specifically directed towards Jews. We were, by an order of magnitude, their primary and most important target.

Look; this isn’t the Victimhood Olympics. No one wins a gold medal for having suffered the most. The fact that Jews were the primary target of the Nazi genocide does not and should not minimize or marginalize the¬†devastating losses sustained by other groups. But when you claim that there is no difference between the treatment of the Jews and that of the Poles, you are denying history.

And as Deborah Lipstadt’s lawyers ultimately showed in court, when you deliberately deny history with the intention of glossing over Jewish suffering… you are an antisemite.

…Which our friend here promptly proved at the end of his comment.

Here’s hoping¬†I will be able to go back to writing about things OTHER than Nazis and antisemites soon.¬†*grumblegrumble*

Love,

Daniella

Uncanny Overtones at the Frankfurt Airport

Dear Josep,

So, speaking of antisemitic a-holes…..

*sigh*

As you know, I’m in Denver visiting family now. We flew Lufthansa this time, with a connection through Frankfurt. I hate going through customs in NY and was glad to be able to skip that part of the procedure this time, and, well, I thought it would be nice to fly through Europe. I got to show my kids the Alps through the window of the plane. The last–and only–time I’d seen them myself was from the window of a plane from Barcelona to Zurich. We also happened to find ourselves on a plane with activist-turned-MK Yehuda Glick, an absolutely fascinating character and fellow stereotype-smasher who I greatly admire. He was on his way to Washington D.C. for the inauguration. We exchanged a few pleasant words with him.

Our few hours in Germany, though, proved a little more harrowing than I had anticipated.

Listen… I’m not hysterical about antisemitism and Holocaust associations. I know, intellectually, that the Holocaust was a long time ago, and that most Germans are perfectly decent people, and that Germany actually has one of the lowest rates of antisemitism in the world right now.

But… memory of the Holocaust is so deeply ingrained in my national and religious identity, it’s a trauma the reverberates through my subconscious. I’ve been to Poland, as you know, but I was going there for the express purpose of learning about the Holocaust, and I was surrounded by a warm, supportive cocoon of educators and friends.

Here, we were just passing through, a very “visibly Jewish” family. And there was no way around it. I couldn’t shake the associations. I imagine you’ve been in the airport in Frankfurt and know what I mean when I say that the decor didn’t help. The place has a gray, industrial, austere air to it that was less than comforting.

Let’s just say I was a little on edge.

It was with this unease that I approached the security checkpoint. The man behind the X-ray conveyor belt rattled off instructions in an eerie robot-like, monotonous voice. He wasn’t talking to us like we were humans. “Everything in a box,” he repeated over and over before we understood that he meant our bags needed to go into boxes too. Flustered with his strangely hostile manner (and its uncanny historical overtones), I remembered to remove my laptop from my carry-on, but forgot about the kids’ tablets in their bags. We went through the full-body scanner–an apparatus that makes me profoundly uncomfortable–and both Eitan and R1 got a pat-down. When we went to collect our bags and coats, we found that some of them had been set aside, and the robot-voices man asked Eitan to open them.

At this point H was getting pretty upset. We’d been through a similar (less rigid) security procedure at Ben-Gurion, and no matter how I tried to explain to him that they were just being extra careful to keep everyone safe, he just got more and more upset. I took him aside and tried to calm him.

Then the robot guy called a couple of police officers over to look at one of the bags with Eitan, apparently concerned about the fact that we’d left a tablet in there.

I can’t help it, Josep. Watching a pair of German policeman approach my husband when I knew we’d done nothing wrong… I have nothing else to call it but “triggering.” I was starting to freak out a little myself. I breathed and tried to focus on calming H down. The policeman were much nicer than the robot guy and seemed pretty bewildered as to why he’d called them over.

Eitan and I were both harboring a niggling suspicion at this point.

The policemen left and we started trying to collect all our stuff. And then, out of the blue, the robot guy threw out the following comment: “You know, 25 years ago, we had a wall here, too.”

“Seriously?” I blurted.

Let me stop here and explain the context of that comment for the sake of any blog readers who need it.

The robot guy was making an inappropriate and ignorant reference to the security barrier in the West Bank. It was built during the Second Intifada as a deterrent to keep out the suicide bombers blowing up Israelis every other week–and it was very effective. It’s controversial for reasons I won’t get into here, but comparing it to the Berlin Wall (as the comment implied) is nothing short of idiotic. As I’m sure you are aware, it’s a common tactic among anti-Israel morons to throw around emotionally manipulative, wildly irrelevant historical comparisons. (Palestinians like to refer to it as the “racial segregation” or “apartheid” wall. Comparing the situation in Israel to apartheid is utterly ridiculous, and an¬†insult to South Africans who suffered under actual apartheid.)

It was not an antisemitic comment. It was a stupid anti-Israel comment. But as Eitan pointed out to me later, only Israelis get those kinds of remarks. If we’d been from Iran, would he have said, “Hey, nice centrifuges you’ve got there”? If we’d been from Russia, would he have said something about the Crimea, or the slaughter in Aleppo? If we’d have been from China, or Turkey, or any number of other countries committing severe human rights abuses on a regular basis, would be have made a snide political remark? Of course not. Residents of those countries are seen as victims. Only Israelis are held in contempt for the actions of our government. Holding Jews collectively responsible for the actions of other Jews is a classic manifestation of antisemitism. The content of the remark wasn’t antisemitic, but there’s a good argument that its context was.

Eitan was livid. He told the man to keep his political opinions to himself.

“I didn’t state a political opinion,” was the breezy response.

All I wanted to do right then was get the hell out of there. Out of the room, out of the airport, and out of the country.

Of course, the perfect, equally below-the-belt comeback hit me a few minutes later, and I posted it bitterly on Facebook using the airport wifi:

Every other German employee we encountered was somewhere along the spectrum from “pleasant” to “wonderfully helpful and sweet.” The Lufthansa stewardesses especially were really lovely to our kids. But sadly, it’s the little incident at the security checkpoint¬†that will remain burned into our memories from our few hours in Germany.

When I visited Paris as a teenager, I wandered along the Champs-√Člys√©es with a group of friends, one of whom was a French speaker (having lived in France until she was eight years old). She got into conversation with a friendly vendor, and when he asked us where we were from, there was this long, tense pause. We had been specifically warned not to tell anyone where we’re from. So I stepped forward and took advantage of my American accent to say we were from America. The rest of the group stayed very silent as my friend made up an elaborate story about why she spoke French and lived in the US while looking Moroccan.

Every time I’ve been abroad, I’ve had a moment like that where one of the locals asks me where I’m from, and I pause, wondering what kind of a turn the conversation is going to take when I tell them the truth. I actually had that moment with you, in the first conversation we ever had. It’s scarier when I’m in Europe.

If you’ve ever wondered why I sound less than enthusiastic about traveling to Europe with my family…¬†this is a major factor. It’s not much of a vacation when you¬†feel on guard all the time, worried that someone might be cruel or unfriendly to you just because of where you’re from.

Love,

Daniella

A Self-Defense Instructor’s Guide to Responding to Hate Speech

Dear Josep,

*ahem* So. As you know, the other day someone posted a garden-variety¬†antisemitic and misogynist rant on a YouTube video of mine (the one of me teaching a Mishna, which they only could have found through this page). Not that I hadn’t seen this kind of sludge before, but it was the first time I had comments like that directed at me. I took screenshots of it (without the user name of the perpetrator) and posted it on LtJ’s Facebook page with a mocking comment of my own.

screenshot of Facebook post
My post with one of these lovely comments.

Some people suggested¬†that I shouldn’t be giving the perpetrator a platform by perpetuating his message of hate and sharing it. I decided to write this post as a result.

I’m a self-defense instructor.¬†Responding to violence is one of my areas of expertise. Hate speech is a form of violence, and I responded¬†the way I would have taught my students to respond.

Given the general post-Brexit-post-USA-elections atmosphere these days, knowing what to do when you’re targeted by hate speech is sadly more relevant than ever.

Please note that I am going to use the feminine to refer to the person who is defending herself and the masculine to refer to the perpetrator for convenience only. Both could be of any gender.

“How Do I Feel?”

The first thing I teach a self-defense student to do when she finds herself in an uncomfortable situation is to ask herself: What is happening to me right now? How do I feel about what’s going on?¬†

Sometimes, she may not be sure. I teach women to listen to their bodies: is your heart beating fast? Are your breaths quick and shallow? Are your palms sweaty? Are you shaking? These are all signs that your body is responding to a perceived threat.

Do I feel threatened?

In the case of our Internet troll, I didn’t feel threatened.¬†It was just an anonymous comment on the Internet. Research shows that Internet trolls are literally losers.¬†The comments did contain threats of violence, but how seriously am I going to take that when¬†the dude is using the easiest, most cowardly form of verbal abuse to try and hurt me?

What I felt was angry. And exasperated. What kind of a loser has enough time on his hands to seek out videos made by Jewish women and write out long antisemitic rants? Don’t people have better things to do with their time?

“What Do I Want to Happen?”

The next question to ask is, What do I want to happen right now? What do I need to feel safe?

Some possible examples: I want this person to go away. I want him¬†to stop touching me. I want to disappear. I want to get out of here. I want a friend to hug me and tell me everything’s going to be okay. I want to kick this guy’s @$$.

“How Can I Make It¬†Happen?”

The next question is, What can I do to help myself feel safe?

There are a number of options.¬†At El Halev, we believe that the goal of a self-defense course is to expand our students’ options, giving them greater freedom to choose how to respond. (That’s why one of the courses is called, “The Freedom to Choose.”)

Some options we don’t need to teach anybody:

Ignore the Abuse

This can be a good option if you think that engaging with the perpetrator may escalate or perpetuate the situation, and you aren’t concerned that ignoring him will make it worse. Sometimes ignoring it takes the wind out of their sails and will make the abuse stop. As kids, we are told to do this with bullies. It can work sometimes, but not always.

Get Away

You have the right to remove yourself from any situation that makes you uncomfortable without any excuse or explanation. This is usually the safest option, too. The problem is,¬†sometimes¬†you can’t get away, or turning your back may be dangerous. In those situations, it’s best to choose a different response.

The skills we usually work on in a self-defense class include:

Use Your Voice

This can mean anything from trying to engage the person in a disarmingly friendly dialogue,¬†to shouting “GO AWAY NOW!!!”

It’s up to you. Sometimes starting a friendly conversation with a person hurling hate speech at you can be productive and change their views. Sometimes not. You should only try to do this if you feel up to it. You don’t have a responsibility to educate this person¬†on¬†human decency. Your first responsibility is to yourself.

In self-defense, we teach women how to set firm boundaries using strong, confident¬†voices, direct eye contact, and assertive¬†body language. You have every right to look at this person straight in the eye and say: “Do not speak to me like that. Leave me alone.” You don’t owe this person an explanation of what he is doing wrong or why you want him to stop. Just tell him what you want him to do, and repeat it over and over if you have to.

In self-defense, we find in many cases that setting a firm verbal boundary can put an end to the vast majority of situations of threat. This is because bullies and abusers pick on easy victims, people who will not stand up for themselves or fight back. If you show a willingness to stand up for yourself, chances are, the perpetrator will back down.

Defend Yourself

We teach physical techniques in self-defense classes, but only as a last resort: when you feel threatened with physical violence and you see no other safe way out of the situation. Obviously, this isn’t something I can teach you in a blog post! Which is why everyone¬†should go take a local self-defense class. ūüėČ Knowing some¬†physical techniques boosts your confidence and makes you feel safer. Non-lethal weapons such as pepper spray can help, but they have some downsides too: what if they malfunction, or you can’t grab them when you need them? Your body is something that will always be at your disposal, and there are easy, strong¬†techniques that you can learn to use effectively in just a few classes.

Though I did not feel threatened by my Internet troll, it does put an amused smirk on my face to know that even if he did have the guts to physically threaten me in person, he might find himself on the business end of this knee.

(Yes, this is me. Don’t worry about my fellow IMPACT instructor, he’s well protected!)

Recruit the Bystanders

If you’re in a public place and someone is speaking abusively to you, the people around you might not respond at all. This is not necessarily because they don’t want to; it may be that they’re afraid, or that they’re stuck in Bystander Syndrome–a phenomenon where witnesses of an attack do nothing to stop it because they think someone else will do something.

So how do you get help?

Simple: address¬†one person directly, and even better–give them a concrete instruction. “Excuse me sir.¬†Can you tell this man not to speak to me this way?” “Excuse me ma’am. Will you call the police, please?” Even just saying, “I need your help,” addressing one person directly, can jerk them out of denial.

Get Support

After the situation has passed, it’s important to recognize that being threatened–no matter how the situation ended–can be traumatic. You deserve support, and you don’t have to be alone with it. Tell someone you trust who will support you and believe your story without judgment.

We strongly encourage students to file a report if they have been attacked or harassed. Whether you choose to do this can depend on a lot of factors, but we encourage it because it can help you feel empowered, that you have done something, and it can help keep other people safe if the perpetrator is caught and dealt with appropriately.

So, back to my Internet troll:

What I wanted was support.

I reported the comments¬†to YouTube, removed them, and blocked the user from commenting on my channel. Then I shared my story, because I didn’t want to be alone with it. And, of course, I wanted to use that most Jewish of coping mechanisms–dark humor–to distance myself from the abuse and help myself feel more empowered.

I know that as an author who is growing her platform, and especially as a Jewish woman and an Israeli, this is not going to be the last time I’m going to get comments like this. Sometimes I may choose to ignore it and shut it down so the abuser doesn’t get the satisfaction of seeing the effects of their words. Whatever it is–it’s up to me. He threw his words at me; they’re mine now, and I’ll do whatever I like with them!

Love,

Daniella


Blog readers looking for recommendations for self-defense classes: if you’re in Israel, contact El Halev. They’re amazing! Otherwise, find¬†your local chapter of IMPACT International. IMPACT is the best of the best. And I’m not biased at all. Okay, maybe a little.