Editor’s Note: David Erik Nelson’s short story “The New Guys Always Work Overtime” won the 2013 Asimov’s Readers’ Award for Short Fiction. You can buy it or download a free copy: [here]
Our Jewish Community Center in Ann Arbor is small. This seems to throw a lot of people off. They think of Ann Arbor as a fairly Jewfull town, because the University of Michigan brings in a lot of East Coast Jews, as well as basically every Midwestern Jew who can make the cut.
This probably sounds harsh, bordering on bigoted: When some guy with a generic Englishman’s surname and a very Nordic “K” in his conspicous middle name starts sounding off about the preponderance of Jews in town . . . well, it doesn’t sound good, does it? So, to clarify for the Occasional Readers and those who have not yet grown to know and love me: I’m a Midwestern Jew, born and raised in Metro Detroit, like my father before me.
And to us Metro Detroit Jews, UM has long been the Promised Land: At last count something like 40 of my relatives have attended the university (with most ultimately earning a degree or two!) The latest of these, my nephew, will be joining the rolls this September. We are kvelling (well, maybe less so his step-dad – who is a Spartan, but still a pretty OK guy).
But the university’s Jews don’t tend to stick around, so the actual number of Jewish families in Ann Arbor is pretty small – or, at least, small compared to where I grew up. The point being that we have a small JCC here. It’s pretty heavily used by all the congregations, of which there are three with actual buildings – if you count the Reform folk, who share a building with Episcopalians – and then a handful of gathered congregations. I’d guestimate that more than half of the JCC’s square-footage is dedicated to children: There’s a large daycare, and a K-5 Hebrew Day School, plus an after-care program and several summer camps.
Our tiny JCC has an armed guard. In my mind, this is pretty common. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a JCC without an armed guard – but it came as a surprise to my wife and in-laws, who are not Jews.
Our guard is a guy I’ll call G. He’s a high-and-tight retired Army Ranger with a drawl. All the kids love him, because he is an excellent security guard: He makes it his business to be sure that all the kids know him and like him, so that they will listen to him in an emergency. Most of the emergencies are weather-related (naturally), but during my son’s final year in preschool at the JCC three armed robberies took place within a 1-mile radius of the JCC in a two-week stretch. In all three cases the school was locked down, because three men with shotguns were running around the neighborhoods, evading cops. In such situations, I’m glad G. is handy, because he is sharp and disciplined – and I am very comfortable with him and his role and his being armed in this setting.
To the uninitiated it maybe sounds a little nuts, that my kid’s daycare – which is also the building where we make our religious practice – has an armed guard. But this is the way of the world: Now and again white men with gun-show stockpiles take it upon themselves to take a stab at Zion, and they disproportionately target JCCs when they do so. And JCCs almost invariably have daycares and schools.
But that’s not what I want to tell you about. I want to share a Terrible Revelation I had at the end of May.
A New Gun
G. was off for a couple days at the end of May, and so the substitute guard was there. I’ve seen him now and again – he’s one of several subs who fill in for G. He’s well-meaning, but kinda shlubby; not crisp and affable and sharp as G. But good enough in a pinch.
And on his second day subbing, as I was carrying my 2-year-old daughter through the blast doors, I noticed he had a new pistol – either a small 9mm or a larger .22, the finish absolutely pristine – and I thought to myself “Dude has a new pistol. Oh yeah, some fucker in Belgium shot up a Jewish Museum over the weekend. Figures.”
On that sub’s first day on duty, I’d noticed he had no gun, and the thought in my head had been: “What the fuck good to me is a guard without a goddamn gun?” The thought just surfaced, made its impression, and drifted away. It was not a remarkable thought, here in the Promised Land.
I noticed because I always check the guard’s gun on the way into the building, no matter who is standing guard. G., for example, always packs the same automatic, which I believe to be a .45 Glock. It’s got wear along the end of the barrel and rear sites, where they rub as he walks, stands, sits. I always look, because I want to see that holster clipped – which it always is. And I want to know the gun is there.
So, on that second day I found myself relieved to see G’s sub with a gun on his hip. And only then did I realize how much I’d been bothered by its absence. And I discovered that – way in the back of my head – I’d actually been sorta-kinda considering calling the JCC to see when G. would return.
I made it out to the parking lot, to my car where my son sat waiting for me to drop him at his bus stop, and all of it just suddenly piled on top of me:
It will never be done.
The Land of MLK and Honey
All over this great nation, African Americans attend church on Sunday, and they do not worry about getting blown up. But at one time that just wasn’t the case – back in the days when MLK himself advocated packing heat. Terrorist IED attacks on churches were a constant worry, part of a constellation of worries. And those worries are not gone. And we are not “past race.” But church bombings are in the past. Lynchings are in the past. Burning crosses are in the past. If I were to go to a church and ask “Why don’t you have armed guards?” they’d look at me like I was nuts. If I asked “Why aren’t these windows blast-proof?” again, I’d seem insane, because for all the awfulness African-America has to deal with on a daily basis, broad ideologically motivated targeting by domestic terrorists has markedly declined.
But being the plum target of the men who purchase arms through the gun-show loophole will evidently drag on forever – even though this paranoid worldview jumped the shark so long ago that most garden-variety American Jew-haters have forgotten we killed their God and don’t even know what the blood libel is any more.
They just know that Jews are for hating.
Our JCC – my kid’s daycare – has blast proof windows. I have some professional contacts in the bulletproofing industry, and I can tell you for a fact that bullet- and blast-proof exteriors are exceedingly common at Jewish Community Centers – almost the norm. Under the auspices of Homeland Security, the federal government even offers grants to defray the cost.
Again, this is how the world has been as long as I can remember: JCCs have armed guards, High Holiday services have police protection, and you regularly meet grandparents who decline invites to cook-outs because the smell of meat over open flame stirs the hot ashes of memory and triggers panic attacks.
As children, our history was not sterile and abstract: It was not stark black-and-white photos in the encyclopedia; it was not limited to dramatizations directed by Steven Spielberg.
Our History was at your left elbow at the dinner table telling you about the time he captured – and then murdered – a panzer commander, because that officer gave him lip on the same day he learned his family still living in Poland had all been liquidated by good German patriots just like that privileged officer. Our History spent her young womanhood in Auschwitz-Birkenau sorting the clothes of those who’d been sent “up the chimney,” so that the garments could be shipped to the widows and orphans of German soldiers. Our History had a scar where she’d had her numbers cut out, rather than bear them as a sign upon her arm for the rest of her days.
Just to be crystal clear: I am a well-off “white” person born in the United States in the final quarter of the 20th Century. I grew up in a community of upper-class “white” people, most of whom had regular interaction with family members who had been enslaved and tortured for the German war effort. I grew up in a place where people like me were certainly “white” if you were dark, but still never quite white enough for the world of folks who festooned their house with lights come winter and never thought about whether or not they were really white, or really American.
I remember once, when I was a kid, someone keyed a rental car we had, carving swastikas into the driver’s side door, just above the handle, where the driver – my mother – would be sure to see. This didn’t alarm me; it was just part of how the world was. It was, in fact, so very unremarkable that I didn’t even think of the incident again until I sat down to write this column. For comparison, around this same time I came across a skinned cat laid out on a large flat rock in the middle of a creek in the woods near my suburban elementary school. I think about that moment often. It was the first time in my life I’d ever seen a skinned animal, and it had taken me a long, long moment to even make sense of what I was seeing, and what it must mean.
The skinned cat was remarkable. That was a Mystery worthy of long meditation.
But a swastika? Psssh. I can spot a swastika at 20 yards – scratched into a wall, worked into a tattoo, hidden in a pattern of tiles, subtly alluded to in the shapes of children’s toys and the orientation of library study carols. There are swastikas everywhere, when you have the right eyes on. And it behooves folks like me to keep those eyes on. Remember: Our daycares need forced-entry rated glass and armed guards. Our houses of worship draw regular protests.
The Slow Turn
But then I had my own kids, and my heart went soft. I began to assume that this threat – so small it is almost imperceptible, but also constant and all-permeating, like radon – just wouldn’t be part of my kids’ world, in much the same way that my childhood was not marred with the sort of overt anti-Semitism my dad endured, and his childhood was not defined by the murderous anti-Semitic pogroms his father fled: Seven years old, Abraham Spielberg crossed the Atlantic with a note pinned to his shirt, indicating the address where he should be sent, and the name that he should adopt, the world into which I ought to disappear.
This world. Here. America. The Promised Land of Milk and Honey.
But it’s a long tail, I guess, and this last bit, these final men with guns will linger for ever. And on the day one of them comes and puts lead in me and my kids and their teachers and my neighbors and G. and the receptionist, there will be people on the Internet like weev, or whoever, who will laugh and crack an “Elders of Zion” joke. And then click on to the next thing.
And we – me and my Jewish children, our Jewish neighbors, our gentile guard – we will be dead.
And we won’t be dead because Gun Control or because Mental Health or because Assault Rifles or because the Internet or because Anything. We’ll be dead because, for whatever reason, this one stupid little thing just won’t finish, the other damn shoe will never drop. They don’t even know why they should hate us any more, just that being hated is what we’re for.
I can tell you – as a guy who spent his formative years talking to concentration campers, talking to Jewish-American enlisted men who liberated concentration campers, poring through first-person accounts, reading Christian Patriot and Aryan Identity forums – that the men who will come now to kill us, they are more dedicated than any of those sad-sack old SS guards that get scooped up now and again and dragged to Israel for trial. Unlike Eichmann himself, these last men with guns will never claim to have just been cogs following orders. These men are proud of their devotion. They come to give “a wakeup call to America to kill Jews” and to make sure that everyone knows that “The Holocaust is a lie. Obama was created by Jews. Obama does what his Jew owners tell him to do. Jews captured America’s money. Jews control the mass media.”
These are the men who will not be persuaded, who I cannot talk my way past or bring around, who won’t stop until someone like G. puts a bullet in them. These are the men who rarely stand trial because they are dead on the scene. These men will give the last full measure to squeeze off those rounds into my kid’s daycare.
Because that’s how firmly they believe that my daughter should be dead. Because she is a Jew like me. This must be how it feels to know you passed your daughter that gene for super-aggressive metastatic breast cancer.
And I’ll wager that the bulk of my Gentle Readers don’t have a context for this feeling – because they’ve never felt the cruel twist of self-loathing that comes with knowing you’ve endangered your children by virtue of being related to them. This is part of what I want to share with you.
This is, in a way, the core of the Terrible Revelation: I suddenly realized that your average Americans don’t spend a second of their lives despising themselves for marring their own children with the awful taint of their Identity.
For just a second, standing in the parking lot with my hand on the door handle of my car, that was too much to bear.
The Promised Land
But the Terrible Revelation just kept expanding, because in all the world this is among the safest places for us. This is as good as it gets: A daycare with an armed guard and blast-proof windows. According to a recent poll from the Public Religion Research Institute 12% of Americans think it’s basically OK to refuse to do business with a Jew (and let us not forget the breadth of services that might ultimately fall under the auspices of “doing business in America“).
The lede on that first article is that 10% of Americans think it’s basically kosher to refuse to do business with an African American man or women. That number is pretty awful, yet somehow, today, now, in the 21st Century, Jews – nominal whites – are still a smidge less popular among your average American than the most terribly, systematically abused minority in the history of this nation.
But once you really think about those numbers, it’s even worse than it sounds: African-America makes up just about 13% of the U.S. population. If you randomly select 100 Americans, you can expect about a dozen of them to be black, and ten of the remainder to refuse African Americans service. That’s terrible. But at least the black folk outnumber the racists. Pardon the grim calculus, but provided the other 77% of Americans decide to stay out of it, the black dots have a fighting chance.
Meanwhile, maybe 2% of the U.S. is Jewish. So, in that same random sampling, you have two Jews staring back at a room full of gentiles, a dozen of whom really hate them. And the remaining 86? I hope they are at least indifferent.
But every time I see a headline about Donald Sterling or Bernie Madoff or Alan Greenspan or Israel, I start to worry about the 86% of America – those who are neither Jews, nor so shockingly bigoted that they’d refuse to take our money.
But what about the other 86? I never know. And history tends to indicate that there’s a tipping point for them. Some little thing is going to be one thing too many, and then . . . and then it’s the wrong end of the gun, it’s the lager bottles filled with gasoline, it’s axe handles, it’s Heaven’s Chimney.
It’s the End all over again.
But it never ends, because that’s the point: Until we stop existing – because we’re smoke and ash or because we wise up and stop going to our synagogues and JCCs and museums – then it’s never over, because they will always be more numerous than us, and they are as dedicated to our death and dismemberment as we are to just living our lives and getting our kids to daycare on time so that we can get our other kids to the school bus so that we can go home and get to work and pay our bills and taxes and just be.
Thus ended the Terrible Revelation that I wanted to share with you.
The next day after the Terrible Revelation was my son’s eighth birthday. He’s never met anyone who saw the inside of an operating concentration camp. I can remember being six and seven, but I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know about concentration camps, about genocide. I can’t remember ever being told; it was just always there, like air and thunderstorms and acorns.
I have not told my son. I feel like I’m lying by not telling him. I feel like I’m concealing something.
But I can’t find words to tell him anything about any of this; my throat just locks up. And that scares him. And so we do something else, because there’s no need to scare him. As should be suitably established by this point, the world is scary enough on its oddy-knocky. Hardly needs my enhancements.
What would I tell him? What fatherly advice suffices?
Keep a clean nose? Keep a low profile? Keep quiet?
I’m going to let you in on a little Jewish secret, Gentile America: Jewish fathers have told their Jewish sons to learn to keep their mouths shut and blend in from time immemorial, and it has never done a damn bit of good. We didn’t end up with the anonymous surname “Nelson” by some accident of history, folks. It was a plan. But it never really worked out.
I guess if I could say anything, I’d say it’s like what the Rabbi says in the story: Feel lucky, boy, ’cause it can always be worse.
Why Am I Telling You All This?
Honestly, I don’t know.
I do know that often, when you try to tell the Majority about some little sliver of a facet of living in a Protected Class, they get huffy. Sometimes it’s because they think you are a whiner or full of shit or whatever, and that’s OK. An asshole is born every minute – and, frankly, I don’t think many of those folks have read this far.
No, the Righteous Among the Nations get huffy, too, and I think that’s because they are sickened and overwhelmed by new knowledge of perpetual injustice. And, because they are powerful, and because they are good, and because they are Americans, they want to do something to Solve This. And what upsets them is the fact that this cannot be solved. That, in short, is my whole point: Here and now, in this place, this is as good as it will ever get for the Children of Israel – and still, my daughter’s daycare needs an armed guard and blast-proof windows.
So, just to be crystal clear: I’m not telling you this because I expect you to fix it. I’m not telling you this because I expect you do say “Poor Dave! Poor Jews!” I’m not telling you this because I want you to give Israel a pass on their awful domestic policies. I’m not telling you this because I want you to watch Schindler’s List or donate to the Shoah Foundation or visit a Holocaust Museum – jeez, you’re taking your life into your own hands doing that.
First and foremost, I tell you this because some of the Jews with whom I shared the Terrible Revelation, they said “You should publish this.” I suppose they felt that hearing this might help you – the great and all-ruling throng of gentiles – to know us a bit better. But whatever their motivations, they said you should be told, and they are right: By not telling you, I am lying to you about the world, as sure as I’m lying to my boy by not telling him about the Shoah.
I owe you the simple fact of what I saw as I stood in the parking lot, fingers on the door handle, on the day before my son’s eighth birthday.
But also, I want you to know because I think about that 100-person vision of America often. I think about those two little Jews adrift in a sea of docile American gentiles. I think about those twelve venomous jellyfish floating along, invisible to their countrymen, invisible to everyone but us yidlach.
I know that the vast, vast bulk of you, Gentle Readers, are likely to be Gentile Readers, quiet members of the 86% of Americans who are neither Jews nor principled bigots. And it’s you I dwell on, not the two little Jews, not the twelve angry anti-Semites.
Eighty-six of you in that quiet crowd, and God knows that you have every right, when the Bad Thing Happens, to treat it as exactly none of your business. God knows that this would be the smart thing to do, because standing up will likely mean getting killed with the rest of us, and you have your families and your people to watch out for. I entirely respect your decision to keep quiet and carry on.
But God also knows that if all of you choose to prudently mind your own business, we two Jews will be totally and completely fucked. Once again.
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