The Ann Arbor Chronicle » Jewish it's like being there Wed, 26 Nov 2014 18:59:03 +0000 en-US hourly 1 In it for the Money: Chosen People Tue, 24 Jun 2014 16:38:36 +0000 David Erik Nelson 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.

David Erik Nelson Column

David Erik Nelson

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.


The initial frame of this animiation shows dots representing a random selection of 100 Americans. The second frame shows 13% of African Americans (black dots) and the 10% of Americans who would refuse them service (red dots with slashes). The third and final frame shows the 2% of the population who are Jewish (blue dots) and the 12% of Americans who would not do business with them.

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.

I know where I stand with the Jews, and I know where I stand with the guy at Buhr Park Pool rocking the Parteiadler tattoo.

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.

Happy Birthday

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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In It For The Money: Happy Holidays! Thu, 19 Dec 2013 12:46:39 +0000 David Erik Nelson Editor’s note: Nelson’s “In it for the Money” opinion column appears regularly in The Chronicle, roughly around the third Wednesday of the month. Unlike Xanukah, it did not come early this time around.

Xanukah came early this year, and so did the Holiday headaches.

David Erik Nelson Column

David Erik Nelson

For example, due to issues both mathematical and autobiographical [1], I had a hard time getting Xanukah candles. Although I’m generally inclined to attribute these sorts of minor inconveniences to broad anti-Semitic conspiracies [2], I’ll admit that, in all fairness, this particular annoyance was mostly on me.

Owing to a family party, a Jewish Community Center party, a congregation party, a collision with a nominally secular national holiday, and some associated family travel, we got all the way to the eighth night of Xanukah without buying candles. And lo, on the morning of the seventh day [3], there were no Xanukah candles to be found in Ann Arbor.

I started driving up and down Washtenaw Avenue, then calling drug stores and groceries all over town, and it was always the same drill: I’d repeat “Xanukah candles” three or four times, and the clerk or manager or whoever would finally get his or her head around what the hell I was asking, and then very nicely, very apologetically, explain that they’d received a small shipment a day or two before, but sold out almost immediately.

Everyone was very nice and very concerned that I couldn’t acquire my ritual candles, and I didn’t have the heart to tell them that, despite the annual hoopla in the Gentile-controlled media, Xanukah is a really, really minor military holiday, and so it wasn’t a big deal.

But when I went into Hiller’s, I had a funny exchange with the clerk. I asked her if there were Xanukah candles (repeat × 3), and once she figured out what I was saying she said no, and apologized. She noted I wasn’t the first person to come in that morning (it was 9 a.m.), and that “you’d think we’d have them, because we’re a Jewish store, but no, we’re all sold out.”

Corporate Religion

Now, the thing is, Hiller’s Market is not a “Jewish store.” Despite what the mavens of Hobby Lobby might be arguing with the SCotUS, corporations like Hiller’s Market don’t have religions. We know this because, in all of the “I Went to Heaven” accounts ever penned, no one has ever claimed: “I came through the tunnel of light, and I was up above the clouds suspended in golden light, and there was Jesus, and he personally reunited me with my Uncle Luke, and my belovéd grandparents, and Gimbels, and Palm, Inc., and American Motors …”

Nonetheless, I understood what this nice lady meant, because Jim Hiller is a prominent regional Jewish philanthropist. But Hiller’s Market isn’t a “Jewish store,” it’s a grocery store that happens to be owned by Jews.

Still, I am struck by the stark difference between a “Jewish store” like Hiller’s Market and a “Christian store” like Hobby Lobby.

You can walk into a Hiller’s Market and you’ll have no notion that the business is “Jewish.” They’re open on the Jewish holidays and the Jewish sabbath (sundown Friday through sundown Saturday), and they stock plenty of Xmas stuff. Heck, Hiller’s even stocks their Jewish ritual wares (like shabbat, Xanukah, and yahrzeit candles) in the “International” aisle [4], just like Meijer stores – which bear the name of their former chairman, the notable regional Gentile philanthropist Frederik Meijer.

Conversely, Hobby Lobby is not open on the Xtian sabbath (which means Sunday business hours in this case, but I’ll admit to my ignorance of the way Gentiles handle the start and end times of their ritual day), denies their workers healthcare deemed ritually unclean among Xtians, and (at least until recently) declined to stock Jewish-themed celebration items [5].

More to the point: Neither of these establishments could help me with my Xanukah candle problem that day. Hiller’s couldn’t help me because I’d been lazy and waited too long. Hobby Lobby couldn’t help me because they would sort of prefer I didn’t exist.

And thus, after a manner, we arrive at why I don’t particularly find this to be the most wonderful time of the year.

The Gentile War On Xmas [6]

Not surprisingly, public religious practices like Hobby Lobby’s make me feel distinctly unwelcome. These sorts of displays inevitably increase in frequency at about the same time that shopping malls start putting up their Non-Denominational Holiday Trees, invite in their Religiously Unaffiliated Endomorphic Gift-Request Service Staff, and start pumping out the Just-Coincidentally-Almost-Exclusively-About-Xmas music.

As another example, consider a stocking stuffer mug from the National Republican Congressional Committee gift shop, which reads: “Happy Holidays” is what liberals say — and is set in the much-maligned Comic Sans typeface, no less!

Liberals say Happy Holidays

Liberals say Happy Holidays

What’s the message here? Isn’t this just a really pointed way of saying that the GOP isn’t for folks like me [7]? If there’s some other way to read this – one that doesn’t very clearly tell me I’m unwelcome in the Party of Lincoln – I’m eager to hear it.

Or how about a Xanukahtime press release from the American Family Association, calling for a boycott of RadioShack because the retailer doesn’t use the word “Christmas” on their advertising materials. The Shack instead opts to hype their “holiday deals” on “holiday gifts” during this “holiday season.” I’m not alone in reading this as one bunch of Gentiles urging a big mob of like-minded Gentiles to go hassle another bunch of Gentiles for insufficiently alienating my family.

When I tweeted about this, a pal replied that he had reached the point of just assuming groups like the AFA pulled stunts like this to drum up year-end donations. Frankly, that depresses me even more – because now my options are to believe:

  1. The Xtians of the AFA actually find offensive the well-meaning, if clumsy, attempt by a Corporate Person, like RadioShack, to make me feel welcome, or
  2. The AFA is built on a business model of picking on a disinterested minority in order to fleece bigots, or
  3. The executives of the AFA are blowing a dog-whistle to make sure members of various minorities know to keep a low profile – which, incidentally, also gratifies the bigots they are fleecing in option (2), and is possibly a consequence of (1) – hat-trick!

There’s no way to read that AFA press release that doesn’t make me feel bad about my country, and a little concerned about my family’s safety.

On a more personal note, here’s a pro-tip, just in case you wake up tomorrow to discover you are suddenly and inexplicably Jewish: When someone urges you to have a “Merry Christmas,” and you reply with “Happy Holidays” (a 100% accurate and meaningful reply for you) and that jolly old elf sours and pointedly corrects you by repeating “Merry Christmas” – you keep your mouth shut. In my experience, this is not the time to attempt to “open a dialogue.” Folks do not like surprises or direct contradictions, especially around Xmastime. Just say “Right back atcha!” and keep moving.

Merry Microaggression

I know this reads as petty whinging. I know these seem like tiny annoyances. But recall the fundamental lesson of the Spanish Gentile Water Torture: Tiny annoyances aggregate, and given time will slowly drill a hole in your skull and drive you mad.

In 1970 psychologist Chester M. Pierce coined the term microaggression to encapsulate this very experience of “subtle, stunning, often automatic, and nonverbal exchanges which are ‘put downs.’” Pierce was a Harvard psychiatry professor, the first African-American full professor at Massachusetts General Hospital, and the first black man to play college football south of the Mason-Dixon line. According to Pierce, “one must not look for the gross and obvious. The subtle, cumulative miniassault is the substance of today’s racism.” A quarter century later, he wrote “In and of itself a microaggression may seem harmless, but the cumulative burden of a lifetime of microaggressions can theoretically contribute to diminished mortality, augmented morbidity, and flattened confidence.”

Pierce’s work in racial microaggression was popularized among clinicians by a 2007 article Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Implications for Clinical Practice (Derald Wing Sue, et al.) In their work, Sue (et al.) divide microaggression into three sub-categories: microassault, microinsult, and microinvalidation.

Microinvalidation – which Sue defines as “communications that exclude, negate, or nullify the psychological thoughts, feelings, or experiential reality of a person” – resonates strongly for me [8].

What so terminally bums me out about the Holidays is not just the weird bullying from entities like Hobby Lobby and AFA and stressed-out Xtians who are just trying to wish you a Merry Christmas! What bums me out is the totally well-intentioned, general false-inclusion. And this year – this year of all years – was a once-in-a-lifetime demonstration of that, because Xanukah came hideously early this year.

So instead of hearing ad nauseum false equivalences drawn between Xanukah and Xmas (“It’s the Jewish Xmas!”), I heard numerous dubious equivalences drawn between Xanukah and ThanXgiving (“It’s like a Jewish ThanXgiving for the victory of the Maccabees!”)

This is incredibly frustrating – because the equivalence, driven by a well-intentioned desire to be inclusive – is so needless. Xanukah isn’t a “Jewish Xmas.” It’s Xanukah – a relatively minor religious holiday celebrating a military victory. If anything, it’s sort of a Jewish Fourth of July – which is more apt, but just as nonsensical. Similarly, Ramadan isn’t a “Muslim Lent,” Diwali isn’t “Hindu Halloween” – or even a “Hindu Xanukah,” despite the fact that Diwali is also the “Festival of Lights.”

Inclusion is nice, but you do it by including others in the stuff you are doing, not by arguing that their things are sub-functions of yours. We’re not idiots; we haven’t failed to notice that the entirely secular “Holiday Break” from school conveniently centers around Xmas and the Gregorian calendar roll-over date, and that “Spring Break” is aimed to coincide with Easter – not Passover.

One of the principal privileges of being in the Majority is that you get to be, by definition, “normal.” You don’t find yourself constantly contradicted by outsiders – well-meaning television shows and well-wishers and folks planning office parties – as to what your holy days mean. You don’t have to wrestle with autocorrect about the spelling of your holidays and well wishes. You don’t have to disclose a lot of personal details to explain why this or that day is no good for a meeting, because no one schedules a meeting for December 25th.

They’re “microinvalidations,” because they are each really small, but as they collect they take on weight that grinds you down and makes you kind of nuts.

‘Tis the Season for Misery

So, we’ve established why I’m so cranky when XanuXmastime rolls around – because it’s the period when I absorb the bulk of my year’s antisemitic microaggressions. But the thing is, most Gentiles are reportedly intermittently miserable at the prospect of Xmastime, too. As someone who, even as a lifelong participant, has always felt like an outsider on Xmas, it’s this Xtian misery that, as time wears on, has become the principal mystery of the season.

I could have it all wrong, but my understanding is that Xmas is the principal festival of the Gentile ritual calendar, both among practicing and secular Xtians. So, my corresponding celebrations would be Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur in the fall, or Pesach in the spring. These holidays can be trying – there’s family to visit, hit-and-miss religious services, big meals to prepare, schedules to juggle, fasting – but I don’t know any Jew who dreads them as every Gentile seems to at least somewhat dread Xmas. For that matter, I don’t dread Xanukah – it just annoys me, at worst.

Listen, I have to admit that, taken objectively, your Xmas is pretty rad. Explaining it to my own son, I’ve said something along these lines:

Xmas is the celebration of the birth of the Xtian God, the Undying Son, who ultimately promises to liberate his followers (a sect of ancient Jews) from death – although all of that is celebrated at a different holiday, Easter, which is sort of like Gentile Passover. The Undying Son doesn’t play much of a role in Xmas, because he is still just a baby at that time.

The principal deity of Xmas is Santa Claus. He is fat – like the Budai – and clad in a blood-red suit. He loves children, and promises to play tricks and break into homes and remove barriers and grant boons and sort the worthy from the unworthy – so he’s sort of Coyote, and sort of Ganesh, and sort of Thoth.

But, like our Meshiach, he doesn’t ever actually show up; like us, the Gentiles are stuck eternally awaiting his advent. Unlike us, the Gentiles are not content to sit around waiting. Instead, they disguise themselves in his garb, and use this anonymity as an excuse to practice some of the highest levels of tzedakah and tikkun olam, and also to give loved ones gifts without having to admit to having done so. This Xmas Spirit is the principal embodiment of the Universal Mutual Caretakership that is the Xtian’s central creed.

The virtues of generosity and kindness are central to the nominally Xtian people. Gentiles – even otherwise secular Gentiles – make great sacrifices at this time of year in the pursuit of these rituals, and in assuring that even the least among them are able to participate in ritual gift exchange.

All told, it is a slightly bizarre ritual, but charming in its own right. They are a noble and charitable people and, despite how things often turn out, they really do mean well.

In that light, I really do sincerely wish each and every one of you a very Merry Xmas, and may your New Year be good, and sweet.



[1] For those not in the know, Xanukah runs eight consecutive nights sometime between Thanksgiving and Xmas. Sorry I can’t be more precise; Jewish holy days are anchored to the Hebrew calendar – a kludgy luni-solar affair consisting of 12 months of 29-ish-days each, with a leap month plopped in on a seven-in-19-years schedule that’s disputed to this day. For the mathematically inclined, the current leap month rule is:

(7y+1) mod 19 < 7 ⇒ leap year!

This might be read aloud as something like: “If seven times the Hebrew year, plus one, has a remainder less than seven when divided by 19, then it is a leap year. Probably.” On Jewish leap year Jews throughout the Universe cram in an extra Adar at the end of the ecclesiastical year (i.e., February-ish – and, yes, the Hebrew calendar concurrently tracks two kinds of year, each with its own start/end points).

If you’ve ever had the sneaking suspicion that these Jewish holidays are a bit inconsistent, shiftily skulking all over the calendar – well, sir, that is racist (and basically accurate).

Like all Jewish observances, Xanukah is celebrated at sundown. For ancient desert-dwelling folks with no mechanical clocks, “midnight” is a useless abstraction, while “sundown” is pretty readily observed. Also, the rabbis tell us that the Torah tells us that God told us to do it this way.

At any rate, once you locate Xanukah, you celebrate for eight consecutive nights by lighting n+1 candles, where n = the ordinal number for that day of Xanukah, and the +1 is the shamash, a “helper” candle whose sole purpose is to light the other candles, and otherwise has no ritual significance.

If you pour some pre-calc sauce over the sum of that series, you would conclude that a box of Xanukah candles contains 44 candles:


In my experience, the odds of actually consuming exactly one box of Xanukah candles in a given year are basically nil: You end up spending some nights with family or friends at their homes, and maybe miss one or two because of non-sectarian evening plans.

Plus, Xanukah often overlaps with Xmas, at which time Xanukah tends to be suspended in mixed households like ours.

In Jewish parlance, my wife and I are a “mixed marriage,” in that only one of us is Jewish. Although my parents aren’t technically “mixed” – my mother (raised a Congregationalist) converted to Judaism – when I was a kid in Metro Detroit, very few individual Jews (or even congregations) fully recognized a doctrine of conversion, despite thousands of years of Jewish conversion; there are recognized conversions in the Torah, just not in West Bloomfield. Even today, even here in peace-love-&-understanding Ann Arbor, “mixed marriage” is an issue that many congregations feel they need to help their members “cope with.”

I’d like to take this moment to advise folks struggling to cope with my family’s various multi-faith unions to keep their earnest concerns to themselves. I have no Holiday Spirit left for concern-trolling bigots.

At any rate, whether or not you recognize the validity of Jewish conversion, the math is pretty simple: I grew up with two Xtian grandparents, and they always came for Xmas, which continues to be the primary gift-giving holiday on my family’s ritual calendar, always superseding Xanukah during date collisions. And, while I remember several childhood Xanukah gifts with a grade-schooler’s special soft-focus fondness, what I remember most of Xanukah is the hot wax and candle light, and our long-haired cat catching fire on the Xanukiah year after year. The presents were blessedly secondary – as is right and good. After all, it really isn’t a gift-giving holiday.

At any rate, for a variety of reasons, each year my household finishes out the Festival of Lights with a day or two worth of spare candles – which means that, lazy and efficient as I am, I can generally ignore prepping for Xanukah, because I know I’ve got at least a few candles handy from last year. You need only a few to cover the first several nights: over the course of the first half of Xanukah, you only use 1/3 of the candles in a box. If you missed days 7 and 8 last year, than you’ve got enough candles to get you through days 1 through 4 this year). In my experience, picking up a box of Xanukah candles on the fourth night is usually trivial; the rush, after all, was a week ago by that point.

If you’re tempted to draw some sort of money, math, and Jews conclusion right now, I’ll have you know that is racist, good sir! Racist and accurate!

[2] A handful of other Jews I know, spread all across this great land, reported similar challenges sourcing candles for the first night of Xanukah – although, again, I’m not saying there is a vast anti-Semitic conspiracy … in this instance.

[3] Which technically follows, not precedes, the seventh night because, as you’ll recall, our holy days begin at sundown, not midnight or sun-up as one might expect, and I know that’s sort of confusing, and I apologize, but this calendar was here when we showed up, and we’re sorta stuck with it now

[4] … Jewish Conspiracy zing!

[5] There’s reasonable public dispute as to what degree Jews should take this as a slight. Yes, several different Hobby Lobby workers at different stores seem to have answered inquiries about their store’s dearth of Jewish celebratory items by responding along variations of “we’re a Xtian store, and don’t cater to those people,” and yes the Greens – who own the Hobby Lobby Corporate Person, and are both staunchly conservative Christians and supporters of Israel – were almost sorta quick to apologize and consider possibly changing their policies, but I want to make three quick observations:

  1. I’ve travelled all over the Gentile-dominated US, and have been perplexed, time and again, by how common it is for stores to stock Jewish speciality items. I’ve walked the aisles of grocery stories in the mountains of Tennessee and Kentucky, and the panhandles of Texas, Florida, and Oklahoma, in the vast and largely Jewless plains of our bread basket, and sure enough, there in the “International” section, there’ll be a couple boxes of Manischewitz matzo ball mix, some gelt, and a few dusty cans of kosher-for-Pesach macaroons. The Hallmark aisle, likewise, will have one or two Xanukah cards, a bris card, and some solemn condolences with a Jewish star on it. These were big box places, mom-and-pop places, groceries and drug stores, all in towns where I certainly felt like the only Jew in a 300 mile radius. How many bris cards do they sell in Elk City, Oklahoma? The simple answer is that even with next-to-zero demand, these are shelf-stable items taking up very little space. It’s a rudimentary long-tail strategy.I’m not leveling accusations, Mr. Green, but I am going to note that a Build-Your-Own Menorah kit is also small and shelf stable, and it sorta tests credulity that a Hobby Lobby couldn’t spare the 20-square inches to stock one in Jew-rich New Jersey, but a crumbling Food Lion in West Virginia has two shelves to spare for gefilte fish and kosher gelatin.
  2. Supporting Israel hardly equates to supporting – or even particularly tolerating – Jews in general. There is a whole terrifying sub-string of Armageddon Xtianity that desperately wants to maintain a Jewish Homeland in the Promised Land because it is somehow integral to their faction’s End World Ragnarök D&D Expansion Set Mythology. Friends don’t make friends into pawns in their weird apocalyptic death trips, Mr. Green.
  3. In whatever way the Greens run their business, they seem to have done it in a fashion that leads their workers – and a decent chunk of their customers – to conclude that the in-store merchandising is a result of the owners’ faith. This is very reasonable, because the Greens have been quite explicit that lots of other business decisions – like closing on Sunday or denying their workers healthcare which the Greens deem to be ritually unclean – are driven by their faith.

[6] If you’re a God-fearing Xtian type and you feel like I’ve been being a smart-ass and tweaking you by writing “Xmas” for the last thousand words – well, then you are perceptive, ’cause I am and I have. But if you think the abbreviation “Xmas” indicates an attempt to extricate the “Christ” from the “Christmas” – either by culture at large, or me in particular – you’ve got another thing coming; please permit my close chum Fritz Swanson to drop a little Xtian erudition on you: “Keeping the X in X-Mas

[7] Incidentally, while the stereotype that “All Jews are Democrats” is indeed broadly predictive, the Michigan GOP enjoys some meaningful support among Metro Detroit Jews, both historically and today. E.g., the current chairman of the Michigan Republican Party is Jewish – which I guess would makes the MI GOP a “Jewish business” in some eyes, just like Hiller’s. [Sighs]

[8] In this particular paper Sue (et al) specifically consider microaggressions as experienced by people of color. As of 2010 Sue had expanded the work to include religion, gender, social class, perceived disability, etc.

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