Petrozavodsk, 1990

Zina was Anya’s mother. When I came down with a cold, she fed me spoonfuls of honey at the small round table by the kitchen windows, morning light streaming in through the thin glass. It was early spring, but still cold in those northern parts, and when we went walking you could see the steam hovering over Lake Onega. The snow melted in April, and by the time I was feeling better, tiny crocuses were pushing their way through the cold ground and children were skipping in the courtyard.

Zina’s hair was a shock of that red-orange dye distinct to Russian women of a certain age. I didn’t  understand why she loved me like a second daughter; maybe because I was inquisitive whereas Anya was sullen.

My questions ran the gamut; I wanted to hear about her childhood, the dacha where her grandmother taught her to grow carrots and berries, the goat she nearly lost during a particularly bad spring flood when she twelve, how she’d met her husband (their families knew each other), and whether she ever dreamed of traveling beyond the city where she’d lived her whole life.

Zhanna, she’d say, I am content. Why should I want to go anywhere else when I have everything I need right here? She’d gesture around the small room, as if her teapot and slippers belonged to royalty. It made it hard to argue, even though as a young woman lusting for life experience, I knew my love of that provincial place hinged on the train that would take me away from it before long.

The forests nearby — miles and miles of birch trees straddling the Finnish border, dense with memory and darkness — and the low-hanging sky that seemed like an inverted bowl holding in the world below, all of this created a kind of vortex effect. At night, I’d lie in my small bed covered with so many blankets, the cold air seeping in from the crack Zina insisted was healthy for sleeping, and imagine I could hear the whispers of those who’d lived in that high-ceilinged room  before Anya’s family moved in. My dreams were a mish-mash of Russian and English and lines of poetry I couldn’t remember come morning, and I felt at once old and young and ageless as the weeks passed.

I also felt Jewish in ways that were beginning to grow more pronounced. The few times I brought this up, an unmistakably displeased expression crept over Zina’s face, and Anya’s lips turned downward even more than usual. Mother and daughter alike would glance in the direction of Anya’s father, who wouldn’t look up from his newspaper. Case closed; religion was not to be discussed.

But I couldn’t help myself. My love of Russia began to bang up against something else: The undeniable truth that Jews had left this place in droves, in search of the religious and cultural freedom of expression. Sure, some small communities had cropped up, particularly in the bigger cities, but here in the north, Jews were an anomaly — suspicious, strange, other.

More and more, I realized I was like those Russian Jews. My grandmother with her Yiddishisms and stories paired with my own lack of knowledge seemed too great of a parallel to ignore. I knew I was Jewish, but had not idea in practice what that meant. I didn’t know where to begin, but knew that begin I must. Zina and Anya indulged me, but the line was clear that this was not a welcome subject. Better to pour another cup of tea and talk about school or the weather. History, identity — why would you open those troublesome topics?

The next time I was there was four years later. Late July, the outer edge of the White Nights that held twilight suspended in a liminal state of waiting until dawn. We pulled the heavy shades at night to induce darkness, then woke to the sound of the kettle screaming in the kitchen. I was very sick; I spent days on or bending over the toilet, and Zina was as attentive as ever even as Anya receded further from sight. The moment had come and gone, the one where I belonged.

When I left, they waved at the train. I could see that Anya was tearful. Was it because she’d miss me, or because I was leaving and she wasn’t? From there, I’d travel to Prague, where the Jewish quarter and Terezín brought me ever closer to the inescapable truth of my heritage. It didn’t matter what I knew or didn’t know of my family’s history; as my grandfather had said while he lay dying, “Once a Jew, always a Jew.”

For Allowing Us to Reach This Season

Photo: Dan Gold

Coffee. Perhaps this goes without saying, but it is always worth saying.

Chalupa, who has figured out how to sleep with awkward plastic cone head. Who ate breakfast from my cupped hands this morning. And is now snoring sweetly. (You know how much I love this pooch.)

“It takes a village.” And my layered relationship to this expression, my lived experience of it, and the profound gift of growing.

The conversation Mani and I had in the car yesterday, on our way to the vet in the afternoon. How there is no hidden meaning. Or how there may be — in that there is mystery — and also: Meaning is what we decide. We don’t have to seek or create it.

Fall. The 40-degree temperature swings. Back to school. Pearl woke up with a slight fever and a head cold. Tis the season.

Incremental change. How big decisions often come suddenly, but not out of nowhere. There is something sacred here for me — maybe it’s related to the meaning thing — about seeing this in myself and in my actual life. The subtle but profound impact of really learning how to listen.

Humility. Stands alone.

Growing up, I did not know about Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. I did not know about Shabbat or kashrut or the Shema. I did not know mitzvah from challah. I did not know Inquisition or Holocaust.

As a child, I took ASL at a school for the deaf in Buffalo. My signing partner was an elderly woman who’d lost her hearing.

I wanted to be able to speak without making a sound, like I did at the piano.

When I was 15, I spent a summer in Spain. I saw swastikas spray-painted on brick walls. I knew this was the land of my father, and the language came from an old place in me, one I didn’t have to work hard to find.

When I was 16, I went to Russia. I rode trains through dense birch forests, far north, near the Finnish border. I was never afraid of the men, though maybe I should have been. I opened my mouth to speak and surprised them. I knew this was the land of my mother, a place her grandparents fled.

Israel. I go there in dreams. I am home.

In Prague, the way the stones in the old Jewish cemetery toppled, falling over each other, felt like time itself.

This kitchen. I made pot after pot of white Carolina rice, hauled shipments of Ensure up from the porch, determined to keep her alive.

The Shehechiyanu. The blessings that says: “Thank you for allowing us to reach this season, this moment, this time.” We recite it to mark the first of something. That first may occur cyclically — like the first night of Hanukkah — or it may be a one-time thing, like the first time a child loses a tooth or the first time a certain group of people has gathered.

בְּרוּכָה אַתְּ יָהּ אֱלֹהֵינוּ רוּחַ הָעוֹלָם שֶׁהֶחֱיָתְנוּ וְקִיְּמָתְנוּ וְהִגִּיעָתְנוּ לַזְּמָן הַזֶּה
Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam, shehecheyanu, v’kiy’manu, v’higianu laz’man hazeh.

I learned these things by learning these things. I am not what you think but I am exactly who you believe me to be. It was not easy, discovering myself. It was 40 years of wandering. Despair and thirst and a hunger so deep it devoured me from the inside out.

But it was worth it. So very worth it. To arrive here. Here to this life. Here to this work. Here to this wife, these children, this community. Here to this moment in time, with its urgency, with its clear mandate to stand up and be counted and to know that every word, every silence, every encounter, every choice counts.

Prayer. How it has many forms. How it might be communal and it might be intensely solitary. How we all carry so many rungs, like old-growth trees.

I do not pledge allegiance to any flag. But I do bow my head before something I can only call God. Call this what you will or nothing at all. That’s why there are so many names, so many doorways, so many paths up this steep mountain.

And if you want, take my hand.

On DNA Results and the Pursuit of Justice

Don’t I look happy to be meeting Nona (Lena Baruch) and Grandpa Max (Max Schwartz) for the first time?

Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof! (Justice, justice, you shall pursue!)

I’m thinking of these words, from Deuteronomy 16:18.

The Hebrew word “tzedekah” is usually translated as “charity.” But its roots are in this word “tzedek” or “justice.”

Both tzedek and tzedakah — that is, pursuing justice and charitable giving — are commandments. This means we don’t “do” these to feel or look good but because we are required to be as concerned with everyone else’s freedom and wellbeing as we are with our own.

Without justice, there is no freedom. Without justice, there is no wellness. Without justice, there is no genuine giving.

Without justice, none of us is free.

* * *

I received my Ancestry.com results today.

As I expected, I am 75% Ashkenazi — that is, descended from Jews in Eastern and Central Europe.

About 21% of my DNA reflects my Sephardic origins in Spain, Italy, and Greece, and the Caucasus, a region encompassing Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey.

The final four percent are comprised of some genetic connection to the Middle East, North Africa, Great Britain, and East Asia.

Scrolling through the usernames of hundreds of likely 4th-6th cousins was dizzying.

* * *

As I walked home from doing some errands in town, shortly after an initial glance at these results on my phone before delving into the details, I found my thoughts wandering back in time. What were they like, these ancestors of mine? I knew my grandparents on both sides, have only snippets of an impression of their parents, and know basically nothing before this.

What I do know is that my people have been nomadic by both nature and necessity. Our migrations — both east and west — have been the result of antisemitism, and Jews have been favored scapegoats for economic and social problems for-ev-uh. What I don’t know is: Who fell in love? What was a little girl’s favorite story? What violence did those who didn’t make it endure?

* * *

I remember sitting at my parents’ dining room table one night — this must have been in the late ’90s or early ’00s — and listening to my Grandpa Max — my father’s father — telling stories about his aunts and uncles who hadn’t made it out of Europe before the Holocaust.

Just now, my wife read me an article stating that 11% of American adults have never heard of the Holocaust. That means if there were 100 of us in a room, 11 people would say, “What was that?” I know you can do the math, but I am writing it out that way for myself — to break it down and make this statistic into something more relateable.

The article included a short video of a man weeping. This Jewish man, now in his 80s or perhaps 90s, had just learned that he and his family would receive restitutionary funds from the German government. As a child, he was among the few survivors of a massacre in a Romanian town (Grandpa Max’s family came from Romania. This man and I? We could be related.)

* * *

Restitution. Reparations. Accountability. Imagine these. If only our country could learn a thing or two from Germany, but I have to tell you, my hopes aren’t high.

* * *

Antisemitism is alive and well here in the USA. From the standpoint of white supremacy, Jews and people of color are interchangeable. But from the perspective of privilege, this couldn’t be further from the truth. When my last name was “Strong,” no one necessarily knew I was Jewish. My kids, with their blue eyes, can choose whether to disclose this part of their identities, their ancestry. We can pass.

It doesn’t make antisemitism less real, and it doesn’t make centuries of persecution and genocide less epigenetic and real. But it absolutely puts me — and I would argue, the Jewish people — in a position of particular responsibility when it comes to pursuing justice on this soil.

* * *

I read the news out of Israel and my stomach turns, much in the same way it turns at the news inside of these borders. We say “Never Forget,” but so clearly, those in power in Israel, the Orthodox government, have done just that, both in its treatment of Palestinians and of African asylum-seeking refugees. I know it’s complicated — and I steer clear of conversations about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict not because I am apathetic but because I feel woefully ignorant. That’s fully on me.

What I do know without further research is that there is no justice, and there will be no peace without it. The same is true here, in this white, Christian country where 11 out of 100 people don’t know what the Holocaust is and our entire capitalist economy rides on treating people of color like threats, criminals, and terrorists.

When did we forget? My people have thrived in other moments in history — think Siglo de Oro, or Golden Age, of Spain, when Christians, Moors, and Jews lived, worked, and created magnificently together. But we have also fallen prey to becoming the oppressor, and this pains me deeply.

I feel personally responsible to remember. But not just to remember. To find a form for memory — something I can gather up in my arms and carry into the world, into a classroom or a board room, a conversation or a court, to speak from a place of knowing that God — however you might conceive of this presence — did not leave any wiggle room for saying, “Not my problem.”

As writer David Slack wrote on Twitter: “Remember sitting in history, thinking ‘If I was alive then, I would’ve…’ You’re alive now. Whatever you’re doing is what you would’ve done.”

* * *

When I first reviewed my DNA results, I felt a little letdown. Kind of like, well, cool, pretty much what I expected. And I will tell you that lately, I’ve been feeling a little bit adrift. Not quite clear on my purpose, my focus.

In writing this, I realize how much is here. It’s no coincidence that Russian, Spanish, Italian, Czech, and Hebrew are the languages I’ve studied. Or that when I saw a swastika graffiti’d on an ancient wall in Toledo, Spain, a chill went up my spine. Or that while I was traveling alone in Russia, I didn’t wear the Star of David pendant my parents gave me for my 16th birthday.

I want to enter into a time-space wrinkle in time where I can go back, to ask questions and to witness the pivotal moments in my own family history. I want to do it for the ones who died alone or in horror, whose names I’ll never know.

And I want to do it because it has everything to do with this time and this place, this moment in history when to be silent is to condone the destruction of a people, right before our eyes. A people brutally stolen from their own homes, then told they’d never belong here, either.

* * *

I want to delve into this. Again — because it won’t be a first — but for the first time, with who I know myself to be. I grew up barely knowing I was Jewish — something that seems to surprise people and is a story for another post (or book?). But I do now, and now is where I begin.

Holiness Is in How We Teach Our Children

Photo: Josh Appel, Memorial and Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau, Oświęcim, Poland. “This is Siggy Weiser. He is a Holocaust survivor. 75 years later he is in looking as Jewish kids praying at the death camp Auschwitz, Mr. Wesier’s previous living area where he was threatened with death daily.”

My daughter’s shaving her head.

Well, actually, her cousin’s friend is doing the honors, in a college dorm room.

My daughter told me she has written something about the why of this. She forgot to send it to me, but says she will tomorrow.

I am looking forward to reading it.

My daughter is 15 going on a shaved head.

It’s just hair. This is what I tell myself. This is where I land. I listen to her voice, her dreams and ideas and fears and hardest places. I look at her eyes. Not her hair.

She studied the Holocaust last fall with her grandfather, my dad.

She has seen the shaved heads.

I have a tattoo. Two tattoos, actually. I might get more.

When Jews, Catholics, the Roma, gay and communist and disabled humans, reached Auschwitz, they were divided into two groups: Those who went straight to the gas chambers, and those who were stripped, shaved, tattooed, and sent to the barracks to work. Really, to die, just more slowly.

Some survived. They swore, never again. They whispered it. Secrets burned on skin, never to be talked about. Never a shaved head. Never a tattoo. The unspeakable.

What is it to take things things back, to reclaim, to honor the dead, to choose life, to take back ownership of the body?

What is it to express the spirit on skin?

How is our hair a symbol of autonomy and agency and choice — just as what we wear, how we speak, and how we love are all ways of declaring existence, selfhood, peoplehood, sovereignty, and worth?

My daughter is shaving off all of her hair.

Not because she is sick.

Not because she is unstable.

Not because she is rebellious.

Not because she is dishonoring memory.

I do not know her reasons yet, but I believe her when she tells me she has her reasons.

And what will I say, when I see her?

I will say: You are beautiful.

I will say: I love you.

I will say: Your being is a song to those who died.

I will say: Your songs soothe the ones who survived.

I will say: I can see your soul, your neshama, even more brightly.

I will say: This world needs you in it.

These are harrowing times for growing up. I call on my ancestors to light the way, to remind me that hair is just hair and that hair, too, can be holy.

That holiness is in how we teach our children and how we learn from our children.

That this dance across time is how we keep being here, despite the odds.

The Intersection of Jewishness + Whiteness


The discussion of the intersection of Jewishness and whiteness is one I’ve been having for decades in many different contexts, and I imagine it will continue to occupy my mind and heart for the rest of my life.

One thing that has never wavered is the acknowledgement and full recognition and naming of the fact that as a Jew, I can choose whether to conceal or reveal my Jewish identity, just as I can with my sexual orientation. I can gauge a situation, setting, vibe, etc. and determine how safe I feel. People of color of no such option. There is nothing to debate here.

So there is zero question, for me, about white privilege and that being first and foremost the fundamental issue our country is seeing the inevitable outcome of today — the fact that our (and I say OUR, as Americans) collective identity is rooted in genocide, slavery, and white supremacy in ways that continue to go unacknowledged and unchecked, with unquestionably devastating impact on people of color. Antisemitism is also alive and well and that, too, is woven into our country’s history.

Antisemitism is important to raise as a point of awareness and attention if you look at the language and beliefs of white supremacists and the history of a people that has endured and survived thousands of years of expulsions and genocides. As a people, these live not only in memory and history but in the lifetime of our grandparents, genocide at the hands of those whose vile beliefs have been kept alive and revived by the people we’re now seeing empowered to come out of hiding by the current political climate and “leaders.”

I cannot see and hear men — and women, mind you — with burning torches chanting “Jews will not replace us” without feeling alarmed and chilled.

Also imperative to note: NOT ALL JEWS ARE WHITE.

As a white, Jewish woman, do I benefit from the systems of oppression? Yes. Do I feel the need to protect myself as a Jew, as well? Yes. Do I feel the need to use the privilege I have as a white person to further the work of anti-racism? Also, yes — and not only as an individual need or choice but as an obligation and embodiment of living Jewish values. So many things are true at the same time, and personally, my Jewishness serves to strengthen my commitment to racial justice, not in any way diminish, dilute, or whitewash it.

My Jewish identity is inseparable for me from my voice as a writer, an activist, a mother, and an ally to the Black Lives Matter movement. This probably goes without saying, but feels important to articulate tonight.

As Rabbi Hillel said in the 1st century: “”If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?”


One thing that keeps going through my head is that we have no leader. No single person to whom we can turn for reassurance or guidance or instructions or context. There’s no sitting around the radio, listening with heads bowed. No single steady voice. (Maybe this has never been the way and is simply a warped form of false nostalgia? Or actual nostalgia for #44.)

What we do have may be what we’ve always had: Communities large and small around the country, organizing. The voices of those who’ve been talking, writing, studying, facilitating, and educating about racism for decades, standing on the shoulders of the ones before them.

And there is us. Us includes you. We all have to step into leadership here, in whatever ways we can. What this looks in our real lives is something those of us who have any semblance of privilege need to be addressing. Don’t think big. Think concrete. Think today. Think one thing at a time.

I know many of you have been doing this your whole lives. Many of you have devoted your careers to this work and risked your livelihoods, relationships, and bodies every singe day by speaking out. For many Americans, every single day is an act of resistance, just leaving the house. Thank you. I see you and my respect runs deep.

I’m addressing those of us who have looked to someone else to do it. Now would be a good time to be that someone else — yourself.