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.

Pa’lante

A man is fighting for his freedom, his family.
He sits just there: A red chair, a church basement.

Estas luchando para tu vida, para tu familia — 
the documentary filmmaker asks him to sit up
a little straighter. Look directly into camera.

Con la ayuda de dios, todo se puede…
With God’s help, everything is possible —

Forward is the only direction, there’s no going back.
But this government, this backlash — backwards
is its middle name, its blind bigotry, its rallying cry.

While speaking of the sanctuary community,
he says words like valiente, those fighting

for the paperless. We are not alone in this fight.
Your role — a meal, a ride, cash in an envelope,
lawyer’s fees or a week’s worth of groceries —

these are no smaller than the coffee beans
he picked in Chiapas, the weeds he pulled

from your front lawn. Raise your voice,
raise your right hand, swear on everything
you claim as holy and right and human.

“We are a family of faith, we haven’t hurt anyone –”
my Spanish is still able to grasp these truths,
as is my heart and — I can only hope — my poems.

* * *

Learn more about Lucio Perez.

My America

Photo: Kayle Kaupanger

To all of my friends across the globe, to the north and the south. To the east and west: This is not the America I represent. My America has open arms, minds, and hearts. My America says, come in, how can I help? My America insists on justice for all and the beauty of truth. My America takes responsibility for its hypocrisy and sets about making things right. My America is accountable for so much death and destruction. My America makes amends. My America says I’m so sorry. My America says, we were wrong. My America says, here, let’s unmask the myths of opportunity and put all that love of money where our hungry mouths are. America, my America, says, we didn’t think of it first, or even second or third. My America says, let me redistribute, give you back your rivers and farms. My America says, I am a bully. I am an abuser. I am an addict. I am a victim. I am I am I am I am. My America says, it has been about me for too long. My America says, how are you? I’m listening. My America says, I was a kleptomaniacal sales rep thug wearing a nice suit. My America says, I’m checking myself into rehab. My America says, your body is not an abomination. My America says, all languages spoken here, translators will be provided free of charge. My America says, I am handing over the mic. My America says, you’ve heard enough from me. My America says, women always seem to come up with the best solutions. My America says, queer bodies deserve safety, black and brown bodies deserve safety, undocumented bodies deserve safety, children’s bodies deserve safety. My America says, I have been so arrogant. My America says, enough. Enough. Enough.

Don’t Burn Out or Numb Out: On Pacing Myself for Long-Haul Resistance

I’m having a moment of feeling so sad. Just so sad.

I’m watching live video from Standing Rock. Reading about the revocation of transgender rights, such as they were extended by the Obama administration. An “approach” to gun violence in Chicago so racist it made my head spin. And so much more. I have been trying to be intentional about staying focused on community and connection, truth-telling and self-care, all as the basis for long-term resisting. But I worry about my own blind spots and will keep coming back, knowing that I don’t know what I don’t know but determined to keep peeling back the layers so as not to be a walking part of the systems that got us here in the first place.

I know that’s what we’re up against — the long-term part. Sometimes I seriously doubt that we’ll ever “recover” from this moment in American and world history. We were already so broken, so much unfaced, unacknowledged, unhealed, that this feels like a chasm in the earth that will just grow wider and wider, with more and more people falling into it. The ones who will fall in fastest — we all know who these groups are. Immigrants. Muslims. People of color. Poor women. LGBT folks. Jews. Groups of people that are each so diverse it’s a preposterous failure of language to even list them this way.

I’m sitting here at my kitchen table feeling sad and angry at the greed and white power sitting in the highest office of this country, while those who try to protect the water that serves 18 million Americans are being forced off of their own land. While those whose blood, sweat, and tears built everything we’re sitting on get sold down the river. While hardworking business owners and mamas and fathers and students and musicians and children and the people who change the goddamn sheets at the nice hotels where these politicians lay their unconscionable heads at night fear for their safety, their homes, their livelihoods, their families, and their lives.

I say “their” knowing full well that any idea that my world is more secure is an illusion, one I refuse to get lulled into believing, though must also confront everyday as directly as possible if I’m going to be of any use to the collective. So tonight, my friends, I’m just feeling all the feelings. I have no actions to put forth or suggestions to make or knowledge about how to deal with this. I know there are a zillion resources and I’m plugging into ones I feel like I can commit to, rather than flitting around, both in real life and virtually — in the forms of giving small amounts of money (believing everything counts), time (believing everything counts), and learning (my own, because lord knows I have so fucking much to learn and unlearn).

The question of “is it enough” isn’t one I spend time worrying about; we each have to pace ourselves in order to neither burn out nor numb out. It’s no accident that Mani and I are boot-camping a new schedule starting this week; I’m already seeing just a few days in just how much I need this structure in order to take better physical care of myself, and that my work — both in the sense of livelihood and providing for my family as the sole earner right now, and in the sense of contributing to the Resistance in meaningful ways — all hinge on this.

Sleep, water, food, friends, moving the body, time to write. All of this needs to be tended to every single day — something I have typically sucked at for a long time. I’m not saying that as self-abuse; it’s just true, and even though it’s often hard, saying what’s true and acting accordingly really is the path to freedom. My freedom. Your freedom. My sisters. My brothers. I hurt for us. And I’m not giving up. I will never, ever give up.

No matter what else, find people you can share with. Find spaces where you feel safe to come and just be — where you know you can show up as you are and be met and supported. We have to keep being here for each other. This so-called government wants us to implode. To be scattered in so many directions we lose steam. Please keep reaching out, writing, and showing up in whatever ways makes sense for your life.  And maybe even in some ways that disrupt your life, too.

How and what are you doing when it comes to finding your footing here? All I know for sure is that there is a lot of stumbling, and that we are truly stronger together.

* * *

If We Divide, We Don’t Conquer by Carmen Rios :: Read
White Guilt is Actually White Narcissism by Emma Lindsay :: Read
I Am Not Your Negro :: GO SEE THIS FILM

All You Need Is Love

All you need is love.

And justice. And equal pay. And justice. And fair legal representation. And justice. And protection from discrimination. And the right to be safe in your own skin. And justice. And gun control. And justice. And clean water. And justice. And safe schools. And justice. And the right to choose. And justice. And reparations. And justice. And sacred land. And justice. And solid allies. And justice. And access to affordable and unbiased medical care. And justice. And housing. And justice. And scientific research. And justice. And opportunities for higher learning. And justice. And livable wages. And justice. And freedom of the press. And justice. And sanctuary cities. And justice. And art of all kinds that makes you think and squirm and burst into tears or laughter. And justice. And intersectionality. And justice.

If all of this is love, than yes, love is all you need. But if by “love” you do not include the above, then that’s not love. That’s a platitude.