“Are you OK?” a friend asked as I dropped my kids off at school one morning shortly after the US election. I looked at her. Did I not look OK? She clarified, “You seem upset on Facebook.”
I had such encounters several more times in quick succession after November 8, 2016. Without fully realizing it, my Facebook presence — normally focused on family and travels, with the occasional snarky observation — had turned into a full-on rant. Not a clever or even sarcastic take on current events, my posts had become one steady “Aaaaggghhhh” (a statement I expressed explicitly more than once). Just as I only realize how short I am when I see a picture of myself standing next to others (I just don’t feel short), it was only when a series of people remarked on how political I had gotten that I realized my inner voice had been completely taken over by outrage, and that inner voice had a lot to say online.
The simple question, “Are you OK,” caught me off guard because, of course, I was most definitely not OK. But more so, because I could not understand how anyone in my liberal, elite, highly educated, “latte sippin” circle (screw “bubble”) was anything but not-OK. The very question suggested that some of my people were bouncing back. Their hair was not on fire with alarm. Maybe they were not shaken to their core about who America really is or what could really happen here.
It began dawning on me that while my teenage self had been rolling her eyes (“they might get stuck that way”) at my mother’s doomsday predictions (“The Holocaust could happen here if we are not vigilant”), the message of vulnerability had sunk in somewhere. My mother’s generation grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust, in the Brooklyn Jewish community. Her worldview was informed by actual horrors, and influenced by a strong paternal force commanding her not to lose sight of what happened to the Jews, for it could happen again. Perhaps to pass on this heritage, my parents took us to Yad Vashem on a trip to Israel when I was six. Six! As a mother myself now, with a firmer grasp of what 6-year olds can handle, I question the wisdom of that particular parenting choice.
Perhaps in defiance of my upbringing, I have never consciously defined myself by being Jewish, or accepted any notion of either superiority or victimhood because of it. As an adult, I have traveled to more than 30 countries and seen numerous cultures and religions. I’ve been to mosques, Buddhist temples, cathedrals, and even synagogues on five continents. I have learned that entering a church does not make one forget their own roots, despite my mother’s fear that Christianity may be contagious. I have seen how many similarities there are between Muslims and Jews, comparing notes with a close friend who is careful in her avoidance of pork. I have seen how beautiful Hinduism can be on a trip to Bali, where artful shrines and offerings abound. And I have seen how ugly extremism of any faith can be. I simply do not subscribe to insularity.
After the election, though, I heard my 97-year old grandmother say, “When I first heard him I immediately said, ‘He sounds like Hitler.’” I read and believed every word of Masha Gessen’s “Autocracy: Rules for Survival” in The New York Review of Books in November, a rule book for “surviving in an autocracy and salvaging your sanity and self-respect.” And I see the crumbling of anything like a backbone among Congressional Republicans, who previously espoused American ideals of fighting tyranny. Immediately following the election, when some people around me felt that facts would soon emerge and save us, I quickly recognized the utter erosion of respect for even the idea of facts and truth. And I definitely do not feel OK.
I began telling everyone how concerned I was. I’d say, “Well, since we are Jewish, we are very concerned about our safety.” I would say this to professional contacts, acquaintances, people I had just met at a cocktail party, and of course, friends. I knew this made me sound at best just a bit crazy. I’d even acknowledge it. “I hope in five years, we look back on this time and think how crazy I was for being worried.” I want people to know it is because I am Jewish that the impending American era is terrifying, because of what Jews know about our history, about the monstrosities that are possible. And I want people to think of me before they succumb to utter numbness to what is going on or to what might happen. I want to plant for as many people as I can the thought: “I know people who are really scared because of their background. Maybe this is a problem after all.”
As a child, I often wondered what I would have done had I lived in Europe in the 1930s. Immersing myself in Prague’s Holocaust memorial several years ago, that question was starkly wrenching. Knowing myself, my deliberate open-mindedness and a certain lackadaisical attitude, I am confident I would not have believed things were that bad, or that they would go to an extreme the world had not yet imagined. I would have assumed I would be fine, even as I might have worried. And I would not have left.
This week, I am watching as the US Senate holds hearings on Trump’s cabinet picks, a cast of characters so ghastly that I do wonder if we are being punked for entertainment value. I almost wish it were so. But I expect the new era will become the new normal. The urge to let that new normal dull the discomfort of fear is powerful. Friends don’t actually want to read a nonstop Facebook rant. And daily life must go on. As difficult as it is, and as much as I want to roll my eyes and assume all will be fine, I need to find a way to hold onto the outrage as facts become pliable, history changes before our eyes (“I did not do that. I’d never do that.”), and the sacred cows of American values are slaughtered.
We may not be as vulnerable as my mother and grandmother imagine – I hope we are not! — but I am fairly certain that we are not as safe as I’d thought either.