Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Jewish and Confused

It is a confusing time to be a Jew in Pittsburgh. It is an election year, and a year in which more and more parts of Pittsburgh are "transforming," I have lived here all of my adult life. I am blessed to know Jewish people from all walks of life, rich, poor, urban, suburban, unpolitical, left, right, center, Marxist, and Tea Party Republican. I have been a member of two Reform congregations, worked in a Conservative Day School, have a cousin who is an ordained Hebrew Priestess, more than one who grew up Orthodox, and I myself converted. It is a lovely swirl of viewpoints, but a swirl.

Add social media, where voices intrude at all times of day and night if you let them-- boiling with election madness, with people talking about gentrification, with my own thoughts-- OY! So much to think about and so much to hear.

And as we know, there is a season for everything. A time to keep silence, and a time to speak. I would like to frame this as an open letter to my community, in a way, because I am so confused right now about what it means to be a Jew, both in America and in Pittsburgh. Things are happening close to home and in our country that seem so upside down that I feel as if I am living inside Chagall's shtetl paintings. When Louis Farrakkan "likes what he sees" when he hears Trump, because "Trump isn't taking Jewish money" in his election, (Farrakhan) and my Jewish friends say they'll vote for Trump if they have to-- you can see why I feel so fershimmiled that writing to you and to the world and to the cold, dark, remote bright stars seems like a good option.

So many voices are speaking in an election year, in a year in which we must transition from the now-known era of the first Black President and the rise of a new kind of opposing Republican party.

What may have started with turning Southerners against the Democratic party during the Civil Rights movement has become something else in 2016-- in fact, as Ta-Nehisi Coates and others have argued, perhaps what we are witnessing now is the unfought and unwon parts of the Civil War. When we are still arguing whether or not to fly the rebel flag of the Confederacy over state buildings, the point sort of makes itself.

In fact, the 2016 Republican party is perhaps not what is new, but what is newly allowed to be out in the light. And for that, maybe we have Trump and Cruz to thank, as well as our first Black President, who together have blown open a festering dark place in America's soul. This election cycle gives voice to it.

Of course the voices given the most time and volume are those Republican voices like Cruz's and Trump's, the current Republican front runners for President. 

Cruz proudly is endorsed by Mike Bickle, an evangelical pastor who preaches that Hitler was sent by God to be a hunter of Jews because they wouldn't convert to Christianity. See him preaching here: Mike Bickle Preaching Hunters to Kill Jews 

Cruz believes America is a singular Christian nation, and he will strive to keep and make it that way. He is anti-gay, anti-women's rights, and plans to eliminate the IRS, and the Departments of Education, Energy, Commerce and Housing and Urban Development.

Trump is openly supported by the KKK and other hate groups, an endorsement he has refused to repudiate. Trump cannily plays on the anti-immigrant, anti-Brown people (for lack of a more specific term) undercurrent and enthusiastically encourages supporters to mistreat opposition voices at his rallies, which do not bring visions of Brown Shirts to my mind alone. 

Both Trump and Cruz are proudly supported by many Jewish people, which to me makes about as much sense as a chicken who wants a fox in charge of the hen house. Which of course-- exposes a big conundrum. When I look at my Tea Party or right-wing Jewish friends' Facebook or Twitter feeds, I see mostly pro-Israel, anti-Palestinian, anti-terror posts. 
Increasingly, some of their posts say things like, "anybody but the Socialist." Huh? Because National Socialism and Democratic Socialism have anything in common? 

These are people whom I respect, who are smart, kind, good people making statements on social media about how they will vote for Trump or Cruz over the first viable Jewish candidate for President the United States has ever run. Bernie Sanders has spoken for 35 years about things like health care for all. A living wage. Choice. Respect for immigrants and "other." His platform could have been written by Emma Lazarus herself, the young Jewish immigrant who gave voice to the identity of the American ideal.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Forgotten are those words now, apparently, by American Jewish supporters of Cruz and Trump, some of them children and grandchildren of Holocaust victims who may have survived had they been welcomed to our "golden door." Those folks are slathering over themselves to write checks, or holding their noses while they write checks, whichever it is-- for surely, checks are being written by Jewish hands-- to build giant walls to keep out new generations of wretched masses in the name of the same "security" that kept out forefathers and mothers.

I hear those Jewish voices who support Trump and Cruz. I read their words in the news and I wonder about those I know. And I think about those Jewish people I know or know of in my own city who own successful businesses or whose children I have known or taught, and the choices they are making in different ways here. Not choices about for whom they will vote necessarily, but political choices nonetheless. Their voices and their choices puzzle me too, and confuse me and concern me. To be a Jew is never to feel alone, at least not in my experience. The community is always a part of me, and I feel part of it. But that was not always true.

The first time I met a Jewish person I was aware of as a Jewish person was at Reizenstein Middle School. I was put into advanced classes by kind teachers, and with me in those classes were a few quiet and very reserved African-American kids, most of Squirrel Hill's kids, and me, white trash from Highland Park. We were let out for recess on a giant green space, most sadistically before lunch, across from a Nabisco factory that scented the air with chocolate chip cookies. Today that Nabisco factory has been turned into Bakery Square, the home of Google Pittsburgh and many high-end retail stores and restaurants. Reizenstein and the glorious green space that surrounded it was purchased for a song from the Pittsburgh Public Schools for an unknown reason, and was promptly torn to the ground.

As everyone in Pittsburgh knows, the advent of the Google age in Pittsburgh has been loud. "Transforming" is one verb that has been used, but the word "gentrification" is louder among the voices I hear most often. Googlers have come, and they have needed places to live. So Walnut Capital and other companies have built new housing. One of my students at Perry actually asked me if the special skywalk that bridges Google Pittsburgh to the new building going up on ashes of Reizenstein is so "Google people" won't have to see Black people." Micro-apartments, that is, one-bedrooms of 510 square feet costing $1340-$1600 per month are available in this new development.

Of course all of this is nestled into and surrounded by Homewood, where I did my student teaching. Where this happened. Where this is. Where in 2006, the infant mortality rate was 40.7%, while Pittsburgh's as a whole was 9.6%. (Allegheny Dpt. Human Srvcs) So what, right? Businesses coming to poor neighborhoods can bring everybody up, right? Pointing a finger at one specific business or at several is nonsensical, right?

Is it? Last week a glamorous party was held at Bakery Square, a fund raiser for a non-profit with the laudable goal of raising funds for communities hard-hit by natural disasters. At the party, one party-planner "took partygoers on a decadent journey with a nod to Versailles. Green balloons floated on the ceiling, glittering bonbons were nibbled as the “Queen” and “King” of Versailles picked lucky guests out of the crowd for delicious chocolate treats that the Queen, herself, poured chocolate sauce over as a finishing touch." (P-G

If it raises funds for poor communities, who cares who pours chocolate on what, you might ask, but you'd be lame to ask, and you'd know it, because that juxtaposition stinks. The geopolitical reality of dying infants and reenactments of Marie Antoinette within the same neighborhood, if you are aware and alive to it, is too gruesome and too much. 

Bakery Square is 2 miles from Wilkinsburg High School, which is closing and sending its entire student body, along with all of its middle school kids, to Westinghouse next year, a Pittsburgh Public school 1.3 miles away. Wilkinsburg (nicknamed "We'll Kill Yinz Burg" because of neighborhood violence) can't afford to educate its own children, you know....2 miles away from Google. But-- uplift. Great things. Progress. The recipient of the fund raiser at Bakery Square? New Orleans.

Bakery Square, Google, East Liberty, the fundraiser-- not all the work of Jewish people and/or Jewish business, of course. However, some major players there were-- and because this is my place to think out loud, and to wonder what it means to be a person and a Jew-- I have to say-- what the hell is going on? 

Moving a little further into East Liberty, or as some developer tried unsuccessfully to rebrand it, "East Side,"--How can the owners of Pennley Park South give their impoverished, sometimes handicapped and elderly residents $1600, 90 days and "get thee out so," so their home can be "redeveloped to residential and retail space?" Even worse--how can our city give these owners 2.2 acres of publicly owned land as a bribe to even do this much for the owners, thereby privatizing park land that previously belonged to all Pittsburghers? See: Pennley Park South 

I hereby claim the right as a Jewish resident of this city to call out fellow Jews I've never met on this bullshittery. Throwing the old and the weak out into the street for profit? For profitable bribes? When do "Torah" and "business" intersect? 

If you tell me they don't, you have your answer as to why the world sucks. And how in the world can we Jewish people act astonished when African-Americans have some historical anger at us? How can we continue to self-righteously point at pictures of Abraham Joshua Heschel marching with Dr. King? It's been a long road since those days-- and perhaps no road longer than here in the 'burgh.

Can we stop looking to vote for somebody who would be the one to protect us from our worst fears, and start looking to vote for somebody who would be our partner in making the world less to be afraid of? Can we start talking to our friends, even knowing what could be lost, when they make choices we think are weird or wrong? How is possible to get closer to living our values?

Maybe trying to be an upstander--taking those risks-- is the price of being a Jewish person in a small town in an election year during what feels like the Civil War. Maybe in writing all of this---that person could be me. 



For an alternative viewpoint of Jewish person writing in support of Bernie Sanders for President, see David Harris Gershon's excellent Daily Kos article: The-First-Jewish-President

For a tremendously impactful look at gentrifiation, see: wilkinsburg-the-side-of-americas-most-livable-city-pittsburgh-doesnt-want-you-to-see/

We can't fix economic inequality without addressing racism.

Posted by Demos on Saturday, March 12, 2016