I sit in the airport lounge wrapped in swaths of blue cotton fabric. The ceiling has giant symbols that look like modern hindi letters but because of their blown up and distorted size, they have no message, just decoration. I left the United States just ten days ago and just six days following the electoral college election of Donald Trump. It’s funny how his name now seems to need a middle initial to make it feel more official. Mr. Donald J. Trump (sir). Sitting here draped in this sari, I recognize how at home I feel here. I walked past the shops downstairs and a man stopped me and asked “to which country are you going madam.” I replied, “New York” (since it is more of its own country to me) and to which he said, “For US madam, you will need SIM cards – they are in that shop.” I laughed a little bit and said “No, Thank You” and walked away. I had brought a change of clothes with me to wear on the plane but the safety and the bravery I find in this drapery feels difficult to part with.
On the way here, I flew in to Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. I stepped off the plane and was surrounded by a sea of brown faces. I kept marveling at the feeling of safety, almost as if a warm brown blanket surrounded me. As we trudged up the stairs together to board the plane for Delhi, the perspective struck (or maybe it was the SuperMoon).
As a child growing up in NY, I had a different relative blanket of safety. I was in Westchester County, NY attending a Jewish day school. My mother was a single mother and to some extent, she was able to raise me on her own. Between care givers, kind families + teachers, and local organizations who were open late, she was able to drop me off early at school and pick me up late in the evening after work. Once I was old enough she created an account for me to be able to take a cab across the county. I didn’t feel that there was a question of whether or not I would be safe in a wide variety of situations as a small child or a rambunctious teenager. While there were certainly some gangs or criminal activity happening in the area, there wasn’t a sense of violent division among a people, and the aggressions I experienced were subtle and small (in the 2nd grade starring as Castro in the cuban missile crisis play: the only brown child in the class). They were nothing like those that I read tucked away in the back of my prayer book every morning.
I remember reading one story of World War II in which an SS officer had stopped near a truck where a young Jewish boy was eating an apple. I don’t remember if he asked for the apple but in the next minute, he had bashed the child’s head into the truck, killing him, and begun to eat the apple himself. Stories like this filled me up to the brim, as well as the numerous stories told and retold as we filed into the pitch black gymnasium, sitting in rows around aluminum trays filled with sand and lit candles on Holocaust remembrance day. The wailing hymns we heard and sang felt like a mantra to avoid anything like it happening again. To remember so that nothing like this could happen…. to Remember…. that we must Remember. The feeling of pain was so strong in my little child body. I don’t think I knew what to do with it. I probably disassociated. It may be why I began to numb myself at such a young age. While I certainly learned how to sit with very deep emotion, I felt a legacy being passed on to me that I didn’t quite understand. I wanted to keep whatever little naivety or joy of childhood I had.
Stepping out of those dark rooms, the world felt safe in comparison. To me, being Jewish in America was one of the safest possible things to be. There were synagogues everywhere and no one was afraid to be who they were. We had to remember what it meant to be slaves in Egypt and we had to remember what it meant to be persecuted so that we could learn to help others out of oppressive situations. We had to cultivate a deep caring for others because if anyone was enslaved, none of us could be free.
It didn’t start when Trump was elected. I think I stopped feeling fully free in my country with the Orlando shooting. I know it was rising before then with all of the subtle micro aggressions and shootings and real time citizen news reports, but I think that event is what did it in for me. As a young woman with a tint of brown in her skin, who has spent many nights partying with her latinx friends (brown and otherwise) dancing in our relative safety, it felt like the awakening shock. The shooting occurred in a place like the many in NY where, as a woman, I’ve felt the most free. Dancing in celebration of life and love and the end of a long week. That shooting struck a chord – it hit home. I think I stopped dancing in the same way. I stopped driving or staying out super late at night. I stopped drinking, almost completely. I blamed it on getting older. I blamed it on having a dog, or family. I blamed it on work. I found so many excuses but the reality was, the anxiety was building and when Trump won, it slammed me in the face.
People are so filled with fear which causes them to hate. They hate what they don’t know. We humans find someone to blame and distrust when things are going wrong. We look outside to find someone, anyone, to take on the burden of being the ones who caused a mess. A great teacher and friend, Otto Scharmer says, ‘collectively we are creating results that no one wants.’ What happens when we don’t turn the lens inward to see our own shame or the destruction we’ve caused? We must find someone else to blame, somewhere else to cast our woes away. Traditionally (over thousands of years) Jews were that target, they were the marginalized who became the scapegoat. Now the net is much wider and the list of marginalized longer.
As I stood in the sea of brown faces, feeling that warm brown blanket enveloping me. I felt a safety I hadn’t felt since I was a child. I felt safety in a region I had learned to fear. And I realized, now the US is just like the rest of the world. That the US, which had represented a safe refuge for the tired, the poor and the hungry (unless you were black in the South) had succumbed, with a slow, painful knee buckling, to the dark forces of humanity. It had used every loophole in the book and sacrificed its most powerful force: unity, at the altar of division, separation, fear and hatred of anything that appeared to be other.
I noticed, in India, a familiar fear. The fear of taking cabs late at night. The lack of women on buses. The fear of taking a metro on my own. The fear of being unmarried and not having men escort me everywhere. The fear of not being understood. The fear of not being respected. In New York, I hadn’t felt that fear growing up but I felt it in India. I felt the fear in the world from my friends when they were afraid of being kidnapped (or shot) in Colombia or hurt by street bombings in Israel. I felt that fear in the bravery required to travel alone with a backpack around the world. Waking up as a young, brown, Jewish woman, in New York last week, I felt the same fear I had been taught to have in other places (and I fully recognize that relatively, I still have a sense of safety and privilege that many others do not have). I see swastikas being painted in my community and hear “Heil Trump” and questioning if Jews are people (from potential White House cabinet members?) on my facebook feed. These are just the scratches on the surface.
Over these ten days in India, where I once found shame, I found forgiveness and immense gratitude. I found these feelings for my father, a man I thought had made a careless decision to have a child he didn’t really want. What I realized is that he connected me to family and to the world in a way that has shaped my life and now has potential to serve a greatly significant purpose in the world. The first time I traveled around the world, I was searching for the meaning of otherness and found myself mirrored in others in every country I entered. This time in India, I found a sense of wholeness.
I recognized that I have a choice to stay in silent fear or bravely take steps into the darkness as a beacon of light and hope. It is in every act I take. It is wearing a sari in business class (a place dominated by button up coats and suits). It is in taking the taxi late at night on my own. It is sitting with women who are afraid to leave their homes and inspiring them to advocate for themselves, uniting for the needs of their communities. It’s working with young women who are angry and sad and lonely and scared and sitting with them in that pain rather than numbing it. It’s sitting in my own pain and shame and feeling it in order to heal it. It’s standing up with my truth wherever I go. It’s getting on the plane to go back to a home that feels much less safe now. It’s in this letter I’ve now written. It’s in clicking publish. It’s in recognizing the power I do have rather than focusing on the dark forces of fear or on the power the current social order might try to strip from me.