Photo: Woman walking in front of Picasso's Guernica. From Euronews by Francisco Seco.
October 21, 2023
[Confused, heartbroken, lonely. Raw first draft banged out upon awakening. I will never get this one right, nor will I get to listen to and learn from the people I’m connected to, if it sits on my computer.]
I had a dream. Literally. Last night. A weird little nightmare of sorts. Or a maybe a gift, because it crystallized some of my thinking, my obsessive thinking, over the past two weeks.
I’m protesting in front of the Capital building for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. Around me are my fellow humanitarian Jews, and Muslims, allies, people who look like the beautiful mosaic we occasionally are, in this country. The police begin arresting us. Nearby, I see--packed in the crowd with me—an old student, an Arab-American Muslim woman I taught as an 8th grader at least twenty years ago, and who was one of my favorites. I manage to make my way to her and we embrace. We hold each other in warm reunion, and hang on, offering unspoken comfort as horror rips a faraway part of the world, with ripples for both of us.
While we’re hugging, two cops come close and fasten handcuffs and a leg cuff on us—grass green plastic affairs, and there’s only one set of cuffs for the two of us, so we’re united in our arrest. Don’t ask me how this works. It’s dream-magic, where one set of cuffs is enough.
Next thing, I’m in the police van. My student is no longer in the dream. It’s me, old, white, Jewish me, and many young, brown Palestinian-Americans. Not how the protest crowd looked moments earlier, but this is my dream—epigenetic trauma and personal baggage and all.
The youngsters are stoked. This is their revolution. They begin singing a Palestinian song, while I worry about whether I’ll have to spend the night in jail, with my lifelong, disabling insomnia. (If you know me, you know. It’s meant as a laugh line.)
Since I don’t know the song, I expose myself as Jew, somehow. The youngsters shift away and there’s a ring of space around me in the van. It’s unsettling, but not exactly scary. My van-mates know we’ve been protesting together and they’re respectful of the old lady, like my real life students of so many stripes often are. I feel alone, but not unsafe.
Suddenly—dream suddenly, where it was one thing and suddenly it’s something different—the driver of the van is not a cop, but another Palestinian-American. Older, like me. And he’s taking us to… where? Taking us to liberation. But not my liberation.
He gets wind of the situation in the back of the vehicle—a Jew in sheep’s clothing. He stops the van, jumps out and slides open the back door, laser-focused on me. I have gone from unsettled to settler-colonial. This is when I wake up. It’s 5AM, in New York City.
A few notes over post-dream coffee.
Those grass-green, plastic handcuffs. Whaaa? Well, for starters, they are Leaf and Pen green. Leaf and Pen is the little side project I started fifteen years ago, to create time and space for teachers to write. In real life, I was not in Washington protesting, I was running a drop-in writing space at an English teachers’ conference in Albany, with the conference theme of Sowing Seeds, Growing Justice: Your stories matter. (Shout out to the New York State English Council.) Throughout the conference, I was cognizant of how, as English teachers, we use reading and writing to build bridges. To see each other. To support each other. We’re doing this now, amidst book banning and dissention and global turmoil, when what we do is as important as it’s ever been.
The plastic cuffs are also reminiscent of when my son, now 30, was arrested during the pandemic Black Lives Matter protests. The arresting officer grabbed my son’s genitals, and tied his bony wrists so tightly—with “these baggie tie things,” I remember him saying—that they caused deep abrasions. My son is normally not very political. Both his professional and personal lives are all music all the time. But there’s a strong folk element in his songwriting, influenced by the protest music of generations before him, and his non-traditional bar mitzvah speech was about Jewish involvement in the Civil Rights movement, complete with original songs. So those grass-green plastic handcuffs trace us to a tradition of progressive white-Jewish allyship, which goes back to my parents, card-carrying McCarthy-era Commies. I’m now seeing this allyship on the protest lines in front of Congress. And the kids in the dream van are singing protest songs.
Epigenetic trauma. Said card-carrying parents were Jews who came of age during World War II. Any of their relatives who didn’t get out of Eastern Europe in time were wiped out. I remember trying to talk to my aunt about coming to this country and who was left behind. All she said, in her thick Yiddish accent, was, “Hitler got ‘em. He got ‘em good.”
One generation on, it’s not uncommon, among Jewish baby boomers, American-born, comfortable, safe, privileged, to have had childhood nightmares about being chased by Nazis or persecuted for our identities. I know I did. Decades ago, I asked a cousin why she had dozens upon dozens of hotel-sized bottles of shampoo and face cream and all manner of sample-sized beauty products lined up on the shower ledge. She laughed and replied, “Well, when the Nazis come and I can’t go out anymore, I’ll want to look beautiful.”
Perhaps epigenetic trauma partially explains why a conflict in a foreign land has felt so deeply personal to me. I’ve been preoccupied about the humanitarian crisis at our southern border and done a very tiny amount of volunteer work with asylum seekers; I want to do more. But my heart has been unequivocally one of an ally. The situation doesn’t affect me personally. It’s painful, but doesn’t wake me up with nightmares. Why, then, does Israel-Palestine?
I have never been to Israel, and have long scolded people who conflate the Israeli government’s policies with diaspora Jews everywhere. I’ve written about how the conflation fuels antisemitism on the left. And very, very quietly, to only a few people in my life, I’ve said that Israel, at least in this incarnation, was bad for the Jews. And fatal for Palestinians. And yet I support its right to exist. Bibi is like Trump, but smarter and so more dangerous. Bibi is not Israel. Israel is not moi—but somehow I’m connected and I didn’t even know it. I’m frightened for the hostages. Ashamed and terrified by the genocide in progress in Gaza. We, of all people, should know better.
The generational divide in my dream. Does epigenetic trauma fade as it moves down the line? Are we making progress with our young people? Is this wishful thinking?
In all the conversations I’ve had in my own circles, I haven’t had a single one with a friend who feels precisely the way I do. Some of my Jewish friends think I’m an... antisemite? My radical friends don’t think I’m radical enough. I feel like I don’t know enough to be a productive part of the discussion, and yet my emotions are strong, and I know our gut emotions are powering so much of this.
Friends who disagree, friends who have something to teach me, let’s keep talking and reading and writing and building bridges. #ceasefire immediately. Before any more living creatures die. Before we see a complete Gazan genocide in that little strip of land. Before the hostages all die there, too. A ceasefire is not a solution in that blood-soaked part of the world, but it’s the only sane first step and it has to be right now.
Addition at the end of the day. Okay, I'll just keep talking to myself, here.
I would have liked the dream to end with the arrest, a sweet little tale of good will, rather than continue on to the van, disturbing with its racial undertones and the implication that I depend on an apartheid foreign government to feel safe. But if you're going to post among friends, you need to tell it like ya dreamed it. As I walked around the Central Park Reservoir this afternoon, with the leaves changing and the light changing, I realized that the second part of the dream was actually--or also--about my disturbing feelings of separation from my community and the education job market because of my age and my whiteness. That will perhaps be an even messier post, just as likely to bother a few fundamentalists on one side or the other as this post. If anyone's reading at all. The silver lining of age, for a naturally unfiltered chica like me, is that you have very little to lose and you don't give a damn.
I've been blogging since 2010. When I've got writer's block in every other way (frequent), this low stakes riffing to think has been a constant. Over the digital years, I've had a half dozen or so blogs including a travel blog and a reading blog, both on Blogger, and an all-purpose blog on tumblr where I wrote about education, social equity and anything else that sparked me. I also posted some of my published print work on my website. My shit is all over the internet. I'll be using this space for the occasional blog post, now.