Parent and child 2

How does a child recover from repeated violent betrayal by its mother? That is a question I don’t have an answer to. The harm this brutal mistreatment would do to a person is very easy to see, the science and art of brain and soul plasticity, and the ability to heal from trauma is a much more complicated story. I think of my father, from his earliest memory, experiencing the violent hatred of his mother. His father was afraid of his tiny wife’s rage and powerless to protect his young son, who found out early that he was on his own in a very cruel world. How does that kid ever trust anybody after that start in life?

That’s why my father told me, in the middle of the last night of his life, in that wavering dying man’s voice, that his life was basically over by the time he was two. He doesn’t remember being shaken, left cold, roughly changed, harshly wiped, ignored and the rest of what a helpless young baby must simply take. The first things he can consciously remember is the mother who gave him life, glaring at him with open hatred and slashing him in the face with a thick, rough length of cord.

It’s hard to imagine this kid growing up to have a sense of humor, and a certain charisma, and being an idealist and a friend of the underdog. He was also sometimes subject to spells of uncontrollable laughter, spells I am also subject to, every ten years or so. Or maybe that’s all predictable, I don’t know. These things lend themselves to discussion, not pronouncements. We don’t, any of us, know what would become of us if we had the start in life that someone like my father had. Any echo of that shit in our own lives is enough to stop us in our tracks.

Loneliness, anyone?

A recent pre-pandemic survey found that 61% of Americans reported feeling lonely. The epidemic of loneliness is painful in its own right, plus, it leads to destructive attempts to escape the pain of feeling isolated and eternally alone in the universe.

Lonely people look for community on-line and find “social media” groups where their worst suspicions are confirmed in sickening detail: fucking Tom Hanks drinks the blood of children he has kidnapped, after doing sexually perverse things to them!

Words on a page, even those written by our most skilled users of language, almost never contain the nuance conveyed by a wry twinkle in the eye, a shrug, a sarcastic body movement in concert with the words spoken — a pregnant pause.

Lonely people staring at screens take the words they read, words they hope will somehow bind them to others, at face value. Of course George Soros, Barbara Streisand and fucking George Clooney had something to do with those vile accusations against innocent, humble, nonpartisan, never a black out drunk, Brett Kavanaugh!

Aside from an epidemic of suicide caused by loneliness and despair, aside from the political chaos, the literal madness, it has unleashed among desperate people looking for simple answers to complicated, vexing issues, aside from the outward rippling misery loneliness causes, loneliness is, at its heart, a very painful condition.

A writer named Steven Petrow published a thoughtful essay called I’m not alone in feeling lonely. There are ways to fight loneliness. It appeared in today’s Washington Post and has been generously “gifted” to you by a supremely generous man of the people, the illegally anti-unionist Jeff Bezos.

A thoughtful essay by Mr. Petrow, I thought. When a painful condition is stigmatized, and those who talk about it are treated as pathetic losers, the pain of that condition is greatly compounded. The first step to dealing with anything painful is to acknowledge that it hurts and talk to others about it, tough guy.

It helps nobody you care about, and yourself least of all, to pretend you’re fine when you have the cold arrow of loneliness stuck in your chest.

If you feel lonely, or know lonely people, this article is worth a read, especially during this time of year, the “holiday season” when the days grower shorter, expectations for merriness soar and suicides spike.

My father’s droll advice one evening at dinner

When I was eleven I came back from the first day of Hebrew School and told my family that my new teacher was an Israeli woman named Miss Lipschitz. My family found her name as funny as I had. These unexpected moments of levity always came as a welcome relief from our ongoing wars at the dinner table. We all loved to laugh.

My father regarded me with a merry look for a second and said:

“Tell her, ‘if you’re lip shits, my ass chews gum.'”

This off-color deadpanned one-liner drew howls from my sister and me. My mother, though not managing to completely hide her amusement, made a show of reprimanding him for being such a bad example to his children.

If I’d repeated his crude army gag at Hebrew School (these off-color bits would usually be prefaced with ” a guy in the army would say…”), and got in trouble, of course, it would have been completely my problem, another illustration of my lack of common sense, in spite of my high intelligence. Both of my parents would have been on me without any mercy or sense of irony.

Which is funny too, in a way, looking back on it now.

Parent and child

I recently spent two years, every day, writing about my troubled, troubling father. Many of the sessions were spent in a kind of dialogue with the skeleton of my dead father. We had some excellent and revealing chats, picking up where he left off the last night of his life. Most days our talk seemed genuinely like an actual conversation with a wiser version of the droll, insightful person I’d been raised by, reflecting the realizations he’d had right before his death. The skeleton was humbled by his death, and looking for reconciliation.

I did this every day for two solid years, thinking about the project when I was not writing, imagining my father’s earlier life, trying to get to the bottom of how damaged my father was and the often subtle, but in many ways disabling, harm he inflicted on my sister and me. It was a great project and I actually learned a lot, whether or not I eventually rewrite the pages into a marketable book. The most amazing and unexpected outcome is that now I can see everything from his point of view, though I still disagree with most of the harmful things he did.

The other day I suddenly realized that some of the best men I’ve ever known have struggled (though much more successfully than my father) to be good fathers, some of the best women struggle with being unfailingly good mothers. Children who have wonderful parents and enviable childhoods sometimes grow up to be tormented, anxious, selfish, insecure, vain, perplexed. This point likely seems too obvious to make, perhaps, to anyone who has raised a child, who lives as a parent, but to me, having no children, it was a long time dawning on me what difficult, sometimes thankless work it is to always strive to be generous, to do one’s best, and still experience that sharper than a serpent’s tooth-inflicted pain that comes from an ungrateful, angry or oblivious child. We all have better days and worse days, and there is no real training on how to be a parent or how to be a child.

I knew a young mother, who’d been raised by difficult, immature parents, who decided to be the opposite of the way she saw her own mother. During her pregnancy she fell under the influence of a group of women called the La Leche League. According to her, their theory is that babies never manipulate a parent, they only ask for what they truly need. A child who is breast fed whenever they ask, and given every bit of affection and attention they seek, will grow up to be strong, confident and self-motivated. She breast fed her first child until the baby was three or so, then weaned her when the little brother arrived. He nursed until he was able to say things like “mom, I need to nurse now, if that’s OK with you.” It was a great bonding experience for the mother, and I have read that the oxytosin released during breast feeding can be quite addictive. What’s not to love about perfect love?

This young mother was fond of pointing to how wonderful her children were, the proof that she had learned mighty lessons from her own childhood and become the kind of 100% nurturing mother she never felt she’d had. “The proof is in the pudding,” she would say with a proud smile, pointing at her perfect children, who had never wanted for unconditional love and were clearly both amazing children as a result. I lost track of the family after a while, but the last I heard, the daughter is, according to the mother, a fearless genius and the son, also a genius, is a very insightful young man and something of a saint.

This young mother once spent the day with her husband and two year-old daughter, visiting old friends of mine. The next time I saw my friends I asked how they’d gotten along (I’d introduced them). They told me it had been an extremely long couple of hours, that they’d found the young parents’ zealous belief that they’d created the perfect child hard to bear. “Parents are one factor, one factor in dozens, as to how your child turns out, parenting doesn’t have that kind of one-on-one correlation with how the kid turns out in the end,” my friend told me. “To think otherwise is a kind of madness bordering on megalomania,” the other friend added.

I think of this now in connection to my own father, and his often problematic parenting. He was one factor among many in how I turned out, though he always loomed as a supremely difficult one. A parent who is often angry, and takes out their frustrations on their child, tends to be a large factor in how the kid grows up to see the world. Just as I am sometimes unable to disentangle myself from the abuse I suffered at his hands, in his life, and the reason he often lashed out at his own children like an injured two year-old, is that he had actually been a deeply injured two year-old.

One of the first things he told me when I returned to his hospital room around 1 a.m. that last night of his life, in that weak, croaking voice dying men often seem to have, was “my life was basically over by the time I was two.” I knew the bones of his story. I had learned them from a witness, an older first cousin, my father’s references to his harrowing childhood were always oblique, opaque.

His mother, a tiny, bitter, deeply religious woman with an unquenchable temper, living in a viscerally unhappy arranged marriage to a very poor man, used to whip her tiny son across the face, from the time he could stand. Picture that, and how much worse it is for a baby than verbal abuse, neglect, icy silence in the face of expressed concerns, or sarcastic dismissal.

Each of my father’s techniques for keeping his children, and his own demons, at bay were less atrocious than taking the rough, heavy cord of an old fashioned steam iron, and whipping your tender young child in the face, from his earliest memory. I finally concluded he did better than he’d experienced, though he admitted late in his life that verbal abuse is as damaging as physical abuse.

Over the years I sometimes thought beatings would have been preferable, since at age fifteen or so, skinny as I was, I would have started fighting back (he already showed fear of me by that age) and soon been able to kick the shit out of him if he lifted a hand against my sister or me. But that is a surmise I rarely think about.

What I think about more and more is how to take the lessons of my troubling childhood and lay them out clearly for others, in the name of becoming more forgiving, of oneself and the people you love who have hurt you. To explain simply, for the possible benefit of any reader who has been struck by the sharper than a serpent’s tooth cruelty of an unfairly angry parent, how I went from hardening my heart against an asshole father, to learning about and understanding the humiliating abuse he’d suffered in a truly hellish childhood, to opening myself, as he was dying, to simply listen to his deep regrets, and encourage him to say the things he felt it so important to say that he used his last breaths to say them.

The Obligation to Lie

The obligation to not contest a lie, or more usually a series of lies, is a tough proposition for somebody who prefers a frank back and forth to dishonesty or silence. Speak honestly, listen openly, let the conversation go where it goes, sometimes learn something important; that has always been my attitude. Given the choice between believing something that can be confirmed by fact and life experience and another thing that can only be confirmed by lying, I’ll always choose the first.

Sometimes in this life you will be obliged, in order to keep the peace, or to keep a troubled relationship alive, to agree that certain touchy subjects, including lying, will never be discussed in any detail. An agreement to disagree (sad phrase) about what is real and what is an invention is a resolve to leave things unresolved and not touch anything that may help solve a problem and strengthen a relationship. It is a mutual dishonesty pact.

Families are famous for entering into these kinds of understandings, often to protect someone from shame. Factions arise, those who defend a liar’s right not to be shamed and those who feel everyone would be better served by honesty, a thing once called “the best policy”. There are both practical and moral stances taken by each faction.

For the defenders of the liar’s right to be protected from the shame that caused the lie, the idea is that concealing the shame behind a lie protects everyone. The moral stance is that it is always wrong, no matter what, to expose someone to possible shame.

The other faction believes that shame can never be overcome by allowing an endless lie to prevail, in the name of covering the shame. Also, crucially, a lie serves nobody’s interest but the liar’s. The moral position is that it’s wrong to oblige someone else to lie, requiring a choice between dishonesty and silence, even to cover someone else’s shame.

Yes, it’s wrong to shame someone, even if they lie compulsively. Shaming someone for lying to conceal their shame only compounds the problem. Yes, it’s wrong to allow a series of lies to obliterate the truth. I’m not even thinking of our politics in the morally divided USA at the moment, but the constant doubling, tripling and quadrupling down on proven falsehoods offers a good snapshot of the problem with repeated lies that become the truth.

Your family member’s husband has abused his first wife, and cheated on her, prior to their ugly divorce. Shameful. Unspeakable. The simplest answer for his adult kids of the second marriage: he was not even married before, you fucking liar!

A lie can always be concocted to cover shame, even if it is a ridiculous lie, even if its revelation as a lie is inevitable. I pretend to go to work every day and every Friday I bring my paycheck, in cash, back to the wife. Who would imagine my wife would find the bill for my dead father’s credit cards I maxed out to bring her my fake paychecks every week when I was too depressed and desperate to work for a year? I rented a PO Box so those bills would never come to the house, I had no intention of ever paying them, why did I leave one in my pants pocket for the wife to find when she did the laundry? Pure bad fucking luck in a life that never gave me a fucking chance. Nothing that a strong agreement never to mention it again won’t fix.

We have the most prolific and litigious liar in American history, our recently defeated president, with his eternal 39% who love him unconditionally, find him a charismatic, daring, no bullshit teller of truth the rest of the politicians are too cowardly and hypocritical to say out loud. You will never change their firm belief that he constantly lies to defend a much higher truth than the one eggheads feebly claim exists. That truth is (insert truth here) and if you don’t like it why don’t we let the guns in the street decide who is right and who is fucking dead?

If you don’t want to argue with a liar, or contest the compulsive liar’s right to lie whenever he feels cornered, you can agree not to talk about the lies. That agreement will only get you so far, though — and it usually comes with a cost. It is not the kind of satisfying agreement one comes to with somebody after an honest exchange of views, after you actually understand more about the other person’s perspective. It is, at best, a kind of 39% agreement, like the “historically unpopular” Joe Biden’s media-touted rapidly slipping poll numbers, which are now about the same as Trump’s average approval numbers across four years of his glorious reign.

Be very careful what you say when you’re hurt

“I don’t know what I did to make you treat me so unfairly and so disrespectfully,” while possibly accurate, is probably not the best line of approach when someone you love has treated you hurtfully.

If you have degenerative arthritis, say, and did not qualify, until a few weeks ago, for palliative injections that will allow you to exercise for six months without pain while building up surrounding muscle, why is that really anyone’s concern besides yours? Why would you expect automatic acknowledgment of your physical limitations and the empathy that follows from considering a loved one’s disability?

Say you feel wrongly accused of a flaw you try not to have, say in addition to an unreasonable expectation of sympathy, there’s the perception of your habitual comfort inconveniencing everyone around you. You like to sleep all day, so nobody can even be on the road for a vacation workout by a reasonable 10 a.m.

All these feelings, after someone shows you an implacable face, must be put to the side as you figure out the best way to restore trust and mutuality. It may take more patience than you have, particularly when you feel hurt, but that’s a separate question.

The real question is how to convey to them how hurt they would feel, placed in the unfair situation they’ve placed you in. That is not the work of a few minutes or a few hours, of simply choosing the right words. It requires a supremely patient telling of the right story, framed sympathetically, to keep everyone calm and help them understand.

It may take more patience than you feel you have. It becomes easy to think up past wrongs echoing the latest and be hurt by the confirmation of callousness, but making this list carries the risk of making you sound petty and prosecutorial. Best to focus on understanding, clarity and directness, toward a more loving future.

Otherwise, speaking out of pain, you are much more likely to do harm than to say anything that will contribute to healing or empathy.

Try writing the situation out first, it may help you grasp things better, to be more clear and better able to stay out of the many deadly traps hurt will steer you towards.

Best of luck, there is no harder work I know than remaining mild when you feel deeply hurt. It is worth the price to master this supremely difficult skill. In the meantime, be very judicious in what you say while still smarting.

Meditation on 5782

Today is the first day of the Jewish year 5782. The most religious Jews believe that HaShem, according to Jewish tradition, created the universe by performing the miracle of dividing light from darkness, land from waters and creating life 5,782 years ago, literally, as it is written. Thus Jews believed two thousand years ago and, so it is, to the most fervently religious, to this day. Other Jews see 5782 as a symbolic number, the bit about God creating all the plants and animals one by one, culminating in his masterpiece, his special children, humans, woman created out of the first man’s spare rib, as so much Biblical poetry.

Religious belief has never interested me, I have no talent for it. My first thought is armies of the fucking righteous, putting the faithless to the sword, century after century. Virtually every religion has had a turn at Holy War. The most righteous of every creed recognize that the reward of an ethical life, some version of heaven or enlightenment, belongs to the righteous of all nations, when they are not slaughtering them.

My second thought is the hotbed of anti-Semitism that was Hillcrest Jewish Center, where, for several years, I was forced to attend classes after the regular school day was over.

Beyond the “fuck that” of a kid who’d just been sprung from jail having to report to another jail for a few hours, especially on beautiful days when playing baseball was much closer to God than learning to parrot prayers, in an unknown language, that were never translated or explained, there was the silencing of all questions. The blotting out of critical thinking was the most intolerable part of the Hillcrest Jewish Center religious experience. It was a gaslighting similar to what I experienced at home, where my very clever father endlessly fought me over everything, generally by recasting whatever else we were talking about as a damning referendum on my character.

Trips to the principal’s office, fucking Frieda Berkman was her name, did not cure me of my need to question things we were supposed to believe, rites we were supposed to perform by rote, mouthing prayers we didn’t understand. After Berkman got sick of having me wait in her tiny outer office day after day under a poster that said “a teacher attempting to teach without inspiring the pupil with the desire to learn is hammering on cold steel” (I asked her about that one, she didn’t like my disrespectful question at all), I was sent to wait in the plush outer office of the rabbi, Israel Moshowitz by name. Moshowitz was photographed shaking Nixon’s hand, of course. He was a big deal. I have no recollection of the pious speech he eventually laid on me about being a good Jew and just doing what I was told. I’m fairly sure it involved the Holocaust.

It took me many years to get over the antiSemitism that was instilled in me by my early religious miseducation at Hillcrest. I used to recoil from the well-dressed swarm of once-a-year hyper-religious Jews who congregated at the Yom Kippur service (the Day of Atonement is ten days from Rosh Hashana, Jewish New Year). I’d feel real disgust watching them hurry home to break their fast, in a huge hurry, all full of the righteousness of not having eaten in 24 hours. I’d walk to the synagogue to meet my father, shouldering my way past these hungry, rushing, bad-breathed creatures, and walk him home to break our fast.

I had no patience for the meaningless “please rise, please be seated” ritual of the Hillcrest gymnasium, where cheaper seats for High Holiday services were made available to those who were unable or unwilling to pay top dollar for an expensive seat in the sumptuous main chapel. Once in a while, in the gym, people would faint, and fall off their folding chair on to the lacquered wooden floor where, on other days, I’d played basketball.

No need to mention the vengeance of Frieda Berkman, who snarled at me over a loudspeaker during assemblies, or the united fucking by the synagogue itself, first in not presenting me with the Bar Mitzvah kiddush cup I had earned by reciting a few lines of Torah when I turned 13, and then by inviting me to a special service, in the Ferkauf Chapel, where, I was promised, I’d be presented with my kiddush cup. I put on a suit, went down there, “please rise, please be seated, please rise, please continue to stand,” and, at the end of the ponderous droning, there was no kiddush cup. I think of this every time I celebrate shabbat with friends who have their own, and their adult children’s, kiddush cups on the table filled with wine. I also think of how telling it was that my parents never intervened on my behalf.

So ritual for me, for the most part, so much contemptible horse shit. I say this with God Himself looking down on me, only slightly hurt. Worse things have been said by Jews, by Christians, by the otherwise righteous of all nations. If you experience a sense of community and spiritual completeness by sitting in a temple with others of your faith, God bless you, more power to you.

For me, religious ritual just reminds me of the super-religious Amy Coney Barrett, quickly ruling that religious gatherings during Covid-19 must be exempt from all health regulations, because God requires worship, and then, a short time later, ruling that an unconstitutional abortion ban in a state with a notoriously high infant and maternal mortality rate, a law designed to kill more poor women by forcing them to give birth whether they want to or not, is perfectly fine because the unconstitutional law is administratively complex. You can keep the ritualistic, inhuman religion of fanatics like Amy.

I emerged from a scarring childhood of incoherent religious idiocy, years later, to separate the moral teachings of Judaism from the empty rituals. There is a moral core to the teachings of the rabbis that is worth embracing. If you hate something, don’t do it to others. Be not intimate with the ruling authorities. Remember that you were a slave, do not tolerate the enslavement of others – freedom demands it. If you hurt somebody, do your best to make amends. A pretty good set of core principles, I believe.

These are moral precepts I have gleaned, some during interminable services (bar and bat mitzvahs, usually) where I flipped to the back of the prayer book and read Pirkey Avot, Selections from the Fathers, a short collection of pithy sayings that is part of the Mishnah, a vast book explaining every aspect of God’s laws. “Be not intimate with the ruling authorities” is in there somewhere, and it makes a great deal of sense to me. “What is hateful to you, do not unto others” is Rabbi Hillel’s famous formulation of what would later become Jesus’s Golden Rule “Love thy neighbor as thyself” and, to my mind, it provides a much more concrete guide for how to live an ethical life. If you hate something, don’t do it to somebody else. We humans know few things more deeply than what we hate.

Love, on the other hand, while precious beyond poetry, is a much shakier guide for how to act. A woman I used to know, who loved me, once gave me some counsel I argued against following. She countered that she wasn’t telling me anything she wouldn’t tell herself. I told her I knew that, but pointed out that in the past she had told herself to shut all the windows, turn on the gas and put her head in the oven, something I would never consider doing myself. In fact, I’d fight somebody who tried to insist I kill myself. She had the grace to concede that I had a point. Love is slippery as hell, and many of us don’t love ourselves as unconditionally and faithfully as we should, making it hard to love our neighbors as ourselves in the kindest possible way. At the same time, we, and those we love, are all we really have.

So I was happy today to see my smiling friends, regular synagogue goers, video me from a beautiful beach where they are celebrating today. “The beach is our shul this year,” my friend said, smiling from her beach chair, a light breeze tickling the shade umbrella under a perfect blue sky. I told her how beautiful their shul was, as she got up to take a panoramic shot of the sand, sky and ocean, and stop filming our other friend, who’d said hello but, like me, had had enough of the video conference after a short time. “Please be seated,” I should have told her.

Authoritative authoritarianism

This concise definition of “authoritarian” is not as delightful as my all-time favorite definition — squeamish: exhibiting a prudish readiness to be nauseated — but it’s pretty good:

favoring or enforcing strict obedience to authority, especially that of the government, at the expense of personal freedom.

Synonyms are autocratic, despotic, tyrannical, totalitarian, rigid, oppressive, inflexible, and things like that.

I had a friend who was raised by a father who was openly autocratic, the mother fawningly loyal and obedient to her husband’s every firm opinion and summary dictate. The boy never had a chance, he obeyed his father resentfully, feeling helpless to do otherwise. Anger at the way his life had been dominated by his never wrong father drove him to be very much the same way in his own adult life.

I think it’s a fairly typical scenario, which is why you see graphics like this in your internet search results:

Stereotyping, Prejudice & Discrimination - ppt download

The authoritarian personality, in the crudest sense the “bully,” is described this way (as per exhaustive five second internet search):

The authoritarian personality is a personality type characterized by extreme obedience and unquestioning respect for and submission to the authority of a person external to the self, which is realized through the oppression of subordinate people.

Mod 3 authoritarian personality

One of history’s most infamous infallible authoritarians was Germany’s Mr. Hitler, whose word was German law (Fuhrer worte haben Gesetzeskraft!) during the twelve years of his Thousand Year Reich. As a boy he’d been famously abused by his father, a vicious, drunken, petty bureaucrat authoritarian who beat young Adolf regularly, and without mercy, for sport. The same goes for the current leader of the radical right in the USA, our golden-haired poster boy for authoritarian infallibility. He was raised by a certified piece of shit, and it doesn’t appear he got much love from his gold digger mother, either. No severe beatings that we know of, in fact, he seems to have been spoiled as a child, except for the endless psychological torment of being judged harshly as unqualified by the demanding, driven father who groomed you, his reluctant second choice, to take over his empire.

The authoritarian depends on his subjects viewing the world as divided neatly into good and evil with no gray area in between. This black and white worldview makes things easier, and much simpler, for everybody. You can tell at a glance who is friend, and a good person, and who is foe, and a very bad person you can do whatever you want to. Obedience to the wise leader is good, defiance of the leader’s will is evil. Also, any rule the authoritarian makes, he can change at any time, with or without notice.

There are groups whose members can obey and praise the wise leader as much as they like, they will remain hated since they are members of an out-group that can never be equal to the ideal subjects of the authoritarian. The fascist worldview depends on this hated out-group being seen as an existential threat, beyond redemption, an enemy to be treated harshly and pointed to as the reason for the autocrat’s rule. Having a few token members of these despised groups march with the authoritarian is seen as a good thing, since it has the effect of making the authoritarian’s undeniable appeal seem to cross even to the hated out-group.

Not all authoritarians are on the right, by the way, though most of them seem to be. You can have rigid, inflexible, overbearing, bossy types on the right, the left or anywhere in between. They will not allow debate unless all of their rules for debate are followed. You must use certain words only, using the wrong phrases will end the possibility of debate before it begins. Tolerance of opposing views, or views expressed differently than required, is seen as a kind of moral weakness. There are Nazi types among us, as we can see on TV every day, and there are also the same rigidly self-righteous types on the extremest edge of the left.

For the ones on the left, the phrase I like is “there is a guillotine waiting” whenever they fall afoul of the newest orthodoxy. Unlike on the right, autocratic types on the left are subject to being hoisted on their own stinking petards when the political winds change.

They may not be there in the same proportions (American acceptance of autocracy is very high among those who consider themselves conservatives, it is not widely accepted on the left) but there are these intolerant motherfuckers on both sides, often dictating the terms of debate, as this type often seems to, down to the language that may be used in these debates. Some very fine intolerant motherfuckers on both sides, on both sides…

I Can’t Keep Blaming Mr. Hitler — note

I have a tendency to see Adolf Hitler as the explanation of, or at least the perfect illustration for, so much of what I dread in life. I tend to be judgmental about Mr. Hitler’s career and to blame the Nazi leader for many of the things I hate and fear. The arbitrary designation of enemies, who must be killed, the unappealable and irrational demand for absolute loyalty, breach of which is punishable by death. The long strings of words mobilized and deployed like Panzer divisions and formations of Luftwaffe bombers to convince the desperate that if only they obey absolutely, they will be saved and led to glorious victory over their hated enemies.

Hitler, for his part, started off claiming that he was just a drummer, the guy in front of the parade banging the drum to set the cadence for the march. A very modest self-portrait, I think, for a man who, just a few years later, would be celebrated as a national savior and worshipped by millions.

I apparently wrote up this note to myself back in September, 2019. You can read the post here, if you have a few minutes.

The quick point is this. I come from an average working class Jewish family that was wiped out, down to the infants and pregnant women, along with thousands and thousands of other families, in the aftermath of the German push into the Soviet Union. In the wake of this conquering army, Ukrainians and Belarusians often assisted the Einsatzgruppen, the special squads assigned to rid the world of the Jews and other poisonous threats to humanity.

So it was in the town my mother’s parents grew up in, in the heart of the Ukraine. Every surviving Jew marched from the little ghetto to the ravine on the northwestern edge of town, bang, dead [1]. You can’t even find this murder of several thousand, one airless night in August 1943, among the mass shootings committed by Mr. Hitler’s followers, it simply didn’t make the list. It’s only recorded one place on-line, a transcribed oral history of the massacre of the Jewish inhabitants of that town, and here, from time to time, on this blahg.

A cousin and I have been trying for years to find out exactly what happened to my father’s side, back in Belarus. They, and the benighted little hamlet they lived in, were wiped from the world without a trace. There were various aktions in the area, that much we’ve learned, and they were all killed in the course of those.

So I see myself as fundamentally different from a well-born ubermensch like Jared Kushner. His family had the good fortune (and the money, presumably) to escape the slaughterhouse that was Europe in the last of the Nazi years. They came here, these two poor immigrants, Jared’s grandparents, and slowly bought and operated a small empire of New Jersey apartment houses, which made them very wealthy. Their son, Charles, took this small real estate empire and greatly expanded it, becoming a billionaire, like his son Jared, after him.

Two generations after his grandparents escaped the Nazi killing machine, Jared Kushner has the haughty bearing of a young SS officer. He speaks with the absolute certainty of someone who has never been wrong, or, if he has been wrong, has never been corrected. You simply cannot picture a man like that marched to his dignity free mass execution in a pile of freshly combed dirt.

Easier, by far, to imagine him distractedly smoking a cigarette, in a long holder, as he gives the signal for the Ukrainian auxiliary police to fire the next volley, into the back of my head, and the heads of the people on either side of me.

Fortunately, Jared’s time in power did not last long enough for this important work to be completed. It took Mr. Hitler years to accomplish all that he accomplished, it was not the work of a single four year period, it took at least twice that long to get it all into high gear.

We are all poised in the fall of 1932 here (in other countries it’s already later). Here in US of A the future of our long experiment in democracy is at the mercy of two Democrats who insist there is no problem that can’t be solved if only we all just learn to respect each other and behave differently.

[1] from that transcribed oral history:

At the beginning of Elul 1943, about 10 SS men arrived from Kremenets. They gathered a large number of armed Ukrainian policemen from the surrounding area and stationed them in the shade. One SS man stood next to the great master, Mr. Shtayger, the destroyer of Vishnevets Jewry. He stood up and gave a short speech that I heard in full and still can’t forget.

He said, “Today we’re going to liquidate all the Jews in the ghetto. Go knock on each window, open it, and tell the Jews, ‘Leave your homes, you traitors, you Jewish Communists.’ Beat the Jews who refuse to leave their homes with the butts of your guns. Pay attention: you can strike to kill, but make sure you don’t kill them inside the ghetto. Take them outside town, to the designated area, and kill them there.”

I still don’t understand why he didn’t want to exterminate us inside the ghetto.


I get it, they didn’t want the hassle of dealing with all the stinking corpses inside the town, during a hot summer, especially since they had a nearby mass grave ready to accommodate all the dead. You have to use common sense!

Playing soothing music for my dying mother

My mother died a long, slow, painful death from endometrial cancer. She did not want to talk about death, though she often asked, rhetorically, why she felt so awful all the time. I understood that I was not supposed to mention death, or the deadly cancer eating its way out from the lining of her womb.

My mother always gave my father a hard time about his napping. He’d fall asleep a few times a day and, when I was visiting, my mother would point at him and complain. It turns out he was dying of undiagnosed liver cancer the last few years of his life, which could well explain his more frequent naps, but that’s another story.

As my mother got closer to the end, she found herself exhausted during the day and would often fall into a nap. I asked her if she’d changed her opinion of napping.

“Oh, I LOVE to nap!” she said with a big smile.

One day toward the end of her life, when she was trying to sleep off some unbearable pain, I went quietly into her room with my guitar and began playing a soft, soothing vamp, something like this one:

Her breathing seemed to become more relaxed as I played. I played softly for a few minutes, hoping to help her to sleep. Suddenly she sputtered and opened her eyes on the pillow.

“What IS that?!” she said crossly, “it sounds like you’re tuning your guitar!”

I withdrew from her bedroom and didn’t try that shit again.