On More Perfect Unions

(This article first appeared at jwa.org.)

I don’t know which makes me more heartsick: the terrible events in Charlottesville and their shockwaves throughout the country, or the fact that I have stopped being surprised by the ugly things white Americans are still capable of doing. Before the election, many white liberals believed that with a two-term black president, the fiftieth anniversary of major civil rights victories, a woman as the Democratic presidential candidate, legalized gay marriage, and the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, we were entering a new era of social justice, with a majority of young people in favor of equal rights for all. In the past year, we have had a rude awakening about how far we have really come and how much further we still have to go.

As Jews, we have a long and painful history of thinking our wandering is done, that we have found a tolerant and enlightened home—in such places as England, Spain, Syria, France, and Germany––only to be rudely awakened, over and over, by bigotry and xenophobia.

Because of that long and painful history, in 1790, the Jews of the Touro Synagogue (then called Yeshuat Israel) in Newport, Rhode Island asked President George Washington whether they were really safe in America, or whether their situation might rapidly deteriorate under a future administration. In response, Washington responded:

… happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens…. May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.

Reflecting on the violence in Charlottesville for the New York Daily News, Shaun King argued that to fight racism effectively, we have to understand how it is baked into our national identity, “Don’t tell me this nation was founded on faith and freedom. It was founded on oppression and violence. What we’re seeing in Charlottesville isn’t un-American. NO! That violence and bigotry are as American as it gets.”

He’s right. The same man who wrote to Touro Synagogue, espousing the belief that equality and freedom should be guaranteed for everyone, also owned hundreds of enslaved people, used slave labor to build the White House, and worked with Thomas Jefferson to embed a ban on discussing slavery until 1808 into the Constitution.

And yet Washington wrote that letter to the Touro Synagogue.

Our founders wrote of creating “A more perfect union.” They recognized that perfection is something we strive for, not something we have yet achieved. It’s why we have a procedure for amending our Constitution.

We have always been this bad. And we have always been better than this. Grappling with this contradiction has always been hard for us as American Jews, sometimes able to “pass” or be folded into the comforts of white privilege, sometimes abruptly and painfully othered, always aware of our own history of persecution, less comfortable with the thought that we might be aligned with the persecutors. When I was little, I once asked my father why we had to feel guilty about slavery when our family had never owned slaves. He responded that our family came to this country in part because it was a place of opportunity—but that opportunity and economic bounty was built through generations of slave labor. We benefitted from that inequality even though we had never participated in it. He made me conscious that while America was a safe and comfortable home for us, other people didn’t have the same experience, and we had a responsibility to make the country a safe and welcoming place for them as well.

We need to own our past and present sins while holding on to our aspirations to be better, and never forgetting our civic responsibility of working towards a more perfect union, a place where people of all races and religions can settle in safety—where none shall make them afraid. Let’s roll up our sleeves and get back to work.


2017 Hugos: What it means to be out of the woods

I don’t love all the 2017 Hugo Award winners. And that’s a good thing.

I’ve been a geek and a nerd and a lover of all things speculative my entire life, but until 2015, I’d never involved myself much with the Hugos. I knew they were important and prestigious, but I loved novels, not short stories, and in any given year, I was reading or rereading old stuff more than I was trying newly printed works. Why pay for Worldcon membership just to vote for one or two items in one or two categories and leave the rest blank? I didn’t feel like it mattered for me to force my way into the conversation if I didn’t have anything to add.

2015 was a rude awakening. When the Puppies managed to hijack almost every slot in almost every category for the Hugo ballot nominations, I was angry. The Puppies claimed that certain people didn’t belong in this community, and that touched a nerve: this was supposed to be the place where all the bullied and strange and lost are welcome. Where, when you had no place to go, they had to take you in. And through GamerGate and RaceFail and other incidents, the community was just starting to talk through the ways people had been made to feel unwelcome or unsafe, and bringing their actions more into alignment with those ideals. The idea that quality work that was beloved by a majority of fandom was not welcome because it was created by a girl, or a person of color, felt like a sickening step backward. I was angry. I was outraged. I suddenly had a lot of things to add to the conversation.

That first year was mostly about shutting down the Puppies, voting “No Award” over and over again. The second year, voting on the preliminary ballot, was about educating myself, reading more widely in the field, encouraging others to opt in as I had and start actively shaping the community. The finalist ballot was still a bit thin on non-Puppy material, but I read everything and voted my conscience, and was gratified by the victories of 2016.

This year, as I’ve written elsewhere, was huge, literally and figuratively: the first year since the rules change, which meant that there was way more to read in every category, all of it amazing and varied. The experimental “Best Series” category didn’t make the reading list any less daunting, either! There were a few Puppy choices still on the final ballot, but that was to be expected: like it or not, they are members of our community. So I made my way through the massive reading list, voted, then fretted, waiting for news of the results.

The winners’ list, announced on Friday, is pretty stunning: a lot of experimental fiction, a lot of challenging, complex stories that don’t usually get told. And their creators are almost all women or people of color. “Best Series” was a personal favorite of mine, the Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold, featuring a disabled hero. I’m delighted that Seanan McGuire’s “Every Heart a Doorway,” with its multiple queer and transgender protagonists, won, though if it could have somehow shared the prize with Victor LaValle’s “Ballad of Black Tom,” I would have been elated beyond all description. And for NK Jemisin to win “Best Novel” two years running feels like a nail in the Puppies’ coffin, since she’s been the target of so much vitriol for being a talented and outspoken black woman in the field.

In the end, everything that won a Hugo this year was exceptional work that pushed the boundaries of the genre. The 2017 Hugos don’t perfectly reflect my ballot or my tastes. But they do reflect the general consensus of a community I am proud to be part of.


I have thoughts about Virginia, and separate thoughts about the Hugos. I’m also going to be moving over copies of various blog pieces I’ve written over the past four years for the Jewish Women’s Archive, back-dated to when they were originally written (you can find the complete list of JWA articles here), so I just wanted to give warning that your feed may be really full for the next few hours.

The Campsite Guide to Exiting Relationships

(This article first appeared at jwa.org.)

Chatting with friends about bad breakup stories, I found myself struggling to explain my own philosophy for breakups. Breakups are complicated. The models we get from pop culture often involve lots of drama, betrayal, and revenge. In the other direction, the Jewish value of shalom bayit, “peace in the home,” can be taken to an extreme where women are pressured to stay and try to fix things no matter how bad things get. But shalom bayit is not the only Jewish value that can be applied to relationships. As I told my friends, I try to live by the ideal of tikkun olam, repairing the world, both in my work and in my personal life. Someone in the group pushed back, “Isn’t breaking up the opposite of repair? Isn’t it inevitable that when someone gets hurt, things get worse?”

Another person, though, brightened and said, “That’s like the Campsite Motto, isn’t it? Leave things better than you found them?”

She got it.

I don’t think a breakup (with a partner or a friend) has to be painful; it’s possible to leave without being cruel and without destroying the other person’s dignity.

Let me just take a second to point out what I hope should be obvious: if you’re breaking off a relationship with someone who is physically or emotionally abusive, the only repair you can do is to your own soul by leaving and regaining a sense of safety and strength.

If, however, you’re in a relationship that has been fine and is just not working anymore, with some thought and effort it usually is possible to leave someone without shattering your world or theirs.

Here are the questions I use when it’s time for me to make my exit.

1.How can you be kind and clear in leaving? Whether you’re fleeing someone you can’t stand or saying goodbye to someone you can’t keep, it’s possible to say “this isn’t working” without detailing what you think their worst qualities are or giving them false hope that you might be able to work it out.

Before you talk to the other person, think about what you actually want. Would you stay in the relationship if they just changed a particular behavior, or have you already checked out? Either choice is valid, but there’s a difference between the two conversations. Ask for space if you need to sort through your feelings, but not as a tactic for extricating yourself—don’t let them assume you’ll come back if you have no intention of doing so. If you are hoping to stay, think about how long you are willing to work with your friend or partner to change things before throwing in the towel.

But if you are completely done, it’s better to say you’re unhappy, or this isn’t working, rather than make the other person think that if they just changed, you would stay. I’ve found it’s less painful for everyone involved to talk about basic incompatibilities (“You are not going to stop wanting to raise a family in a Jewish home, and you deserve to be with someone who will do that with you,” or “You are a really talented singer, but I just can’t deal with being the breadwinner indefinitely while you focus on your music,”) rather than listing all the things that drive you crazy. And of course, it costs nothing to say, “I’m sorry for hurting you.”

2. What have you learned from the other person? What have you taught them? This can be anything from an insight into how the world works to the right way to make an omelet. For relationships that were once lovely, this can be a way of holding on to, and honoring, what was special, but even in abusive relationships, it can be a way of acknowledging the positive traits that made you stay (so you don’t blame yourself for not leaving sooner).

One ex was responsible for my love of Dar Williams and Tori Amos. Another introduced me to Doctor Who and Indian food. One taught me (the hard way) not to trust people blindly. The next taught me how to let people in again and helped me trust my instincts more now that they’d been honed by experience. And one invaluable friend taught me that it’s unfair to expect other people to read my mind, that I have to ask for what I want. And in turn, when I think of the people I’ve loved, I can point to ways I influenced them: teaching one to bake challah, showing another Firefly for the first time, convincing one friend to leave a dead-end job for something more meaningful, teaching another how to listen without trying to fix things. Considering the impact you’ve had on each other (good and bad) has three benefits: it can help you find closure, it can remind you to treat the other person more compassionately during a breakup, and it can help you fine-tune what you’re looking for next.

3. Has the relationship changed how you want to behave in your next relationship? To avoid repeating old mistakes, we have to look at what went wrong and keep an eye out for the same dynamics in other relationships. For several years, I had a pattern of becoming close friends with intense people who needed me desperately. They would pour their hearts out to me and make me feel important. And then, after a while, I would realize that we were spending hours every day on their dramas, but that they barely knew or cared about my life at all. Recognizing that pattern helped me realize that friendships and romantic relationships could and should be more than one person in crisis and the other playing counselor. Reflecting on this pattern helped me see warning signs of such relationships before I got entangled again.

Relationships, like campsites, can be expansive, fun, and a space for growth and coming together with other people. As we exit a campsite we are reminded to leave things better than we found them, as a kindness to the space and to the people who come after us. I do it because it’s the right thing to do. But I also do it because more than once, I’ve been grateful for the things someone learned from a previous relationship that have made them a wiser and more loving partner to me. I don’t want to trash the places or people I leave behind. It’s so much better to appreciate the space, clean up the mess, and say thank you.

Tisha B’Av thoughts

This holiday commemorates a lot of terrible, world-shaking events in Jewish history. The destruction of both the First and Second Temples. The expulsions from England and Spain, with their attendant horrors. And the list goes on.

But what always stuck with me was the Rabbis’ interpretation of why all this happened, that the trigger event was a man who accidentally invited his enemy to a party and then threw him out, publicly humiliating him and setting him on a blind course of revenge that destroyed their country. They called it Sinat Hinam, senseless hatred, the most poisonous, destructive force.

Six months into the Trump presidency, the dangers of senseless hatred are very clear. I don’t think I need to tell any one that we need to keep calling out and stopping the senseless hatred of bigots and misogynists. But I will say that we need to avoid falling into the trap of hatred too, of thinking anything that gets Trump out of office faster (or even just allows us to vent our rage and frustration) is okay. Remember that the goal is to get back to a country we can all live in. I have been so grateful for the senators who have fought to protect healthcare, the reporters who have patiently chipped away at layers of lies, the judges and governors who have said Not Here, and Never Again, the activists who have kept them all accountable. It’s slow. It’s hard. But we will get there. We will clean this house without burning it down.