They warned you about the “dangers of secular college,” about the parties and the raging postmodernism that threatens to overthrow every value you hold dear. They gave you all the pamphlets about Israel designing the first cell phone and making seltzer machines, so you’d have talking points for when people chant “Free Palestine” at a protest against rape. They reminded you to set up chavrutot (Torah study partners) and to make time for cheshbon nefesh (personal reflection), to set goals for yourself and that you “gotta be honest”. They told you to take comfort in the rich Jewish community on your NYC campus, and to confide in the nine other young women (about a third of your seminary program) joining you at school. But somehow they forgot to give you a heads-up about the existential loneliness that is par for the course in our tribe. When you really think about it, you know you’re not really alone in this, that you are part of an incredible community on campus, and part of a larger Am (nation) that transcends all divides.
As easy as it is for you to feel numb and jaded, you’ll find it strike you at unexpected moments, just when you think you’ve fallen for the illusion that you are safe from a distance. When you’re in a Sociology of Gender class, discussing cultural traditions of strong women, and choke back your examples (Eishet Chayil, your mom, etc.) because you are too angry to speak words. Because someone just turned the conversation around to center upon the Palestinian women who are part of the “resistance” against the “Zionist oppression and expansion”. To be clear, I do not believe most Palestinians are our enemies or that Zionism is flawless. But I can’t jive with this talk of “resistance” when my entire Facebook feed (yes, in class, sorry) is full of news of yet another stabbing of innocents, right by the market where I used to buy dried figs and feel uplifted. I don’t want to hear about “resistance” when what that really amounts to is terror.
So you’ll spend the rest of class trying to tune out everything, and you’ll iMessage your mom that you love her, and you’ll catch up on think-pieces from the Atlantic that will have no consequence on your life. You’ll hold back tears as you wait for the subway to work, and you’ll play your breakup playlist (it’s called “Mellowdrama,” and it’s public on Spotify and I think it’s pretty on-point) and take odd comfort in your own despair. You’ll open Slaughterhouse Five just to occupy your mind with words, though you won’t digest any of them. You’ll feel a sort of paranoia, convinced that the other passengers are staring at you like you’re some sort of Tralfamadorian. You’ll wonder if anyone will ever understand anyone else, and how we can each be so vividly, bleakly, impenetrably alone in this world. You’ll try to remember if you packed your Xanax in your work tote, and if it’s worth taking half a capsule or if it’ll only make you too drowsy to be productive. You can’t sleep this away.
As you exit the subway, you might feel waves of guilt for even indulging in this sadness when you don’t have to live it. When you are so far away, with the luxury of turning this awareness on or off at your own convenience. You grow self-conscious about whether you’re being genuine when you’re weeping for your people. Are you a good person? Is there such a thing as true altruism? What the hell even is solidarity?
I’m not into mainstream “hasbara” (pro-Israel advocacy), because we don’t need to “explain” ourselves; we need to look into each others’ eyes and throw the jargon down the drain and speak in “I” statements like they taught us in elementary school.
I am very low on the theoretical list (unless someone’s keeping a real one, which seems time-consuming) of people who reach to play the “everyone hates the Jews” card. I want to reclaim Jewish identity as being a million times more than victimhood. But sometimes my “otherness”- our “otherness”- hits me so hard, averting my inclination to forget it. When “safe spaces” and trigger warnings (neither of which am I mocking, and both of which I strongly support) apply to some ideological zones and not others. When I wonder how someone who makes such comments as the ones I have heard in these academic spaces would react if I just said “I do not feel safe here. I am hurting.” When buzzwords are not tools for communication, but modes of intimidation, ways of scaffolding existing divides and building new ones. When language is used as an attempt to strip people of their humanity and mark them as political symbols. I won’t admit defeat, but I’m done raising my hand for now.
And who the hell am I for saying I’m concerned for my safety because my stomach feels tight when someone tries to school me in my own identity, when my people at Home are literally being stabbed to death?
You’ll go to work, say “I’m great! How are you? How was your weekend?”, edit spreadsheets, eat leftover quinoa for lunch, and measure your success by the things you’ve crossed off your list. You are never safe, never fully shielded by these distractions from the so-called “resistance” that looms, hovering down your neck from miles across oceans. But you’re safe enough to feel guilty for this distant, low-grade anxiety. You’re safe enough for all this to amount to one rough morning.