On Allyship

I took a break from a web forum called MetaFilter recently. I don't know how long it will last. Until I feel comfortable going back I suppose, which could be indefinitely.

I like MetaFilter as a site. I think it is an example for the rest of the web, in that it manages to be a general interest site that, thanks to smart moderating policies, is one of the few places on the web that isn't constantly poisonous.

But the site has a recurring problem with the subject of Judaism. It shows up occasionally on the site's back-end discussion board, MetaTalk. The first time I recall was back in 2007, when a user on the site leaped into a thread on Scientology to spread an old canard about the Talmud saying it was permissible for Jews to murder non-Jews.

This was a wilder time on MetaFilter, and responses to the thread were largely jokey, even from yours truly. It's a bit shocking to read threads from that time, but, generally, people were of the opinion that naked antisemitism shouldn't be allowed on the site, and that seems to have always been the site's policy. (It is worth noting that several of the site's moderators are Jewish.)

In general, the site has been rather good about this sort of thing, and I don't take specific issue with the moderating policies there. My issue isn't so much with the moderators at this moment as it is with the community as a whole, although I think the moderators play a large role in leading the community. I have been on MetaFilter since 2005, and in those 12 years I have never seen significant changes to the community's norms without the direct, specific, and continuous influence of the moderators.

Additionally, I should mention that while I am discussing MetaFilter specifically, it is as a representation of a larger issue: That of Jews and their allies.

What started this was a recent thread about white nationalist Richard Spencer getting socked in the face, which MetaFilter was generally okay with, as am I. But in the thread, somebody made a generalized distinction between the left and the right, saying:

"The right's propensity for violence is because they feel entitled to hurt us, to wipe us out, to enforce at any opportunity their sense of superiority.

"The left's propensity for violence, if you can call it that, is because we are afraid people will kill us for existing."

To which a regular user, we'll call him JFA, responded that the left is a big umbrella, and pointed out that Jews regularly feel threatened by certain anti-Zionist groups. He linked to an essay titled "Solidarity is for Goyim," which argues that, while Jews are frequently early and visible allies to many other groups that are in need, when Jews are in need, allyship is hard to find.

Antisemitism and the progressive community

This has been consistent with my own experiences, and I have long experience in the left. I cofounded a Jewish activist group in Minneapolis in the 1990s called the Jewish Activist Minyan, but found it enormously difficult to discuss issues of antisemitism with non-Jews in the progressive community, and when those issues came up -- especially the more subtle ones, the sorts of things that we now call microagressions -- found I was often dismissed.

As on MetaFilter, the Minneapolis progressive community generally thought obvious antisemitism was despicable, and, if they could punch a Nazi in response, were happy to. But when it came to smaller, endemic, near-invisible antisemitism that the left might be participating in and advancing? Nope.

I am going to try to divorce this as much as possible from discussions of Israel, although I can't entirely, because Israel is a significant subject for the left, and also is a place where unconscious antisemitism (or, sometimes, conscious antisemitism) will appear. It's also one of the places where charges of antisemitism are reflexively dismissed.

It's what happened in the thread. Rightly or wrongly, there are people on MetaFilter who think JFA uses the charge of antisemitism to shield Israel from criticism. I'm not going to go through his entire posting history to see if this is something he has ever done, because it doesn't matter.

But even if he did, and even if it did matter, I then chimed in and said his link rang true with me. I have no real history of discussing Israel on the site, for a few reasons. Firstly, my feelings about the place are complicated and frequently shifting. Secondly, discussions of the subject on the site have frequently been alienating to me, so I steer clear of them. Thirdly, as a Jew, I am often pressured to (and feel pressure to) weigh in on the subject, and I take issue with this, as it is a country I have very little relationship with and should not be expected to be a spokesperson for.

But I was ignored in favor of people immediately, reflexively lobbing dismissive statements at JFA. I then opened a MetaTalk thread to discuss this, and, despite me explicitly stating that I did not want this to be a referendum on JFA, but instead to discuss the larger issue of allyship with Jews, people kept insisting on discussing JFA, essentially saying it was impossible to discuss the subject because his participation was so problematic.

That's when I left.


Now, some of it is that my nerves are quite raw right now. This is a tough time. It's like a wildfire, and everybody's home is burning a little, and so I understand that perhaps the frightening rise of antisemitism, and the question of how people can be allies for the Jews, may not be everybody's first priority.

At the same time, our house is also on fire, with JCCs experiencing bomb threats and an official statement from the White House on International Holocaust Remembrance Day deliberately leaving out Jews, a gesture that, generously, was extraordinarily tone deaf.  Ungenerously, it was a move to strike the specifically Jewish experience out of the Holocaust, to universalize it in a way that erases history, which wouldn't be a terrific surprise given that there are White Nationalists in the White House just now.

So we could use a little support. Beyond that, we need our allies to do the same sort of work they ask of us. In the same way I am asked to be aware of where I am privileged, where I may be blinkered, where I may have unconscious assumptions and biases, where I assume authority that I don't have and reject authority that others have, all that -- well, Jews should be able to ask that of others.

But the article I linked above describes something they call "Gentile Fragility," and I have seen it. It's an unconscious, reflexive rejection whenever something about the Jews comes up that isn't Protocols of the Elders of Zion levels of obviousness.

If I can use another example from MetaFilter, back in 2009 there was fierce debate about the appropriateness of the use of the term JAP.  I was pretty active in that thread, and found it maddening. Not only was the idea that the phrase was offensive dismissed by many users, but the discussion itself was dismissed with the suggestion that there are more important things to talk about.

I was very hurt by that thread, because JAP is self-evidently a slur. But it went on forever, with people endlessly arguing about it. And I think what hurt most was there was no deference to the fact that here I was, a Jew, explaining in unambiguous terms what the issue was, and was held to be no more authoritative than a gentile who had never actually thought through the subject until that very moment and was having a knee-jerk reflex to give themselves permission to use it.

I know this is not unique to Jews. I see it happen to every minority group online. But people need to know that it happens to Jews, too, and we need their support when it happens. As an example, there is someone I am Facebook friends with who is a member of the Romani community. She friended me on Facebook because she saw my frequent and very public defense of the Irish Traveller ethnic group.

As happens occasionally, I saw a comment she made in a thread that interested me, so I peeked in. It was a group of mostly Romani commenters, and for some reason the thread deteriorated into a vicious series of openly antisemitic comments. And I kept waiting for this Facebook friend to step in and defend Jews in the way she had seen me defend others.

It didn't happen.

Speaking for the Jews

I feel this way a lot. Where are our allies? In the wake of the JCC bomb threats, I, like the author of "Solidarity is for Goyim," looked around for non-Jewish institutions that spoke out against this, and was shocked at how little public commentary there was. I have looked around for institutional responses from non-Jews to the absence of mentions of Jews or antisemitism in the official White House statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day and found it almost entirely absent, but for a comment in an interview by Tim Kaine.

A thankfully deleted comment in my MetaTalk thread might suggest the reason why: It stated without equivocation that Jews do not experience institutional oppression, and therefore antisemitism is not seen as being a serious as other forms of oppression.

This isn't true -- the institution of antisemitism publicly privileges a few Jews in order to make them scapegoats, as demonstrated by the "Jews control the media" libel. That still exists, and is being used by the current administration to delegitimize the media. It's very present and is indeed institutional.

But even if the charge that there is no institutional oppression of Jews were true, what difference does it make? The world is full of big and little evils, and while we may have to prioritize the big over the little in an emergency, it does not mean we get to ignore the little altogether. And it is especially worth noting that antisemitism often escapes attention because the Jewish community is small, and the Jewish community is small because of genocide.

We are not living in a post-antisemitism world, as some seem to think, or in a world where antisemitism is so minor as to be inconsequential. We are instead living in a world where the Jewish community is so small that our suffering is easy to ignore.

Easy for non-Jews, that is. I work at a Jewish newspaper, and a lot of our content comes from Jewish wire services. Every day I must go through the news briefs they send out, and every day it includes stories of antisemitism: Students at the University of Houston praising Hitler on social media and expressing a desire to hurt Jews; A German publisher who apologized for including an antisemitic image in a schoolbook; a Crown Heights driver who threatened to shoot a crossing guard and a Jewish child; printers at Stanford, Vanderbilt and California, Berkeley that were used to print antisemitic fliers; Jewish actor Shia LaBeouf shoving a stranger who told him "Hitler did nothing wrong."

All these stories came in Friday. When we go to press, I must wade through all the stories of antisemitism and pick out which ones were are going to print, usually based on severity or novelty. It's likely the Jewish community doesn't know the startling frequency of antisemitic events, since they see only a fraction of it in print. I am sure it is all-but invisible to the non-Jewish world.

Some suggestions

I asked for help in the MetaTalk thread, help in how to address both this invisibility and the lack of allyship; help was not forthcoming. I have some general suggestions, as they are as follows:

1. Speak out: Jews need support too! We've a very small group, as I said, and so our experiences and concerns are often invisible, as I again said. We need non-Jews to amplify our concerns and our voices, and to speak out on our behalf. Don't presume that because there are visible Jews in the media that the Jewish experience is well-represented, or especially current.

2. Don't presume you understand antisemitism: It can be hard to fathom a form of oppression that seems to privilege people. That privilege is not universal, and historically it has always proved to be temporary and provisional. The history of antisemitism is one of a small percentage of Jews being granted visible privilege and all Jews subsequently being punished for that. Since we tend to discuss oppression in terms of privilege, it can be hard to fathom an oppression that adds privilege, rather that strips it away. But this is what antisemitism does, and its insidiousness is that this often renders antisemitism invisible.

3. Don't accuse Jews of using charges of antisemitism to silence critics of Israel: Yes, I know there are Jews who do this. I know they are irritating. But I see this charge launched preemptively all the time -- there was one MetaFilter thread on antisemitism in which it was mentioned dozens of times, but nobody could point to a specific example when pressed.

As a result, it seems far too often to be a way of submarining any talks of antisemitism by insisting on dishonest motives. If you are truly an ally, all charges of antisemitism must be taken seriously, even if you suspect their motives. Investigate the charge. Ask questions. Especially if more than one Jew brings it up.

Make no mistake, there is a lot of antisemitism that masquerades itself as criticism of Israel, and I would think, if you are genuinely attempting to address injustice in Israel, you would not want to be associated with antisemitism, and would want to make sure you are not accidentally participating in it.

Is it possible for Jews to abuse that, to simply fling around the charge without merit? It is. You still must take it seriously. In the end, you can decide the charge is meritless, but not without actually examining the charge. That's your responsibility as an ally, and, frankly, that's your obligation as a non-Jew.

Is this a pain-in-the ass? You bet. Consider it your fee for being on the wrong end of 2,000 years of antisemitism.

4. There will never be an ideal spokesperson: It becomes very easy to dismiss charges of antisemitism because the person leveling it may be far from ideal. But I've watched this dynamic play out before, and it always seems like the person who is readiest to speak out is the person who is easiest to disregard. They're too loud. They're too pushy. They overreach. Their motives are suspect. There just seems to be this litany of reasons to ignore them, none of them having to do with the thing the person just said.

Well, if you wait for the right person to phrase something the exact right way, it turns out you can put off addressing the issue forever. I know it is irritating to deal with irritating people, but, then, I don't know how to raise an unwelcome subject without being irritating.

And here's the thing: In the MetaFilter thread, when I raised the same topic as the disreputable JFA, people continued to address JFA. I've seen this phenomenon before, of people selecting who will be the spokesperson for an issue, and deliberately choosing the one they consider least credible.

I never know whether these tactics are deliberate or unconscious, and I guess I don't care. Either way, they frame the discussion in a way in which it can be delegitimized. Don't do that.

5. Don't insert yourself into in-group discussions: Jews, as a whole, agree on nothing. The Talmud, the compendium of Jewish law, is nothing but one long book of arguments, some spanning centuries, between rabbis who absolutely do not agree with each other. In terms of practical application of Jewish law, we mostly picked one group to follow, the House of Hillel, even though there was another group, the House of Shammai, who disagreed with Hillel on everything.

So there has never been Jewish consensus. As a result, if something seems to be antisemitic, you will always find one Jew who says it isn't. And that's fine -- one of Judaism's great strengths is its diversity, although you'll find Jews who disagree with me on that.

But that makes it easy for non-Jews to pick through Jewish arguments and find Jews whose viewpoints support their own. Don't do this. It is not the place of a non-Jew to pick a side in a Jewish argument because it supports their worldview.

6. Jews are the experts on their own experiences: Jews know what it means to be Jewish better than non-Jews. Defer to their expertise.

I know it is hard for people in the majority to hear this -- they didn't like it when women said they know more about the experience of being women than men do, they didn't like it when black people said they know more about being black than white people do, and they haven't liked it any other time. I don't know why this is, as this little precept seems self-evident, but it is so often ignored that I feel I must write it.

7. Don't blame Jews for antisemitism or expect them to fix it: There is a long and genuinely murderous history of Jews being held as responsible for the hatred against them. There were a lot of reasons offered: Jews represented the criminal classes, Jews would not assimilate, etc. This phenomenon even had a name: The Jewish Question.

The Jewish question is inherently antisemitic, as it presumes the Jews are a problem. The Final Solution actually got its name because it was proposed as the answer to the Jewish Question.

There is a temptation sometimes to say, well, if Jews did this, or they did that, or if Israel stopped doing this or that, things would be better for the Jews.

If you are tempted to do this, stop. It presents antisemitism as being an inevitable and reasonable response to something Jews have done. But the responsibility for antisemitism always lies with the antisemite, and we have 2000 years of history that prove that nothing Jews do has any effect on antisemitism. The Jewish Question is just a way of shifting blame for antisemitism away from antisemites and onto Jews.

Jews didn't create antisemitism, and therefore it is not their job to fix it. Truthfully, I am irritated at feeling like I have to write this essay, because while I am happy to have input in a series of suggestions like this, the fact that it has been left to a Jew to write it tells me non-Jews are not taking responsibility for their behavior.

8. Atheists out there: I am an atheist. I am culturally Jewish, but I am one of many, many Jewish atheists, including some rabbis.

There is a noxious and pernicious trend where particularly belligerent atheists think they can be unpleasant about the subject of Judaism because they are unpleasant about all religions. That the only commentary needed is a blinkered dismissal of an ancient superstition because this sort of fantasy is inherently an evil.

As one atheist to another, cut it out.

9. A last note: Finally, since I started this with a discussion of my experience on MetaFilter, I will mention the importance of online moderation. I have consistently seen the environment on MetaFilter shift because the moderators have taken an active role in discouraging behavior that creates problems, and have never seen it change without that effort.

I have noticed some shifts in MetaFilter policy since the last time the questions of MetaFilter and the Jews was brought up -- at least one instance where they stepped in to delete a "Jews just claim antisemitism to silence critics of Israel," as an example. I am not sure what further moderation policy would look like, but I know that I will need it publicly articulated before I am comfortable returning to the site.

And I need it publicly articulated for two reasons. Firstly, if it isn't, how will I know anything is being done? And how will I know that I feel these decisions will be effective?

But secondly, MetaFilter relies on its user-base to police for misbehavior, and without the users flagging comments that are a problem, they can be overlooked. Without the moderators making clear policy decisions, users will not know what should be flagged.

That's one of the ways they can speak up on the site. And, as I said, in general, I need people to speak up.



My paternal grandparents always called themselves Russian. It wasn't until I was in my teens and heard an interview with my father's aunt that I got a sense that they may, instead, have come from near Minsk in Belarus -- an understandable conflation of the two countries, as Belarus was part of the Russian empire until WWI.

Online genealogy sites sometimes say they were from Esmin in Russia, which, as far as I have been able to tell, isn't an actual place. Going back in the family tree, I find their ancestors came from Zembin, which looks like this in Cyrillic: Зембін, almost like Esmin. I suspect that's where they came from, as it was a largely Jewish village and is about an hour outside of Minsk.

Here's what would have happened to my family had they not moved to America: In July, 1941, the Nazis occupied Zembin, setting up a ghetto for the Jewish community there. Two months later they liquidated the ghetto by executing 927 Jews, which seems to have been the entire Jewish population of the town.

I can do this with almost every branch of my family tree. My maternal great grandfather Isaac came from Warsaw, where somewhere in the area of a quarter of a million Jews were murdered by Nazis. My mother's maternal grandparents came from Kishinev in Moldova , where there was a pogrom in 1903 and whose remaining Jewish community, numbering about 10,000, were later murdered by the Nazis.

This is why I feel strongly about the question of refugees. I just need to go back a few generations to discover my own family's refugees, and discover that had they not fled and been allowed into America, they would have died. Every single family member I have would not exist had it not been for America welcoming refugees.

We have a long history of being a safe shore for those in need. Emma Lazarus, in her poem about the Statue of Liberty, calls her the Mother of Exiles, a name I think we should reclaim for her. It's foundational to our conception as a country, our sense that America is a place with a moral purpose in the world: That we take in those in need, that it forges our character and our strength. It is literally our motto: e pluribus unum, out of many, one.

Helping refugees is not something we do when convenient, or when we are in the mood to do it, or when the economy is right for it, or when they are refugees we like and we can turn away those we don't like. It's what we do because we are America, and that's who we are, and anyone who walks away from that legacy and that obligation is turning their back on the very thing that makes us America. And, for many of us, most of us I would guess, it is turning your back on your own ancestors, who likewise came to these shores in need, and were let in.


On the beauty of the Yiddish name

I was born in 1968, a year after the Six-Day War. It's hard to overstate the importance of that event to American Jews or its impact. The American Jewish community had been generally Zionistic in the past, but suddenly went full on bananas for everything Israeli after that.

Hebrew names made a real comeback, and Jews who previously had Americanized version of Hebrew names often switched the the Hebrew pronunciation. So I grew up with Aris, Tzvis, Devorahs, Eitans, and the like. Israeli food came into vogue, mostly falafel and hummos, which, son of a gun, I have in my fridge right now.

Hebrew schools made sure to teach contemporary conversational Hebrew alongside making kids memorize prayers. The walls of my Hebrew school were festooned with posters that looked like they had been made about 1969, generally featuring young Israelis romping in mountains and on coasts, some wearing that blue and white bucket hat, called a kova tembel, which made every Israeli look a little like Gilligan from Gilligan's Island. Most of my friends went to Israel at some point during their adolescent or teen years, often on a program that took them on tours of the major cities, had them swim in the dead sea and climb on Masada, and then put them to work on a kibbutz for a while.

This was at a time when Yiddishkeit was in decline, mostly, but for a revival of klezmer music. Yiddish names certainly were in decline. Both my parents have Yiddish names: My father is Zalman and my mother is Khaya Faygele, but you'll never hear them use those names. Dad goes by Sheldon, mom goes by Claire, and even that is an Americanization of her already Americanized English name, Clara Fanny. I'll call her that every so often and she despises it.

I understand it, even if it disappoints me. There is great pressure in America not to be too visibly other, if you can help it. I saw a Twitter post recently advising that if you are thinking about giving your child a name, type it into a word processing program and if the red squiggle appears under it, reconsider.  That was yesterday.

The pressure was greater when my mother was a girl. Externally, there a collective accusation that Jews were inviting their own oppression by refusing to assimilate, and internally there was a mixture of gung-ho Americanism and unfeigned embarrassment about Old World Jewish culture. Some of this was certainly a sort of collective post-traumatic stress disorder brought on by the Holocaust, which was so inconceivably terrible that many did not want to conceive of any of it, even the culture that was destroyed by it. So you started hearing Yiddish names less and less. The only one I recall hearing in my childhood was the nickname Shvartze, meaning "black," which was given to a dog.

I love Yiddish names, though. When I first heard the name Fyvush Finkel, I was thrilled; I don't think I had ever heard a name more Jewish. You find a lot of names like this in Yiddish theater: Reizl Bozyk, Moishe Oysher, Menasha Skulnik, Velvel Zbarjer. Oof, what names. If you're a Jew named, say, George Miller, you could be anything. If you're a Jew named Naftule Brandwein, there's no question what you are, and you're probably just going to have to become a klezmer clarinetist or something. Which Naftule did.

I was more Anglicized once. My parents named me Matthew Sparber, and that's what I was called until I was a teenager. But I was named after my great-uncle Max, and so I started to ask people to call me Max, which sounded to me like the name of someone you might meet playing canasta by the pool at Grossinger's. But even Max was Americanized; my great-uncle's Yiddish name was Morduch, and if I had known more about Yiddish I might have gone with a diminutive of this. I am partial to Motke.

These names still have currency in some Haredi communities, but I'd love to see them develop a larger cachet in the remainder of the Jewish community. And I like Yiddish names to be really, really Yiddish, the sorts of names Yiddish humorists would have given to inhabitants of the mythical town of fools, Chelm. (It's an actual place in Poland, but for some reason European Jews created their own version of Chelm and populated it with idiots.)

Some of our best words come from Yiddish names. Shmendrik, as an example, is the name of the main character in Abraham Goldfaden's 1877 play "Shmendrik, oder Die komishe Chaseneh." The character was a moron and a mama's boy, and the name proved to be so useful that it was immediately absorbed in Yiddish, the way Scrooge was in English. 

So here's a list of some of my favorite Yiddish names. Make us of them as you will, but, please, use them.

Men's names:


Women's Names



Year 2, Week 4: The List

The stats:

I have studied Yiddish for 366 days
I have studied Yiddish flashcards for a total of 228 hours
I have reviewed 4,292 individual flashcards

It's a few weeks in and I have completed a few items on the 101 Things in 1001 Days list that I created.  I joined both YIVO and the Yiddish Book Center, as an example. I set up my computer keyboard to allow me to type Yiddish. Look: ײדיש.

I've gotten started on a lot of my goals as well. I created a Wikipedia page for a Yiddish vaudevillian, Pepi Litman. I bough a collection of Yiddish plays, as I intend to organize local readings of a few of them, and a collection of Yiddish poetry, as I intend to memorize a few of them.

So I've gotten off to a start, and the nice thing about a list is you can just go and check things off. The less nice thing is that it also constantly reminds you what you have not yet done and what you have not yet accomplished, and, for me, reminds me just how little time I seem to have to do anything.

It probably doesn't help that I have an internet addiction, but who doesn't nowadays. I constantly check social media for the latest outrage, and they come with great frequency, two a day, three an hour, five per minute. I bicker with people on Facebook, although I have gotten better about that, and am very quick to block when I feel my dander getting up, which nowadays seems to happen almost instantly.

I have a FitBit, and it tracks how much I sleep. Not much. Last night was four hours and 18 minutes. I managed six the night before, but only four hours and 38 minutes the night before that. I get some naps in here and there -- often on the bus on the way too or from work. Not enough, though.

At least I am still managing to push a steady flow of new Yiddish words into my head. My sleepy, sleepy head.


My School

The Sabes JCC received a bomb threat today, one of at least 32 Jewish Community Centers to receive such a threat, nine days after 16 JCCs were threatened with bombs on January 9.

I wrote about it for the newspaper I work for. There is a day school at the JCC, and I interviewed a girl who was in the day school and was evacuated. She described seeing little children, participants in the JCC's early childhood program. They had been swimming, and were outside the JCC in swim suits and bare feet, still wet from having been pulled from the pool. Older children gave them jackets and carried them across the snow.

This was my school. Not this particular day school, but an earlier one, a high school called Maimonides that was in the Sabes JCC back in the 1980s. And it was my school even earlier than that, when I was very little. I would go to summer school at the JCC.

This is how terrorism works. It's not just the threat of violence. The previous bomb threats were all hoaxes, and I expected this would be as well. But there doesn't need to be actual violence for it to be terrorism. There doesn't even need to be terror.

There just needs to be something like this. Something that reaches out and finds a place that is important and expresses contempt for it. Whether or not there was any actual bomb, members of Minneapolis' Jewish Community were sent a message, and the message was, simply, you are hated.

There is sometimes actual violence, which is why local Jewish organizations take it very seriously -- I know of at least one local synagogue that has a safe room in case of an active shooter. There was a member of the local Jewish community, Pamela Waechter, who was shot to death in the Seattle Jewish Federation in 2006. I remember Pamela. She was active in the Minneapolis Jewish Community before she moved away. A lot of us remember her, and so synagogues have safe rooms.

Sometimes people represent their hate for us through acts of violence, and sometimes through symbolic acts of violence, through threats of violence. They target the people we care about and the places we care about in order to make our world less steady, to remind us that the ground we stand on is not so very solid, our place in the universe is not so very fixed.

The terror here is not just that our Jewish Community Centers might explode with children inside them, although that's not a fear that we can simply dismiss. It is also that there are still people out there who hate us enough to make us fear for our children. There are people who hate us enough to want to unsettle us, to remind us that we are still not accepted, not entirely. They seek out the places where this message stings the most. They threaten to bomb my childhood school. They kill my neighbor.

I see them online, prodding for the places that hurt. They go after Jewish people on social media, women in particular. They place these Jews' faces on old antisemitic cartoons. They grasp for old antisemitic canards and cast them out like they still have currency. They Photoshop Jews into gas chambers. They resurrect old hate language and breathe new life into it. And they keep poking, poking, searching for the thing that stings, the thing that gets the reaction.

Like Jews need more of it. Like it doesn't hurt me enough to remember that Pam Waechter is dead, like that doesn't destabilize me every time I think of it, so more must be added. Are we supposed to be brave in the face of this? Are we supposed to stiffen our backs and not admit that this hurts? It hurts me just to know people want to hurt me. They need do nothing more. All that's required is the desire to injure me for being Jewish, and I am already knocked off my feet.

So here I stand, within walking distance of the Sabes JCC, but with unsteady ground between here and there. But what can we do? We have to cross that ground, regardless of how much it might seem like it might buck and bend under us.

There are children shivering in the cold, and we must carry them.


Year 2, Week 3: Schaechter

The stats:

I have studied Yiddish for 358 days
I have studied Yiddish flashcards for a total of 221 hours
I have reviewed 4,218 individual flashcards

My Yiddish studies are just now blessedly simple. I study grammar from a grammar book, as I mentioned last week, and add to my vocabulary from a dictionary.

But what a dictionary! I purchased the enormous and somewhat spendy Comprehensive English-Yiddish Dictionary, and it is a delight. The book came out several months ago to considerable general fanfare, as it includes modern words that are typically lacking on other Yiddish dictionary, such as email and transgender.

It was also quite exciting for the Yiddish community, as it is based on the lexical research of Mordkhe Schaechter, who was the paterfamilias of a family of important modern Yiddishists and was himself a tireless proponent of Yiddish as a living, modern language. Schaechter was also somewhat legendary for several boxes of notecards in his private collection labeled "libe," or love.

These were Yiddish words for sex, some of them quite hilarious, as detailed in the article in Forward from 2014. (Sample sentence: "zi hot farflokhtn a koyletsh," which literally translates as "she braided a challah," but in this instance means "he's not getting any.") When this new dictionary came out, I know at least a few people who immediately scoured it for similarly entertaining sex words and phrases.

I started with this dictionary the same way I did my other, just going through it, page by page, to create flashcards. This proved to be tiresome -- the book is so enormous, and so full of precise technical words, botanical names, and words needed only by the painfully erudite, that I only found a word or two per page that I want to learn just now.

So I made an adjustment. I started to just flip through the book at random and jot down one word per page I landed on. My standards are quite simple now: The word must be terribly useful or terribly interesting. I wind up with about equal measure of either type. It is useful to know the way you represent the sound of a sneeze in Yiddish (Akh-tzi, among others, if I remember right), but when you also have the option to learn sex-bomb, you must. ("Secks-bombe," by the way.)

I have also started to compile lists of words I make regular use of, and a couple of times per week I look this up. I started with words for foods, such as pizza and pasta. (Disappointing, the words are essentially the same in Yiddish, although a pancake is called an Americaner latke,) I've been compiling a list of noises we make that aren't really words, but serve a linguistic function anyway, like "hoo boy" and "yowsa." There are versions of this in every language, and I always like to know it. For instance, in Ireland, instead of "um" they generally say "em," and once you know this, you hear Irish people do it all the time.

Anyway, I'm having so much fun with the book that my flashcards have become flooded with new vocabulary, and I have to remind myself to continue to add grammatical rules. I know we are in an era where poorly constructed word salads are all the vogue, but I don't like it, and don't plan to speak Yiddish that way.


The Schmooze, or Why I am Irritating

I was interviewed on The Schmooze this past week. This is the podcast of the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, MA., and it was one of the first podcasts I listened to when I started studying Yiddish, because it is in English and because it is generally very interesting.

I had a hard time listening to my own interview. Something that is likely invisible to other listeners, unless they are Toastmasters, gave me quite a lot of trouble: I say "um" a lot.

I used to not. I did college radio and my own podcasts, and I couldn't stand to hear myself say "um" back then, so I stopped doing it. I guess I started again.

There are a few things about this that are annoying, I know. The fact that I notice such things is a bit vain. The fact that I analyze my own interviews like a consultant on the subject of professional speaking is a little twee. And the fact that I get press is irritating. I know it is. I've always been irritating about this.

The podcast didn't happen by accident. The Yiddish Book Center linked to my In geveb article on Twitter, and so I tweeted something back to the effect of "Oh boy! Maybe someday I can be on The Schmooze," and they emailed me and asked me if I wanted to be on The Schmooze. I do that sort of thing a lot.

I am not what I would call a machine of self-promotion. I knew a machine of self-promotion once, a young filmmaker who once stood on Hollywood Boulevard in a sandwich board to promote his own film, and that sort of work seems frankly exhausting to me.

But I do regularly promote myself. I'm a Minnesotan, and there is a peculiar quality to Minnesotans that they don't like anything that has a whiff of self-promotion. So if I did things like send out press releases when I had a project I was working on, I would get ignored as often as not, because who did I think I was?

But I quickly discovered that the way to get local attention was to get national attention. So I sent my press releases to national publications, and it sometimes worked, and, at that point, the local press could no longer ignore me, and they would write sort of irritated articles about me.

I put out a pop punk album once. I recorded the whole thing in two weeks entirely on an iPad in Garageband and released it through the iTunes store, and, because I was the first person to ever do that, I got a story in Wired, a national publication about technology and culture. This led to other articles, and, when the local press got around to writing about the album, mostly all they had to say was that I was far better at self-promotion than I am at making music.

I'm not that great at self-promotion. But I do self-promote, and a lot of people don't, or don't do a lot of it, and that's how I have a Twitter following of 11,000, despite being nobody in particular. It's not a massive amount of followers, but in the world of Yiddish, it might as well be a million. It's more than YIVO, the Yiddish Book Center, and In geveb have -- combined.

So in my first year of studying Yiddish, I managed to write stories about Yiddish for Tablet and In geveb and get featured on The Schmooze podcast, mostly because of the novelty of me studying alone in Omaha. I have enough of a sense of perspective to know that I haven't earned these stories in the way others have earned theirs, stories which they may never have gotten. I know there are people who have spent years, decades, a lifetime on Yiddish and go unmentioned.  As I said on The Schmooze, I always try to be cognizant of how little I know. At least, I think that's what I said -- I couldn't stand my "ums" and so stopped listening before I got there.

While media attention is not a zero-sum situation, where any attention I get is attention someone else did not get, it sure can feel like that. I have been a member of the media, in one way or another, since I was in my early 20s, and I know how frustrated people get when they see the deserving go unnoticed while the undeserving get attention.

Also, since I am a relative novice in the subject of Yiddish, there is a risk I will misrepresent the language, or make some fundamental error, and that's a real concern. Reporters tend to look at what other reporters have written, they cannibalize previous stories, and so a simple error sometimes jumps from story to story, uncorrected, sometimes for decades.

I try to be aware of this. And so if I find myself with a microphone, I try to use it, when I can, to promote the work other people do. I try to remember to amplify other people's voices, especially those that tend to be invisible to the media. I try to defer to others' expertise, and not represent myself as having an expertise I do not have. I'm not always great at doing this, but I strive to do it as well as I can.

I'm going to keep self-promoting. I come from a show business background, and so the ballyhoo is part of the fun of doing anything. I once wrote an entire book on self-promotion for playwrights, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, arguing that people who write plays must take responsibility for their own press, and, more than that, should just behave like David Bowie in doing so.

And I discovered a long time ago that it doesn't hurt to pitch big. Not only did it turn out to be easier to get local coverage if I got national coverage, it also turned out that you found a bigger audience if you pitched, say, a theater story as a news story. So I'll probably be pitching my Yiddish stuff this year to national publications, publications that reach beyond the Jewish community, when it seems like I have something to pitch.

I do this knowing that the local press was probably right when they wrote that I was better at publicity than I was at making music. I'm better at publicity than I am at Yiddish.

But that still felt a little unfair. After all, an example of me being good at publicity is that I had written an essay for my webpage, intended for other local musicians, instructing them on how to write an effective press release. I had put this together by interviewing members of the local music press and getting their suggestions for what works and what doesn't. This helped both local musicians, by improving their ability to communicate with the local press, and it helped the local press, by reducing the amount of crappy, useless pitches they received.

So that's how it's likely to be. I will chase after news stories. But I will also try to share the benefits. I'm going to continue to be irritating, but perhaps I can also be of some service to the larger Yiddish community.


Year 2, Week 2: The winter hat

 The stats:

I have studied Yiddish for 352 days
I have studied Yiddish flashcards for a total of 217 hours
I have reviewed 4,103 individual flashcards

It's a Minnesota winter, which is the worst there is outside of the Antarctic and other desolate places where only hair grass and pearlwort grow. Seriously, it is 5 degrees Fahrenheit in Minneapolis just now. In Novosibirsk, Siberia, which old war movies used to use as their representation of a frozen hellscape, it is 11 degrees Fahrenheit. And this is a relatively balmy January day in Minneapolis. It has gotten warm enough to snow.

That's right. When it falls below zero, it is typically too cold for it to snow. That's something you know as a Minnesotan.

I've been wearing a big fut hat that I like. It looks a little like a streimel and a lot like a spodik, the fur hats worn by Hasids, although it is blonde colored and I think was intended to be worn by women. No matter, it is the warmest thing I have ever owned. The fact that it makes me look like a Polish good luck statue of a Jew carved by someone who has never actually seen a Jew is just icing on the cake.

I threw a little party for myself last week on the one-year anniversary of my starting this project, but it was so cold that only myself and my girlfriend Coco attended. No matter; we met at a British pub and I drank both Red Breast whisky and Old Speckled Hen beer, which are my favorites. So I have been dressing Yiddish and drinking British.

I have started working my way through a Yiddish grammar book, specifically Dovid Katz's Grammar of the Yiddish Language, which he has kindly made available online as a PDF.  It's been very helpful.

One of the early book I used in this project was of the opinion that we have a grammar center in our brain that intuitively understands how languages are structured. One need merely write down and memorize a few samples of each use of grammar and that will, for the most part, do it.

If that's true, that grammar center is broken in my brain. I did this, using Katz's book, and it is one of those things I was never able to remember.

In Yiddish, the word "the" changes a lot depending on context. It changes based on the gender of the subject of the sentence, it changes if the subject is singular or plural, and it changes based on the type of sentence. Each have their own specific rules, and they are not intuitive. And while it is  bit frustrating to have to stop for a moment and say "was that a dative sentence," it's better than not knowing at all.


Year 2, Week 1: 1001 Yiddish Things in 1001 Days

 The stats:

I have studied Yiddish for 343 days
I have studied Yiddish flashcards for a total of 210 hours
I have reviewed 4,020 individual flashcards

Instead of making a list of my goals for the coming year, I decided to try something more ambitious. There's an online thing, a bit of a fad, called 101 Things in 1001 Days. I won't go into all the details (you can read more on the website devoted to the project), but, briefly, the goal is to create a list of 101 things that can actually be achieved and give yourself 1001 days to complete them.

I've done this a few times, and have never come close to completing all the tasks. As far as I can tell, nobody has -- the web is littered with people's lists, some goals crossed off, most untouched.

But no matter. Years ago, I started to do projects by making a list of 100 tasks that would be required to complete them, and quickly discovered that by the time I had done a half-dozen of the tasks, I had done as much as I needed, more than I needed, sometimes more than anyone else had done.

Through this process, I turned myself from being a cashier in an office supply store into a professional journalist, I went from being a volunteer usher at theaters to being a produced playwright, from maintaining the website for a dental school to being a professional extra in Hollywood. I think any task is possible if you make a clever enough list. In the past year, a clever list moved me from Omaha to Minneapolis and allowed me to switch from being a researcher at a historical society to being an editor at a Jewish newspaper.

The 101 Things list is generally vast and comprehensive. It's meant to be a map of ambition, and people should try to let their ambition be vaulting. "Learn a foreign language" is often a single entry on the list, and I've never seen it be the entire list. Nobody ever completes that one. It's too hard.

I sometimes enjoy looking at people's lists. Because you often discover how few really individual life goals there are out there and how often people simply compile their own version of the list from other people's lists. "Visit Paris" shows up a lot. I have a friend who sometimes says she wants to visit Paris, and otherwise has never expressed any interest in France, or the French, or the French language. That's not to say she doesn't actually want to visit Paris. We all want to visit Paris. But it's a general life goal, something people think they should want but don't actually pursue.

You see a lot of those show up on these lists. Learn to play piano. Read the 100 Best Books Ever Written. Take a photo a day for a year. I have put these on my list in the past, and from my own experience, and from reading other people's lists, these are the things that don't get done. They might get somewhat done -- usually people read a few books or take photos for a few weeks. And that's fine, and worthwhile, and so what if they don't get done?

But the things that do get done are the personal tasks, the ones that people really care about, the ones that they've been meaning to do, or have been desperate to do. The people who majored in French and read about Paris all the time, they're the ones who go to Paris, and there are a half-dozen other French-related tasks on their list. The ones who want to pay down debt? They pay down debt. A lot of it. The ones who want to finish school tend to finish school, the ones who want to get married tend to get married. You see some wonderful changes in life as a result of these lists. Who cares if all 101 get done? The important ones often do.

So now when I make these lists, I try to come up with 101 tasks that mean something to me, that I am more likely than not to do, that are unique and particular to me. This takes a lot of time. This list probably took me two weeks. It's easy to come up with 25 things to do. By the time you reach 50, you're really struggling. And the last 51 are acts of pure invention.

Those are the ones I often like the most. It's my understanding that one of the philosophies of The Groundlings improv troupe in Los Angeles is that real invention doesn't take place until you completely run out of ideas. That certainly was the case here.

It has been a tremendously clarifying exercise. It wasn't until yesterday that I realized I don't know the names of the vowels that are used in Yiddish, which seems like something I should know. It's made me realize that I am at least as interested in Yiddish as a subject of creative exploration as a language. It helped me realize that one of my goals in this projects is to use it as a pretext for travel, and that I have no idea how that might happen. I don't need to figure that out just yet, as one of the benefits of a very clever list is sometimes it produces unexpected and welcome outcomes.

Let me note that I always treat this sort of project as an evolving draft. Some things may be easier to do than I expected, and so I can increase the amount of times I plan to do it. Some things prove to be impossible, or undesirable, and so I don't do them and try to do something else. But, for the moment, here it is, my plans for the next 1001 days.

101 Yiddish Things in 1001 days

Red: Completed
Due date: Sunday, September 29, 2019


Learn 9,000 new words (20/9,000)
Complete one complete Yiddish grammar book (0/1)
Memorize three complete books of Yiddish proverbs, idioms, curses, etc. (0/3)
Attend two short Yiddish programs (0/2)
Take NYU test for Yiddish competency
Read 10 English-language books on Yiddish (0/10)
Find 20 opportunities to use spoken Yiddish (0/20)
Read five Yiddish stories in Yiddish (0/5)
Write 20 personal essays in Yiddish, have them proofed (0/20)
Learn the names of all the Yiddish letters with vowels
Complete another audio course in Yiddish
Create a list of Yiddish words for daily use
Buy Uriel Weinreich's English-Yiddish dictionary and Beinfeld and Bochner's Comprehensive Dictionary and Hakavey's Yiddish-English-Hebrew dictionary (0/3)
Create comprehensive list of Yiddish programs
Complete Say It In Yiddish
Teach the dog all his commands in Yiddish
Locate a Yiddish pen pal
Participate on Yiddish chat rooms 50 times
Translate 50 articles from Forward
Play three Yiddish board games (0/3)


Watch and write about 15 Yiddish films (0/15)
Read 15 short Yiddish stories in translation (0/15)
Read five Yiddish novels in translation (0/5)
See two live Yiddish play (0/2)
Learn 10 Yiddish songs (0/10)
Listen to 50 old Yiddish songs (0/50)
Listen to 50 new Yiddish songs (1/50)
Buy or commission 10 new works of Yiddish art (1/10)
Create 10 Yiddish stencils (0/10)
Perform Yiddish music 30 times in public (0/30)
Organize 10 readings of Yiddish plays in translation (0/10)
Create three Yiddish puppet shows (0/3)
Attend 10 concerts of Yiddish music (0/10)
Write 30 Yiddish-flavored poems (0/30)
Write 10 fan letters to people working in the world of Yiddish (0/10)
Do two Yiddish seed art projects, submit to State Fair (0/2)
Memorize 10 Yiddish poems (0/10)
Release two albums of new music (0/2)
Pitch three plays to History Theatre (0/3)
Apply for Fringe twice (0/2)
Create a comprehensive list of arts events to apply for
Create a Yiddish-themed game
Read four Yiddish comic books (0/4)
Help fund 10 Yiddish projects (0/10)
Attend five museum exhibits about Yiddish (0/5)

WRITING (0/21)

Write 500 blog posts (0/500)
Write entire 100 Yiddish Words (12/100)
Turn 100 Yiddish Words into a book
Write the Yiddish history of 10 cities (1/10)
Interview 15 Jewish playwrights (0/15)
Write two plays (0/2)
Revise Shaina
Write 30 short stories (0/30)
Pitch 10 stories about Yiddish to professional publications (0/10)
Write 15 songs (0/15)
Do 50 interviews (0/50)
Write 15 alt Yiddish posts (0/15)
Write about 50 albums (0/50)
Create 30 word lists (0/30)
Make comprehensive list of Jewish publications
Pitch 10 stories to Jewish publications (0/10)
Write five more entries on Yiddish slang or cant (0/5)
Write about Lenny Bruce’s use of Yiddish
Create journalists guide to writing about Yiddish
Write and produce a short film in Yiddish
Create and translate 100 Yiddish proverbs for a new era (0/100)

TRAVEL (0/4)

Visit YIVO
Visit the Yiddish book center
Attend Ashkenaz festival
Visit Medzhybizh

EVENTS (0/2)

Host 12 Dress British Drink Yiddish (0/12)
Have Yiddish meet-ups in 4 states (0/4)


Do 15 posts on Yiddish for MetaFilter (0/15)
Create 25 Yiddish pages for Wikipedia (0/25)
Send out 25 press releases (0/25)
Do 12 podcasts (0/12)
Apply for three Rockower Awards (0/3)
Apply for two regional Emmy awards (0/2)
Apply for two Page One Awards (0/2)
Get proper headshots
Apply to have Yiddish Day in Minneapolis
Make Yiddish thank you cards


Retweet or post to Facebook 100 Yiddish related links (0/100)
Follow 100 people on Twitter involved in Yiddish (0/100)
Create 20 YouTube videos (0/20)
Send out email newsletter 100 times (0/100)
Set up computer keyboards to type Yiddish
Build a blog email list
Update 100 Google translate entries (0/100)


Develop three educational programs (0/3)
Create a display of Yiddish Twin Cities
Create a display of Hebrew Actors Union


Become a member of Yiddish Book Center
Become a member of YIVO
Become a member of the American Jewish Press Association


Make a list of possible grants and funding
Apply for State Arts Board folk and traditional art grant twice (0/2)
Apply for two Rimon grants (0/2)
Set up Patreon account
Apply to Jewish Speakers Bureau
Make list of potential speaking opportunities