Category Archives: Jews

Saying You’re Grieving Because Your Candidate Lost is Insulting to Actual Bereaved People

i-began-2016-wonka-memeLast week the inescapable Lena Dunham posted the following quote on her Instagram account, now making the rounds as a quasi-meme in certain liberal corners of Facebook. Dunham attributes the quote to Rabbi Joel Simonds of University Synagogue, a Reform Jewish congregation in Los Angeles, “incorporating the words” of the renowned early 20th century Torah scholar Rav Abraham Isaac Kook:

Today marks the seventh day of grieving and sitting Shivah for the loss of our country and the woman who inspired us, reads the post.

As Judaism teaches us, after seven days of Shivah we stand up, we emerge from the dark, we do not have to accept, we do not have to move on, but we stand up! So today we emerge from the darkness. We are taught that the righteous do not complain of the darkness but rather create light. Today we begin to create light and we do so as the resistance and we fight and fight and fight for good, for love and for justice.

I’m all for the part about resistance and fighting, which is all well and good in the standard activist tradition. This is a high-class text-only meme with a liberal arts degree, with neither an accompanying photo of Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka nor any sarcasm at all, but — leaving aside the questionable assumption that Hillary Clinton is the moral equivalent of Gandhi or the Dalai Lama— I’m deeply offended by the grieving and Shivah bits.

I don’t want to make this post about me or my particular problems, but I suppose it can’t be avoided because since my wife died 10 months ago I have become an unwilling member of a special interest group: call it Widower Americans, or Recently Bereaved Americans (RBA for short; let’s define “recent” as up to two years, at which point it’s generally deemed socially acceptable for your family and friends to start telling you to suck it up and start dating again, because it’s time to move on). How can I get non-members of this group to understand how I feel when others say they’re “grieving” or “in mourning” or, gag me with a spoon, “sitting Shivah” as a result of the 2016 election (which gets double bonus points for offending me both as a bereaved person AND a Jew)?

Please, people, let’s clarify our terms: saying you’re “in mourning” because your candidate lost an election is an insult to the genuinely grieving.

Even if approximately half of the US population now knows something of what it’s like to be a widower (because Hillary’s candidacy died, along with their vicarious hopes and dreams that went with it), that still doesn’t make it OK to say you’re grieving.

You go into mourning when your spouse dies, or your parent or sister or best friend. Not when your favored candidate blows an election. Period.

I’m not denying that people are lately feeling upset, devastated, horrified. So am I. I don’t lack empathy for what they’re feeling. I don’t deny that a lot of people are in shock. When they talk of sleeping an excessive amount (guilty of same since Donna died), or gaining weight (I’ve packed on some 20 pounds this year), I can relate.

Still, when liberals say they’re “grieving” it hits me like cultural appropriation. That’s what I’d call it whether it comes across as insensitive mocking or grief tourism, hanging with the cool kids— the way I imagine Native Americans feel when they see Cleveland Indians fans donning headdresses and war paint at the ballpark — or a more complicated case of a misguided but apparently sincere desire to “pass” as an oppressed minority (see Rachel Dolezal). You want identity politics? You’ve got it. If you’re not an RBA, don’t try to come off as one.

As this Boston Globe article makes clear, grief counseling for despairing liberals is a real thing — as is the predictable response from Trump supporters in the comments section, as they crow about the need for boot camps for the “snowflakes” and “wimps” who have been cosseted their entire lives with participation medals and talk of being “special” and are totally unprepared to deal with defeat of any kind, and need to, as many Star Trek fans have been told for years, “get a life.”

Although I don’t think people who say they’re “in mourning” should be mocked in this fashion (that’s Trumpstyle bullying, plain and simple), I do see them as seriously misguided. In general, I’d say to anyone: if you haven’t lost anyone close to you, STFU. If you have, you should know better than to equate personal loss with political defeat. Death is permanent: your person is gone from the world, forever. Politics is transient and temporary; today’s victor may be defeated in a couple of years, forced to resign, even sent to prison. If your candidate lost the election, you might want to organize, recruit, and work for a better candidate next time. That’s not to say I’m not deeply depressed about this election and the coming horror show that seems as inevitable as the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami: at this point we can all see that the ocean has withdrawn, and we’re waiting for the deluge to flood the village. But to me, talk of “grieving” and “mourning” is still insulting.

When McCain lost in 2008 and when Romney lost in 2012, to my knowledge no Republicans went around saying they were “grieving” or “in mourning.” This is one reason why they ridicule liberals. Yes, I know: Donald Trump is different. He’s appalling, ignorant and dangerous, the people around him are appalling and dangerous in similar degree and a real threat to democracy as we’ve known it for our entire lives. I’m still offended by talk of “grief” over an election. Grief is when your spouse or parent or child dies. Politics is temporary stuff, it is. The pendulum swings back and forth.

People have picked fights with me on Facebook recently when I expressed these feelings. You’re not respecting or honoring my feelings, they say.

Since when are your feelings sacrosanct or beyond discussion, I’d reply. You seem not to respect mine at all.

As I wrote in a previous post, we need a new word or term for the feeling this election has engendered. Not mourning or grieving. Perhaps ‘electoral shrouding’ would be OK, or ‘election-loss hangover.’

And if we can all be a bit more sensitive toward each other’s perspective, that would be a good place to start to plan our next moves.


“There will come a time when the past reaches out and grabs you”: My speech in Benrath, Germany

Outside Hauptstraße 46

Outside Hauptstraße 46

During the last week of August, I was the guest of the town of Hilden, Germany for ceremonies centered around the installation of three Stolpersteine on the sidewalk outside the building that once housed my father’s family’s drygoods business on a main street in nearby Benrath (now a southern suburb of Düsseldorf but formerly an independent town). For those of you unfamiliar with Stolpersteine, the word means “stumbling stones” or “stumbling blocks” — they are, basically, small stones set in the sidewalk outside a house, bearing brass plates giving the names of victims of the Holocaust who once lived there (not necessarily limited to Jews, and not necessarily killed during the wartime period; Stolpersteine are occasionally placed for persons forced to emigrate, for example, who may still be alive today). The project was originated in 1994 by the Cologne artist Gunter Demnig, who has placed over 20,000 of them to date.

The history of my father’s family during the Nazi period in Germany, and afterward, is a long and complicated one, and the story of my father’s return to Germany after 66 years (in 2006) and his subsequent coming to terms with what the Nazis did in those terrible years, and the efforts at reconciliation by contemporary younger Germans,  is worthy of a book (and will actually be one, written by Karin Marquardt and published by the Verlag Stadtarchiv Hilden later this month; the following speech will make up its final pages). This was my father’s third Stolpersteine-related visit to Germany in three years, and my first; this was also likely the last for both of us. The three stones placed on August 27 were in honor of my grandfather Walter Eichenwald (1900-1943), his sister-in-law Helene Heumann Blumenfeld (1904-1944) and her husband Paul Blumenfeld (1902-1943). Walter and Paul were murdered at the Sobibor concentration camp on the same day in July 1943; Helene, in hiding in Holland, was a diabetic and died in October 1944 because of the unavailability of insulin. Besides my father and me, the ceremony was attended by the Blumenfelds’ daughter, my dad’s cousin Gay, who was herself making her first trip to Deutschland in 55 years.

As I note below, I was last in Benrath in 1994 on a private pilgrimage. Reading the following speech in German on the doorstep of my dad’s boyhood home, in front of a crowd of over 100 people, including video cameras, journalists and officials, ranks among the supreme moments of surreality in my entire life. But was it worth it? You bet. Am I glad I had the chance to participate in this unique opportunity, along with my father and cousin? Of course.

Here’s the speech, first in the original English and then in German.


Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen:

No matter how modern and forward-looking you may consider yourself, if you live long enough there will come a time when the past reaches out and grabs you, saying, ‘Pay attention!’ And so it was with me.

I was first here fifteen years ago as a tourist. I had heard the stories from my father and grandmother; I had seen the old photos and postcards that my grandmother kept in boxes in her apartment. The tobacconist; the church; the hotel; the pharmacy; and the beautiful pink Schloss on the lake. A tidy little town with everything in its place.

And my family had their place here, too. The dry goods store with its bolts of cloth, furniture, pairs of socks, where the owners lived right above, in the handsome, sturdy house my great-grandfather had built in the early years of the last century. And finally I myself walked into the picture, but for obvious reasons, I felt it was no longer my picture. My experience was, in an odd way, like a dream of a time I had never known.

I returned to New York to tell my grandmother, Thea, about my visit to her home town. She was then 94 years old. It was the last time I saw her, as a few short weeks afterward she died peacefully.

My grandmother maintained an optimistic outlook on life for as long as I knew her; smiles and laughter came easily to her. Of course, I knew she had lost her husband Walter, and her brothers-in-law Paul and Henry, and her youngest sister Lene. And her other sister, my great-aunt Maddi, had lost both her husband and her young son Rolf, and she tried to put a brave face on things, traveling and visiting and corresponding with friends. But the darkness was close at hand; Maddi kept all the photos of her son hidden away in an old trunk in a closet, too painful to look at.

Who knows what their lives would have been, if they had been permitted to live them out here, alongside their neighbors and friends in Benrath. We cannot know. What we have come here for is to simply acknowledge their existence.

I think my grandmother and others of her generation would be astounded by the ceremony taking place today. But not displeased. To me, as the son and grandson of survivors, the work of remembrance and reconciliation that is going on now in this country is extraordinary. I believe that openness and honesty are good things, and sometimes not that easy to come by. But worth the effort.

I did not live the history of the war years, or have to make my grandparents’ hard choices, but yet it is part of who I am. With a few exceptions I did not know them personally, but I have heard so many stories about them and about similar people, with similar destinies, that they have become part of my story as well. And now, regardless of your own history and experiences, because you care enough to want to hear about them yourselves, they have also, in a way, become part of who you are, in 21st century Germany. And so we, who have never met before today, have this connection through space and time.

We cannot change what happened all those years ago. But what we can do is to hold close the lessons of those times.

For the work of remembrance is never finished. It is up to all of us to keep the names alive, to say: these people lived here, and they mattered. This is set in the sidewalk, but is also finding its place in books, exhibitions, and people’s hearts and minds.

And I might add that just as it is not only the German people who need to remember the wrongs done in their past, it is not only the Jews who need to be saved.

We cannot and must not confine our humanitarian impulses, our empathy, to people who look and sound like us, but with all the peoples of Earth.

And so, on this day, in this place, we must open ourselves to kindness without thought of reward; to tolerance of differences; and to the value of recognizing our common humanity through the work of helping others who might need it. As there were heroic actions performed in those times by brave and selfless men and women, so we must keep our eyes and ears open to the challenges of our own time.

Although I know well the story of my family and their history here, it is not something I dwell on in every waking moment. I owe it to myself, my wife, and my two sons, twin boys not yet five years old, to live a meaningful, productive and, I hope, happy life. Some may think that the concept of the brotherhood of man, and “peace, love and understanding,” is an outdated and irrelevant cliché; I say it’s something still worth striving for – after all, what is the alternative?

My best wishes to you all.

Rede anlässlich der Stolperstein-Verlegung für Walter Eichenwald, Paul Blumenfeld und Helene Blumenfeld, geb. Heumann,

am 27. August 2009 in Benrath

von Wes Eichenwald

Hochverehrte Gäste, meine Damen und Herren,

Ganz egal für wie modern und fortschrittlich man sich hält: Wenn man lange genug lebt kommt für jeden der Moment, in dem die Vergangenheit einen einholt, einen festhält und zu einem sagt: „Pass auf!“. So war es auch bei mir.

Zum ersten Mal war ich vor fünfzehn Jahren als Tourist hier. Ich kannte die Geschichten meines Vaters und meiner Großmutter; ich hatte die alten Fotos und Postkarten gesehen, die meine Großmutter in Kartons in Ihrer Wohnung aufbewahrte. Der Tabakladen, die Kirche, das Hotel, die Apotheke und das hübsche rosa Schloss am Teich: eine ordentliches Städtchen, wo alles an seinem Platz ist.

Meine Familie hatte dort auch ihren Platz. Der Kurzwarenladen mit seinen Stoffballen, Möbeln und Strümpfen, darüber die Wohnung in dem stattlichen Haus, das mein Urgroßvater zu Beginn des letzten Jahrhunderts baute. Zu guter Letzt trat ich nun selbst in dieses Bild ein, aber aus verständlichen Gründen hatte ich nicht mehr das Gefühl, dass es mein Bild sei. Ich erlebte hier etwas, das auf merkwürdige Weise wie der Traum von einer Zeit war, die ich nie gekannt hatte.

Ich kehrte nach New York zurück um meiner Großmutter Thea von meinem Besuch ihrer Heimatstadt zu erzählen. Sie war damals vierundneunzig Jahre alt und es war mein letzter Besuch bei ihr, denn nur ein paar Wochen später starb sie friedlich.

Solange ich sie kannte, hat meine Großmutter immer eine positive Einstellung zum Leben behalten; sie hat oft gelächelt und gelacht. Ich wusste natürlich, dass sie ihren Ehemann Walter, ihre Schwäger Paul und Henry und ihre jüngste Schwester Lene verloren hatte. Und ihre andere Schwester, meine Großtante Maddi, hatte ihren Mann und ihren jüngsten Sohn Rolf verloren, versuchte aber tapfer zu sein, reiste viel, besuchte Freunde und blieb mit ihnen über Briefe in Kontakt. Aber das Dunkel war nicht weit, Maddi hielt all die Fotos von ihrem Sohn versteckt in einem Koffer, der in einem Wandschrank stand, es war zu schmerzvoll sie anzuschauen.

Wer weiss, wie ihr Leben ausgesehen hätte, wäre es ihnen erlaubt gewesen es hier mit ihren Nachbarn und Freunden in Benrath zu verbringen. Wir können es nicht wissen. Wir sind einfach hergekommen, um ihre Existenz anzuerkennen.

Ich glaube, dass diese Feier heute meine Großmutter und andere aus ihrer Generation sprachlos machen würde, aber nicht unzufrieden. Für mich als Sohn und Enkel von Überlebenden ist der Prozess der Erinnerung und der Versöhnung der jetzt in diesem Land vor sich geht außergewöhnlich. Ich glaube, dass Offenheit und Ehrlichkeit gut sind, aber oft schwer zu erreichen. Aber sie sind diese Mühe wert.

Ich habe die Geschichte der Kriegsjahre nicht gelebt und musste nicht die schweren Entscheidungen meiner Großeltern treffen, aber trotzdem ist es ein Teil von dem, der ich bin. Mit wenigen Ausnahmen kannte ich sie nicht persönlich, aber ich habe so viele Geschichten über sie gehört und über ähnliche Menschen mit ähnlichen Schicksalen, dass sie Teil meiner eigenen Geschichte geworden sind.  Und jetzt, dadurch dass Sie sich dafür interessieren und selbst diese Geschichten hören wollen, sind diese Menschen in gewisser Weise  auch ein Teil von Ihnen im Deutschland des einundzwanzigsten Jahrhunderts geworden, unabhängig von Ihren eigenen Erfahrungen und Ihrer Geschichte. Obwohl wir uns vor dem heutigen Tag nie getroffen haben, besteht so eine Verbindung zwischen uns über Zeit und Raum hinweg.

Was vor all diesen Jahren geschehen ist, können wir nicht mehr ändern. Aber wir können uns die Lehre, die wir aus diesen Zeiten ziehen, zu Herzen nehmen.

Denn die Arbeit des Gedenkens ist niemals abgeschlossen. Es liegt an uns, die Namen am Leben zu erhalten and zu sagen: Diese Menschen lebten hier und sie waren wichtig. Das wird in den Bürgersteig eingelassen, aber es findet auch seinen Platz in Büchern, Ausstellungen und den Herzen und Köpfen der Menschen.

Und ich würde gerne hinzufügen, dass es nicht nur die Deutschen sind, die sich an die Fehler in ihrer Vergangenheit erinnern müssen, es sind nicht nur die Juden, die gerettet werden müssen.

Wir können und dürfen unsere humanitären Regungen, unsere Empathie nicht auf Völker beschränken, die aussehen und reden wie wir, sondern auf alle Völker dieser Erde.

Und so müssen wir uns, an diesem Tag und an diesem Ort, der Freundlichkeit gegenüber öffnen, ohne eine Belohnung dafür zu erwarten; der Toleranz gegenüber den Unterschieden; und gegenüber dem Wert unsere gemeinsame Menschlichkeit zu erkennen, indem wir Menschen helfen, die es brauchen. So wie damals heroische Taten von mutigen und selbstlosen Männern und Frauen vollbracht wurden , so müssen wir heute unsere Augen und Ohren für die Herausforderungen unserer eigenen Zeit offen halten.

Obwohl ich die Geschichte meiner Familie und ihrer Zeit hier gut kenne, beschäftige ich mich doch nicht in jedem wachen Moment mit ihr. Ich bin es mir selbst, meiner Frau und meinen zwei Söhnen, die noch keine fünf sind, schuldig ein sinnvolles, produktives und, wie ich hoffe, glückliches Leben zu leben. Es gibt Menschen, die glauben, dass die Idee von der Brüderlichkeit unter den Menschen und von „Frieden, Liebe und Verständnis“ veraltete und irrelevante Klischees sind; Ich finde, dass es immer noch etwas ist, nach dem es sich zu streben lohnt – was ist schließlich die Alternative?

Ich wünsche Ihnen allen alles Gute.

(Aus dem englischen übersetzt von Emilia Ellsiepen/Translated from the English by Emilia Ellsiepen)

Live blogging the Holocaust

It seems to me that the Holocaust was made possible by a unique historical intersection. The politics of the rise of Hitler and the Nazis aside, it’s indisputable that the mass murders were facilitated by the technological advancements of the time, the Age of Machines, that made gas chambers and death camps possible — but also by the limited communications technology that frustrated the victims’ attempts to get out the word about the slaughter to the outside world. Even with television around, Hitler’s Germany might have gotten away with it as late as the early 1960s. But even taking into account the Nazis’ efficiency and prioritizing of secrecy, could Auschwitz, Dachau, Treblinka and Sobibor have withstood the advent of live blogging, Twitter and social networking? Not likely. At least a few prisoners would have succeeded in sneaking in cell phones, BlackBerries and miniature transmitters. In the era of 24-hour cable news and broadband Internet access, the outside world would have found out about the death camps in weeks, not years, and well before the end of the war.

The question is, how much of the world would have cared?

Eleven reasons why Barack Obama is Jewish*

Nobody anymore (with the exception of some people over in Texas, Oklahoma, and the Fox News building) really believes that our next president is a secret Muslim. But let’s look at the reasons why our Barack is actually Jewish at heart, or, at the least, a sympathizer with the tribe:

1. He was mainly raised in a high-rise apartment by alte kackers who called him “Barry.”

2. His zayde was a furniture salesman and his bubbe worked in a bank. Sound familiar?

3. The name of the chief architect of his presidential campaign? David Axelrod. A card-carrying Yid born on the Lower East Side.

4. His incoming Chief of Staff? Rahm Emanuel, a Hebrew-speaking son of an Israeli fighter with the Irgun. ‘Nuff said.

5. He won Florida handily even without the help of that schmuck Lieberman. Boca Raton and Boynton Beach came through in the end.

6. Barack, Baruch…what’s the difference?

7. He wrote a book about his family.

8. His wife has a cousin who’s a rabbi in Chicago.

9. His family home in Chicago is across the street from a synagogue.

10. He went to Jerusalem, prayed at the Western Wall and left a message there (which was promptly retrieved and placed on the Internet, oy, such a shondeh)

11. How else to explain this T-shirt and this one.

[Note: Unlike most of this kind of stuff that circulates on the Internet, I composed most of this email myself…it’s probably 70 percent original, so sue me]

*For the terminally serious, anti-semites, racists and assorted Nader and Ron Paul supporters reading this: This post is an attempt at humor. I like Barack Obama, voted for him with enthusiasm, and don’t really believe he’s Jewish. Not that there’s anything wrong with that (either being Jewish or not being Jewish). OK?