My Mother’s Jewish Family Fled Tsarist Russia, And She’s Terrified Of Trump
By Alison Lanier
I opened my email this morning to a message from my mother, who I’d been surprised to hear nothing at all from during the debacle of election night:
I cannot express how scared I am for you my children, for our country, and for the world. I also want us to be strong in conviction through what promises to be a very scary time. On a last note, if history does repeat itself, and I know how alarmist this sounds, please make sure your passports are in order and you have means to get out.
The email was longer than that and clearly written with a great deal of painful control after the brunt of the shock had passed. The history she’s referring to is family history. My mother’s family is Jewish, and in 1911, we fled Tzarist Russia, its anti-Semitic draft policies, and its pogroms, exchanging names and bribes to escape to New York City. Maybe it’s something in the echoes of that history that led my mother to tell my brother and me, again and again, to keep our loved ones close during the election.
Get out is the phrase she uses now — and those were the first words to break through my own shock on November 9, when I woke up next to my partner, who, holding back tears, was prepping her military uniform to report to base for the day’s duty as a clinic corpsman.
Our sense of safety has fled overnight. For months I’ve been saying, if worse comes to worst, I would be grateful to live in Massachusetts. Here, I have a better chance of retaining my right to marry. Here, I have a better chance of avoiding the experience of fresh anti-Semitism that this campaign season has breathed into life. But I am not safe. My partner and I will likely lose the recently-won recognition from the military, acknowledging same-sex couples as military family members. I attend a public university, which will doubtless suffer in the next four years as I complete my graduate degree. My partner is sure that this coming administration will at least entertain the idea of shipping even the defensive branch of the military into combat zones. I never knew how frightened I am of nuclear weapons until I awoke after the election in my half-furnished new apartment, looked at my cat sleeping on my foot, and thought we might all really die.
My mother writes, be sure you have the means to get out. I was still thinking of those words when I arrived to campus the morning after the election, when I sat down to tutor ESL undergraduates for their papers. One of my students, an eloquent young woman who wears a hijab, is writing her book report on The Diary of Anne Frank. Last week, I helped her put together her paper about how Anne was rejected by her nation, robbed of her identity. This week, an academic advisor also stood in front of my student’s class and reminded them how easy it was to violate their flimsy F1 student visas. Today, my first student asked me if there will really be mass deportations. She’s told me before how dangerous her home country is: Don’t wear this color in the street, or this color, or this color, or you’ll be a target, she says. I have to tell her, I don’t know. That I’m still in shock myself.
So there is nowhere left to turn, to escape the sense that the bottom has dropped out, and no ground I stand on is solid. Every time I sit to work on my new novel today, I can’t make my hands move on the keys.
I have tried prayer: I have tried whispering the shema for comfort. I have tried checking for local prayer services. And I have had the sense that the channels of communication are all but fried with panicked overuse today. Prayer leaves me with a stagnant feeling.
Hear O Israel . . . watch over your people Israel . . .
For the first time, I hear Israel in these prayers as a nation — where I am, as a Jew, technically allowed to claim political asylum, a law that was born out of a dark history, when Israel was envisioned as a Jewish refuge from genocide, to gather, to heal. My mother writes, If history does repeat itself . . . I try to hold that thought far away, but the reality is, it doesn’t feel distant at all.
It also occurs to me, with the ringing of the name Israel, that with the institutionalization of surveillance, joining a synagogue as a new member today will potentially land me on a list, or that synagogues and other centers of worship will be targets, or that . . .
And then it occurs to me that I am not Muslim, or an immigrant, or black, or Hispanic, and that relative to many of my neighbors and classmates, I have so little to fear. But clearly, I am filled with fear. America, for so many months, has been fueled by a mixture of fear and spite, mixed together and articulated via various campaigns. Fear of otherness on one side, fear of extreme and reactionary instability on the other. There are so many kinds of fear just now, especially in this election aftermath, when I had so looked forward to breathing a sigh of relief.
To know that my experience of fear — that this stomach-twisting anxiety — is only a shadow of the fear my students and my neighbors feel . . . that is truly horrific to me.
We are being held in the grip of fear, before this man even assumes the dangerous power of the presidency. This is power through terror. My mother wrote this morning:
The only way to prevent a repetition is to stand up and call out racism and discrimination whenever it is displayed. If we are silent, we are doomed. It is couched in code words, “you know who I’m talking about . . . ,” Trump uses all the time when speaking to his supporters about who controls the banking system (i.e., Jews), who should not be in line to vote (i.e., Latino-looking citizens), who should not be in this country (i.e., Muslims or people who look like they might be Muslim). The list goes on. We need to be vigilant for these expressions insinuated into conversations and call them out.
I haven’t told my mother that today a man drove a pickup truck through Wellesley College, my and Hillary Clinton’s alma mater, and celebrated the election by harassing students. I fear — I very much fear — that expressions like this celebrant’s won’t be affected by being called out for what it is.
I fear that in light of the election, this kind of abuse has been vindicated, even valorized, as emblematic of a distinctly American spirit.
Lead image: flickr/jpmatth