How Our DNA Echoes Across Time

For better or worse, we see our parents in our own faces. Or our grandparents in our children.

It’s proof the theory of genetics is on to something. We’re aware of the physical attributes that pass to us from previous generations. Why, they’re as plain as the noses on our faces. Other things pass down to us also. Less apparent but, often, more significant. Genetic diseases like Tay Sachs or sickle cell anemia pass silently from Jewish generation to Jewish generation and Black generation to Black generation. But, other subtle things pass down to us, too. Good things. Being the father of two young adults, I can see both my DNA’s past and I can glimpse into its future. We’ve learned that our DNA is more malleable than first thought. Data says that traumatic experiences like the Holocaust actually changes the experience-survivor’s DNA. So, experience (and the “memory” of it) can ride along from generation to generation. It turns out, ideas can, too. I am bearing witness in real time to an “idea” that stated itself plainly in one generation and — without being stated — has carried itself down through four succeeding generations virtually intact. It’s like a game of “telephone” where the message arrived unscathed.

For reference, I’m 62. Born in 1959. My father was born in 1929. I couldn’t tell you what year his father or mother were born for various reasons but I can tell you where. In the case of my father’s maternal grandfather (his mother’s father), Havis Cohen came from Vilnius, Lithuania sometime during the Great Migration in the 1890’s. I don’t know what Havis did for a living. I know he had a wife and three children. One became my grandmother Elinor, the mother of my father Jerel. After Havis and his family arrived, everyone hurried to become official Americans. There wasn’t much point to being here if you weren’t a citizen; my tribe learned that quickly.

But, while everyone around Havis became “American” as quickly as possible, Havis demurred. He was happy to be in America, but he was in no hurry to BE an American. As I can’t ask Havis directly WHY he didn’t want to become an American like the rest of his family, I’ll have to deduce it more from what my DNA tells me. Havis’ explanation was “I’m a citizen of the world”. Spoken like a true socialist which, I suspect, he was. Havis had three children — my grandmother Elinor, my aunt Jean and their brother Herman. Herman was a lawyer but never made much money because his passion was defending poor people. Herman also never married though he had a female “friend” from time to time. I suspect Herman was gay and the female friend was a beard. I know Herman was in fact a socialist because my father, who adored the man, told me he was.

As I said, my father adored his socialist uncle Herman. I think of it as a “genetic predisposition”.

My father was a general surgeon. He grew up in an upper middle class Jewish household in an upper middle class Jewish neighborhood in West Philly in the 1930’s. His father Simon was a dermatologist (Elinor did well for herself). Simon was a genuinely happy man without an ounce of ambition as far as I know. Elinor ruled their roost. Any ideas that became core values in that family came from her. Quick side note about my father’s family. Polio was a scourge when my dad was a kid. The search was on for a vaccine; the Salk vaccine was still a ways away. One of my grandparents’ social circle had created a vaccine and was testing it. Fearing polio more than the unknown, my grandmother insisted my father and his brother Horace get that vaccine. The live virus inside the vaccine their social friend was using gave both my father and his brother polio. In the current environment, that might sound like a cry against vaccines; it is not. My father went on to become a physician who religiously vaccinated himself and had his children vaccinated.

The idea of vaccination stands. That particular vaccine shouldn’t have. We need to differentiate.

Despite the cruel twist of fate that GAVE him a terrible disease (rather than him just “catching it” from someone else like most people did), my dad never displayed an ounce of anger or resentment toward what happened. Make no mistake: polio caused him physical pain every day of his life. When post-polio syndrome struck later in life, it ratcheted up the pain quotient exponentially. He didn’t keep the pain a secret, but he didn’t roll in it either. It just “was”. Like the polio that caused it, pain did not define my dad. I believe this, too, was Havis’ spirit. In my dad’s case, it saved his sanity.

Havis, it seems, has informed almost every blog post I’ve written here. I have never been happy sitting inside the box. Frankly, I’m not good at it. If the world does something one way, that makes me suspicious. Sure, sure — there might be a good reason, but, what if there was another, BETTER way — that required a bit of imagination and daring but would pay off massively.

My son’s about to graduate from UC Santa Cruz, a poli-sci major with a minor in a thing called “History Of Consciousness”. Tristan’s high school friends from the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles were a pretty outside-the-box group but even they couldn’t grasp what my son’s major was. Yet, my son just told us, with graduation approaching, that he loved his college experience and believe he found the perfect balance between partying and studying. He also found himself at Santa Cruz. Found his purpose.

Needless to say, my son won’t be dropping from college into any sort of 9-5 world. Even if that world was as prevalent now as it was when I graduated from college in 1981, Tristan wouldn’t be joining it — as I didn’t. As I couldn’t have and he (because of me and our genes) can’t.

Over the course of my working life, I’ve held a few “real jobs” on a temp basis. Knowing I was only visiting the 9-to-5 world and not moving in permanently saved my sanity. But, I loved visiting it. It’s like how I feel about weather. One of the great advantages to living in LA is that we only marginally have seasons. I mean, we DO. February and August are nothing alike. But it doesn’t snow here except very, VERY rarely. I could (in theory — which means traffic permitting) ski in the morning and surf in the very same afternoon. I can drive to seasons like I can drive to “entertainment”.

I had kids relatively late in life compared to most of my contemporaries and schoolmates. I have the luxury of added perspective. As I stare at that photo of Havis, I can’t help wondering which of the ideas floating around behind his eyes now float around behind mine. And which float behind my son’s and daughter’s.

White People Are Making A Hash Of Democracy — Just Like They Did To Christianity

In a sense, white people are like George W. Bush — born on third base but thinking they hit a triple to get there. The playing field in America has never been level for anyone except white people. That’s because they can only see themselves. Where the rest of America sees privilege, white America sees entitlement. Brilliant idea that “All men are created equal” is, it gets kneecapped immediately if “All men” actually means “all WHITE men”. And by “white men”, they mean THEMSELVES. Democracy’s the hardest form of government to pull off because it’s self-government. It requires every citizen get involved at least by voting if not by running for office; America’s founders never imagined a “professional class” of politicians would end up running America. But then, white people, it turns out, don’t get everything right contrary to how they think of themselves. There’s something in the northern European makeup — as exercised here in America — that despises democracy. At least, that’s how they behave toward it. Or is their problem actually democracy when it’s practiced by everyone not them?

That sounds remarkably undemocratic. But then, is there anything less Christian then your basic, white supremacist? Don’t tell them that however. In their minds? They could teach the world what it means to be a “real” Christian.

Jesus himself would probably disagree with them. In response, your basic white supremacist Christian would probably crucify Jesus all over again, happily nailing him to a cross all by themselves. Isn’t that what dirty Jews deserve anyway?

Personally, I blame monotheism. It concentrates every bit of divine power into one set of very mercurial, highly emotional, at times downright cruel hands. Yahweh is a deity only humans could create — he’s that riddled with human frailty. When a monotheist claims to understand what Yahweh wants, what are they really claiming? How about if they hear Yahweh’s voice in their heads? I promise you it’s not the same voice that the monotheist standing next to them hears. That’s not Yahweh magically making himself over inside each different human’s head, that’s each human inventing Yahweh in his or her own image. The Yahweh they hear is them.

The crusades claimed to speak for Jesus. So did the Spanish Inquisition and every pogrom. To plenty of Germans, the Holocaust was divine justice. When you get down to it, you can make the voice in your head say anything you want. And, since you’ve given that voice divine authority, what it wants can’t be denied since “God” wants it.

The institutional church uses “Do unto others” as a kind of marketing pitch and a guide for the faithful. While the flock happily “does unto each other”, the institutional church to preaches “Do what we say — or else”. Do it our way. The problem — as the church keeps learning — the more the flock learns about how life really is the less inclined the flock is to do it the church’s way — and the smaller the flock gets. If the institutional churches had really and truly preached and lived by “Do unto others”, their fortunes might be very different today. But then, they wouldn’t be institutional churches anymore. They’d have nothing to do. Just like Jesus said…

The Europeans who embraced Jesus in the abstract would have hated him in person. For starters, he was a Jew. Born, lived and died one. Europeans hated Jews. Still do. So, the Christianity they practice is Jesus-free but institution-rich, completely missing the point. Throw in the fact that most of them (even if they can’t see it) see themselves as deities. Poor Jesus — he never stood a chance.

Once you see yourself as “graced by God”, everything you do becomes “divinely inspired” even if it’s killing people. Even if it’s enslaving people. Or taking their land because your deity tells you it’s okay with him. “All men are created equal” is the Christianity analog. All actual human beings — that’s Jesus. White people think democracy applies to them. Others, not so much. The idea of “others” controlling what white people do via the political process horrifies white people because white people know how THEY act when all the political power is concentrated in their hands.

White people know how they “do unto others” and the last thing on earth they want is anyone else doing that unto them. That’s why Republicanism in America is so anti-democratic. It’s the white guy’s version of a really good idea that plays as a bad idea to everyone else. But that’s only because white people aren’t trying to be democratic.

They’re trying to undermine democracy just like they undermined Christianity. Their track record should scare the hell out of everyone not them.

It’s Holocaust Remembrance Day – A Good Day To Remember “What A Piece Of Work Is Man?”

That damned Shakespeare — he always seemed to nail us humans with all the irony due us. Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day. 76 years ago today, the Russian army liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest of the Nazi’s death camps. 1.1 million people, most of them Jews, died within Auschwitz’s razor-wired fences. Some were openly murdered — shot, gassed, hanged. Others were worked to death. Others succumbed to sickness or disease or just the weariness of hopelessness. This happened because some humans regard other humans as “cockroaches”.

Nobody’s a cockroach, ya see. We’re all humans. Capable of great things. But, alas, also capable of great evil — all while seeming filled with the potential for good. Sometimes, irony burns hotter than the sun. What a piece of work IS man? In “Hair”, Galt McDermott (working with James Rado and Jerome Ragni) even put it to music —

“What a piece of work is man? How noble in reason?”

“How infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable!”

“In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god!”

“The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals!”

“And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?”

“Why it appears no other thing to me, than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors.”

Never forget. Never again.

Dear Christians: Why Do You Make It So Hard To Live Side-By-Side With You?

Some of my best friends are Christian. For real. Correction — some of my best friends are Followers Of Jesus (FOJ). In my experience — as a total outsider — those two things (being Christian and being FOJ) are not the same. While all FOJ are Christian, not all Christians are FOJ. Maybe that’s the problem! If every Christian was FOJ, America would be a very different country from the one it is now, dominated as it is by people who call themselves “Christians”. FOJ would make America a country where people actually “did unto others”. It definitely wouldn’t be a country where some people believe their racism and bigotry are “sanctified” — giving them all the justification they need (inside their heads) to regard all the other citizens (who aren’t like them) as if they were cockroaches. In my experience, Christians do do that. FOJ do not. There is a difference.

These Christians might thank Jesus for Donald Trump, but I’d bet the ranch Jesus would not feel as “passionate” about Trump as they do. I bet Jesus would look at the people who believe they’re his biggest fans with palpable horror — mostly because they’re coming for him. Because of who he is…

Let’s be quite real and quite clear here — and, growing up Jewish in America (and in the world), I can attest to this fact because I have lived it: when most Christians learn that you’re Jewish (or “identify you” thus), a little light goes on in their eyes. It’s subtle, but clear. “So, you’re Jewish, are you…?” It means “You’re different. Not like us”. If the next thought isn’t “You killed Jesus” or some variation on that theme, you’re talking to an alien. Regardless of how any Christian might presently feel about Jews and their Jewish friends (if they have any), they grow up being fed a steady diet of mythology whose core message is “the Jews killed Jesus”.

Yeah, that’s Christianity’s core message. It’s the ace that’s always in their pocket. When you really want to get folks together, you don’t shout “Let’s all go do unto those Jews the way we’d have them do unto us!”, you shout “Pogrom!” or “Jews poisoned the well!” or “Jews own all the banks and newspapers!” or “Jews will not replace us!”.

Jew-hating is part of some peoples’ Christian experience. Please, tell me I’m wrong.

Crickets.

In theory, Christianity’s big selling point is “believe in Jesus the way we say you should and you, too, can live forever!”. That, my opinion, is genius. Judaism imagined a deity intensely focused on humanity (in a world where all the other deities didn’t). Paul improved upon that idea by giving Jesus super powers. This deity (deities, really) wanted to fix humans for once and for all, granting them eternal life even — totally defeating death, the scariest thing in any human being’s life. But first, Jesus has to die in order to initiate the whole process. In order for anyone to be “born again”, Jesus has to die.

But that’s not how the story’s messaging works. Whereas the logic says Jesus dying is essential, the messaging insists it’s the worst thing that could possibly have happened. Make up your minds! Or am I thinking of this the wrong way? I suppose “the Jews killed Jesus” will get a crowd going a lot quicker than “Pull up a chair — at some point, you’ll beat death!”

Judging by history, putting your faith in eternal life pales in comparison to feeding your bloodlust. I bet that’s why The Crusades were invented! You get the promise of eternal life and bloodlust for one fabulous, low price. For the record: Jesus didn’t militarize Christianity (he never even knew Christianity existed and would probably be shocked by what it’s done in his name — especially to Jews). Paul though did introduce this military metaphor. In his letters, he describes a “Christian soldier” (miles Christianus) “spreading the good news”. One’s Christian faith is a weapon to be used on infidels. And Jews.

As I’ve written here before — I grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust. The Holocaust, really, was a millennium of Jew hatred all rolled up into one mechanized death machine. Think about what the Nazis called it — their “Final Solution”. Solution to what?

Do ya suppose when all those Nazi soldiers — Christians to a man! — looked at the Jews they were guarding, did they ever think to themselves “Boy, these poor Jews!” Of course they didn’t. The first step in genocide is you stop thinking of the people you want to commit genocide on as “people”. You see them as something less — cockroaches is good. Killing cockroaches is easy. They’re cockroaches. It makes killing people easier if you don’t see them as people.

The same dynamic applies to giving people rights or allowing them to live in peace. Why, the racist thinks, would we ever give cockroaches rights — or allow cockroaches to live in peace? Here’s the problem, my Christian friends (and, I do aspire to make you my friends — that’s my threat): are you even capable of NOT thinking of us as cockroaches? If you can’t stop yourself from thinking of us that way, you definitely won’t be able to hide it. And if we can see it in you, that that hatred IS you.

Here’s something everyone needs to understand: racism, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. The racist does not get to say if he’s racist or not. His perspective sucks. Unless he’s proudly racist (quite possible!), he won’t want anyone knowing or even thinking he’s racist. More and more, it’s bad for business. But, keeping hate in your heart is hard when what you really want to do is share it with the world — and other haters. American racists were getting bored apparently with keeping all their hate on the down low.

In this country, Christians have done some terrible things in the name of their faith. They treated the Native Americans as inferiors (not very Jesus-like). Held up their Bibles as justification for slavery. With their Christian faith fully displayed — and sometimes blended right into the horror — Christians lynched innocent Black people.

Their hateful, racist organizations were deeply connected TO their religious institutions.

That same religious fervor stormed the Congress on January 6…

And those with religious fervor burning in their heads, weren’t just doing it for country, they were doing it for God, too. Aside from them? I don’t know anyone else whose God behaves, lives and thinks like their God does. I think their God needs therapy and medication.

Look, I know what it’s like to be so screwed up you think neither therapy nor medication can help. You’re wrong. And the religion you’ve turned to will not bring salvation. It has no idea how to.

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what to suggest here — how to help you overcome this. And you absolutely do need to overcome this.

Maybe — it’s just a thought coming from an infidel — start with “Doing unto others”. Look, I’ve seen what following Jesus has done for my friends’ lives. Even a humble atheist can “do unto others” — most do, in fact. The first thing you must do though — it’s imperative: nothing can proceed without it. Try to freeze how you look at other people in your mind’s eyes. Take it away from your face and analyze it.

See how your eyes look out at the world? Do you see now how others see you seeing them? Like a cockroach? Put yourself in OUR shoes now — as the object of your disrespect and worse. As the “cockroach”.

If empathizing won’t do it for you, maybe this will. Jesus said “the meek shall inherit the earth”. He also said that what anyone does to the least of us, they do to Jesus himself. Jesus stands with us — with the cockroaches. Because in Jesus’s eyes, no one’s a cockroach. And we won’t seem anywhere near as “meek” when we finally DO “inherit the earth”.

Trust me, you won’t want to be on the wrong side of THAT bit of history.

What I Learned From Growing Up In The Holocaust’s Shadow

I was born in 1959, 14 years after the death camps were liberated. I grew up in an upper middle class Jewish suburb northwest of Baltimore, MD. I had at least one Hebrew School teacher with a number tattooed into her flesh. We did not shy away from what had just happened to us. We did not avert our eyes in shame except to tell ourselves “Never again”. And to justify our resolve to NEVER passively participate in our own genocide ever again, my community taught the Holocaust to little kids like me the moment they felt we were capable of understanding: the world hates you because of what you are. The sooner you learn this, the safer you’ll be.

I, for one, have never forgotten those lessons. I have never forgotten the look in every German eye as they gazed upon their Jewish prisoners. Forgive and forget?

Not possible. Well… history says it is possible — if not to entirely forgive and forget, then at least to do business with. It’s kinda like “Forgive & Forget Adjacent”. Hey — mea culpa! I’ve owned not one, but two autos made by Audi. And Audi has much to be ashamed about.When Audi was operating under the name Auto Union, it struck a deal with the SS, by which more than 3,700 inmates from Nazi concentration camps were put to work for the company.” Further — “Another 16,500 laborers — not interned in concentration camps — also were made to work for the car company in the Saxon cities of Zwickau and Chemnitz, in addition to 18,000 at a plant in Bavaria where more than 4,000 died…”. In the end, “Auto Union merged with Volkswagen, Audi’s parent company, in 1965, dropping the original name in 1985 after a merger… a decade ago, Audi paid millions into a fund set up by the German auto industry to compensate Nazi slave laborers and their descendants.”

I can comfort myself, I suppose, by telling myself “Well, at least they tried to do the right thing in the end”. As comfort goes, that’s pretty cold. But, what allowed American Jews to “forgive” the Germans — to stop seeing them all as ex-Nazis in hiding — was that, it appeared, the Germans stopped seeing Jews as concentration camp inmates — as cockroaches deserving of such treatment. That’s surprisingly hard to make people understand — people who’ve never been looked at as a cockroach because of what they are. It’s not an affect. It’s a straightforward, brutally honest communication from, in essence, one person’s soul to another. “Because of what you are, you are less than me“.

All animals, it seems, communicate in myriad “unspoken” ways — via body language or simply by “looking at” others a certain way. A little fish doesn’t have to literally hear “I’m going to eat you” to appreciate how loudly it’s being shouted by a big fish’s eyes. It’s there. All the little fish has to do is “read it”.

Forgiving and forgetting IS possible. There CAN BE constructive dialogue between diametrically opposed factions — but not if one of those factions (or both) look at the other with contempt. Nothing constructive can happen if one group sees the other as “cockroaches”. That’s not something most humans can really hide. Even when they try to? It’s pretty phony.

My biggest takeaways from Holocaust School were —

  • The Holocaust might have stopped — but only for now.
  • Jew hating is hard-wired into a lot of people
  • Even people who don’t act like they hate you — if you look into their eyes? They hate you
  • Never turn off your “Spidey senses”; if they tingle? It’s for a reason; REACT
  • The only way you can ever trust that a non-Jew might not despise you for being a Jew? They never look at you like you are a cockroach

Anti-Semitism — like racism and beauty — are entirely in the eye of the beholder. It’s never up to a racist to say whether they’re racist or not. How the hell would they know? They’re RACIST ffs! Ask the racist’s victim, ask the misogynist’s victim, the bigot’s victim, the anti-Semite’s victim: “Do you feel hated because of who or what you are?” If there’s even a scintilla of “yes”, that hater is whatever the hated says they are. Hate after all is an active verb.

It is perverse that, already, a big part of our conversation — in the shadow of a seditionist insurrection — is “can we forgive and forget so as to move past it?” White people, it turns out, hate having to EVER take ownership for their shit. Can’t we just forgive, forget and move on — like they did already? The problem with saying yes Not only do these scumbags now look at you like a cockroach, now they look at you like a stupid cockroach.

Trust me: that makes it worse.