How to Respond to Hate

A couple of weeks ago, my sister and her husband, Shoshana and Ari Simones, came home from vacation to find a swastika and “JEW” spray-painted on their mailbox and on the fence beside their home.

This is in Phoenix, Arizona. This is in 2017.

This is a symbol that represents a policy of extermination of Jews through mass murder. It’s not nice to discover that someone who knows where you live wants to see you killed.

“We’re not afraid, we’re not ashamed”

A first instinct is to want to make it disappear as quickly as possible. A kind neighbor covered it with paper, and after calling the police, even tried to get it cleaned up before my sister and her husband got home. Although it’s probably good that she didn’t.

With great bravery, strength, tact and intelligence, my sister and brother-in-law decided to leave up the graffiti and go public.

With help from the Arizona Anti-Defamation League, Shoshana and Ari began talking to the press — AZ Central, ABC 15, Fox 10, 12 News, and more — making sure that the coverage always noted this was not an isolated incident, but part of a spike in anti-Semitic acts in Phoenix this year. Eventually the story went national, reaching the USA Today. “We’re not afraid,” my sister said, again and again. “We’re not ashamed. We’re proud Jews.”

The response from the community, at every level, was a rebuke to those who would intimidate and threaten Jews or other minorities. From the very beginning, to their credit, the Phoenix Police Department took the incident seriously, referring it to their special bias crimes unit, and the FBI stepped in as well. And the mayor of Phoenix, Greg Stanton, gave Shoshana and Ari a call to express his support. At a more local level, neighbors sent flowers, came by to ask if there was anything they could do, sent notes of support. Strangers became friends.

“I definitely smile when I see it”

Of course, my sister and brother-in-law weren’t going to leave up a symbol of hate forever. But rather than cover it up as if nothing had happened, they decided to throw a party, inviting the community to come and repaint their mailbox with messages of love and inclusion.

From a symbol of hate, Shoshana and Ari brought the community together and created a symbol of joy. “I definitely smile when I see it,” my sister told AZ Central.

It’s notable that in the middle of all this, after Shoshana and Ari said they’d leave up the word “JEW” and write “PROUD” above it, someone — presumably the perpetrator — came in the middle of the night and covered over the graffiti with what appeared to be the same black spray paint that had been used in the first place.

It’s impossible to know why. Perhaps the perpetrator felt ashamed. Maybe it was a local kid whose parents got mad and made him cover it up. Or maybe the perpetrator was angry that his act, far from creating the intended fear and intimidation, was turning into a rallying point of support for Jews.

My friend Alena Tansey works for USAID, has been stationed in conflict and post-conflict regions like Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, and studied genocide prevention at the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs. I talked to her about what happened, and she said that the best response to hate crimes isn’t to ignore them, and it’s not to be shocked, either. Instead, it’s best to acknowledge that these things happen, see any larger pattern that they might be part of, and then do whatever possible to empower the victims and disempower the perpetrators.

Which is exactly what Shoshana and Ari had done, and I couldn’t be prouder.

Do a mitzvah

Shoshana and Ari also made a request of the community. The “entrance fee” for their party was one good deed, or mitzvah, as we say in Hebrew. They asked people to join them in spreading light. So if you’re horrified by the act of hate that started this whole thing, please take one conscious action to bring positivity into the world. I’d be delighted if you could share it with me here.

For me, here in Korea, my good deed was to stand up and be counted at the Seoul LGBT Pride festival this weekend (I’ll have more to say about that soon). Like Jews, LGBT people are often the targets of hate, and the thousands of angry protesters outside Seoul Pride were intimidating, to be sure. But there was joy and celebration in the face of it. Despite the pouring rain, tens of thousands of people came to express themselves and their support for a more inclusive society at the largest LGBT event in Korea’s history.

There is no way to prevent every last incident of hate. The real danger, though, is not in these acts of hate themselves, but in the silence that too often surrounds them. We must stand up as individuals and communities to counter fear with love.


I am a proud Jew.

I am a proud bisexual.

I’m not afraid.

I’m not ashamed.

And I’m not alone.


I don’t live in America.

I live in Korea now. I’ve been out of the US for a while. And there is, pretty clearly, a lot I don’t understand about my country.

This is some of what’s been running through my head the last couple of days. It’s not a balanced analysis or a prediction of the future or a plan of action. I don’t know what America will do next, and I don’t know what Americans should do next. I know I’ve misunderestimated Donald Trump pretty much every step of the way, and I hope I’m misunderestimating him still. I hope he’s a wonderful, beautiful president and in four years I’m totally embarrassed about the fear and dismay I feel now. But I’m not holding my breath.

Are you Jewish?

When I was a teenager, waiting for the bus under the highway at Fourth and Heatherton in San Rafael, California, a dude with a shaved head and a Budweiser tallboy in a paper bag stalked up to me, got right in my face, and barked, “Are you Jewish?”

“Yes,” I said, too startled to think of lying.

“Whadda you play?”


“Oh.” He stomped away, leaving me to my confusion. How did he know I played an instrument? How did he know I was Jewish, and why was he asking? There was something clipped, amped up about the way he spoke. I was wary.

A minute later he turned back to me. “Wanna join a punk band?”

“No,” I said. “I’m not very good.”

“You don’t have to be good. It’s punk.”

“Well,” I said, “I’m not really into punk.”

He thought for a moment. “Yeah,” he said, “you prolly don’t wanna join an Aryan punk band anyway.”

I didn’t know the guy, but I knew guys like him. They hung out at a San Rafael club called the Copa, or they drove trucks and hung out in front of the 7-Eleven in Santa Venetia. It wasn’t until years later that it occurred to me that they hung out there, instead of somewhere more pleasant like Denny’s or the pool hall or Caffe Nuvo in San Anselmo, because they had no money, and you can hang out in a parking lot for free.


They had crap lives, those guys. They were going nowhere. They had lousy grades and probably got beaten up by the men in their lives. There were probably good reasons for them to be angry. Their resentment had causes. But it wasn’t something I wanted to go explore with them while they were drawing swastikas on their school desks and shooting spit wads at the back of my head. Just because your life is shitty, that doesn’t make it OK to be an asshole.


It can happen here

After Trump was elected, I asked my family to make sure they had up-to-date passports for themselves and their children. It’s not that I think the end is nigh, or that America 2016 is Germany 1932. But German Jews in 1932 didn’t think it was going to get that bad either. And if it does get bad enough that my family needs to leave, there’s some chance that the US government might at that point have suspended passport issuance, or just run into endless delays.

Better to be ready.

I grew up Jewish in America, with a sense that I was different. I was taught that the veneer of acceptance was paper thin — that the violence of anti-Semitism could erupt even in what was one of the great safe havens in our history. I sometimes believed that and sometimes didn’t. It irritated me when Rabbi Lipner, the dean of the Hebrew Academy of San Francisco, would rant to us about how our goyische friends weren’t really our friends. But he’d been through the Holocaust, and you had to understand where he was coming from.

Right now I’m thinking that the things that happened in Babylonia and Rome and Persia and Italy and Russia and Spain and Germany and France and Poland and Lithuania and Hungary and Iraq and Egypt and Ethiopia could maybe happen again. Even in America. Now is hardly the moment for that sort of American exceptionalism.

Ask your black friends whether they think America is capable of sustained ethnic violence.

I suppose this is what #blacklivesmatter has been saying all along: that it’s frightening to live in a place where a certain part of the population wants to hurt and humiliate and maybe kill you, and the people in charge don’t seem to mind all that much, and they seem to think that maybe you’ve had it coming. Black people have dealt with that pretty much nonstop for the last hundred fifty-odd years. It was worse before that.

And no, I don’t think anyone’s coming for the Jews first. It’s queerfolk (also me), people of color, Hispanics, immigrants, Muslims, the vaguely Muslimlike who should be most afraid. (The Jews weren’t first on Niemöller‘s list either.) I expect that there will be ugly abuses in the immigrant roundups. People will end up dead. People will disappear. Courts will say that no one is at fault, that rights don’t extend to non-citizens, that mistakes are inevitable. That, I think, is much more likely than any sustained reign of anti-Semitism.

Cold comfort.

Rootless cosmopolitanism

The night Trump was elected, I had dinner with a black woman from Brooklyn. We ate kebabs in Gangnam and talked about not fitting in. I told her that I realized a while ago that I live in foreign countries because I feel like I don’t belong, rather than feeling like I don’t belong because I’m living in foreign countries.

My friend is looking for somewhere outside the United States to live, maybe find a husband and start a family. But in much of the world blackness is something to appropriate before discarding the actual people. Koreans love hip-hop but don’t necessarily love black girls.

She wondered if I knew what it was like to have your culture endlessly appropriated while you yourself are devalued. I explained that that’s what Christianity is for Jews: we’ve been beaten up with our own holy scriptures for two thousand years now. Jesus was a hero to most…

We Jews get accused a lot of disloyalty to whatever country we happen to be in. Often the result has been expulsion or internal exile. That happens enough times, and everywhere begins to seem provisional. It’s not an accident that some Jews have a tradition of wearing shoes and dressing for travel at the Passover seder. The story of our people begins with a violent expulsion.

The places I belong are the places where the wanderers intermingle, where cultures blend: big world capitals, backpacker havens, university campuses, international corporations. They’re often elitist places. They’re not salt-of-the-earth places. My people have mostly not been allowed to own land or be salt of the earth. We live on trade, exchange, ideas, intangibles. We invented an incorporeal God, and we’ve been in on some pretty serious abstract thinking, whether it’s psychology or relativity or Communism or third-order financial derivatives.

Abstract ideas are both difficult to grasp and enraging. It’s actually true that unseen forces control people’s lives: viruses and quantum mechanics, yes, and also the opaque machinery of international finance and trade, and invisible gases that change the climate. And if you’re not happy with your life, you get mad at those unseen forces, and at the people who seem to be in control of them.

This election — yes, I’m still talking about that, somehow or other — was a repudiation of all the thinky, abstract people on both sides, as much a smackdown of Paul Ryan and Bill Kristol as of the left. It turns out the angry mob doesn’t care that much about supply-side economics or constitutional originalism. They want insults and cruelty.

The center does not hold

There are moments in history when the center does not hold. Are we at one of those moments? It’s hard to know. It isn’t 1914 or 1939. But these moments creep up on us. As of January, the three largest countries in the world will be run by a shadowy Communist regime, a Hindu nationalist, and whatever Trump is. Europe seems to be in the process of dismantling the economic arrangements that have made continental war impossible. Marie Le Pen and Frauke Petry are ascendant. The Philippines has elected a goon. Being a moderate is not in style.

Here in Korea, the inept daughter of the old dictator was elected president in a spasm of nostalgia for authoritarianism, and a lot of people here felt the way a lot of Americans feel right now. She’s currently embroiled in a bizarre scandal that has left her with an approval rating of 5 percent and left South Korea with no functioning leadership.

I’m not sure right now how I feel about democracy.

(As has happened so often in world history, the Persians were ahead of the curve and get no credit: the Iranian revolution might be the first great spasm of the nativism and tribalism and nationalism and fundamentalism that is seizing the world.)

Requiem for a forgotten dream

In 2000, Al Gore was elected president after a campaign that didn’t get caught up in the question of why he once wore a brown suit and in which a third-party candidate was not able to convince any significant portion of the electorate that the two major parties were basically the same.

Al Gore became president, and his administration kept up the pressure on Osama Bin Laden’s obscure terrorist organization, occasionally firing cruise missiles into faraway places, which kindhearted liberals like me tended to find shameful. FBI and CIA monitoring quietly disrupted a plan to hijack some planes.

The Gore administration put global warming at the center of its agenda, and America used its considerable economic weight to push China to join a global carbon trading regime.

Rudy Giuliani retired quietly at the end of a tumultuous two terms as mayor of New York, and his nastiness came to seem sort of charming as he became a fixture on NY1, arguing with Al Sharpton.

Early in Gore’s second term, a hurricane hit New Orleans, and everyone agreed that it was a good thing the Army Corps of Engineers had repaired the levees. And an administration undistracted by foreign war hiked interest rates sharply in 2006 and began investigating the shady practice of bundling subprime mortgages as investment vehicles.

And the center held.

And there were no pulverized bodies raining down on New York or floating bloated in the streets of New Orleans, and there were no hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis, and there were no CIA torture sites spread around the world, and there were trillions of dollars that weren’t spent on fruitless wars, and ISIS didn’t emerge from the chaos of those wars, and our police weren’t militarized with the surplus gear and PTSD from those wars, and revanchist fascism didn’t become the new normal around the world.


Like a Bowl of Laksa

Da Nang, Vietnam

Once you get beyond Kuala Lumpur, peninsular Malaysia offers tourists three things: mountain highlands, beaches, and historical trade cities. I opted for the latter. There are beaches and mountains elsewhere in the region — I’d just spent a good bit of time on both — but what’s unique to Malaysia is the melange of cultures created by its strategic geographical location and its history. Like a bowl of laksa, Malaysia is a mix of cultural influences that can sometimes be a bit sour or strange, but is worth tasting.

Melaka and Penang

In my brief visit to Malaysia, I visited just two destinations beyond Kuala Lumpur: Melaka City, the capital of Melaka State, and George Town, on the island of Penang. Each is a historic trading city that has become a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and each is a mixture of European, Indian, Malay, and Chinese influences, with the Baba Nyonya — the local term for the Malaysian Chinese — leaving the strongest mark in each place.

Melaka (Malacca) (photos) is the smaller of the two, an old Dutch trading port whose importance has long since faded. The old city has been restored and decked out in murals, but there are traces of earlier, less heritage-driven attempts to drum up tourism: a defunct monorail, an abandoned pirate-themed amusement park, an unfortunate thing of overdecorated trishaws — cycle rickshaws — done up in LED lights and Hello Kitty or Doraemon and blasting music. George Town, on the island of Penang, is larger and more vibrant, and there’s still a major working port on the mainland nearby, in Butterworth. But Georgetown, too, shows signs of misguided early development: the highest building, just beyond the heritage area, is a soaring tower, now in a state of disrepair, whose lower floors house one of the most depressing malls I have ever been to.

I enjoyed my time in both cities. In Melaka, it was thrilling just to gaze out at the sea and realize I was looking across one of the most important shipping lanes in the world. The old city is beautiful and evocative, and it came alive with the Friday night market on Jonker Street. And I met fascinating people, like the Chinese Eurasian proprietor of a restored Dutch heritage house, who told me about Catholics he knows with Jewish surnames like Menasseh, and also seemed to believe that though you can’t come into Malaysia on an Israeli passport, there are secretly Israeli advisors at the highest levels of government.

In Penang (photos), I stayed in an elegant bed and breakfast, You Le Yuen, in a restored building on Love Lane, supposedly so called because that’s where the rich Chinese merchants kept their mistresses (I stayed in the North Studio Suite). My arrival happened to be the night of the Chingay Parade, which centered on teams that carried great banners on enormous bamboo poles, which they would toss or kick into the air so that one member of the team could catch the pole on his forehead and run with it for a while.

Penang is known for its food, and everyone says to go to the hawker stalls, so I did. The food was good, and varied, and often delicious, but I’m not sure it’s travel-across-the-world delicious.

Penang is also where I had my most extensive interactions with someone who was Malay, as opposed to Indian or Chinese, which is mostly who I ended up talking to in Malaysia. It was at the mosque, where a young man beside a banner about Muslims respecting Jesus roped me into a theological discussion involving several faiths I don’t believe in. He was gracious if passionate — at one point, he tried to inspire me by beginning a recitation of the Koran — and invited me into the mosque at prayer time. I watched him wash, but when he invited me to pray with him, I declined.

Fruitful misunderstandings

On Christmas, I went on my own to watch a movie (the new Star Wars!) and eat some Chinese food, as is the way of my people. Then, in the evening, my Indian friend took me to his brother’s Christian “open house” gathering, under some party tents in a vacant lot between a highway overpass and an elevated rail line. We ate Indian food that was too spicy even for the Indians, and then dessert was some sort of porridgey thing with noodles and beans, served in a cup. My hosts asked me what I thought of it.

“At first it was weird,” I said. “Then it was OK in the middle, and now that it’s gone, I kind of want more.”

The same could be said for my visit to Malaysia. After the warmth and ease of Thailand, Malaysia was prickly, strange, difficult. But it was difficult in a way that I found compelling on some level. I think Malaysia will stick in my mind. It’s an awkward country, cobbled together out of disparate cultures and in grave danger of exploding, yet it’s wealthier than most of its neighbors. It’s an oil state, and also a palm oil state — so much oil palm is planted that Malaysia has to import coconuts from Thailand — but it has the potential to be much more. Unlike Thailand or Vietnam, it has no real ancient roots; it was created as British and Dutch tin mines and rubber plantations, and its peoples and cultures are immigrants. It’s complex and messy enough that I could imagine staying interested in it, the way I stayed interested in Korea — which I also didn’t love after my first experience there. I wouldn’t put Malaysia at the top of your tourist list, but I wouldn’t put Korea there either, and I plan to live there.

My host told me the story of a Chinese Malaysian woman who got set up with an Australian man for a dinner date. As they were ordering, the woman asked, “Do you like me?” It was a forward question, but the man answered, “Yes, I suppose I do.” Eventually they married.

Except that she was asking, “Do you like mee?” — noodles. Malaysia feels like a country built out of such misunderstandings, a country where the locals have trouble talking to each other but muddle through anyway.

Bonus: What Malaysia gets right that the world gets wrong

At Kuala Lumpur International Airport, you check in, drop off your bags, and then go to the departure gates — and not through security. Instead, your security screening happens at the gate, when the flight is just about ready for boarding. You then wait in a sort of holding pen, for just a few minutes, between security screening and actual boarding.

This system means you’re not on a security line with everyone else coming to the airport, regardless of when their flights are and when yours is. It means that there’s far less time between your security check and your boarding — and far fewer opportunities to, say, slip into the back of a restaurant and get a knife. Your security line is just a part of your boarding process, not a separate waiting period.

Other airports should do it this way. It might require extra security staff, and it definitely requires the construction of secure holding areas by each gate. Not every airport has the capacity. But new airports should adopt the KLIA model.

Unemployed Drifting in America

Sandy Springs, Georgia

It’s been a little while, hasn’t it?

It’s now 86 days since I had a job. In those twelve weeks, I toured New York with an old friend; visited Vietnam for the first time, gave a talk on how Jews raise kids, and came away with a book project; spent a month falling in love with Korea and Korean and Koreans again; took the last steps to secure my master’s degree in East Asian Languages and Cultures from Columbia University; and moved out of New York once and for all. I’ve been busy.

And now I’m not.

It’s been 12 days since I moved out of New York. My apartment has been cleared out, the deposit check is on its way, and the movers have delivered my stuff to my parents’ house in Arizona. All my big worries are, for the time being, handled. It’s a nice feeling, as I sit here in Georgia in my brother’s house, listening to the rain come down and smelling the pot roast that will be Shabbos dinner tomorrow.

Riding Shotgun

I’m sort of in Atlanta but not really. I haven’t actually been to the city, or much of anywhere outside of my brother’s suburban orbit.

I’ve been to his shul down the street, and to the the rabbi’s house, and to the houses of a couple of other members of the community. I’ve also been to the nearby Kroger supermarket, a few kosher restaurants, two different malls, and a Lowe’s to buy reflective vests for the Shabbos walk to have dinner with some friends who live where there aren’t sidewalks. (The house, and the meal, were lovely.) I’ve spent a fair amount of time working from a Caribou Coffee with either my brother or his wife. It’s good coffee, and there’s a great view of the Walgreens across the street.

Once we went to a National Recreation Area for a short hike, and also to do tashlich, a Jewish ritual where you cast your sins into a body of water. Then later we went to a birthday party for a three-year-old at a playground next to an airport for private jets and small planes, where you can sit and watch the planes take off and land. What with shul and the holidays and Shabbos meals and the birthday party, I’ve spent more time around children and pregnant women in the past eleven days than in maybe the eleven years before that.

My brother has a good life here with his wife and his baby. I’m glad to have this time to bond with my little nephew, to take it easy and not do very much, to ride shotgun in someone else’s life. My brother and his wife are working hard — unlike me, they’re not unemployed drifters, and they have to deal with the baby when he wakes up in the night — which all means that they don’t have much time or energy to entertain me or take me places. Which is fine. I sit around. I work on my book. I nap. I read. I drift a little. I do some pushups, because pushups are good. I help out with the baby.

I have spent a lot of time watching the baby, who is seven months old. He laughs, he climbs things, he topples over and bumps his head. He eats pureed bananas with terrifying excitement and intensity, flapping his arms and lunging for the next bite, until suddenly he is done; usually he sneezes out a big gob of snot somewhere in the middle of his meal, and it looks more or less like the banana, and he flaps and complains while we wipe his nose because we’ve cut off the banana supply for no reason he can discern. His eating habits remind me of Alex from A Clockwork Orange.

The baby likes his set of colored plastic cups very much. He has started to like me too, I think, now that I’ve fed him. He climbs me and smiles at me. And then sometimes he cries for a while, which reminds me why I never kept one of these things at home. My nephew has poor manners and lacks skills. He doesn’t know anything about anything; I’m pretty sure the notion of representation, of things standing for other things, simply hasn’t occurred to him yet. Which limits conversation.

Sins Committed Through Light-Headedness

I’ve also spent a lot more time doing Jewish things and thinking about Judaism than I have in a while. I’ve been working on my Vietnamese book about Jewish child-rearing, and I’ve finished a draft of the background section, about who the Jews are, our history, the basics of the religion. I have done Shabbos and Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — by the end of the latter, I had a wicked caffeine-withdrawal headache, though a little snuff helped. As we read through the list of sins for the thousandth time, I began to wonder about the sins “committed before You through light-headedness” in particular.

I think the experience of writing my thesis on Korean shamanism has helped me to approach Judaism with a little anthropological distance, and maybe a lighter head too. I’m less judgmental about it than I once was, more able to engage it on its own terms without fussing overmuch about my own beliefs. This is also the one of the few times that I’ve been involved with Orthodox Judaism away from my parents, and that changes the dynamic: here it’s not a replay of my adolescent rebellion if I decide I’m done with shul for the day or duck out for a while or skip the night services.


So this is my sojourn in America. I sort of hate it when people say New York City isn’t America — we’re Americans too! — but the New York City way of life is very different from what I think of as normative America, with its cars and strip malls and wide-aisled supermarkets. By the time it’s done, this will be my longest stay in that normative America since 2003, when I got back from living abroad the last time.

I suppose it’s OK, but I don’t really get it. Somehow a coconut plantation on the Mekong Delta makes more sense to me as a place to live, and a giant city, whether it’s Saigon or Seoul or New York, makes way more sense to me.

It’s just about a month until I’ll be touching down in yet another Asian megacity, Bangkok this time. In the meantime, I have a book to work on, family to enjoy, naps to take, strip malls to visit. And I have to go soon, because Kroger awaits!

New Beginnings

If ever there were a Rosh Hashanah that might symbolize new beginnings for me, this is it. For 23 years — even for the year I lived abroad — I have called New York home. Not anymore. Today I closed the door for the last time on my Brooklyn Heights apartment and walked out into a new life. Today I’ll fly down to Atlanta to meet my nephew, who will be experiencing his first Rosh Hashanah.

I have read that while our culture imagines us as walking forward into the future, some cultures see the future as something we walk backwards into: we can see the past clearly, but the future is hidden. It’s very easy for me to catalogue the things I’m leaving behind, and much harder for me to bring to mind, at this moment, what it is I’m heading towards. I suppose that I’m still in a bit of a pause before the start of what I have been thinking of as my new life, which is my life in Asia. For the next couple of months, I’ll be in the US, not at home in New York, but also not on my new adventure.

But this is also my real life, and something new and different. I am taking a pause, an interregnum, as we enter into the Jewish season of reflection and renewal. There’s an arc to the whole thing. Rosh Hashanah is the entry point into a period of sanctification, with Yom Kippur as its climax, the moment when (we hope) the purification is complete, and we are ready to begin the new year. Then comes Sukkos, a reconnection with earthy reality, where we build huts and eat outdoors under starlight and leaves and wave branches and fruit around. It’s a festival that focuses on joy, coming to its conclusion with a burst of celebration for the Torah, the text and the way of life that links the high spiritual plane of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur with the material reality of crops and dirt and fecundity that Sukkos celebrates. 

I am thinking about all of this not just because my life is changing, but because of how it’s changing: among other things, I’m co-writing a Vietnamese book about Jewish childhood education. As I step away from what my life has been and prepare to set forth into what it will be, I’m interested in taking a fresh look at the Jewish part of my upbringing — a look that will be, I hope, a little distanced from all of the adolescent conflict that charged my experience of Orthodox Judaism when I was at home and living it. I will be writing my book over these next weeks and months, looking back on my own childhood to discover what was best in it so that I can share these things with a nation on the far side of the world about which I know very little.

As with my New York life as well, I will spend some time sifting out the resentments and frustrations, the disappointments and discomforts, to find the jewels I’ll carry with me. They will need to be compact and lightweight and durable enough for the unpredictable road ahead, and useful enough to be worth carrying.

Hitting the News in Vietnam

With the help of education entrepreneur Catherine Yen Pham, I have now made the Vietnamese news. Two articles have come out so far — one in Young Style, another in Family Life — and I’ve been told more are on the way.

The articles are about the talk I gave in Ho Chi Minh City about Jewish traditions of education. Catherine and I spoke to an audience of about 120 people, plus press, for several hours, including an extended Q&A session. I was amazed at how interested people were, how hungry they were for new ideas about how they can best raise their children. They want to do better. Many of them were taking notes. A lot of Asians, Vietnamese included, are convinced that Jews are smart, good with money, rich, powerful, and maybe slightly magical. I wanted to share with them some good points from Jewish culture, while at the same time puncturing some of the myths.

It’s an irony for me that after years of focusing on Korea, and pretty much an adult lifetime of distancing myself from Judaism, or at least Orthodox Judaism, I am now on my way to becoming an expert on Judaism in Vietnam. Catherine and I have begun work on a book, and it would also be pretty ironic if my first book were to be in Vietnamese — and about Judaism. But life is funny that way.

Identity and geography

When I was a baby, my parents began to worry about my Jewish identity. They’d grown up in New York, where everyone they knew was Jewish, but how would I know what it meant to be Jewish as I grew up in Marin County, California? That’s what first drew them toward greater involvement with first Reform Judaism, and then the Orthodox Judaism that has become a core part of their lives.

I sort of reverse-solved the problem my parents had raised by moving right back to New York, where I could have almost no religious involvement with Judaism and still be Jewish without having to think about it. In New York, there are Jews all around me. We share a culture. No need for a whole lot of fancy stuff to get the point across.

But I have found that at the various points in my life when I’ve been away from New York, and especially in Asia, identifying as Jewish has become more important and more interesting. Before I left on my current trip to Vietnam and Korea, I got myself a Jewish star to wear around my neck, and I’ve had several occasions where the easiest way to explain who and what I am was to pull it out and show it. Jewish culture — and, yes, the Jewish religion I don’t really believe in — are a core part of who I am.

Jewish wisdom

In being asked to speak about Jewish values, I’ve had to take a close look at my own values. After all, I’m not about to begin espousing a set of ideas that I don’t agree with. I’ve looked to find where what I believe aligns with Jewish traditions, and to find ways of presenting these ideas to an audience that doesn’t know the first thing about Judaism.

It turns out — not a big surprise, really — that there’s a lot in Judaism that I agree with and am proud to be able to share: the Jewish concern with ethics and charity, the Jewish passion for questioning and curiosity, Jewish humor, the Jewish tendency to be able to hold multiple opinions at once. And despite my frustrations with it along the way, it looks like all those years of Jewish education actually taught me something useful.

Maybe this isn’t quite what my parents were after, but the son they raises is certainly aware of his Jewish identity.


Hanukkah is a dumb holiday, and it’s my favorite.

I grew up with a weird amalgam of Jewish influences: an early childhood of high-style Reform Judaism gave way to my parents’ increasing devotion to the Chabad Lubavitch brand of Chassidic Orthodox Judaism, while I spent my summers at the Conservative Jewish Camp Arazim and attended the nominally Orthodox, highly disorganized and very Russian Hebrew Academy of San Francisco from third through eighth grade. My Judaism was pulled in different directions. I loved the high-church elegance of Reform, but it was pretty square, and I suspect I would have found it boring had I stuck with it into my adolescence. Orthodox Judaism, and especially Chabad, was full of baffling rules and boring prayer and eternal Saturdays full of Monopoly games and quietly setting fire to things while waiting for the sun to go down, but it offered periodic bursts of completely batshit alcohol-fueled celebration from which teenagers were by no means excluded. (The Hamantashen Riot of ’87, at a shul in San Francisco, became something of a legend.) And Conservative Judaism, sitting somewhere in the middle, was too chummy and too Zionist, but its passion for teaching young Jews to hook up with other young Jews was pretty compelling that summer I turned 16.

Today my connection to Judaism as a religion is pretty tenuous, and mostly it involves family: I go to shul when I visit my parents or my brother, who’s studying to be a rabbi, or I go to holy sites in Israel with my sister, or I go to the Passover seder out on Long Island with cousins. There’s not much that I do on my own. But I do Hanukkah.

Hanukkah is a dumb holiday because it celebrates the victory of a short-lived fundamentalist movement over the forces of tolerance, and it’s a dumb holiday because the attention it receives in America today is a product of American Jews’ desire for something to compete with Christmas. If you’re a Christian, the birth of Jesus is pretty important. If you’re a Jew, the victory of the Maccabees over the Assyrian Greeks is pretty low on the list of important things. It’s like a holiday celebrating the Battle of Manila or something.

Hanukkah is maybe the only part of Judaism that bridges the different parts of my Jewish experience. I loved it when I was little, when we would light the menorahs in the high windows of our formal living room that faced out to the street, and then sit in the part of the house we saved for special occasions and unwrap presents. Presents are excellent. Anticipating another one tomorrow is excellent. Getting the biggest Space Lego set of the year is beyond excellent. Gold-wrapped chocolate is OK too, not great, but who’s gonna complain about chocolate? Dreidel is a stupid game, but that’s OK because no one actually plays it. Hanukkah music is terrible, but who listens to Hanukkah music? We listened to my parents’ psychedelic rock records from the sixties. Latkes are great and we probably had them, I don’t know; I was busy with the Legos.

As my family became more Orthodox, holidays that had once been breezy and fun, like Passover or Purim or Simchas Torah, began to involve long compulsory prayer sessions and elaborate rules and restrictions. But that never happened to Hanukkah. Hanukkah was still about candles and presents, without much in the way of additional prayer time. And the new rules made Hanukkah better, because it meant we now set fire to olive oil instead of candles, and playing with fire is always improved by added complexity and liquid fuel. Even the Chabad menorah lightings in San Francisco’s Union Square managed to add to the awesome: they were trips to the city, at night, and one year Carlos Santana played.

There have been years when I missed Hanukkah. I didn’t light the candles when I was in India, and I don’t remember lighting them when I lived in Korea either. But I’ve lit candles in all my different homes in New York City over the years, and with my family in Playa del Carmen (where dueling Chabads have dueling menorah lightings). I lit candles tonight, in the window, in a kosher menorah, and I’ll keep lighting the candles through the end of the holiday, which I get to finish out this year with my family in Arizona. And next year, when I’m off somewhere in Southeast Asia, maybe I’ll drop in on a Chabad House or find some Israelis and do Hanukkah there too. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my world travels, it’s that you can find sufganiyot anywhere.