Christmas Series Part 3: The Songs

In Part 1 of my Christmas Series 2017 I wrote about the Islamic Jesus, and in Part 2 about Hanukkah and my healthy childhood for the Jewish holidays. But one thing I definitely preferred about Christmas over Hanukkah was the music. Hanukkah only had the dreidel song, but there seemed to be endless Christmas songs, each with an inherent sense of nostalgia and hope, which in the end are the cornerstones of the holiday season’s allure. So every year starting on Black Friday, I fire up my favorite Christmas songs, and ever since becoming a father, I literally inundate my home with Christmas music as I tell my children stories about spending the holidays with my grandparents as a child. Like with fragrances, each Christmas song immediately conjures up an image from Christmases past.

For example, now whenever I hear “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”, I think of those flights back home for the holidays during my first years in Spain. On the last leg of my flight, usually connecting through Philadelphia, I would listen to my Christmas playlist on those final 25 minutes home, starting with the Bing Crosby version of that song.

Whenever I hear the word “mistletoe” as in “some turkey and some mistletoe”, I can see the mistletoe hanging in my grandmother’s house. Whenever I sing, “later on we’ll conspire”, I think of romantic side of the holidays. When the Little Drummer Boy says that he is “a poor boy too” and that he’ll play his “best for him”, my heart — which is not religious at all — feels like a believer. And whenever I sing “our friends who are dear to us, will be near to us once more”, I always have an image of a cold and dark, yet clear night, together with my parents and siblings on our way to or from our grandparents in New York.

This year, I introduced “Silent Night” into my repertoire. Maybe it was a touch chauvinistic, but I reserved it exclusively for my one year old daughter, as the lullaby to put her to sleep. These have been my kids favorites this year:

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Christmas Series Part 2: Hanukkah

Part 1 of my Christmas Series 2017 was about how Jesus is also the Messiah in Islam. Part 2 is about Hanukkah.

My wife is Moroccan and from a Muslim family. I am from the U.S. and not from a Muslim household, so people often assume that religion would be a barrier in our relationship and in raising our children. But quite the contrary. What I always explain is that I was raised in a mixed household and community. My father was born in New York, the son of Italian immigrants and had a very strict Jesuit education, attending mass almost every day of his adolescence. He grew up in a very small apartment in the Bronx and was surrounded by the brown people of his generation: Italians, Jews, Puerto Ricans, Irish and African Americans. Meanwhile, my mother grew up a more middle class suburban lifestyle. Although her mother was a first generation immigrant, my grandmother’s parents were Swiss and integration was much smoother for them. She was a quintessential WASP, and my father was not. When they married, my father’s closest friend would not attend his wedding because it wasn’t in a Catholic ceremony, and at least as legend has it, my father was not the ideal son-in-law.

I grew up in a non-denominational and secular Christian household in a Washington, DC suburb. Most of my friends were Jewish. In fact I have seen more of the inside of a Jewish temple than a church, having spent every weekend at thirteen shuffling from bar mitzvah to bar mitzvah. When I was little, about the same age as my seven year old is today, I thought of people, not as Jewish or Christian, but as Hanukkah or Christmas. When you drove through my neighborhood, you could tell the two apart from how their houses were decorated in December. Christians had Christmas lights, and Jews had candles in the windows. I was always assessing whether it would be better to be Christmas or Hanukkah by counting the number of presents I got on Christmas morning to see if I had more than the eight my Hanukkah friends got. Plus, I loved potato latkes. My jealousy of my best childhood friend had no limits due to his father being Hanukkah and mother Christmas. He got both.

So what does this have to do with Christmas 2017? A few weeks back, my eldest son was pestering me about whether Santa Claus was real. I mean, he said, it just doesn’t make sense that Santa could deliver all of those presents to all the kids around the world in just one night. Good point, but: (1) there is a seven hour time difference between Madrid and our cousins in Texas, so he could make it; (2) not all kids are good every year; and (3) not all families celebrate Christmas. I then explained more or less the story of the birth of Jesus, the newborn king of the Jews in the time of the Romans. That Spaniards celebrate the three wise men or Reyes Magos, and that in Morocco where mommy is from, even though they believe that baby Jesus was the newborn king, they don’t celebrate Christmas. And finally, I explained that when I was growing up many of my friends were Jewish and celebrated Hanukkah, where they lit a candle every night for eight nights and for each night they got a present.

The look on my son’s face was the exact same look I had at his age. You could see conversion in his eyes. He was doing the math.

A few days later I announced to my wife that I wanted to get a menorah and have the family celebrate Hanukkah as well. We’d light candles each night and say a prayer. No, I am definitely not a religious person or even a believer, but how can you not be infected by the Hanukkah spirit when you see these tweets from my childhood classmate Leslie?

Tonight we celebrate the opportunity to remember the light of knowledge and understanding between neighbors. #Chanukah2017 pic.twitter.com/VY4t7x7ksJ

— Leslie Flaum Genna (@LeslieAlane) December 14, 2017

On Chanukah, we get together to fill our home with light; we also raise our voice in song to push away the night. Songs of joy and gratitude for living proud and free, songs that make all singers into one big family. pic.twitter.com/M1gxrgaRIr

— Leslie Flaum Genna (@LeslieAlane) December 18, 2017

The first issue I saw was where to find a menorah in Spain on such short notice, unless I went somewhere like Toledo or Cordoba where they sold fancy menorahs for Jewish American tourists. But reality set in when I proposed the idea to my wife. She suggested me that maybe I was going a little overboard. We had a Christmas tree that I put up on November 24th. We had stockings, lights, mistletoe, an advent calendar filled with chocolates, Christmas music was playing non-stop in the house, a failed gingerbread house, and I had already been cooking all of my family recipes from eggplant parmesan, meatballs, turkey stuffing, peanut butter cookies, and was constantly serving Moroccan tea.

I think she is right. At least for this year. Next year we can drop the gingerbread house and substitute it with a Menorah.

Shalom, Salam and Peace on Earth!

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Christmas Series #1 : The Muslim Jesus

I just really enjoy Christmas, first as a child and now even more that I have children. I hope that over the next few days I’ll have time to write a series of posts about my Christmas 2017.

To start with, last month I read Mustafa Akyol’s The Islamic Jesus: How the King of the Jews Became a Prophet of the Muslims. What does this have to do with Christmas? Well, Christmas is about the birth of Christ, and Mary (or Myriam in Arabic), the mother of Jesus, is a central figure in the Koran. While this should be no surprise to anyone with a basic knowledge of the Koran, Akyol explores more closely the historical Jesus and how Islam in many ways ties the knot between Judaism and Christianity in its view of Jesus.

According to the Koran and Islamic tradition, Jesus is the messiah in a very Jewish way. As Akyol explains, both Judaism and Islam are fiercely monotheistic. In Judaism, the Messiah was always intended to be a human prophet, not a God-Child or God incarnate. For the first Christians, what Akyol calls the Jewish Christians, Jesus was this Messiah. Not the son of God or the founder of a new religion, but the awaited prophet of the Jews who came to reform their religion. It is not until Saint Paul brings in Greco-Roman concepts of the divine, with gods who are born and die and beget, that Paul introduces the idea of Jesus as the Son of God (a notion absent in earlier Gospels).  Looking at history and scripture, Akyol then ties the knot between those first Jewish Christians and the Islamic concept of Jesus as the human messiah.

It is a shame that more Christians, Jews and Muslims cannot appreciate just how similar their religions are and where and why they have often parted. Akyol concludes with the following:

As Muslims, who are latecomers to this scene, we have disagreements with both Jews and Christians. But we have major agreements as well with Jews, we agree a lot on God. With Christians, we agree that Jesus was born of a virgin, that he was the messiah, and that he is the Word of God. Surely, we do not worship Jesus, like Christians do. Yet still, we can follow him. In fact, given our grim malaise and his shining wisdom, we need to follow him.

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Is White Southern Culture Compatible with Our Democracy and Values?

What would happen if another religious, ethnic or cultural group voted in large numbers for a racist, xenophobe who was nostalgic for a time of oppression and didn’t believe in science? We would question whether they were compatible with Western values and ready for democracy.

Guess what just happened in Alabama this week? A majority of white men and women of all socio-economic groups voted for just such an extremist and an alleged pedophile at that. Only African American turn-out kept the extremist Moore from going to the United States Senate. Maybe this shouldn’t be so shocking.

In 1965, the Alabama State Troopers beat the shit out of peaceful protesters, marching because in places like Selma with majority African American populations, not a single black person was allowed to vote. Yet today in 2017, the South is riddled with Confederate flag and Confederate general worshipers, both of which represent by their very nature the exact opposite of the American flag and Constitution.

Furthermore,  contrary to the narrative of Trump winning because of “working class” white people, white men and women of all stripes voted in large numbers for a candidate who, besides having a long public record of being a scoundrel and having bragged about sexual assault, ran an openly racist and misogynistic campaign.

So, is White Southern Culture reflective of Western values and compatible with American democracy? Are African Americans the last custodians of our liberal democracy and our only hope?

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The Novel I Have Not Yet Written

Tonight my daughter was crying a bit more than usual when I put her to bed. She hadn’t finished her dinner, so I decided to take her out of her crib and give her a bottle while the lights were still off. In the dark, I looked up to see the large framed Billie Holiday poster on the wall (maybe not the most common decor for a child’s room). And with that I began to sing, “Someday we’ll meet / And you’ll dry all my tears / Then whisper sweet little things in my ears . . .”

Then my mind traveled to a novel I’ve been meaning to write for a long time, one I would call “The Afternoon Sun” based on the following lines from the Cavafy poem of the same name:

One afternoon at four o’clock we separated
for a week only . . . And then-
that week became forever.

Sometimes I know the basic facts of the story, sometimes how it will begin and how it will end. I just haven’t figured out how to fill in the narrative.

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The First White President

UPDATE BELOW

The First White President” by Ta-Nehisi Coates is the most provocative and compelling article I have read to date about the phenomena of the Trump presidency. You may not like and it may make you feel uncomfortable, but it should be read. Coates argues that the single, underlying factor that defines Trump’s election is race, plain and simple, and that liberal pundits and politicians who push the “working white class” narrative are either in denial or complicit in the racism.

Trump is the first president to have served in no public capacity before ascending to his perch. But more telling, Trump is also the first president to have publicly affirmed that his daughter is a “piece of ass.” The mind seizes trying to imagine a black man extolling the virtues of sexual assault on tape (“When you’re a star, they let you do it”), fending off multiple accusations of such assaults, immersed in multiple lawsuits for allegedly fraudulent business dealings, exhorting his followers to violence, and then strolling into the White House. But that is the point of white supremacy—to ensure that that which all others achieve with maximal effort, white people (particularly white men) achieve with minimal qualification. Barack Obama delivered to black people the hoary message that if they work twice as hard as white people, anything is possible. But Trump’s counter is persuasive: Work half as hard as black people, and even more is possible.

. . . The scope of Trump’s commitment to whiteness is matched only by the depth of popular disbelief in the power of whiteness. We are now being told that support for Trump’s “Muslim ban,” his scapegoating of immigrants, his defenses of police brutality are somehow the natural outgrowth of the cultural and economic gap between Lena Dunham’s America and Jeff Foxworthy’s. The collective verdict holds that the Democratic Party lost its way when it abandoned everyday economic issues like job creation for the softer fare of social justice. The indictment continues: To their neoliberal economics, Democrats and liberals have married a condescending elitist affect that sneers at blue-collar culture and mocks the white man as history’s greatest monster and prime-time television’s biggest doofus. In this rendition, Donald Trump is not the product of white supremacy so much as the product of a backlash against contempt for white working-class people.

Yes, as Coates explains, Trump won every single demographic of white voters, regardless of whether they were working-class:

Trump’s dominance among whites across class lines is of a piece with his larger dominance across nearly every white demographic. Trump won white women (+9) and white men (+31). He won white people with college degrees (+3) and white people without them (+37). He won whites ages 18–29 (+4), 30–44 (+17), 45–64 (+28), and 65 and older (+19). Trump won whites in midwestern Illinois (+11), whites in mid-Atlantic New Jersey (+12), and whites in the Sun Belt’s New Mexico (+5). In no state that Edison polled did Trump’s white support dip below 40 percent. Hillary Clinton’s did, in states as disparate as Florida, Utah, Indiana, and Kentucky. From the beer track to the wine track, from soccer moms to nascar dads, Trump’s performance among whites was dominant. According to Mother Jones, based on preelection polling data, if you tallied the popular vote of only white America to derive 2016 electoral votes, Trump would have defeated Clinton 389 to 81, with the remaining 68 votes either a toss-up or unknown.

. . . Part of Trump’s dominance among whites resulted from his running as a Republican, the party that has long cultivated white voters. Trump’s share of the white vote was similar to Mitt Romney’s in 2012. But unlike Romney, Trump secured this support by running against his party’s leadership, against accepted campaign orthodoxy, and against all notions of decency. By his sixth month in office, embroiled in scandal after scandal, a Pew Research Center poll found Trump’s approval rating underwater with every single demographic group. Every demographic group, that is, except one: people who identified as white.

Coates is brutal in his criticism of Democratic politicians such as Bill and Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders and of liberal pundits like Nicolas Kristof for playing into white identity politics, pushing the disaffected work-class white voter narrative.

My only question to Coates and what I still cannot figure out is why Obama continues to be the most popular political figure in America?

Ultimately, though, Coates’ parting words are indisputable, similar to my own sentiments:

And so the most powerful country in the world has handed over all its affairs—the prosperity of its entire economy; the security of its 300 million citizens; the purity of its water, the viability of its air, the safety of its food; the future of its vast system of education; the soundness of its national highways, airways, and railways; the apocalyptic potential of its nuclear arsenal—to a carnival barker who introduced the phrase grab ’em by the pussy into the national lexicon. It is as if the white tribe united in demonstration to say, “If a black man can be president, then any white man—no matter how fallen—can be president.” And in that perverse way, the democratic dreams of Jefferson and Jackson were fulfilled.

UPDATED 8 SEPTEMBER 2017

A colleague I discussed this article with noted that Coates did not focus enough of gender, specifically that Hillary-hatred, in large part due to her gender, was a decisive factor in Trump’s victory. I have read some criticism of Coates in the the past that he focuses almost exclusively on race at the expense of gender. I would argue that Coates’ statements about white supremacy and Trump could be easily extended to white, male supremacy.

Trump ran a shockingly overt misogynistic campaign. He was relentless in his attack of female journalists and politicians who disagreed with him, always focusing on their physical attributes. But what was particularly disturbing, revealing, and utterly offensive was his insistence that Bill Clinton’s extramarital behavior was a sign of Hillary’s shortcomings.  That all of America witnessed this (in combination with his “grab’em” statement) and still a majority of white Americans voted for Trump speaks volumes about gender equality in this country.

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East West Street and MAGA

I recently finished Philippe Sands’ East West Street: On the Origins of “Genocide” and “Crimes Against Humanity” which tells the interwoven stories of the author’s own family origins in Lviv with the lives of the two central legal scholars behind the theories of genocide and crimes against humanity at the Nuremberg trials. Besides being an excellent read and reminder of the horrors in the not so distant past of European and Western culture, this story made me reflect on how MAGA (“Make America Great Again”) relates to America’s past and present, and how I now as a father relate to the Holocaust.

How Great Were We?

When we think about America at its greatest (what Tom Brokaw called the “Greatest Generation”), we think about Americans (including my grandmother’s two brothers, who were the children of immigrants) putting their lives  and resources at risk to save Europe and its minority populations from the Nazi Germany. Any time a European criticizes the U.S. or our policies, we Americans proudly remind them of the beaches of Normandy and our conviction that they owe us eternally for having acted as their savior. Furthermore, our self-image has always been fortified by the contrast between our young men fighting to save the world and the demonic, goose-stepping Nazis.

I certainly won’t deny the bravery of my ancestors and fellow countrymen and women both fighting abroad and working for the war effort at home to make the world a better place. But when we talk about the superiority of American values over say those of the Nazis – now rightly synonymous with evil – I am often reminded of what Jesse Owens had said when asked about Hitler refusing to shake his hand at the 1935 Olympics: that the U.S. president wouldn’t invite him to the White House either. Or that black soldiers returning home from the war in Europe, instead of being treated as heroes were once again assaulted by the Jim Crow South and a G.I. Bill that that  discriminated against them.

What I hadn’t realized (and it shouldn’t be a surprise) was that the U.S. team at the Nuremberg trials was staunchly opposed to prosecuting the Nazi defendants for the crime of genocide for fear that it could open the door to Americans, especially in the South, being tried for their abuse of black and Native Americans. In other words, as heroic as Americans may have been in “saving” other minority groups from tyranny abroad, our government wanted to protect its ability, under International Law, to mistreat and abuse its own citizens and minorities with impunity.

Our greatness was still tainted by our greatest shortcomings.

MAGA and Repeating History

The Nazis did not suddenly come into power one day and on the next day put all of the Jews in concentration camps where they were murdered in mass two days later. No, it was a long, slow process of instilling racist and nativist fear, followed by a series of laws that restricted movement (including entry), employment and association, attire, segregation, all leading to the ghettos, concentration camps and murder. While today in America there has been an increase in open association with white supremacist groups and an increase in open anti-Islamic discourse in private and political life, I don’t believe that the U.S. is on the path to becoming a Nazi state. Yet the similarity with the early days of the anti-Semitic propaganda is uncanny. Ultimately, a large enough chunk of German society bought into the narrative that Jews were dangerous, destructive and incompatible with German values to accept the anti-Semitic laws and then actively participate in or turn a blind eye to one of the most the disturbing massacres in modern human history.

So how easily are we today convinced that Muslims and/or Islam is the problem? How many times have we heard that we should “bomb” or “carpet bomb” an entire region or country? How many times have we heard that their culture is incompatible with our culture? And how many times have politicians and political pundits whether on TV, in print or on the internet advocated for travel bans, bans on immigrants, their attire, language, or religious practices, regardless of the fact that all of these measures violate what we celebrate as our Western values? Glenn Greenwald here gives the perfect example of how everyone was all Je Suis Charlie when Charlie was anti-Muslim but not so much when they were making fun of Texans.

So to make a long story short, the Nazis were not built in a day. Their movement started out with the same type of narrative that we are hearing today from the MAGA folks, one that popular culture has arguably already bought into. And as much as we hail the superiority of the West, the 20th Century’s greatest crimes were perpetrated in the West by a Christian people under the veil of protecting Western values.

As a Father

I have always been very conscious of the Holocaust, not in terms of a mere historical fact that you read in a text book or watch countless movies about, but as a real, concrete horror story that had an ongoing effect on the lives of people around me. As a child visiting my grandparents in the Bronx, I remember being introduced to a woman on the elevator and my grandmother asking her to show me the concentration camp tattoo on her arm. My grandmother wanted me to know what people had gone through. Then a large percentage of the kids that I grew up with had parents who were first generation Jewish Americans whose families had fled from Europe. While no one ever discussed what had happened to their family members who did not make it to America as refugees, the Holocaust was a living, breathing and evident part of their personal experience.

But now as an adult, as a husband and father of three small children, when I read East West Street or think about anything related to the horrors and desperation of trying to protect one’s family (be it from the Holocaust, Slavery, Jim Crow, or a flood in Houston or Bangladesh), I am left speechless, with nothing else to say . . .

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