I’ve always liked Christmas, and not just because I like Chinese food and movies. I like the spirit of it, the renewed focus on friends and family, the dedicated time to slow down and reflect on your blessings. There is a kindness and a generosity that people can’t help but exhibit this time of year.
It’s always a little funny to be Jewish around Christmas. Every Jewish kid has their stories, from being accused of killing Candy Cane Court in middle school because they questioned the candy cane symbol aloud to their teacher thus canceling that years festivities (only to see them reinstated after graduating from school), to caroling with their fellow Cub Scouts, and after singing multiple Christmas songs together, hearing the Cub Scout Leader say, “Now Michael is going to step forward and sing one of his Jew songs.” (Okay, so maybe those are just my stories, but everyone has theirs!)
I don’t mind when people wish me a “Merry Christmas,” and I laugh whenever I’m in a group and someone says “Merry Christmas” and then momentarily gets flummoxed and singles me out to say, “Oh, oh, and Happy Hanukkah to you too, Michael!” It’s thoughtful for sure, but there’s also a weird feeling to being singled out as a Jew.
Look, if you know me, you know I’ll take any reason to celebrate. I’ve long found that the walls between us crumble when we participate in the celebration of each other’s lives and cultures. That’s why I’ve always invited non-Jews to my annual Hanukkah party. I want them to participate in my traditions, to feel they have permission to learn, honor and enjoy them. I want to live in a world where people wish everyone a Happy Hanukkah during Hanukkah, a Merry Christmas on Christmas, Happy Diwali, Ramadan Mubarak, Habari Gani, and all the rest.
So in the spirit of inclusion, I’m happy to write this note next to my first Christmas tree. Gosh it smells nice. Merry Christmas, my friends. (And since it’s still Hanukkah, Happy Hanukkah too.)
AROUND NEW YEARS
What are the little things you’ve noticed this year?
Perhaps by spending so much time at home, with the same people, walking the same streets gasping for early evening air, you’ve come to look differently at some small things in your life.
When I look back at 2020, I’ll remember nights of uncertainty, loneliness and claustrophobia, but I won’t pay them much mind. I’ll remember city wide cheers at 7 pm. Writing letters to swing state voters. Digital Dance Parties, Cinema Club, and elaborate home-cooked meals. I’ll remember the teachers and parents, health care professionals and essential workers, each of whom inspired me with reverence and awe.
And I’ll remember these two trees. I don’t even know their species, but from our rooftop, they look to be the tallest two trees in Brooklyn. They loom large over our deck like ancient guardians, protecting our tree house, our secret escape. I’ve photographed them every day this year, watching their leaves die and flowers bloom. I’ve witnessed them stand tall as storms billowed through their trunks. I’ve closed my eyes and listened to their branches rustling in the wind. They stirred my heart and gave me comfort. They even inspired a new ending for my book, one that feels truer and colored with hope.
The tree on the left keeps its leaves longer. It doesn’t sway as much. It’s heartier, more lush. The tree on the right houses a small plastic bag. I’ve watched this sad sack toss and stretch, balloon and swell. It’s shredded now, flapping in the wind like some war torn flag from an enemy that won’t surrender. For most of the year I hated this damn plastic bag. Now I can’t imagine the tree standing tall without it.
In a few months, we’ll move. I’ll miss the rustle and the shade, the dead leaves and plastic bag. The comfort now is knowing so many new trees await, anxious for my attention, ready to be seen.
And now for something completely different.
I’m going to swear online for the first time today.
Racist Nazi fucks don’t scare me.
You wanna fuck with black people and Jewish people? Good luck with that.
Here’s what does scare me: Complacency. I was out at a bar last night for a birthday party. I was talking to friends about Charlottesville. I then struck up a conversation with a stranger – a finance bro. (Now I don’t mean to belittle “finance bros” at all. But I said it, and now I bet you can visualize him better. I mean he probably dressed up as Patrick Bateman once for Halloween because he thought he was being “ironic.” I digress.)
The guy said he didn’t know what happened yesterday because he doesn’t watch or read the news. When I began to tell him what happened – Yes, Michael, by all means initiate a conversation about politics and Nazism with a stranger in a bar – he said he didn’t want to know.
Now I don’t post much on Facebook these days other than random questions and photos with vague song lyrics from the 90’s as captions. It’s just not a productive place for me. I never post news links and rarely write political posts. People who know me know this is not for lack of political or social engagement in the slightest. I simply prefer to focus my time on taking action offline, every day, with intention, engaging with people face to face.
But this conversation followed last night, which I quickly wrote down after it ended because it scared me so much. I felt the need to share it on social media because I believe there’s an even greater terror on our hands than this small population of racist Nazi fucks (many of whom, fascinatingly, if you check their Twitter handles, claim to be anti-Nazi, but we’ll get into that another time).
The greater terror, to me, is the complacency and apathy of every day Americans.
Our conversation continued:
So you don’t read the news either?
Never catch it on a screen somewhere? Talk to friends about it?
Nope. I don’t want to know about it. I’ve never voted either. (He said PROUDLY.)
One vote doesn’t mean anything. My vote can’t do anything. Let me tell you something – most people are scum.
Do tell me. Tell me more.
Most people are scum! And I don’t want anything to do with scum.
These men and women were marching with swastikas yesterday. These are the people who make death threats to synagogues and raid Jewish cemeteries. These are the people killing our black brothers and sisters in the streets.
See, I told you! Scum! But I’m never going to cross paths with any of them. So. They’re not my problem.
What about other people’s problems? What about empathy?
There’s nothing I can do.
There’s so much you can do! Volunteer, donate, call, e-mail, tweet at your representatives, raise your voice, engage, dialogue, march, protest…
Protests don’t do anything. Protests have never accomplished a damn thing. You’re wasting your time. Like I told you, most people are scum. It’s the way of the world.
What kind of work do you do?
Do you enjoy your work?
Naw. I hate it, honestly.
What would you rather be doing?
I don’t know. So long as I never have to go above 14th Street, I’m good.
I smiled and walked away.
He’s wrong. Most people aren’t scum.
Yes, some people light the world up with their tiki torches from Home Depot while shouting “White Lives Matter,” completely devoid of the true irony that their weapon of choice is an American bastardization of a non-white symbol. (Let’s face it: Their hats were made in China too.)
No, most people aren’t scum. But some are. Some are willing to just standby and watch the world burn.
The amount of pain and wrongs done in the world every day is immeasurable and overwhelming. And yes, people have no legal or even human obligation to look after or take care of their fellow human beings. But that is not who I choose to be.
I choose to be someone who doesn’t turn the world off because it’s painful and overwhelming. I choose to be someone who strives every day to do what they can to learn, listen, and make a positive impact. And I’d say the people I tend to surround myself with have the same viewpoint. Of course, we can’t consume the 24 hour news media. We can’t desensitize ourselves to the point of no return. We have to take care of ourselves and our well-being first. But as someone who dedicates their life to storytelling, to building empathy in individuals and strength in communities, I won’t ever stop trying to get people to open up their hearts and minds and pay attention to the world around them. That’s not just how we’ll grow. It’s how we’ll survive.
Friends, instead of railing against Trump every day from your private Facebook accounts and posting another “But her e-mails” meme, please help me talk to these kinds of people face to face every day as respectfully as possible. Lord knows I’m trying. Listen to them. Challenge them. Engage them. I know it’s difficult. But try. You have to try. Our democracy, our world, our future is at stake.
I’ve been thinking about this story.
A man went to his Rabbi and asked him how he could finally be free of all his problems, his anxieties, and all that was negative in his life.
The Rabbi told the man that the only time he’ll be free of his problems, his anxieties, and all that is negative is when he is dead.
The man decided he was willing to die so that he could be free.
So the Rabbi sat the man in a chair and said he’ll pour hot tar down the man’s throat.
And he did.
And the man screamed and convulsed as the hot tar shot down his throat and entered his stomach.
But. The man did not die. Because it wasn’t hot tar that now flowed through his body.
It was honey.
The man felt fine. The man felt free.
The man had to be willing to consume the hot tar only to find out that it was really honey.
The Rabbi could not have told the man that it was going to be honey to begin with.
The man felt fine. The man felt free.
Now, truth be told, you could say this Rabbi was a bit of an asshole.
But. I understand the point.
This year, may you take on your greatest challenges and fears head on.
May you come out the other side feeling less burdensome. May you carry less weight.
May you thrive in your work, in your love, and in your service to the world.
You can’t do everything. But you must do something.
Most of all, may you have a sweet, sweet, sweet new year.
L’shanah tovah tikateyvu v’tichatemu.
May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.
Also, may you light a candle, draw a hot bath, and listen to Solange’s new album.
‘Cause that’ll make you feel real good too.
Today reminds me of a dream I had many many years ago. I’m in a chilled room of floor to ceiling windows overlooking a San Francisco drenched in fog.
G-d is my tailor, and he is measuring me up for a performance. He silently works around my body as I stare onto a desolate Union Square.
Suddenly behind my ear I hear, “Where are your wounds?”
“I have none,” I say.
Then he asks, “Was nothing worth fighting for?”