Tag : white supremacy

The Lilith Blog

October 20, 2020 by

Elissa Slotkin: How 2020 Looks from the Midwest

Representative Elissa Slotkin, the Democratic incumbent Member of Congress representing Michigan’s 8th District, is running a race to watch in 2020: Even Politico has  profiled her in a series of articles because her district is “the sort of place Republicans figured to rule forever, the sort of place Trump won comfortably (by 7 points, to be exact) and the sort of place where a suburban realignment to the left could ensure not only a Democratic grip on the hard-won House seats of 2018 but a Joe Biden blowout across the battleground map of 2020..”

Slotkin, with multiple cultural and political tightropes to walk and a formidable political savvy, is also a former Lilith cover star. With the election, the pandemic, and the rise of white supremacy weighing heavily on everyone’s minds, Lilith’s Editor in Chief, Susan Weidman Schneider, and photographer, Joan Roth, hopped on Zoom with Slotkin to talk about some of the most intense topics of 2020.

Lilith: The “Proud Boys” are new to national consciousness–but you’ve been dealing with them for a while.

Representative Slotkin: They’ve protested in my town, Lansing, Michigan, and in many, many towns around here. They’re very open, they’re wearing motorcycle vests that say Proud Boys embroidered on the back. They’ve even provided security at some Republican events!  

One of the things that I’m worried about is that the president though his leadership has fomented a lot of folks who are ready to take up arms at his suggestion. People who have seen their views normalized by the commander in chief.  So to be a Jewish candidate running right now, in 2020, is very different from the last time I saw you, in 2018.

Lilith: What has been different? How have you experienced antisemitism?

E.S.: There’s a normalization of hate, a permissiveness around antisemitism that has grown, so that people commenting on Facebook pages are alluding to my being a Jewish candidate. There are memes being put out by the man I’m running against that are for me really right on the line of antisemitism, with me holding money bags and Slotkin spelled with a dollar sign. 

My opponent will not denounce the Proud Boys. He will not denounce these hate groups. It’s one of those things where you know if the ADL and the Southern Poverty Law Center label you a hate group it should be really easy for any candidate around the country to denounce that hate, especially now, and the fact that they won’t shows how normalized and how concerned they are about not offending those folks.

Lilith: How has this affected your Jewish supporters?

E.S.: In my district, I have about 4,000 Jews, a small Jewish community of East Lansing. The majority of Jewish Michiganders are closer to Detroit than I live, I live on my family farm. I grew up in the Jewish community of suburban Detroit, my parents still live here, so we have really strong ties. They all think of me as their daughter. Right before Covid. I brought in the Attorney General, I brought in some senior FBI folk from Michigan, and the ADL for events, because we’ve seen a fourfold increase in antisemitic events in Michigan. It’s spraypainting of swastikas outside of cafes run by more progressive people, the destruction of a sukkah outside of Michigan State Hillel. It’s a series of things; they aren’t violent, but what the FBI really told us about is a ladder of escalation. And when you add to that the conspiracy theories that have now been mainstreamed about Jews, that have literally led to violence in Poway and Pittsburgh, it’s just a different tone and feeling out on the campaign trail. 

Lilith: How do you see your role as an elected leader in the wake of the George Floyd protests?

E.S.: There is something new for me. After the murder of George Floyd—and the reaction among our African American community, among the white communities, rural communities in Michigan where people held peaceful protests in small farm towns, all-white farm towns— I felt people were absorbing this message that there is systemic racism, and it’s important to be anti-racist. So one of the things that I’ve been asked to do––by both people of color and people in white communities who know no people of color––is to use my convening authority as a member of Congress to bring groups together who wouldn’t otherwise sit in the same room. And it has now been such a steady drumbeat of people asking me that I’m setting myself up to be trained on how to facilitate these conversations in a healthy way. 

Lilith: What changed for you in dealing with racism?

E.S.: One of my best friends is an African American man I went to high school with who’s now the head diversity officer for Ralph Lauren. I was telling him how people from the African American community wanted to engage with people from all-white communities. How Black entrepreneurs wanted to talk to the Michigan Banking Association, and vice versa. I kept saying to him, “I think I need to find someone I can introduce them to so they can have that facilitated conversation.” And he really pushed me to be that someone: “I would say in 2020 this is now part of the job description for a Member of Congress, or anyone in elected leadership––to bring people together who want to deal with the pain and division in their communities and are looking to elected leaders to help that happen in a safe way.” 

So it’s new. It’s not like I was trained in the national security world to do this! Not at all. I want to just put it on peoples’ radar, because I think it’s one of the real, substantive outcomes of the whole movement that happened after George Floyd was murdered, and it has really changed my approach to my job.

Lilith: You were on Lilith’s cover back during the last election cycle. What response did you get?

ES: I will always remember you guys because you were my first cover! I get calls from someone vacationing in Oregon: “I went into this lovely bookstore, and there’s your face, staring at me!” We remember you all fondly on our team as being our first breakout publication.

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The Lilith Blog

July 28, 2020 by

Why We’re Doing Public Teshuvah to Fight White Supremacy

Photo by Hannah Roodman

Photo by Hannah Roodman

Heading to Grand Army Plaza at 7:20 pm. Seeing a group start to gather, forming a circle. Picking up the protest sign that speaks to me from the middle of the circle. Finding a place in the circle to stand and hold up the sign. Stepping into the center to share what aspect of systemic racism I am mourning that day. Or, stepping into the circle to confess how I myself have participated in and perpetuated racism and anti-Blackness. Actively listening. Turning my body East at 8:00 pm. Blowing the shofar for one long breath. Hearing those around me cry out to the Heavens. Standing silently for a moment. Turning back to face the circle. Stepping into the circle again, this time to share a specific way that I will be actively anti-racist moving forward —my commitment to this community. Actively listening. Putting the protest sign back in the middle of the circle. Saying hello to friends and community members. Returning home. 

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July 19, 2016 by

A Jewish Co-ed in North Carolina, 1941

Esther Braun in front of McIver Hall.

Esther Braun in front of McIver Hall.

One September day in 1941, Esther Braun, a tiny 19-year-old with a shock of curly black hair, daughter of Jewish immigrants, got off a train in Chapel Hill. This was her first time away from home — a shabby New York neighborhood of small brick two-family houses and bungalows on Queens’ Rockaway Peninsula. After two years studying chemistry at Brooklyn College, she was going to complete her degree at the University of North Carolina.

Esther arrived at McIver Hall, one of three women’s residences surrounding a quad carpeted with soft grass. The weather was hot and glorious. She dropped her luggage in her empty room — her roommate hadn’t yet arrived — and set out to explore. She walked across the street to the arboretum, with its carefully labeled flowers and plantings, and followed a path into the main campus of grand Beaux-Arts-inspired brick buildings and a huge expanse of lawn where students sprawled under ancient shade trees. At the main campus entrance, Esther noticed a statue of a Confederate soldier on a high pedestal, guarding over the university like a genius loci. A plaque affixed to its side read: To the sons of the university who entered the war of 1861–65 in answer to the call of their country and whose lives taught the lesson of their great commander that duty is the sublimest word in the English language.

Esther, my mother, had never before been in such beautiful surroundings. Her life as a teenager had been grim, with a two-hour commute each way to Brooklyn College. Though her father had lost everything during the Depression, he had somehow scraped together enough money to send his daughter to college, out of state; he had wanted this badly for her. Now she was going to be studying in the middle of this paradise.

Time to unpack. She returned to McIver, climbed the stairs to the third floor, opened the door off the stairwell, and found the suitcases she’d left inside her room piled up in the hallway.

Was there some mistake? Esther hurried to the office of the housemother. At this point, the precise details of my mother’s story — who exactly said what to whom — are lost. But the important part is clear. Her assigned roommate, like most students at Chapel Hill a resident of the State of North Carolina, had taken one look at those baggage tags — “Esther Braun, Edgemere, New York” — and moved the offending luggage out of the room immediately. Then, Miss North Carolina marched to the housemother to announce: “I refuse to room with a Jewish girl.” The housemother conveyed this hateful message to my mother without apology.

I wish I had been there: Was the housemother embarrassed? Exasperated? Maybe this was not the first time she had to deal with this “problem.”

Certainly this was my mother’s first encounter with overt anti-Semitism. Although she’d experienced it indirectly, coming of age as Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh were warning the country that the Jews were poisoning America, and Father Coughlin was ranting against Jews on his weekly radio program. Jews in America felt vulnerable, and even more so in 1941, as the news from Europe became more alarming with each day. This was the world Esther knew when she stood before the housemother, listening to why her luggage was dumped into the hallway, a contaminant of the room where she had left it.

I imagine that Esther trembled with anger. Maybe she cried. The housemother, however, then revealed to Esther that another woman had the same problem; Deborah Rubin of Ashville had been assigned a roommate who also refused to room with a Jew. Perhaps Deborah and Esther would like to room together?

My mother agreed, solving the housemother’s headache.

I’ve tried to envision the first time Esther and Deb met at McIver Hall, after the horrifying (to me, at least) precursor to their meeting. It was love at first sight, in the story Deb and Esther told their children, then their grandchildren, over and over again. The friends roomed together at Chapel Hill their whole time. And a continent away from each other after college — my mother lived in New York, Deb in Los Angeles — they exchanged constant letters, regular phone calls and occasional visits. The two acknowledged each other as “best friends” until they died, both well into their nineties, within a month of one another in 2015, their friendship lasting 74 years. Until the very end, they spoke regularly. I’d dial Deb’s number in Los Angeles — my mother by then too weak to do it herself — and hand her the phone, which she could barely grasp with fingers crippled with arthritis. Slowly, she put the receiver to her ear. “Hello, Deb?” my mother would say, and then her face broke into a smile at the sound of her dear friend’s voice. Deb, who had recently suffered a stroke, could hardly speak. But just knowing that Deb was on the other end of the line, listening, made my mother’s heart jump with happiness.

Though what brought the two women together initially was their pariah status dictated by North Carolina’s casually accepted social anti-Semitism, “She was my soul mate,” my mother often said of Deb.

Deb and Esther found other Jewish women like themselves at Chapel Hill. Edie Rosenbloom, whose nasty experience with a roommate was identical to my mother’s, came from the Bronx. Twin sisters Frieda and Rose Moshowitz were from Hartford, Helen Eisenkopf and Evelyn Waldman from Brooklyn. These are the names I remember, but there were others as well. Amazingly, despite the bias they faced on that beautiful campus, filled with magnolia trees and azaleas, these women thrived.

Deb, a gifted violinist — as a teenager she won a scholarship to study in Paris — was a music major, performing often in concerts. My mother, the only woman in her class who majored in chemistry, slaved over lab reports while sitting in bed with a scarf wrapped tightly around her head, in a futile effort to tame those wild curls, Deb always remembered. Frieda and Edie did social work. Evelyn studied English literature. Esther and her friends whooped it up in 1940s nice-Jewish-girl fashion. On the back of a photo of my mother seated on a blanket, dated January 25, 1942: “A glorious afternoon with books, apples, the sun, the wonderful sun, and serenity.” The friends picnicked under those shade trees on the lawn and dated Jewish boys who took them to dances for which they needed formal gowns. My grandmother bought Esther two, on sale, five dollars each, at Klein’s in New York’s Union Square. After their dates dropped them off at the dorm at curfew, the young women hung out in each other’s rooms and joked about their “VBIs,” “vague biological instincts.”

The coterie of Jewish women spent their Friday nights and Jewish holidays at Hillel, their refuge. What a revelation it was to my mother that Jews could share a meal around a table, laugh, have a good time. In the Braun household, neither friends nor relatives were ever invited to dinner, not for holidays, not for Shabbos, celebrated — the verb “celebrate” doesn’t exactly cut it here — with chicken soup and a plate of gray, over-boiled flanken. Laughter was rare in this family. My mother’s father, Abe Braun, had lost everything during the Depression, and in 1932 their situation became desperate; the family lost their home, and had to be taken in by various relatives. Abe and his wife, Sarah, never stopped fighting, usually over money. My grandmother was a beautiful woman who once who told me that she hated having sex. “I was a cold icebox to my husband,” is how she put it. Happiness clearly had no place in that household.

So Esther Braun Sparberg went on to get a Ph.D. and became a chemistry professor, and she never stopped talking about Chapel Hill. She always described her time there, despite the open bias against her as a Jew, as the best years of her life. “It was,” she said, “the first time in my life that I knew joy.”

Silent Sam: The University of North Carolina statue honoring Confederate soldiers.

Silent Sam: The University of North Carolina statue honoring Confederate soldiers.

But what about the poison underneath all those magnolia trees? My mother recalled a hotel near campus that sported a sign: This establishment is morally clean, code for “No Jews Allowed.” But my mother’s story is about more than anti-Semitism. It is about the Jim Crow South, too. The offending hotel sign had no need to specify that black people were not allowed, either, because this was a given. My mother, who had never before been away from New York, spoke of her shock at seeing bathrooms and drinking fountains and waiting rooms designated either “colored” or “white.” As for the University of North Carolina, well, in 1941, the only African Americans on campus were the people serving meals or cleaning rooms. And nobody then thought about what an affront that statue of Silent Sam at the gate delivered to the descendants of slaves who worked on campus. Seventy-five years after Deb and Esther met on that hot September day, Silent Sam is a constant thorn in Chapel Hill’s side. Graffiti often appear on the statue’s pedestal. In 2015, somebody spray-painted on it: black lives matter.

But Silent Sam continues to stand guard over the campus, where wounds from the past are still open. 

North Carolina bills itself as being far more progressive than the rest of the South. The lunch-counter sit-ins that marked the beginnings of the civil rights movement started in Greensboro in 1960, and the violence accompanying the fight for civil rights didn’t reach anywhere near the gruesome levels seen in other states. Concurrently, the Klan, which had been in decline throughout the South since the mid-1950s, enjoyed a sudden revival — in North Carolina. Turned out that the beliefs of Ol’ Dixie were still very much alive in this supposedly moderate state.

Today, most of North Carolina’s liberals live in the cities — Charlotte, and the research triangle of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill — but the default position for the rest of the state is decidedly reactionary. Republican Governor Pat McCrory’s signing of the “bathroom law” in March — mandating that transgender people use only the public bathroom for the sex designated on their birth certificate — made this abundantly clear. Within weeks the Justice Department sued the state over the new law. Then President Obama directed all U.S. public schools to allow transgender students to use the bathroom of their choice. In response, North Carolina dug its heels deeper — into the tar.

Last April, I finally visited the Arcadia my mother talked about all her life. It was, by chance, the first yahrzeit after her death. The azaleas were in full bloom, and the air smelled sweet. Chapel Hill was every bit as beautiful as she had always described it. I spent Shabbat at Hillel with a group of about 50 young Jews. There, I said kaddish for my mother. There were three services to choose from: Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform, held simultaneously. Then everyone convened to light candles. First, a young woman introduced me and asked me to explain why I was there: “My mother attended this very Hillel every Shabbat, 75 years ago. I want to know what it’s like to be a Jewish student here now.” Then I recounted to them what happened to Esther on her first day at Chapel Hill. Fifty pairs of eyes bore directly into mine as I described what it was to be Jewish on this campus in 1941. Then the room fell silent.

Afterwards, as we ate dinner, I asked them, “Did the story about my mother surprise you?”

No, they said. A woman from Washington, D.C., said: “I can’t tell you how many times people say to me: you are the first Jewish person I have ever met.” I ask a Hillel staffer whether it’s true that Chapel Hill is a liberal enclave. Not exactly, she answers. There are still a lot of students here who come from rural, all-white areas. This is the first time they’re experiencing diversity.

The following week, I asked Professor Marcie Cohen Ferris, a scholar of southern Jewish history and professor at Chapel Hill, to describe the Jewish experience on this campus in recent years. She told me that, over and over again, alumni from the ’70s and ’80s told her that they had a “quietly Jewish or negative experience” here. Quiet, as in keep your head down.

Still, this is not my mother’s Chapel Hill. “The kids are not quiet any more about their Jewishness,” Ferris said. She named the Jewish Studies program, which was established in 2003, as well as the community’s lively North Carolina Hillel as the reasons. “Now, there’s a vibrancy and an activism. It’s really different than an earlier eta when a small number of Jews at Chapel Hill sought solidarity due to discrimination and anti-Semitism,” as they did in 1941. Days before my visit, the university hosted a three-day conference on “Reconsidering Antisemitism: Past and Present.” 


Alice Sparberg Alexiou, a contributing editor at Lilith, is the author of The Flatiron: The New York Landmark and the Incomparable City That Arose with It, and Jane Jacobs: Urban Visionary. She is currently working on a book about the Bowery. 

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