Redefining Religious

originally posted on EJewish Philanthropy on September 4, 2015

I’ve tried out many answers:

“Not really.”

“Kind of.”

“I guess, but it’s not what you’d think.”

“I suppose in my own kind of way, but I’m not strict or anything.”

I can’t remember if I’ve ever just said, “Yes.” But I’ve been thinking about it.

After all, when you tell people your mother is a cantor and your father is a rabbi, it’s probably a good idea to have an answer to the oft asked question: “So, are you religious?”

It would be easier if the question was as neutral as, “Are you an outdoors person?” or “Donuts or cupcakes?” But it’s not, no matter how casually the speaker shapes their tone.

“What are you really asking?” I should reply one day, “Am I a religious freak? Do I believe in a G-d that controls everything? Am I going to judge you and your heathen ways? Do I think I’m better than you? Do I have a superhuman spirit power that can help you with your crisis?” These are the questions I imagine floating behind the lips of my inquisitor.

I don’t really want to explain all the history. That my parents were hippies. That they ran away from orthodoxy. That their Judaism and Jewish leadership has more to do with community-building and political action than pure religion. Sometimes I’ll say, “Yeah, well, my dad’s a rabbi but he doesn’t believe in G-d,” because I’ve noticed that phrase often puts people at ease. On rare occasions I have completed that sentence, adding: “…but I do.”

I’ve always loved Judaism because it meant special things: holidays with singing and dancing, delicious meals with family and friends, celebrations, community protests, youth groups. My parents never shoved a judicious G-d down my throat, but instead let the idea of G-d be something I was free to explore. I asked my mom once why we didn’t eat bread during Passover and she said, “Because then we can have the experience of doing something at the same time as Jews all over the world.” I liked that. So I stuck with it. Even as I felt embarrassed chomping on matzah in middle school or missing events because of Jewish holidays. It felt worth it.

But religion got harder in college. The Hillel on campus was certainly nothing like my leftist synagogue back home. And in my activist circles, religion was decidedly not cool. So my focus shifted for a few years, and then shifted again when I returned home after college and re-engaged with the political Jewish community.

Re-engaging with Judaism felt good. But I noticed there weren’t many other college grads looking to join organized religion. And the ones who were preferred to identify as “spiritual not religious.” I understood where they were coming from. Organized religion has been responsible for lots of terrible things. But organized religion has also produced many movers and shakers and crowds of world-changing activists.

The phrase “spiritual not religious” felt weird to me, as if there was something wrong or shameful with being religious. As if the speaker were clarifying, “I’m the good kind of Jewish person, not the annoying kind.” It felt like another way to create divisions among our people.

But I also understood why it could feel almost off-limits to identify otherwise. I have long felt that the orthodox branches of Judaism have monopolized the term religious. Am I even allowed to call myself religious? After all, I text, drive, write and carry onShabbos. I make up my own rules about kashrut and then only sometimes follow them. I don’t say all the blessings. Sometimes I forget to light Friday candles. I can never remember Torah to quote and don’t particularly enjoy text study. Plus my relationship to G-d has never been crystal clear. Do those things disqualify me for the term religious?

But I don’t feel “spiritual not religious.” I can tell that phrase just doesn’t describe me. I feel “spiritual AND religious.” Because you know what? Whatever I do on Shabbos, it feels holy and different from every other day of the week. My own kashrut rules feel special to me and being able to break them reminds me of my agency in my Jewish life. I often don’t say blessings, but I almost always say the Shehechyanu before doing things for the first time. Plus, a murky relationship to G-d is still a relationship.

It turns out my brother Lev has also struggled to define his Jewish identity. After college he began to say, “I’m religious, not spiritual,” with a hint of sass. When I asked him why he says this, he responded, “I don’t feel a strong sense of spirituality, whatever that means, but I feel a sense of attachment and connection to Jewish traditions and ritual.” We’re both working to figure something out our own way.

I am spiritual. AND I am religious. I dare anyone to tell me I’m not. It’s time for me to take back the word. The religious right no longer gets sole ownership. I love that I have chosen my own Jewish life, that it feels flexible and connected to community. I believe everyone has a right to define their own Jewish path, be that religious, spiritual, both or neither. We must embrace a more open understanding of what it means to be religious in our Jewish communities and institutions.

Maybe “religious” no longer has to mean following all the right rules, but rather a sense of commitment to one’s own religious exploration. If so, count me in.

For more on my Jewish experience, check out my piece in the just-released book “Faithfully Feminist: Jewish, Christian and Muslim Feminists on Why We Stay.” Join us in Manhattan on September 9th for a book release event.

Talia Cooper is the program director at Ma’yan in Manhattan, where she leads anti-oppression workshops for educators, parents, and high-schoolers. Contact for more information on writings and trainings. She can also be found playing music on Facebook and YouTube.

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You Can’t Fight Racism with Sexism: A Response to Adam Mansbach

Versions of this blog originally appeared on The Good Men Project and Ma’yan, July, 2015

Dear Adam,

I appreciated reading your recent article in Salon, because I too am a justice-loving Jewish white person working to fight racism.

But I’m also totally bumming about what you wrote. I mean, I think you know you come off sounding like an asshole. To quote you explaining a fight with your girlfriend: “Eventually I felt good enough about where we’d gotten…to go upstairs and sleep with her.” I am down with writers exposing their full humanity. But you know that’s not cute.

An extra helping of discussing sexism would pair nicely with your on-point knowledge of racial dynamics. In fact, they have to go together. Your failure to acknowledge male privilege undermines the question that the title of your article elicits: how do we convince other white people that racism is real?

Based on your article, I’m unconvinced that you actually liked Jessie. Maybe she just wasn’t your type, or maybe a sexist society got you all confused about who you are supposed to like. Baring your real self is admirable, but because so many men regularly showboat their sexual abuse of women in the media, your confessions are nothing really that new or liberatory, unless coupled with an understanding of sexism and male domination. Your conversations with Jessie could have been a whole lot more productive if you’d also brought up sexism and admitted to all the complexity.

I feel sad that Jessie’s exposure to anti-racism was through such misogyny. I’m with you: racism is destroying lives and we have to get everyone on board with ending it. Right now. You ask what it will take? It will take recognizing that you can’t teach someone about oppression while exposing them to other kinds. That’s why the term intersectionality continues to be relevant—if we are not aware of other kinds of privilege, power and oppression as we do anti-racist work, we won’t be affective in bringing in more allies.

If women got a published article every time we radicalized someone via dating, we’d all be fucking famous by now. Almost every guy I have dated has become more radical, more feminist, and clearer about racism by being in a relationship with me. And most political women I know are in the same damn boat. My straight female friends often feel frustrated looking for a male partner who is both kind and loving and also understands systemic oppression. It’s a tall order. Many have opted for “kind and loving” with the hope that radicalization comes later. Sometimes it does. And then eventually these men get more credit for their work in the movement than we do because they are seen as a novelty. And because of, you know, sexism.

I’m sure there was at least one woman who brought you in, who helped you through the initial stages of unlearning racism and becoming an anti-racist activist.  I would love to see her get credit. Was it a girlfriend? A friend? A teacher? Your mother?

Maybe the next time you find yourself dating a Jessie, or wondering how you can talk about racism with white people, you can remember the women who have supported you through your political mistrials, and then come to the relationship and the task of anti-racist education from a place of love.

Honestly, it sounded like you cared more about looking cool and anti-racist in front of your friends than actually getting someone else to join in the fight (or having a nice, caring relationship with another human). And you back this point up at the end, by saying that you’re not interested in the “go work in your own communities” approach.

I know you have done work with white people in the past, and you hint that you’re done with it: “I wasn’t interested in chopping it up with any hunkered-down white racists, that I’d had my fill of that ten years earlier when I published Angry Black White Boy.” It’s okay to take a break from doing the professional work of educating fellow white people about racism. Everyone gets to take care of themselves. But you can’t take a break from doing the work on a personal level. Because no matter how finely you have tuned your social circles, there will always be the Jessies. And to try to avoid them completely will not only render you ineffective, but will also make your life smaller.

We all have to do anti-oppression work from a place of loving our own people. And sometimes that will feel hard and terrible, but that doesn’t mean we don’t keep going. Because when we do it with love, we are that much more effective at explaining why ending racism matters so much to us, and why we need more help.



Talia Cooper is the program director at Ma’yan in Manhattan, where she leads anti-oppression workshops for educators, parents, and high-schoolers. Contact for more information on writings and trainings. She can also be found playing music on Facebook and YouTube.

Letter to my Teen Self

The usual genre of this list is “Advice I’d like to give my teen self” or “15 things I wish I knew when I was younger.” But we’re changing the assumption that our teen selves weren’t already strong and cool. In fact, we think they maybe even knew more about some things than we do now. Here is our three part series, Letters to my Teen Self, imagining a back and forth exchange between our past and present selves. 

To: 15 year old Talia, Oakland, CA

From: 29 year old Talia, Brooklyn, NY
1. You are not naïve for believing in a better world. The adults who say so are confused. I try to learn from your commitment to justice every day.

2. High School is the real world. The friends you make are real, the emotions you have are real, the beliefs you fight for are real, the legs that carry you are real. The purpose of childhood is not solely to prep you for the real world because you are already in it. I know adults say scary things like “You think this is hard, just wait ‘til you’re older!” But they’re just having their own feelings. It’s true, life changes, and change is hard sometimes. But I’m now realizing that you actually work harder than I currently do. The greater task is to learn to stop working, to draw boundaries, to be flexible when appropriate and take care of yourself.

3. You don’t have to please everyone all the time. It’s okay to turn homework in late sometimes, it’s fine if someone doesn’t adore you. For a young Jewish girl, getting people to like you can feel like a matter of survival. But this is misinformation. Getting sleep matters more than straight A’s. Prioritizing the A above all else starts to make you believe your own body is second to (someone else’s definition of) success. You don’t have to believe it.

4. You are not alone. You never have to suffer alone. You can build a whole crew to call on whenever things get hard. You can cry your eyes out and then laugh ‘til your sides split. You can be pissed off and tell people about it. You don’t have to look nice or happy all the time. You can say “Help!” and expect people to come running. You can say “I’m scared!” and expect an embrace. You can say “I’m so proud!” and expect a huge celebration.

5. Things are less scary than you were taught. The adults around you love you and don’t want bad things to happen to you. They may have exaggerated some of the dangers around you, or forgotten to present them with a rational perspective. They said things like, “never talk to strangers” when what they meant was, “I really care about you.” It was the best they could do. There’s a lot of ick, but there’s also a whole lot of good people wanting good things for you. You’re smart enough to suss out what’s safe and what’s not. Trust your gut.

6. I can’t thank you enough for the friendships you are forming. They continue to save my life again and again. I so appreciate how you make time for your friends everyday. I am trying to be more like you.

7. I am re-learning to meet people different from me, like you used to do when you were little.  It used to be easier to make friends with kids who were from different backgrounds. It’s gotten harder. It’s not our fault. Systems of oppression, like racism and classism, are designed to keep people apart. Let’s refuse to collude. Let’s go after friends of all kinds, learn how to be each other’s best allies and how to hold on.

8. You’re a damn good listener, and that’s a powerful tool. But here’s the secret: you don’t actually have to listen to everyone. It’s not your job as a female.

9. Your body is awesome. It will fluctuate in shape and size and that’s just what it is.

10. Don’t worry so much about eating health food. Try to just listen to your body and eat things that taste delicious. The rest will fall into place.

11. You might never stop questioning your sexuality. It’s not a question you are ever obligated to answer.

12. Being messy or disorganized means nothing bad about you. You’re good. End of story.

13. I love that you write poetry and stories whenever you want to.

14. Whatever happens dude, you’ll figure it out.

15. And again- thanks for all you’ve taught me.

For more “Letters to my Teen Self” see here.

Happy Earth Day! How Climate Change, Feminism and Shmita are all Connected

Originally posted on the Ma’yan blog on April 22, 2015

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In the mainstream, feminism is often defined as equal rights for women. Here at Ma’yan we like to take an expanded view. My co-worker Pippi Kessler says, “At its core, feminism is about yearning for a world where every person gets to be a full human being.” To me, that means that as feminists we must actively fight to ensure that people of all backgrounds not only get to survive, but actually thrive. And the truth is that we can’t thrive without a healthy planet. And that is why, in honor of Earth Day, we are talking about climate justice as a feminist issue.

In most countries, climate change is no longer a debate. Scientists understand that we have been playing fast and loose with fossil fuels and we are already starting to pay the price. If we go much longer, we’ll pay an even bigger price. And because of systems of oppression, people of color and the poor and working class pay the greatest price. Those who own fossil fuel companies along with the wealthy elite (whose money is invested in fossil fuels) are not currently feeling the devastation at all. (For more information, I highly recommend the movie, Disruption, a concise and well-made documentary released in preparation for last year’s national climate march in NYC.)

For those of us not affected by the immediate impacts, climate change is hard to regularly pay attention to. Our minds are pulled into emails, bills, advertisements, work, friends and day-to-day realities. That’s one of the reasons why attending last year’s climate march was so powerful for me. I watched all kinds of people walk, chant, sing, and display beautiful creations of art. I was reminded that we all want to survive and we all want to thrive. I was reminded that humans are totally brilliant. I believe that we will figure out elegant, creative solutions to climate change. We just have to put our minds there.

So what’s a Jewish feminist to do?

Draw from traditional practices:

Interesting that the climate action occurred during the Shmita year, the Jewish traditional seventh year in which we are commanded to release all debts owed to us and to let the land rest. I’m guessing the Shmita year would probably not be a good time to, for example, dig up new earth, lay in more pipelines, blast through more mountains, or drill deeper into the ground. It’s probably not the year to scrounge up every last bit of fossil fuel just to keep feeding our oil addiction. And if we are letting go of debt, then it’s for sure not the best time to find new enemies and start new wars. On the other hand, harnessing the power of the wind and sun seems like an excellent Shmita year activity, as does taking time off to rest and plan exciting visions for the “post-carbon economy” (as Naomi Klein calls it).

The Shmita year is also about the concept of “letting go.” So what can we let go of to end climate change?

  • Addiction to fossil fuels: including oil, plastics, and more
  • Investments in non-renewable energy
  • Greed: In this Shmita year I want to examine the places where I feel greedy. Is it with time? Food? Clothes? Travel? I don’t know what the next step is exactly, except to reflect on what my actual human needs are and how best to fulfill them
  • Isolation: the more I seclude myself from others, the less I see what is really happening in the world
  • Numbness: I want to combat numbness and face reality by doing things like going to marches and protests, sharing my feelings with friends, reading about climate change, and writing and making art about justice

Make personal changes:

I am aware that the biggest polluters and wasters are not individuals, but big corporations and industries. These are the places we need to target to effect change. But I’m still opting to make personal changes as well, and here’s why: I’m training to minimize the voice in my head that says: “You don’t matter.” Every time I reuse gray water or recycle, that voice rages loudly saying, “You’re insignificant! It won’t make a difference what you do!” But I am learning to persist. Because the quieter that voice gets, the more my thoughts and actions will be able to align, which will increase my capacity to think and do on a bigger scale. Here are just a few personal changes I’ve tried that you could consider as well:

Ultimately we know the path is about organizing to fight the institutions that perpetuate our systemic greed and over-consumption. The above lists the little steps that help prepare me for this work.

So feminists unite! We still have about five more months of the Shmita year. What can you commit to doing towards climate justice?

Talia Cooper is the program director at Ma’yan. Contact for more information on writings and trainings. She can also be found playing music.

A Call to My Beloved Jews: We Gotta Talk About Privilege

Originally posted on the Ma’yan blog on April 21st, 2015.
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Over the past year we’ve seen an increase in articles by Jews that seek to disprove the concept of privilege due to experiences of anti-Semitism. These writings upset me because they in no way represent my own beliefs as a white, female, Ashkenazi educator and activist. The articles do not acknowledge the complexity of identity that I believe is necessary for the Jewish community to embrace. Here is my response to a compilation of articles:

Dear Taffy, James, John, Seth & Tal

You have all joined the deluge of Jews venting frustration with the concept of “privilege.” I admit my temptation to pick apart your arguments line by line. The number of offensive statements makes my heart race.

But for the time being, what I’ll say is:

You’re right.

Anti-Semitism is real. It has and continues to negatively impact our Jewish people.

The leftist activist community doesn’t always do a good job acknowledging or understanding anti-Semitism.

And this is a problem.

It’s a problem because it means the left won’t have a full picture of society, which is necessary in order to build power and win. And it’s a problem because it perpetuates anti-Semitism itself.

And also: you’re wrong.

Experiencing anti-Semitism does not preclude other truths: white privilege (for Jews who are also white), class privilege (for Jews who also have wealth), male privilege, able-bodied privilege, straight and cis-gender privilege. None of these experiences of oppression trumps any other; all oppression is painful and unjust.

Sometimes it seems so simple: of course it’s possible for me as a white Jewish woman to experience sexism, white privilege and anti-Semitism all at the same time. It’s “simple” because I’ve lived it my whole life.

But sometimes breaking it down feels complex and painful. Do I really want to dive deep into my family history and investigate that the fact that we have money comes from this weird stew of running from anti-Semitism and also gaining white privilege?

In my work with Ma’yan’s Research Training Internship, a big theme we teach isintersectionality: the concept that one person can experience both oppression and privilege simultaneously. It’s complex. But it’s important.

“Privilege” is a word that sometimes scares people. But it doesn’t have to. Privilege doesn’t mean I’m bad or that my people are bad. It also doesn’t mean I’m extra good. One definition we use at Ma’yan is that privilege is a system of unearned advantages that benefits one group at the expense of others. I have to remember this or else I fall into the trap of believing I have “earned” things because I am somehow “better than” others. But that’s a lie that only further isolates me, and leads me to remain complicit in oppression.

I don’t frame this conversation as “Jewish privilege” because Jewish identity is multi-faceted and complex. When working with white Jews, I talk about the white privilege that we experience as Jews. It’s a subtle but important difference. The experience of being Jewish includes oppression—past and present. And even still some Jews have certain privileges.

It’s particularly scary for Jews to think about the idea of holding privilege because of the history of anti-Semitic tropes that say that Jews control the world and therefore their takedown is justified. But I’m not saying Jews are the most privileged.  Actually, we know that the majority of the wealthiest and most powerful people in the U.S are white Christian men. But that doesn’t mean that white Jews don’t still experience privilege. I know I do. Even at the same time as anti-Semitism.

When as Jews we don’t understand intersectionality, it’s a problem for everyone. Not understanding intersectionality means white Jews are more likely to assume a uniform Jewish experience, which keeps us from appreciating the richness of our diversity and perpetuates racism not only to non-Jews but also to Jews of color within our community (not to mention classism, homophobia, ableism and more). Not understanding intersectionality also leads us to believe the myth of exceptionalism: seeing ourselves as the most oppressed, which only serves to further isolate us from the people and movements we could actually be working with. Anti-Semitism is not our fault and it is not our (sole) responsibility to end. But by staying in our narrative of victimhood, we essentially leave ourselves alone and stuck, and we damage other communities along with our own.(For a fuller list of why Jews MUST understand privilege and intersectionality, click here).

“When my Jewishness comes into conflict with my whiteness, I’m not effective in challenging racism,” said educator Randy Clancy in a recent workshop for a group of social justice educators that Ma’yan convenes. We have to embrace all parts of our identity to do the work.

Talking about privilege is just a start. The point isn’t just to recognize it, but to understand our place in fighting for racial justice and ending oppression for all people.

The left also has some responsibility. If lefties don’t understand that anti-Semitism is real, it leaves Jews feeling like they have to prove it over and over again, as we have seen in the articles I linked in the salutation. And wouldn’t it be nice if the right-wing didn’t have a monopoly on defining anti-Semitism for once?

So: Anti-Semitism is real. White privilege is real. Racism is real. These things are linked, but they are not all the same and cannot be compared. Sometimes it makes sense to focus on one while not abandoning the other, and at this moment in U.S history, I see way too many murders of black people to stand idly by. When I say Black Lives Matter, this in no way negates my commitment to ending anti-Semitism. It is not about oppression hierarchies, though we do need to examine the fact that this country was economically built on racism. Ultimately, I believe our liberation is connected. So let’s get to work.

With love,


P.S. There are lots of great resources put out by leftist people and communities. April Rosenblum wrote a great pamphlet about anti-Semitism and the left. Ngoc Loan TranAsam Ahmad, and others have written beautifully about ending in-fighting among the left.Paul Kivel has also written about being both white and Jewish and showing up in the fight for racial justice. There’s a lot of good thinking out there. Let’s stay in it together.

Talia Cooper is the program director at Ma’yan. Contact for more information on writings and trainings. She can also be found playing music.

Tips for Responding to Offensive Comments

Originally posted on the Ma’yan blog on March 23rd, 2015

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Last week we posted your responses to how you handle offensive comments at parties and family gatherings. This week we’re letting you in on a few of our tricks.

Before even figuring out how to respond, you first have to determine if to respond. When deciding, here are some things to consider:

1)   Who the speaker is and your relationship to them 

Some people find it easier to engage when the offender is a close friend or family member, someone with whom they experience unconditional love. Others fear damaging the relationship most important to them over something seemingly small. But you know your relationships best and can figure out what everyone can handle.

2)   Who else is around to hear it 

We got feedback from our readers that it really matters who else is around. And we agree! If two women start fat-shaming each other in front of younger girls, standing up against internalized sexism sets an important model for the next generation.

3)    How you’re doing/feeling in that moment 

“I prefer to respond when I can be chill about it,” replied one of our readers.

Trying to explain how the history of colonialism continues to play out today might be more difficult after the longest week ever. You are the best judge of whether or not it’s time to engage.

4)   Knowledge of subject matter 

Readers reported preferring to have enough information. Don’t feel like it’s a subject you can take on? Check out our resource guide for more 411 on all sorts of topics. Also, if you’re having a gut instinct that something is wrong, you can always share your opinion and follow up with more information later.

5)   Personal relationship to subject matter 

Did someone just say something that directly insults you, your relatives or partner? Depending on how painful the subject is for you personally, your response in that moment may need to be more about self-preservation than education.

Did you decide to go ahead and engage? Here are some strategies you can try out:

1)   Humor 

It doesn’t always have to be serious. Try combatting racist jokes with jokes about racism itself. Or say “I always love comedians who actually expose racism instead of just perpetuating it.”  

2)   Pretending you don’t understand/Asking questions 

My friend Julie has a favorite example: a male acquaintance referred to another woman as a JAP. Fully aware of the meaning of the slang Julie asked, “What’s a JAP?” “You know, a Jewish American Princess,” he said. “Did she live in castle?!” Julie asked with joy on her face, effectively employing both strategies number 1 and 2, and forcing the man to reconsider his language.

This strategy can also be used more seriously if humor doesn’t feel appropriate. When people say “I prefer not to walk in that kind of neighborhood,” asking questions about what they mean can lead to the underlying classism and racism ingrained in those statements and can produce a genuine conversation.

3)   Storytelling/I-Statements 

Often most successful in producing empathy is just telling a personal story. “I don’t like when people say negative things about women’s bodies. My mom used to do that when I was a kid and it made me feel bad about myself. I’m now learning to heal from that and part of my healing is trying not to engage in negative talk about other women.”

4)   Flagging for later 

Sometimes you can keep it simple if you don’t have the energy, time, or necessary information. For example: “We don’t have to get into it now because I know we have a meeting agenda, but I want to come back to this assumption that only rich people donate to charity. I’m pretty sure I’ve read some countering statistics that we don’t have time for. But I’ll be sure to look and send them out with the notes.”

5)   Straight talk 

The scariest for some, the easiest for others. (Bear in mind: humans are strong and capable and can heal from anything.) It would be okay to say, “Hey, when you talk about the Muslim people like that it feels bad. There are over 1 billion Muslim people in the world, the vast majority of whom preach peace and love. As a Jew I know what it’s like to have my people hated and I’m just not down with perpetuating that for another religion. What’s your feeling on that?” And then engage.

What’s the worst that can happen? (And if the answer is: something truly awful can happen, see #6).

6)   Self-preservation/Boundary Setting 

As I said earlier, sometimes the topic might be too painful for you to even be around. You can say you will need to leave if the conversation continues like this. You can actually get up and leave.  Another reader provided a few short phrases she uses: “ouch,” “too far for me,” “can’t hang out with those thoughts.” If you’re up for it, you can also try, “When comments like that are made it triggers these feelings inside me. It may not be your intention for me to feel this way, but I want you to know how I feel in response.”  You get to take care of yourself, and you know how to do that best.

7)   Diffusing 

Having trouble thinking of a response? Feeling stuck? There are still strategies for you! Readers provided responses including “Ok! Moving on!” and the “specifically vague” phrase: “Well, now, that’s a thought!” (which is reported to lead to a subject change). One reader said, “Sometimes I feel that just gently not participating in the conversation or giving any response is enough to register that I’m not agreeing or colluding.” Others reported using body language to show lack of interest in continuing the conversation. Other phrases to try: “That statement doesn’t feel right to me. I don’t feel like getting into a debate about it now, but maybe we could just move on?” “I’m pretty sure that’s inaccurate, but I will look up more info about it and send it to you later!” “I think this conversation is better continued just the two of us at another time.”

Hard stuff, right? The good news is that we don’t have to be perfectionists about it. Maybe we’ll come up with a great response, maybe we won’t. Maybe someone will appreciate what we say and maybe not. What matters is that you made the assessment, you tried something (because even not responding is trying something) and then you will learn from the result.  If it’s not the result you wanted, oh well! The good (er bad?) news is that you will have plenty more opportunities to try again. Additionally, it sometimes feels like the very moment it happens is the only opportunity to respond.  While It is often is easier in the moment, it’s not your last shot. “Remember yesterday when you said that thing? It actually upset me because…” is also valid.

This stuff is also really cultural. People from different class, race and ethnic backgrounds might have different ways of handling tricky moments.  Our way is not the only way, and ideally we all get to learn from each other.

I think the best advice we can offer is just to notice. Does your heart race? Do you sweat? Do you get really angry? Do you repeatedly choose not to engage? How do people generally respond to what you say? Try to notice without judgment and keep track of patterns. How come I usually feel tongue tied? What am I most scared of? Start collecting information. The more information you have, the more likely you can make rational decisions in the future (hm, I notice that Im having that body sweat thing again. I remember that that means Im scared. But there is no real threat here. Okay! I think I can respond!). Be gentle with yourself and keep at it. And if you yourself said something offensive, you can be gentle on yourself too and learn about it for next time.

There’s also something in all this for you: every time you speak up, you get to have the experience of seeing yourself as someone who acts on the things you believe in. This is not for self-kudos, but for the experience of inner-alignment. And the more you practice, the more you build the muscle.

By the way, if you are an educator, we lead a workshop on this stuff! It’s called “Evaded Issues” and was originally developed by Naomi Less and Shira Epstein. The workshop is designed to help educators with strategies to engage when tough topics unexpectedly arise in educational settings. Let us know if you’d like to schedule a workshop for your school or organization!

Written by Ma’yan staff: Talia Cooper, Shayna Goodman, Andrea Jacobs

I Never Dreamed of a White Christmas: On Gilmore Girls and Christian hegemony

Originally posted on the Ma’yan blog on December 16th, 2014
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On October 25th I heard my first Christmas song of the season. I’m not exaggerating. A week later, said song weaseled its way deeper into my brain, nested, and made only brief escapes out the hum on my lips. Damn.  Christmas.

Recently I’ve been bit by the Gilmore Girls bug. Yes, it’s true, I hopped straight on that Netflix binge-watching bandwagon of the TV show featuring the fast-sass-talking, big-eating, small-town-living ways of Lorelai and Rory. As a pop culture-loving feminist, I note things like the racist portrayal of Mrs. Kim and how the fat person is characterized as clumsy, and file them in my brain under “TV references of racism/sizeism I could use in a workshop one day.”

Here at Ma’yan we’ve been reading Penny Rosenwasser and Paul Kivel. We are learning about anti-Semitism and also Christian hegemony—the system that normalizes the Christian experience, and marginalizes all other religions. Just a few light topics that were on my mind as I watched the Gilmore Girls. The portrayal of Jews in the show is certainly cringe-worthy; there’s Brad (a minor character), the dorky, unlovable schoolmate, and then there’s Paris, the hypertensive, hyper-competitive, hyper-allergic, power-grabbing rival of Rory. Yikes. That’s some serious brain-file material. But for me, the real ick moment occurred in Season 3.

In Season 3 (episode 10), Paris’ boyfriend invites her to celebrate Christmas. When she returns, Rory asks about it. Paris gets this dreamy look as she relays the scene: wreaths everywhere, a 12 foot tree, the wafting smell of cinnamon, the eggnog, the cider, “It wasn’t just nice,” she says, “It was perfect.” She explains to Rory: “I never had a Christmas tree before. One year I asked my mom if we could get a Chanukah bush, and she made me watch Shoah the rest of the week.” She then continues: “I’m looking at this mound of gifts and I’m thinking, eight days of Chanukah? Who’s the skinflint that thought of that deal?” “Don’t the eight days symbolize something?” Rory asks. “Yes, they symbolize eight days of ripping off the little kids who can’t have a Chanukah bush,” Paris retorts. “You’re making me sad,” Rory says. The scene ends with Paris declaring her commitment to return for Easter.

Watching this dialogue unfold I felt queasy, and I realized: that’s it. That is exactly my fear: that Christmas celebrators everywhere walk around feeling sorry for Jews and all those who miss out on the quintessential American experience, and that if we are lucky enough to get to celebrate Christmas, we’ll feel whole, restored, and at last accepted.

Like Paris, I too have been welcomed into a Christmas celebration by someone I was dating. The meal was fun, and I enjoyed it like I do any holiday dinner with family. Adorning the tree was sweet, rather like decorating a Sukkah. The presents felt overwhelming. The fireplace was lovely. Stuffing stockings was awesome. I did not feel wistful or deprived for never having gotten this before. I have never secretly longed for tinsel and candy canes, for jingle bells and reindeers. Jews every year talk about how annoying it is that people say ‘Merry Christmas,’ or even ‘Happy Holidays’ (because we know what that actually means). But that’s not my real beef here. For me, the issue is that Christians think I want it. I have never felt short-changed in my dearth of Christmas celebrations. As a woman I don’t have penis-envy, and as a Jew I sure as hell (pun intended) don’t have cross-envy.

This is what Christian hegemony does—it normalizes the lives of Christians, and it makes it seem like the experience everyone has, or should have, or at the very least should want. And some do. But not all of us.

I should clarify: I am not the Semitic Lorax. I do not speak for the Jews. There are plenty of Jews who have longed for Christmas, who love Christmas songs and decorating ginger bread houses. There is truly nothing wrong with that. Not to mention the many multi-faith households that embrace multiple traditions as their own. I’m all for it. But multi-faith households that include Christians are not adding tradition where there was none before, but rather layering on to an already beautiful tapestry. For me, learning new traditions doesn’t make me feel like I’ve been missing out all along.

So here’s my message to Christians: just because this holiday is the federally recognized one, the one associated with the religion that fuels so many of the thoughts, opinions and attitudes in this country, does NOT make it the holiday we all inwardly wish we were celebrating. But I do wish you the very best, and I’ll gladly partake in a little eggnog and cookies (if you’re offering, that is).