Monthly Archives: July 2014

Would You Take in a Jew?

In Nazi-controlled Europe, there were people who stood up against the regime by taking in their Jewish neighbors. Not everyone was so willing, though: To harbor Jews and keep them from the Nazis meant risking your life, so it is the rare person that became what is known now as the “Righteous among nations” by Yad Vashem.

As the uprising in the Middle East occurs, so does the anti-Semitic language that fuels Europe. Jews having their businesses bombed (as pictured above) and being cornered in synagogues in France. A rabbi beaten in Morocco. A Twitter hashtag, #Hitlerwasright, trending. Protests in Germany with shouts of, “Gas the Jews!”

And when I hear this and read my friends’ criticism of everything to do with Israel, I wonder about if they would ever turn on me. What would happen if we ever had to face persecution and destruction on the scale of the Holocaust? How would my non-Jewish friends respond? Would they be the righteous among nations and take in their Jewish friends… or find that politics are deeper than any friendship that we have promised to each other?

Before Nazi Germany, many of the people who would become loyal to Hitler lived side by side with Jews. They were their intellectual equals, playmates, fellow students and family friends. But then, as the changes began to sweep through from the new government, those loyalties shifted too. It wasn’t sudden, but rather baby steps to get there. It was rare when a person followed their moral standing and housed their neighbors, co-workers, lovers or friends. But as the tension rises in Europe, it makes me wonder who would change their loyalties on the turn of a dime.

I know what I would do if the role was reversed. If I had a Muslim friend who was being persecuted, I would take them into my home and protect them with everything I have. It’s the kind of person I am, and it takes a lot for me to renege on a friendship. For me, it’s better to be doing what’s right according to my conscience than to stand on the right side of the law.

I have learned that people come before politics, but not everyone thinks that way. I feel like as I have gotten older my friends have become more polarized and use their politics as battlegrounds, not as a meeting of minds. They know me as a Jew, but not that kind of Jew — whatever the hell that means. I can’t hide my identity, nor should I have to. Many Jews do, but this is not my choice.

Yet I sometimes wonder, as the politics rise up and we get swept away, who would take me in if I had no place to go? I wonder if they would see me as an “Israeli Zionist pig” rather than a human being who would love them no matter what. We work together, sing together, play together and celebrate together, but it sometimes doesn’t take much to turn us on each other.

It’s interesting, because as many people bring up the Holocaust in terms of the creation of Israel, they don’t bring up a more important case: The Dreyfus Affair, when in 1894 a French military captain named Alfred Dreyfus was convicted for treason for allegedly selling military secrets. He was an easy target, since he was Jewish and considered therefore to be “unloyal.” He was embarrassed publicly, with crowds shouting, “Death to the Jews!”

It was this case that inspired Theodore Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement. He realized that the Jews needed a place to go, where we could be safe and protected. When the Holocaust occurred, there was no place like this, and Jews were turned away from almost every country, including the United States. As a result six million Jews went to their deaths. The righteous among nations stood up, but they were steady rocks of character that don’t often have equals. And now I live in a world where if anything were to happen to my people, I could go and be welcomed into a country with open arms.

I would like to think that most of my non-Jewish friends are people of character who would see me and never let anything bad happen to me simply because I am a Jew. But I can’t help but to question sometimes, as some of my friends hold their politics higher than anything else in their worlds. Would they forget that I am a human who loves them no matter what they believe? Could they remember that we are friends and if, G-d forbid, they were in my situation I would protect them? Would they put their politics aside for one second and see the faces of their friends, lovers and co-workers rather than the blindness of their moral outrage?

You have every right to believe whatever you believe. However, remember that I have two eyes, two hands and a beating heart with blood pumping through my veins. Just like you. Just like everyone else in this saga.

Dying is Easy, Comedy is Hard

Pressing record on my iPhone, I place it on the stool and open up my notebook. I chose my jokes carefully as I grabbed the mic. It was comedy time.

“Hey, how y’all doing?” I ask the room as my classmates cheer, and then begin the jokes I wrote. About 20 seconds in, the blonde southern woman sitting on the couch next to the stage, also known as my teacher Bobbie Oliver, stops me.

“You have to slow down!” Bobbie yells in that southern drawl. “We can’t keep up with you. Take a deep breath, and begin again.”

I breathe deep and continue. As I tell one of my jokes, she laughs. But I continue my set and speed up again.

“You’ve got great content,” she said, looking at her notes. “The writing is funny. But you need to slow down. You know these stories, but your audience doesn’t. On top of that, they’re drunk. So you need to slow… down…”

I nodded as she continued her critique. I listen fully, never challenging her, but asking questions about certain things.

“Comedy’s all a learning process,” Bobbie said kindly to the room. It’s one of those Bobbie-isms that I have to take to heart if I’m really going to do this.

I didn’t want to do comedy, at least not at first. But I would go to parties, everyone would laugh at my funny stories and say, “You do comedy, right?”

“Nope, I’m a writer,” I said.

“But a comedy writer?”

“Nope. Just blog content and journalism.”

People would be flabbergasted. How could such a funny girl not be doing comedy?

The truth was I did standup once, by accident in 2011. It was when I was married back in Orange County, and we were at a comedy event at someone’s house. The mike went out as this one (unfunny) girl was doing standup. Luckily, I’m loud, so I decided to get up in front of everyone and entertain them as they fixed the problem.

Afterwards, one of the comedians came up to me. “Have you ever done that before?” he asked.

“Nope,” I replied.

“Have you ever thought about doing that professionally?”

I honestly hadn’t. He referred me to a guy he knew and told me to get in touch. But as life gets in the way, mine certainly did and the idea fell to the wayside.

Coming back to Los Angeles after the divorce, I followed a friend around the standup comedy circuit, supporting her since we were both going through divorces at the same time. She was using standup as a way to get her acting career going. She did pretty well and was very funny, but I saw the struggles she faced, from sketchy producers to male bias who would only cast pretty girls who they wanted to get with. It wasn’t an easy world, no matter how good she was. Eventually, she stopped and switched to doing improv and more acting-related things, and our friend circles took us far away from each other.

it made sense that people thought that I should do standup since they thought I was funny, but I didn’t want to be a part of that world that made it so hard for women to be involved with. I would come up with excuses: I was too fat. Not hot enough. Not interested in being an actress. My friend was in the comedy scene and I didn’t want to compete with her. And yet people kept coming back and telling me I should do comedy. Several people even offered to mentor me. But I kept refusing.

Around this time, I had a friend who told me about the woman he trained with, Bobbie.

“I think you’ll really get along with her,” he said, and gave me her number. We began messaging and we got along very well. I was getting ready to take her class… until the day after I got laid off from my job. It was like everything in the universe was blocking me from this path, and so I decided to go with it. Who was I to challenge the universe?

However, the months rolled on, and as I was getting ready to visit Israel, something was changing in me. I was getting anxious at the parties where I was normally just the funny girl. I was feeling my energy bursting out at the wrong times. It wasn’t doing me any favors, whether in my dating life or with my friends and potential work life. I needed to make an adjustment and fast.

Going to Israel soothed my soul, but then I went to Tsfat and had a vision: I had to make people laugh. The day after, I sat on the Eged bus on the way to Haifa, thinking as I watched the scenery shift around me. The Mediterranean sprawled out on the train while music played in my ears, and I wondered about this message. Was this just my imagination or something very real?

As I came home and hugged my mother, the thoughts continued rolling as I joined her through cancer treatment. At City of Hope, I spent my entire day making my mom laugh despite the nervousness, so much so my mom called me, “the human Xanax.”

As the sun set on the way home, my father looked at us as my mother and I were laughing.

“Was Reina always this funny?” he asked.

“Of course I was!” I said.

“You were, but I think you’ve gotten funnier since the divorce,” she said.

And eventually it dawned on me: There was a gift inside of me, and it couldn’t be quashed no matter how many excuses I made for it, and the bad things made it stronger. It was what made my mom smile while she was having her cancer treatment and my friends encourage me to step off in a new direction. It was meant for me to do.

So I talked to Bobbie again and found out she had an open mic on Monday nights. It was all women, and I figured that if I was going to do this, I was going to try it once to see if I could be funny. If I wasn’t, all I lost was one night.

Her room enveloped me in deep red and black couches, with tiny flickering electric candles. The lights onstage were bright. And as I put my name on the list and every person came up there with a notebook and an iPhone, I was ready to run out of the room. I wasn’t ready. I didn’t know what to do. How could I be funny, really?

Suddenly, my name was called and there was no backing out. I pulled the microphone out from the stand awkwardly and began to talk. I started with my grandmother, one of the funniest ladies I had ever known, and told the story of her getting drunk, stripping to her bra and underwear and running into the pool and riding around on a pool noodle. And she was terrified of water.

That’s when I heard it: Laughter. It made my heart sing in delight, and I decided to keep going. Told my stories. Heard the cackles. And I didn’t stop until the light in the back of the room to signify one minute.

As I got off the stage, I breathed deep. As the women around me circled and became shocked that I had never done that before, I realized I needed this. Comedy. The laughter. The applause. This was what I wanted, what I needed. And it felt better than anything in the world.

So I began to write. I tried jokes and some worked, while others didn’t. I “bombed,” which Bobbie lectured me never to call bombing. (“It’s part of the joke writing process. You try to succeed and sometimes you have to change things around to make it work. Bombing is when you have the joke right and it still doesn’t catch in an audience. And that will happen, too”) I observed and joked, and went to various open mics to try out my material. And I’m still going.

I have felt every emotion as I watched other female comedians: Happiness, jealousy, anger, surprise and even sadness. They were each beautiful and had their own rhythm and songs to sing. And somewhere in this quilt work was me, a little needle trying to poke through and see what was going on.

As I sat in class one day, the only guy there tried to attempt a joke. One of the parts of the joke he wrote was something that some Jews would consider offensive. I wasn’t, partially because I’ve heard these jokes a million times before.

During his critique, Bobbie said to be careful about that punch line.

“I was worried about that joke because I was concerned she would get offended,” he acknowledged, referring to me.

“Of course she wouldn’t get offended,” she said. “She’s a comedian.”

When she said that, something clicked in me. Yes, I thought. That’s right. I’m a comedian. And I was doing comedy. And it felt more right than anything else had in a long time.

So I decided I was going to keep doing it with no desperate quest for money, fame or agenda. Or rather, I would have just one: Make the world a little brighter for people by making them laugh. Because if there’s one thing we all have in common, we all smile.

The Zionist and the Soccer Ball

“Are you a Zionist?”

The question came completely from left field. The Hollywood bar was packed with people, dark wooden tables and pitchers of beer, all primed for the World Cup final. We were wearing out colors — my blue and white for Argentina, his black for Germany, flags of each country across our cheeks in face paint.

I had been making jokes the entire time with our group while we drank how I couldn’t support Germany in the match since I am Jewish. As the shots of Jager were passed around the tables and we began goofing around, people passed it off as a part of the fun. But this guy was very serious as I asked him to clarify what he thought Zionist meant. I wanted him to get to the point of what he wanted me to say.

He shook his bald head and touched my hands slightly. “I know you’re Jewish, but what kind of Jew are you?” he asked me. What kind of Jew am I? A human one?

I didn’t know how to answer, and his questioning made me uncomfortable. It was only five minutes before that we were hugging each other and taking funny pictures of the flags on our faces, with him even hitting on me a bit. Now he wanted to know my politics, something personal about me, not mention get it out of me when I clearly had too much to drink.

He kept telling me to Google Zionist, as if I didn’t know what it meant. I know what he thought it meant — apartheid, hateful, vengeful — when really its definition is simple: A Zionist believes the Jewish people should have a state. No more, no less. It has been the definition of the word since Theodore Herzl coined it back in the early 20th century, before Israel even existed. There’s not even the term Palestinian in that basic definition. Like feminism, this word has become what everyone else has attached to it.

I wanted to scream that he didn’t know anything about me, my people or the hell that my soul has been through this past week. But luckily, when I’m drunk I know how to control my words better sometimes than when I’m sober.

“As far as I’m concerned, both sides are right, both sides are wrong, and I just want to forget it and say, ‘Let’s eat,’” I replied, and excused myself to the bathroom.

My face felt flushed under the air conditioning as I began fiddling with the hamsa around my neck — a symbol that predates religion, traditional of the Middle East, which is supposed to bring peace to a person or home.

All week while wearing it, I felt no peace at all. Not after the pictures of rockets bursting over my cousin Jacob’s head. Not where he told us where he hid from the blasts. I sat in the car and cried for about 20 minutes thinking of him, my friends Lauren and Avi and their newborn daughter, Inbar, Dana… all the people who I saw four months ago on my visit to Israel. All the people I love.

Meanwhile, this week was a bombardment of righteous anger on all sides. The pro-Israel side who thought they were right, the pro-Palestinian side who thought they were and all the misinformation in between. And everyone was so convinced that they were right in their stance, that they had all the facts. And no one honestly does.

It hit a head multiple times: My pro-Palestinian friends posting a picture of a hill in Sderot where Israelis were watching rockets fire into Gaza. A hill I had walked on, but they’ve never known. And they said of people they never met, “Look at those savages!” When in truth I knew the real facts behind the picture: That the most extraordinary thing about the picture wasn’t the fact they were watching rocket blasts. It’s the fact that, in a town of people with PTSD, that had over 3,000 rockets fired at them over the past 10 years and had bomb shelters with every bus station, its residents were able to sit outdoors.

Then there are pro-Israel friends who would lambast Palestinians for not being a real people, for Arabs being savages and dogs. In truth there are so many Arabs speaking out against Hamas, the real enemy. They understand that supporting people by giving them good living conditions and not turning their hospitals and schools into rocket launching grounds is a basic human right. That not building your leaders the huge villas I saw with binoculars looking over a hillside into Gaza while your people sometimes don’t have running water is something that should be a natural understanding. These are a people who are given nothing, and deserve more than not having rockets fired at them, but also not being told that terror and death is the only way out.

Watching this ball kick back and forth for so many years just hurts. As I posted my heavy heart on Facebook in the most civil way possible, I watched as my friend Eve brought up issues in the debate, and my other friends began to attack her. My heart was breaking as I watched one of the most important people in my life, who always tells me she loves me before she hangs up the phone and who held my hand the first time I saw Jerusalem, being called a self-hating Jew, when in truth she called herself a Zionist (which, if she believes Israel has the right to exist, she is). Then I had to witness those friends disrespect her on their friends’ Facebook accounts.

Eve and Jacob, two of the people I love more than anything: Whether in Israel or here, they were being attacked. And now here I was at a bar, trying to watch a soccer match and finding myself in a barrage of anger as he asked again if I was a Zionist when I returned from the bathroom. Like Eve, I felt disrespected, backed into a corner. But I will always find a way out.

So I responded with a question for him: Where are you from?

“Lebanon,” he said. “And you won’t believe what I have seen.”

I nodded and decided to turn my attention back to the game as Germany scored their goal. Because I know what I have seen, and even if I told him he would tell me I was a liar. When someone is so determined in their belief, nothing you can do can really make them sway, no matter how many facts that you present them. I would never change the hate he brought to the word Zionist.

As the game concluded and the group all hugged each other, I decided to let go of his question and embrace him. He asked me what kind of Jew I was, and I had always known even though I wouldn’t tell him: It was one that respected others even when they were disrespected, who would rather hug their neighbor rather than see the enemy in them, and wants to work to build a safer Israel for her people as well as prospering homelands for those who want them.

Call this whatever you want. And if it’s Zionist? Well, so be it.

Mothers

In the deaths of Eyal, Gilad and Naftali in Israel, people have seen what they’ve wanted to see. They have seen their hatred for Hamas, Obama, the U.N. and anyone else they want to throw their poison daggers into. I only see mothers.

Three women cried in joy as each of these boys were placed in their arms for the first time. These mothers sent them off to school, helped with their homework and sat for family meals with them. And now they bury them.

When I see them, I see another mother. I remember talking to her for a few seconds at the funeral, her face red with tears, but she will always haunt my dreams. Her body shaking in a light pink dress as they laid her boy’s body into the ground in Simi Valley. Her sobs echo in my mind. And the screaming, like a dying animal, yelling at the world in fruitless anguish to not take her baby away, is seared into my soul.

His name was Jason Todd Schneider. We called him JT for short. I met him shortly after I started community college at Pierce. His smile was friendly, his hair already beginning to thin up top. His eyes would crinkle when he smiled, and his hugs were tight yet tender. His flannel shirts had a hint of musk in them. We would talk for hours and hours about anything and everything. He was one of my closest friends.

Until his demons got in the way. I was angry and cut him out of my life. And before I could apologize, he was gone. We didn’t lose him to terror, but he was ripped from all of us anyway. At 23 years old. I was only 19.

My parents were at a loss for words; they never knew anyone who died so young when they were my age. I screamed and seethed at people who made his death more about themselves and not about him. And I blamed myself for his death for years until I had to force myself to realize it wasn’t my fault.

But just as much as I lived with him, I lived with the memory of his mother. She was my nightmare, the image of standing behind her and watching her shaking body in that pink dress, her screams tearing into me like knives. If I met her, I wouldn’t know her; I can barely remember her face. But she is in me, always.

I am no longer a 19-year-old. I have had to face other real-world problems and challenges to my life, things he never got to do. I went through major milestones in my life without JT: A move to university. A college degree. Hirings and layoffs. Multiple subsequent moves. A marriage. The deaths of my beloved grandparents, followed by another earth-shattering death, this time the sudden death of my aunt. Then, six months after her death, a heartbreaking divorce and total upending of my life. There were things that I did that I always sensed were against the natural order of what the universe was supposed to be. But they pale in comparison to watching a mother bury her child.

Sometimes in the quiet I sense JT. It’s like the flit of an eye, and then he’s gone just as quickly. Although there are lingering moments: one night, as I was on my tour bus of Israel and everyone else was chatting in the front. Sleepily, I curled up in my chair and rested my head. In my mind’s eye, I saw him as he put his arm around me and rested his head on mine in the orange fluorescent lights as I cried, in joy of being in Israel and sadness because he wasn’t with me. Yet all I can think about is no matter how deep my pain goes with him, there is a woman out there who was once dressed in pink who haunts me with her screams just as much as her son does. And she will never go away.

I don’t know where JT’s mother is now, but I know there are three mothers joining her struggle in Israel of having to cope with losing a child. There is a country haunted now by three boys that were ripped from them, and they stand behind these women because they see their own mothers. The plight of women is the plight of us all. When she suffers, we will all go down with her. It’s up to us to lift her up when she needs the help, no matter what, because only when women can be strong can the rest of the world gather strength.

We can be angry, but that can always be tapped later with a more collected head. If we don’t choose love first, that’s when we make bad decisions. So instead of rallying in hatred against easy targets halfway across the world, go hug your loved ones first and make up for past wrongdoings. Don’t see what you want to see, but rather look harder and notice the love right in front of you.