I slide the tip of my finger under the edge of the portrait, gently lift it away from the page. On the back, their names: Florence, Ruth, Elsie (my grandmother), Elaine, Cele.
Shortly after my father died, I visited my grandmother. She had been widowed more than half her life and she’d buried two of her three children. She lived alone in her apartment in Philadelphia among treasures she’d collected throughout her life, and she asked me to tell her which things I wanted to have after she was gone. My grandmother was practical. She knew grief, she knew loss, wanted to make sure I would have what I felt I needed when she wasn’t there to supervise the process.
I began to notice how frail she was, crumbling around the edges, and I thought of those black and white photos. I grew anxious when I thought about never knowing who the women in the picture with her were; I grew anxious when I thought about never really knowing my grandmother.
The next time I visited her, I asked her to tell me stories about her life. I sat with her, capturing as much as I could in a spiral notebook. She told me about a summer when my father was a toddler and they had an apartment in the Rockaways. She was pregnant, and she miscarried. She was alone with my father while my grandfather worked, she told me how scared she’d been in the hospital, and that afterwards she went home and never talked about it with anyone. She talked for hours. We took breaks, and we started again later. I’d forgotten to bring the photos with me on this trip, but I promised I would next time.
Over the 4th of July weekend this year, my family drove up to join my in-laws at a cabin they’d rented for the week. My husband drove, my kids played games in the backseat, and I scrolled through Twitter on my phone. An ad was circulating, generated by the Donald Trump campaign, using what to me was obvious anti-Semitism to attack Hillary Clinton and her perceived base of Jewish support. On social media, Trump supporters weren’t just denying that the ad was anti-Semitic; they were attacking even the perception that it was, pointing to what they called a liberal tendency to overreact, to seek out offense. We were crazy for thinking we were being attacked.
To be fair, in my own work organizing for racial justice in the Jewish community, I intentionally center racism, categorizing anti-Semitism as non-urgent, historic oppression. Encouraging white Jews to focus on the oppression of people of color, some of them Jews themselves, requires an assumption that we are not under immediate attack for our Jewishness. It’s complicated, and I admire those who hold the tension with grace.
A few hours later, we were in a grocery store in a small town in Northern Minnesota, picking up milk and ice before heading to the cabin, half an hour outside of town. As we waited in line to check out, I skimmed Twitter again and learned that Elie Wiesel had died. I felt like the floor had dropped out beneath me.
I’ve never met Elie Wiesel, but as a Jew who works both professionally and personally for racial justice, his work has always been important to me. I wasn’t experiencing a personal loss and didn’t understand the intensity of my own emotional response. Dread and panic organized themselves in my body. I turned to my husband and asked, “What will happen when all of the survivors are gone? People won’t have to believe us that it happened.”
A few years ago, I attended a workshop on how American Jews manifest the effects of trauma generations after The Holocaust. Intergenerational trauma is “the transmission of historical oppression and its negative consequences across generations.” There’s a quote in the Tanakh, in the Book of Ezekiel, “The fathers ate sour grapes, and the children’s teeth were set on edge.” Some researchers believe that trauma can alter our DNA, others think we inherit trauma experientially. You watch your mother’s response to a stressor and your body remembers.
I’m not the grandchild of Holocaust survivors. I’m the grandchild of American Jews who assimilated because they’d watched from safe ground but never felt safe.
In the workshop, the trainers told us that American Jews, or many of us, manifest historical trauma as anxiety, perfectionism, disordered eating, hoarding. Before he died, my father hoarded. He saved his fingernail clippings. He held onto things just in case he’d need them someday. I started to see myself in our trainers’ descriptions and then wondered if I was trying too hard to find something. I interrogated my own perceptions and then I stopped, choosing acceptance over understanding.
On Wednesday, July 7, police shoot a 32-year-old black man named Philando Castile in his car during what at first seems a routine traffic stop. His girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, next to him in the car, takes out her phone and begins recording and broadcasting live on Facebook. Later, her calm demeanor will be dissected. Some will criticize her actions; experts will call it a textbook response to trauma. Back from the lake, alone in my house, I watch, and I know what she’s doing. She’s recording this so that people will believe it happened. She’s bringing us into the car with her so that we can’t deny her experience. Behind her in the car, her 4-year-old daughter watches.
You watch your mother’s response to a stressor and your body remembers.
Three days later, I stood outside the Governor’s Mansion in St. Paul with my family. Philando Castile died of his wounds. His family’s routine traffic stop proved not routine in the way my family would expect but routine in the way black Americans now anticipate. Black people, and people of color more broadly, experience disproportionate profiling and targeting by police. Activists were still responding to the death of Alton Sterling in Louisiana when Philando Castile was killed.
Those who don’t want to believe that the problem exists go into overdrive, justifying the use of force, justifying Castile’s death. It becomes clear that, for those who don’t want to accept or address racism as the problem that it is, evidence is a threat that must be discredited.
As we stood outside the Governor’s Mansion in support of Castile’s family and in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, a young organizer prepared a group getting ready to march onto the highway. “Take out your phones,” she says. “Record everything.” She knows, and those marching know, that a record will be important. In fact, in the hours following the march, a narrative took shape that doesn’t match the personal reports of those who shut down the highway. Elected leadership and the mainstream media jump to support police actions, despite the words and images shared by protesters on social media.
What if recording our stories isn’t enough for people who don’t want to believe them?
My grandmother died a little more than a year after my father. I collected more of her stories, I recorded her existence neatly in my spiral notebook. I didn’t bring the photographs with me – I kept thinking I would do it next time, until the time had passed. The people in most of the photos remain unnamed, their connection to my grandmother – and to me – a mystery I won’t solve. But I accept that they are real, and that somewhere their families hold their stories as evidence that they happened.