Writing About Something Without Writing About It

A few years ago I came face to face with smoothly-delivered antisemitism aimed directly at me.

I was going to write about it. Write about how it felt then and how it feels now, how unreal it was. How isolating, terrifying, and paralyzing.

I was going to write about how the words were delivered, buttressed by tropes. Icy precision in measured tones. Direct. Unmistakable.

I was going to write how the topic incredulously went from disagreement about an inconsequential matter to calling out my Jewishness, which had absolutely nothing to do with the conversation.

I was going to write about how a stream of antisemitism was unleashed on me in private and turned off the second other people joined the table.

I was going to write about unctuous plausible deniability.

I was going to write about how it was the small in the whole and the whole in the small. It was everything that’s been roiling since forever, bubbling up more in recent years.

I was going to write about how I was shocked, barely able to stammer out a word or two in the brief pauses she took. How that made me, in the hours and days that followed, furious at myself.

But the details? Nope. Only a few broad strokes here and there. Trying to put into words without putting into words.

There’s something about being on the receiving ends of those experiences that welcomes a type of self-preservation that is both necessary and yet feels shameful. Personal lobs like this – even after a lifetime of experiencing and witnessing spittle-flecked hatred and learning to pay attention and being told to speak up – personal lobs plant their craggy roots into most tender spots. They are hard to eradicate. It’s not as easy as “calling it out.” Sunlight sometimes disinfects. Sometimes it encourages growth.

I’ve heard plenty of slurs, both overt and coded, over the years.

This was different. The line has tipped from “one person or one group of hate-filled kooks is making unsafe comments” to…something else. Something calmer and uglier. Something I’d incorrectly relegated to history, only still belched out by a handful of the uneducated, the hateful, the foolish who definitely lived in other places.

Those minutes spun me in a new direction, one where I walk confidently now. Now I would not stammer. Now I would stand up and leave, consequences be damned. Now I would use my voice differently, called up from the brave place even if my voice shakes. I’d trust that the right words would come.

As the saying goes, I did then what I knew how to do.

And yet, so did this person. And I don’t think she knows or does better now.

That’s the scariest thing of all.