Layla-Saad

“The giving season is over”

Flipping around the car radio,
these five words caught my ear.
I’d like to think there was more to it,
we’re not always privy to context.
Benefit of the doubt says
sometimes we’re moving too fast
to hear the rest, missing the crucial
thing that was said just after,
not seeing how it turned out,
that sad phrase, that tense moment,
that terse exchange you glimpsed
in passing.

But benefit of the doubt is tired.
It’s so tired. It’s tired and it’s pissed
that we’re living in a time and place
where context is too smart
for the powers that be, where
to listen deeply is laughable,
something only elitists do,
where our so-called president
calls Haiti and the entire African continent
“shithole countries,” suggesting we open
our doors to more Norwegians instead.
American, Aryan — splitting blonde hairs
of wholesome, pure specimens of superiority.

The giving season is over.
There is only taking now.
Taking land, taking language, taking health
care, taking names, taking neighborhoods,
taking schools, taking deep breaths
to keep ourselves sane while they take
and take take take, taking turns
with shallow apologies, taking families,
taking compassion, taking humanity,
taking intelligence, taking diplomacy,
taking kindness, taking depth, taking
whatever they want, like they always have,
and spitting in the faces
of anyone who doesn’t look like them
or come when they call.

Angry? Yes. I’m angry.
Am I frightened? Beneath everything, yes.
The giving season is over —
I heard it myself today on the radio.
My own dark curls and speckled eyes
don’t fit the profile, though I can hide
behind my rosy cheeks and pale skin.
Mind goes to trains, ships, all the methods
of death transport by the millions.
Bodies that don’t conform, minds that don’t
conform, families that don’t conform,
art that doesn’t conform, leaders
who come in so many forms confronting
daily a thousand small atrocities adding
up to something like genocide,
something like ethnic cleansing,
something like eugenics, something like
the most sinister tactics of decimation
history has seen.

Here we are again, in this place where
the giving season buckles under the weight
of so much taking.
I want to say: Rest, let me carry something
of yours here, let me take your weight
for a moment, don’t let them break you.
Instead, I wonder how long I can hold on
before the ugliness starts to ruin me.
I say I won’t let that happen.
And I wonder if it’s true.

Layla-Saad

The Intersection of Jewishness + Whiteness


The discussion of the intersection of Jewishness and whiteness is one I’ve been having for decades in many different contexts, and I imagine it will continue to occupy my mind and heart for the rest of my life.

One thing that has never wavered is the acknowledgement and full recognition and naming of the fact that as a Jew, I can choose whether to conceal or reveal my Jewish identity, just as I can with my sexual orientation. I can gauge a situation, setting, vibe, etc. and determine how safe I feel. People of color of no such option. There is nothing to debate here.

So there is zero question, for me, about white privilege and that being first and foremost the fundamental issue our country is seeing the inevitable outcome of today — the fact that our (and I say OUR, as Americans) collective identity is rooted in genocide, slavery, and white supremacy in ways that continue to go unacknowledged and unchecked, with unquestionably devastating impact on people of color. Antisemitism is also alive and well and that, too, is woven into our country’s history.

Antisemitism is important to raise as a point of awareness and attention if you look at the language and beliefs of white supremacists and the history of a people that has endured and survived thousands of years of expulsions and genocides. As a people, these live not only in memory and history but in the lifetime of our grandparents, genocide at the hands of those whose vile beliefs have been kept alive and revived by the people we’re now seeing empowered to come out of hiding by the current political climate and “leaders.”

I cannot see and hear men — and women, mind you — with burning torches chanting “Jews will not replace us” without feeling alarmed and chilled.

Also imperative to note: NOT ALL JEWS ARE WHITE.

As a white, Jewish woman, do I benefit from the systems of oppression? Yes. Do I feel the need to protect myself as a Jew, as well? Yes. Do I feel the need to use the privilege I have as a white person to further the work of anti-racism? Also, yes — and not only as an individual need or choice but as an obligation and embodiment of living Jewish values. So many things are true at the same time, and personally, my Jewishness serves to strengthen my commitment to racial justice, not in any way diminish, dilute, or whitewash it.

My Jewish identity is inseparable for me from my voice as a writer, an activist, a mother, and an ally to the Black Lives Matter movement. This probably goes without saying, but feels important to articulate tonight.

As Rabbi Hillel said in the 1st century: “”If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?”


One thing that keeps going through my head is that we have no leader. No single person to whom we can turn for reassurance or guidance or instructions or context. There’s no sitting around the radio, listening with heads bowed. No single steady voice. (Maybe this has never been the way and is simply a warped form of false nostalgia? Or actual nostalgia for #44.)

What we do have may be what we’ve always had: Communities large and small around the country, organizing. The voices of those who’ve been talking, writing, studying, facilitating, and educating about racism for decades, standing on the shoulders of the ones before them.

And there is us. Us includes you. We all have to step into leadership here, in whatever ways we can. What this looks in our real lives is something those of us who have any semblance of privilege need to be addressing. Don’t think big. Think concrete. Think today. Think one thing at a time.

I know many of you have been doing this your whole lives. Many of you have devoted your careers to this work and risked your livelihoods, relationships, and bodies every singe day by speaking out. For many Americans, every single day is an act of resistance, just leaving the house. Thank you. I see you and my respect runs deep.

I’m addressing those of us who have looked to someone else to do it. Now would be a good time to be that someone else — yourself.

Layla-Saad

14/30 Poems in November: Refuge

woods
The woods haven’t always
welcomed me but today
they did.

Strangers haven’t always
greeted me kindly but today
they smiled hello.

Once, I would have been afraid
of this hiding place.
Today, I sought it out.

Once, I’d have been terrified
of dogs running
in my direction.

Today, I opened my hands
to their tongues,
stroked their heads.

In another lifetime,
I fled to the woods
for survival.

I failed
to save my child,
my sister. Never again.

Today, once again,
the woods were refuge,
now of a different sort.

A place to touch
into peace. A refusal.
A pause. A quiet roar.

14/30

**

Donate to my efforts to support the Center For New Americans in Northampton, MA: I’m halfway to my $500 fundraising goal and every bit helps.

Layla-Saad

Summer Reading :: In Memory of Elie Wiesel

Auschwitz-Birkenau-Börner

I placed a copy of Night on my teenager’s desk.
Summer reading, I said.
You mean I have to read it?

Quick parenting decision – split-second judgment call.
No, I told her, not wanting to be the hand
that forces eyes open. But.

It’s a hard book but an important book. 
Back to the kitchen to finish cooking us dinner.
It will change your life, I called back.

Will she read it? Fourteen in a few months.
Also a Libra like she is, Elie Wiesel was fifteen
when he arrived at Auschwitz.

I was fifteen the summer I spent
in Spain. Only a few photos remain from that trip,
including a swastika on a brick wall in Toledo.

Sixteen when I first read Night.
Mark Gerstein’s Holocaust class, the one when
I dreamed of basements and lost babies.

In every generation, may there be movement.
“I marvel at the resilience of the Jewish people…
No other people has such an obsession with memory.”

And so I see myself
placing this paperback on her desk.
Resilience. Obsession. Memory. My people. Her people.

We all have to find our people
in this world. Maybe this is what I’m trying to say
to her without telling her a thing,

without sliding into parental lecture,
the kind she’s come to expect from me.
All that time I thought she was glazing over

until she did her final seventh-grade project
about why she’s a feminist.
That’s when I realized

she’s paying attention.
The book might sit there untouched
for months, or she may crack it open

and come to us in tears some July night,
scared or sad or both, asking why and how.
I worry sometimes that so many Buzzfeed headlines

without substance, click click click,
one awful story after another, kids growing up
with a Trump presidency an actual real thing

will have the opposite effect
and instead of galvanizing will numb
and dilute the impact of so much death and hatred.

Where is the balance between providing comfort
and not cocooning our children
inside privilege that perpetuates injustice?

I placed the book on her desk, then came here
to write a poem. To listen into the night,
the night with its millions of voices,

the voices that began climbing out my mouth
was I was her age, his age, this age,
in the age of awakening, the age of rage

and poetry and never forget and never again,
the age when I began choking on the voices
and losing my own,

the age of doing what I can as a Jewish mother
to make sure she knows that her voice
is both the most and least important,

both her sword and her mother line,
hers to toss back in time and throw to the night
to see what ghosts catch and return it

in the call and response that’s been
singing itself to sleep for centuries
and will keep doing so, unresting

until we’ve circled back to all the lives,
all the lives that couldn’t be saved the first time.
Waiting and waiting, in the world to come, for the living.

::

In Memory of Elie Wiesel, ז״ל
September 30, 1928 – July 2, 2016

Layla-Saad

We Were Strangers Once

half-mast
Almost exactly one year ago, same-sex marriage became legal nationwide. I know some LGBT folks were less than thrilled about this “mainstreaming” — as if by gaining the same rights as heterosexual couples, something vital was diluted or absorbed by convention. I disagreed; I want my cake and to eat it, too, thank you very much.

Something I keep coming back to since Sunday is this: We will always be other. No matter how equal by law, no matter how protected on paper, no matter how seemingly safe by virtue of geography or community, as a woman who loves — and is legally married to — another woman, as a woman who loves a genderqueer woman, as the mother of kids who may or may not identify as straight or use the bathroom of their biological gender, my family is other.

That means “other” is also my family.

I say this proudly, with grief, gravity, and most of all, love so big it doesn’t even know where to start. So today I am starting again right here, right now, refusing to feed or spread the disease of attacking each other’s other that’s eating us, collectively and individually, alive. I will not divide and conquer. I refuse to contribute to these knowingly — and hope not to unknowingly.

I don’t think I can read anything else Trump says. Like, ever. As Mani pointed out to me last night, what difference will it make?

People of color have seen these days before and continue to see them, live them, every single day — no matter “how far we’ve come.” Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people have seen these days before and still live them every day, no matter “how far we’ve come.” My Muslim friends are afraid, and with good reason.

So what can I do? What must I do?

I can and must remember that the Jewish people, my people, have seen these days before, and we must never ever forgot how the Holocaust happened. It happened like this.

I can and must take full responsibility for my own privilege as an educated white woman.

I can and must call senators and sign petitions and go to vigils.

I can and must hold space for people’s stories to coming pouring out without fear of judgment or repercussion.

I can and must say the victims’ names. Look at their faces. Read about who they were. And also make room to just be quiet — which is different from being silent. Families and loved ones are grieving amidst so much noise and chaos.

I can and must stop to smell the flowers, love my family near and far, welcome the stranger for we were strangers once, and write from an imperfect, searching heart.

That’s all I got.