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A Trump Thanksgiving

Who gets to be an American? This holiday weekend my mixed-up, Trump-voting family will try to answer that question.

New York Public Library

Like many Americans in families split by Donald Trump’s presidential victory, I have awaited Thanksgiving this year with a sense of dread. In the past, we could argue red-blue politics, agree to disagree on the Satanism of Rush Limbaugh, and then return to being a mixed-up, multi-stated, many-religioned, various-raced, modern-day family. These disagreements even added to the richness of the holiday. It felt good to have so many opposing views under one roof. No media bubble for me! This year, I knew, of course, that part of my extended family, who are related to me through my stepfather and live in Mississippi and Louisiana, would vote—happily, enthusiastically, angrily—for Trump, as they had for George W. Bush and against Barack Obama. But I was lulled by the polls into what proved to be a false sense of security. The reality of Trump’s win changes the dynamic. It’s hard to focus on turkey comas, supply-side economics, and “gratitude” when an entire swath of your family threw its lot in with a racist, misogynist, xenophobic, homophobic, anti-Muslim, and anti-Semitic bigot.

I have a somewhat complicated family. My parents grew up in New York in Jewish-immigrant families that had been driven from Russia and Germany. They had relatives who had died in the camps and the pogroms; my grandfather taught himself English by memorizing the dictionary. My father still lives in New York, but my mother, as I wrote about in a 2012 nonfiction book, moved with my brother and me to Mississippi when I was eight. Once there, in what could be considered either a historical irony or a radical response to Southern intolerance, she had us pretend not to be Jewish. I was sent to an Episcopal school, where I studied the Bible, sang in the choir, and deeply internalized the concept of cognitive dissonance.

My mother remarried when I was thirteen. My stepfather knew from the beginning that we were Jewish, but we never told the other members of his large and close-knit, conservative, Catholic family. My mother and stepfather converted to Episcopal for the wedding, but he remains essentially irreligious, and my mother, well, you can dress her up as goy, but the Jewish girl from Queens doesn’t wash off.

My stepfather’s family learned what we’d done only many years later, when I began publishing stories about our deception. They took the revelation of our religious identity in stride. I felt some discomfort with relatives who claimed to have “known it all along,” as this seemed to mean we acted Jewish, which was in some way connected to our being loud, combative, and short. But there were also mild rebukes: Why hadn’t we trusted them with our secret? What kind of people did we think they were?

That was a difficult question to answer. We didn’t really make a specific point of withholding the truth from them. But it’s also true that we didn’t trust them enough to confide in them. My mother’s decision to silence us was a mistake, one that only seems more relevant than ever today. It stems from a complicated—and, to me, tragic—conviction about who gets to be American, which I suppose effectively means white. There is a safety and acceptance that identity connotes, as well as an instinctive and deeply held fear that Jews can never truly be safe. “If you have a tumor, you cut it out,” my mother told me as I was writing the book. “Judaism was a tumor?” I asked. “Well, it can kill ya.”

Sure, fine. Yes, it can. It always has, and it always will. This is a fundamental part of being a Jew, whether or not it’s true in any given moment. I don’t feel physically threatened as a Jew in this country, and I never have. But it is ours to know, as it is for every minority and disenfranchised group in this country, and they know it only more clearly now that Trump has been elected. But it was wrong to hide. I am American because I am Jewish, just as an LGBTQ person is American for that reason, as well as a Muslim, and so on. To state that explicitly is to claim one’s rightful place in this country.

My stepfather is a powerful figure in my life, the equal and no less of my biological father. In another story, I wrote of what he signified to us: “He was American in a way that Jews like my mother—born of that postwar generation caught halfway between model minority and mainstream privilege—worshipped, envied, respected, and desperately wanted their children to become.”

And it is of Randy that I have been thinking since the election. When I thought of the forces of intolerance and hatred unleashed by Trump, and how people I knew dismissed it, I thought of him. When I explained to my six-year-old daughter, whom I’d brought to the polls with me, that there would be no “girl president,” I thought of him. When I read, in horror, that hate crimes against Muslims and mosques had increased 67 percent last year compared to the previous year, and that Jews were the most frequent victims of crimes based on religion, I thought of him. And, then, when a member of my stepfamily wrote on social media about “puppet masters” in the media, and another described his “whiteness” as something to be protected and valued and defended from outside threats, I thought of him. And finally, when I tried to imagine returning to Mississippi with my children, and it didn’t seem possible, at least not now, I thought of him.

I know, of course, that he is not responsible for these things, and I don’t want to paint my stepfamily as racist simply because they voted for Trump. (I don’t think my mother voted.) But a choice was made, by all of us, and we must give name to what was actually chosen and by whom. Maybe I’ll feel differently later, but for now, I’m not inclined to offer the benefit of the doubt.

I won’t be seeing any of these relatives on Thanksgiving. I’m here with my father’s family in New York. My mother and stepfather are with my older brother—who is even angrier about these matters than I am—in a Rust Belt state that didn’t vote Trump. The rest will be gathering in the South. I haven’t spoken to my stepfather or my mother since the election. I haven’t been ready. But I know what I need to say. All that time ago, we gave my stepfather our trust, and no one else, because we believed he deserved it. Everything that is right and permanent and worthwhile in our family flowed from that belief. The harsh truth is that we didn’t offer it to his relatives because we didn’t think we could. We weren’t sure what they would do with it. And now, my nuclear family, descended from Holocaust survivors, who lied in this country about our religion, have to decide, again, whether to trust people who cast a vote for a man who gives voice and validation to forces that don’t consider us one of them. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, but unlike in the past, not one I’m going to keep to myself.