What is a “White Jew?” (A Question with Import for Us All)

The faces of Arabs: Syrian Bedouins, 1893.

“You have the face of an Arab. Who is your father?”

The Egyptian shopkeeper dramatically put his hands on either side of my head, giving me a look of hawk-like scrutiny. I tan up pretty well, with a nose beaten slightly aquiline from boxing. I never thought of myself as looking Arab, but the more time I spent in Cairo, especially as my Arabic improved, the more I got mistaken for one. One of my professors asked if I had any Jordanian background. After chatting a few minutes with a waiter at a local restaurant, I mentioned I was American. “Oh,” he said in surprise. “I thought you were Lebanese.” I had a hell of a time renewing my visa once because the old lady processing my application was sure that I was actually a Syrian refugee with a fake American passport.

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Another Arab face: Nancy Ajram, Lebanese pop star (photo by Diana Farroukh).

I came to take a weird pride in being mistaken for Arab. Part of this was a feeling that studying Arabic was really paying off if I could pass, but another part was that it seemed to reaffirm a lifelong fascination with and sense of connection to the Middle East. My imagination has a tendency to treat time more like a wading pool than a stream. You can get in here in the 21st century, but slosh far enough in another direction and you could be in ancient Babylon, feudal Japan, the Aztec Empire. If I looked Arab, I could fit in Moorish Spain or caliphal Baghdad, which opened up all kinds of exciting alternate lives: Silk Road merchant, physician and alchemist, chainmail-garbed mamluk…Ethnicity is complex and hard to define, but a geek is a geek.

An Afro-Arab from the Congo, 1945. Yet a third Arab face.

I have no Lebanese, Jordanian, or Syrian ancestry. My mother is a 50/50 blend of Norwegian and German and my father is not an Arab, but an Ashkenazi Jew–that is, a descendant of the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe. Because many of us have a Mediterranean look, we had a family story that we were actually Sephardim (Spanish Jews), an idea I was also quite taken with until AncestryDNA dispelled it. If you even accept that I’m a Jew (which, by strict religious definitions, I’m not), I’m definitely a “white Jew.”

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A fourth “Arab face”: Muhammad Bin Salman, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. See where I’m going with this?

On June 22nd, which seems like years ago now, activist Shaun King tweeted that all depictions of Jesus as a white man should be torn down, arguing that such depictions were tools of white supremacy. I don’t know if Mr. King intended this sincerely or just as shitposting, but it was an idiotic and counterproductive thing to say. I’ll certainly agree that the image of a blond-haired, blue-eyed, Aryan Jesus has been used to push some heinous agendas, but the idea that we need to tear down the murals at the Hagia Sophia or burn, say, El Greco’s Christ Carrying the Cross because they depict fair-skinned, light-haired Christs strikes me as both a waste of time and resources in the urgent fight against structural racism and frankly a gross and censorious bonfire of the vanities, a destruction of art for not catering to our current social mores. If accuracy is the main concern, then Mr. King will surely support disposing of Chinese, Indian, and Sub-Saharan African-featured Christs as well, since they are no more likely to be accurate depictions of Jesus. Something tells me he would be as opposed to burning beautiful Ethiopian Orthodox depictions like the one below as I am.

*Annunciation, Ethiopien d’Abbadie 105*, fol. 5, (photo: Bibliothèque nationale de France).
A traditional Ethiopian depiction of Christ’s annunciation. Ethiopia was the second country on Earth (after Armenia) to adopt Christianity as its official religion, and it remains a majority Orthodox country (Source: Bibliotheque Nationale de France)

Mr. King’s tweets were founded on the inaccurate belief that our current ideas of race have always existed. The idea that the Holy Family fled to Egypt (evidence of perfidy in all white depictions of Jesus) says very little about Christ’s appearance. There was a large and well-established community of Hellenized Jews living in Alexandria, which was already a melting-pot and crossroads between three continents long before the Romans arrived. If we’re honest—and even most Evangelicals I’ve met have been—then we must admit that whatever Jesus may have looked like, he probably would have gotten extra attention at airport security.

But what Jesus looked like doesn’t concern me much. So why am I bringing up a two-month old tweet which has already been digested by our provocation-outrage-amnesia media cycle? Because whether he intended to or not, Mr. King tapped into an ongoing discussion of how to parse Jewish identity which has deep implications about how we parse race as a whole.

Computer generated image from Son of God TV series
Forensic anthropologist Richard Neave’s recreation of what an average Galilean man might look like at the time of Christ, based off an actual skull (Source: The BBC).

“Who is an Arab?” is as fraught a question as “Who is a Jew?” and depending on who you ask is best determined by ancestry, language, religion, political identity, or some combination of the above. I work for Egyptian Muslims, but when I’ve referred to them as Arabs, they’ve always corrected me. “We’re not Arabs; we’re Egyptians. Arabs are people from the Gulf.” Many Lebanese Christians will tell you they’re Phoenician. Morocco sits, often uneasily, between an Arab and Berber identity. Many Mizrahi Jewish communities have been described both as “Jewish Arabs” and “Arabic-speaking Jews.” A divide has been drawn in our racial shouting match between “white Jews” (Ashkenazim) and “Jews of Colour.”

One of the “Beta Israel” from Ethiopia–an undeniably black Jew. (Source)

To be sure, there are pale-skinned Jews and very dark Jews. Nobody would deny that the Ethiopian Jew pictured above is black. Too, there are converts of color, like Michael Twitty, a fascinating scholar of food history who has the unenviable lot of being gay, black, and a convert to Modern Orthodox Judaism in Trump’s America. So where does the line get drawn?

Linda Sarsour
Linda Sarsour (Source: The ACLU)

As the pictures above demonstrate, there are black Arabs and blond Arabs and all shades in between. But I’d bet a night of beers if you went into the street and asked ten people if Arabs are white, at least nine would say no. A good chunk of that could be how ignorant most Americans are about the Middle East, but Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour herself said that if she didn’t wear a hijab, nobody would think she was anything but another white girl. I doubt many people seeing her fellow Palestinian rights activist Ahed Tamimi would call her a “person of color” on sight alone—not with those blond locks and green eyes. But I also doubt many people on the left would be comfortable with me calling Linda Sarsour or Ahed Tamimi “white,” and therein lies the crux of the issue.

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Ahed Tamimi, Palestinian activist (Source: By Ggia – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=71832413).

“Are Jews white?” is a much-vexed question which reveals more about the pitfalls of our conception of race than the ethnic status of Jews. The “yes” camp will issue lengthy privilege confessionals. The “no” camp will compile charts of famous Ashkenazim who look swarthy and Mediterranean. The “yes” camp will (rightly) call attention to the problem of color-based racism in the Jewish community. The “no” camp will (rightly) point to multiple genetic studies linking Ashkenazim both to other Jewish groups and to other Levantine groups more broadly—including Lebanese and Palestinians.

Ashkenazim with stereotypically Middle Eastern features (Source: Times of Israel).

There’s a tortured quality to the debate, as well as a Talmudic particularity. Both sides make good points, but both also overstate their cases. To the “yes” camp, anti-Semitism exists, but it’s background noise in the world of bigotry, really only dangerous when it’s coming from somebody like David Duke. Antisemitism from black voices, like Louis Farrakhan, gets an uncomfortable silence or justifications about tensions between black tenants and Jewish landlords. Tamika Mallory said some bigoted things, yes, but why are we white people trying to silence a strong black woman, even if she’s repeating blood libels about the enemies of Jesus?

To the “no” camp, Ashkenazim are POCs full-on, the equivalent of light-skinned black people, and questioning their POC status is de facto antisemitism. Somebody like Seth Rogan may be white-passing, but he’s really a Middle Eastern victim of colonialism, just like an Algerian under French rule, but without even the benefit of having Algeria beneath his feet. The same “Jewish” features that fueled an industry worth of nose jobs a generation ago are now advertised and pointed to as proof of the bloodline, a kosher version of “Black is Beautiful.”

Seth Rogen

Kirk Douglas in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)

Scarlett Johansson

Lucille Ball and Harpo Marx in I Love Lucy (1951)
And some more stereotypically European-looking Ashkenazim (Top to Bottom: Seth Rogen, Kirk Douglas, Scarlett Johansson, and Harpo Marx) (Source: IMDB)

It’s a ridiculously Jewish argument, but it’s also demonstrative of the ways in which we fail to understand the ultimate fiction of race on a broader level. Face of an Arab or no, I am not a person of color. The only time I’ve ever been profiled by a government official was that crabby Egyptian lady who didn’t want to renew my visa, and if I’m pulled over, I’d bet you my worldly holdings the cop will let me go without so much as raising his voice.

But I told people I was a Lebanese Catholic in Egypt because while on the whole Egyptians are tolerant, hospitable, and unfailingly kind people, you can also find Arabic copies of Protocols of the Elders of Zion being sold openly in mainstream bookstores (the FBI recently shared a link to it as well, to any Jews who truly think the Trump regime has your back). While many Egyptians readily distinguish between Jews as a people and the State of Israel, I heard enough casual Holocaust denial and Jewish world government conspiracy theories that discretion seemed the better part of valor. And on this side of the Atlantic, something tells me that if I was accosted by a gang of neo-Nazis, “It’s okay guys—I have white privilege!” wouldn’t get me far.

To downplay the complexities of prejudice is to miss its fundamental insidiousness. That’s one reason it’s so hard to convince your average person that while it’s great that they would never say the n-word, going out of your way to tell the random black guy you just met how much you liked Roots is still seeing him in terms of his race rather than his individuality. Critical race theory’s insistence that the world can be broken down into racist White oppressors and blameless (and often implicitly helpless) Black and Brown oppressed denies these complexities, and in so doing buys into the illogical fiction that is the foundation of our very idea of race to begin with. The case of “white Jews” is where that illogic stands in stark relief.

If Linda Sarsour and Ahed Tamimi are people of color, then why isn’t, say, Mila Kunis? If I can pass for Arab among Arabs, but I’m really half Ashkenazi and half Northern European, then can we categorically define Arabs as people of color (as Palestiniain-American comedian Amer Zahr suggests in his thought-provoking documentary, We’re Not White)? If the answer is that Sarsour and Tamimi come from a historically marginalized people, well, do I really need to make the obvious rebuttal? I ask these questions not to define myself or any other Ashkenazi Jew, but because a large part of meaningfully challenging structural racism is questioning the very definition of race it has bequeathed us.

Phenotype is a notoriously unreliable predictor of ancestry–just ask Iron Eyes Cody, the Cherokee/Cree actor from the famous “crying Indian” anti-littering commercial who managed the impressive trick of being born to Sicilian parents with no Native ancestry. Or Hessy Levinsons Taft, Jewish winner (picked by Goebbels himself) of a contest to find Nazi Germany’s most perfectly Aryan baby. Or Wehrmacht poster-soldier Werner Goldberg, who inconveniently happened to be the son of a Jewish father. One of my best friends from college is a Protestant-raised Scots-Irish guy whose black hair and glasses get him mistaken for Jewish pretty frequently. Shit, because he was short and dark-haired, people thought the same thing about my 100% Norwegian grandfather.

A “Casta” chart from colonial Latin America showing the results of various racial mixtures. This is the source of terms like mestizo and mulatto and a blueprint for our flawed modern conception of color-based racism.

You may be wondering why you should give a fuck about any of this if you aren’t Jewish. To answer that, I refer you to the chart above. While color-based racism has existed from time immemorial, it wasn’t a big part of the medieval worldview, where prejudices were based along religious lines. To a medieval Catholic, the Kingdom of Prester John (based off medieval Ethiopia or the Nestorian Christians of Asia, depending on what source you consult) was a sort of Christian Atlantis. Arabs (or “Saracens”) weren’t bad by virtue of ethnicity, but because they were Muslims. Incidentally, while you were generally better off being a Christian or Jew under Islamic rulership than a Jew or a Muslim under Christians, fundamentalist Muslim rulers like the Almohads were perfectly willing to persecute Jews and Christians. It doesn’t take Western Christianity to be an asshole.

Color-coded racism really got its start when Europeans began to colonize the New World. Black African slaves were brought over specifically because they stood out from the local Indigenous populations by virtue of their skin color, making it harder to run away. They ran away anyway, of course, and in some places founded their own autonomous communitiesCasta and other systems like it codified these purported racial differences to justify the colonial power structure.

A major problem with how we address the issue of race today is that we treat this color-coded system as though it has some validity or truth to it. In fact, “whiteness” has grown and shrunk over the centuries. Arabs were once considered comprehensively white–hence their inclusion under “Caucasian” in our census, while Irish people were not (“smoked Irishman” used to be a slur for blacks). There was a court case (apologies, I don’t have the reference at the moment) in which a Japanese-American argued that he should be classified as white, given his pale skin. “White” is a socioeconomic category tenuously tied to ethnicity, not a scientific category we should continue to enshrine–as the insistence that world can be grouped into colonizing whites and colonized BIPOC (Black/Indigenous/POC) populations holds. Discussing this recently with my mother, who has a PhD in colonial history, she mentioned that even Thomas Jefferson admitted that the problem with dividing people by skin color is that there’s usually somebody paler than the people doing the dividing.

What I argue for isn’t colorblindness (a denial of the fact that these categories existed or a refusal to recognize the immense harm they’ve done) but a recognition that they ultimately mean nothing and a subsequent dismantling of our entire societal understanding of race. A big job, but who said fighting racism wasn’t? The current, putatively anti-racist model, a culture of guilty white people infantilizing BIPOC, isn’t doing this–to say the least.

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Me with my departed dog Bruce in 2015 (his body was bichon, his soul was dire wolf). You can tell what a Semitic day it was by his aggressive Jewfro.

And given the unique position of Jews in this entire equation, I believe we should take the lead in this discussion. I can pass for Levantine because I am of partial Levantine descent descent, a genetic cousin of Lebanese and Syrians.* But so are Scarlett Johansson and Seth Rogen. So are we or aren’t we white?

Sorry, but you’re asking the wrong question.

*Jews and Arabs of various nationalities are often referred to as being “Semites,” but this is an incorrect usage of the term. “Semitic” is really a linguistic classification. Living Semitic languages include Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, Amharic (spoken in Ethiopia), Tigrinya (spoken in Eritrea), and Maltese (which is so close to Arabic that I suspect it’s only considered its own language since Malta was long a Christian outpost against Islam). Extinct Semitic languages include Phoenician, Babylonian, Akkadian, and many others.

Thoughts on Unorthodox

I watched Unorthodox on Netflix, the based-on-a-true-story account of a young woman who escapes from the insular and strict Satmar sect of Hasidic Judaism–a group of Ultra-Orthodox “dynasties” whose iconic look is what many think of when the words “observant Jew” come to mind.
Hasidic Jews (Photo Credit)
I thought Unorthodox was a well-acted but pretty average “person-who-doesn’t-fit-in-escapes-from-restrictive-religious-community” story. The Hasidim are universally repressive, insular, and often cruel to the heroine Esty, who dreams of becoming a professional musician–a very unseemly ambition for a good Jewish housewife in the Satmar world–so she runs away to Germany. I didn’t find Unorthodox as compelling as those who loved it or as offensive as those who hated it. Indeed, more interesting than the miniseries itself is the sudden interest it has created in Hasidic Judaism.
I’ve encountered Hasidim on a few occasions, though from the Chabad Lubavitch dynasty rather than Satmar. Being the product of patrilineal intermarriage, my relationship with Jewish identity has often been an uneasy one. We lit candles on Hanukkah, had Passover seders, ate matzo and latkes, and learned how to swear in Yiddish. My upbringing was decently Jewish, culturally. But for all I’ve come to embrace it as I’ve gotten older–and felt more comfortable doing so–the identification was often discouraged when I was younger. After all, you only count as a Jew if your mother was a Jew. So I heard frequently from family and non-relatives alike. For reasons I’ve often had trouble articulating, this arbitrary rule caused me much pain. The door had been opened, and then it had been shut.
I have a cousin who joined Chabad Lubavitch when she was in her late twenties and railed to my intermarried father about “the blight of inter-faith marriage”–one of the greatest threats against replenishing “the 6 million,” as Esty’s family describes the Jews killed in the Holocaust. My cousin shaves her head, she cranks out children (I think she’s up to 10 now, though I haven’t talked to her decades), and is generally the kind of woman Esty’s family wants her to be.
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For her attitudes, I called her a bitch and a cunt and a fanatic when she came up in family conversation. I’m not sure she even remembers if I exist, but she became a symbol for all the hurt I felt at being told I didn’t count. That’s probably not fair, but I don’t especially regret any of the things I said about her either. One of my flaws is a terrier-like unwillingness to let go when I decide I’m angry at someone, and I read my cousin’s views onto all of Hasidism, then all of the rabbinate, then at some point, Judaism generally. Though our experiences were quite different, I could sympathize with Esty’s feeling of being an outsider, rejected because her lesbian mother left the Satmar community. I understood her disaffection with a tribe she never asked to be affiliated with. I wasn’t a Jewish anti-Semite, but I held an animosity no Gentile could get away with.
When I finally did take an Introduction to Judaism course sponsored by a consortium of local synagogues, I was a flagrantly heretical student. I pitched this as “beta-testing Judaism,” but in many ways it was more of a subtle demand for a reckoning: Most of you believe as little as I do, and know less about the history and culture of the Tribe. Why do you get to be a part of this and I’m just a bastard? But I discovered something interesting.
The Reform rabbis of Denver’s Temple Emanuel were incredibly welcoming, but the ones who most appreciated my attitude were the Orthodox rabbis. They liked that I spoke up in class, asked the questions that verged on blasphemy. “Why don’t patrilineal Jews count?” I asked a Modern Orthodox rabbi. “That’s not a rule in the Jewish Bible.”
portrait of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson wearing a black hat
Menachem Mendel Schneerson, one of the most famous rabbis of Chabad Lubavitch. (Photo Credit)
“It’s in the Oral Torah,” he said. He had been the funniest and most engaging of the rabbis so far, talking about his taste in whiskey and drawing parallels between Jewish law and Game of Thrones. I kind of liked him for all I viewed him as The Enemy.
“So we’re like the Jon Snows of Judaism,” I said, expecting a party-line “thanks for playing but you lose” sort of answer.
He smiled and said, “I guess you could say that.”
But the one who I remember best was the Chabad rabbi who came to teach us about the Talmud. He looked like an extra from Unorthodox–black suit, black fedora, peyot sidecurls, bushy, wizard-like beard. He’d split his time growing up between Williamsburg (where Esty lives in the show) and Sydney, Australia, and his accent blended Brooklyn Yiddish with Down Under Aussie. He was the funniest of all. Good-natured and philosophical, he made what I expected to be one of the most boring classes into one of the most fascinating, and I told him so afterwards.
“Rabbi, my Mom’s not Jewish, so I know I don’t count in your system, but thanks for a really interesting class.”
He gave me a very kind look and replied, “You may not count in my Judaism, but what does yours say?”
I don’t know if you’ve ever had a moment where you completely re-examined a long-term, deeply-held prejudice, but that was mine. I shook his hand and walked towards my car, tears in my eyes.
A group shot of actors from the Netflix series Unorthodox (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
And that, for me, is where Unorthodox fails. A younger Hunter would have cheered on its depiction of rigid and intolerant Hasidim and the bitchy Israeli woman, alone among Esty’s newfound friends in Germany, who tells her she’ll never realize her dream of being a musician. Of course they rejected you, Esty–that’s what Judaism does to people.
But a younger Hunter was schooled enough in anthropology and the complexity of human beings that he should have known better, should have been fairer. I wish Unorthodox had been as well.

Cutting It Off

Facing the prospect of looking like a vagabond or giving myself a shitty quarantine bowlcut, I decided to just shave my head and be done with it. I’ve had variations on the same haircut–short and gelled–all my adolescent and adult life, so this was quite a change, but the past few years of my life have been all about making changes and breaks from what came before, and, on a more practical level, I wanted to make sure I can pull it off in case I needed to.

“You look like a balding Italian guy.”

Not the kindest way for my ex-wife to put it, but no less true for that. It was 2015. I was overweight, depressed off my ass, and still trying to slick my hair back. I hadn’t considered the possibility that I would go bald. After all, my Mom’s side of the family is made up of thick-haired Norwegians and Germans, so I never worried about it. I discovered this was an urban legend when, looking in the mirror, I realized my hairline had slowly but perceptibly receded. I didn’t have the hair island atop my forehead yet, but you could see where things got shallow before meeting the mainland. When my hair got wet, it was even more noticeable.

85% of men show some degree of hair loss over the course of their lives, and whole industries are devoted to remedying that. Being a concrete symbol of aging, it’s the subject of much fear and angst on the part of men, though there’s no real cure for male-pattern baldness. After the divorce, as I headed out into the dating world, I felt that anxiety. Thick, dark hair is one of my best features! I thought. Was I headed towards resembling some of the oilfield guys I knew, with the Homer Simpson look? What would I do? Every time I got a haircut, I asked my barber if things were getting better or worse, and to her credit, she never blew smoke up my ass by saying better. Finally I decided that when and if I did really start to go bald, I’d just shave it. Shit, it works for Jason Statham. I’m no Jason Statham, but I started to wonder if I could pull it off.

Jason Statham and Rose Huntington-Whitely list LA home for $9M ...
Hope incarnate.

Of all the inconveniences of quarantine, haircuts are mentioned surprisingly often. Or perhaps it’s not surprising. After all, extraordinary changes are often felt as much (or more) in the little things. Most of us have consigned ourselves to the reality that we will have to cut our own hair (or have someone we live with do it), and an increasing number of folks, men and women both, have taken to completely shaving their heads. What can I say? I was curious. Standing in front of the mirror, beard trimmer in hand, I decided to take the plunge. It took me about an hour, and I cut the back of my neck, though not badly. But there I was at the end, a stubbly bald with a shaggy quarantine beard.

The Rock | Pro Wrestling | Fandom
Seriously, his neck is bigger than my torso. 

The social and symbolic connotations of baldness are interesting. A much-cited study found that men who were going bald but did not shave their heads were perceived as weak, but men who went ahead and shaved were seen as more dominant, confident, and masculine, though slightly less attractive than men with hair. Historically and fictionally, we’ve viewed baldness as a symbol of impotence–just look at Samson. But it’s not quite that simple.

Hunter S. Thompson's 'Freak Power' Campaign To Become The Sheriff ...
The good Doctor himself.

Baldness can signify a rejection of the social order. This may be religious; monks both Buddhist and Christian shave part or all of their heads as a symbol of their vows. But it could just as well connote madness or evil. In both Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness and its film adaptation Apocalypse Now, the villain Kurtz’s baldness is treated as a sign of his insanity. As Conrad puts it, “And the lofty frontal bone of Mr. Kurtz! They say the hair goes on growing sometimes, but this—ah—specimen, was impressively bald. The wilderness had patted him on the head, and, behold, it was like a ball—an ivory ball; it had caressed him, and—lo!—he had withered; it had taken him, loved him, embraced him, got into his veins, consumed his flesh, and sealed his soul to its own by the inconceivable ceremonies of some devilish initiation.” To this we might add Walter White from Breaking Bad, or, on the real-life end of things, Hunter S. Thompson, who wasn’t a villain but was undeniably pretty fucking crazy.

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A Quachic warrior of the Aztec Empire.

But, paradoxically, baldness can also symbolize strength, authority, and a warrior spirit. The greatest Aztec soldiers were the Quachic, or “Shorn Ones,” Mexican berserkers who shaved their entire heads except for a strip of hair in the center, like a mohawk. Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) warriors went almost entirely bald except for a scalp lock. Shaolin monks. Our modern military. The Rock. On the fictional side of things, Mike Erhmantraut (Jonathan Banks) of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul and Bjorn Ironside (Alexander Ludwig) as portrayed in Vikings. In my immediate reality, a good half of the guys I box with.

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Me; not the Rock or Jason Statham or an elite Aztec warrior.

I was a bit anxious to post photos of myself after shaving my head, but the response was generally positive, if surprised. The consensus seems to be that it makes me look older but tougher, which is a trade-off I’ll take. The most unflattering review has been that I look like “a morose Portuguese sailor,” which is still better than “balding Italian guy” (ironically, I’m neither Portuguese nor Italian).

A piece in The Cut interviewed 17 of the people who shaved their heads in quarantine, and all said they didn’t regret doing so, with many attesting that it was a freeing experience. For men, it was a way to better express their masculinity. For women, it was a challenge to traditional gender roles. Many said they planned to keep shaving after quarantine ends. I may be one of the latter, because this has been freeing. I never realized how much anxiety I put into my hair, or how much I perceived it as a ticking-clock symbol of vanishing youth. It turns out there’s life after hair. Just ask Jason Statham.

Only for an Instant: A Meditation

We all react differently to fear. The best reaction is to remain clearheaded, rational, and ready for the object of your fears to wreak its influence. Most of us can reach down into that well and pull some of that courage up if we really need it in a moment of sudden crisis, but keeping it going is a different matter.
I think a lot about what it means to be courageous, and the different forms of courage that exist: physical, psychological, moral, etc. I would love to tell you that I’m clearheaded and rational through all this, keeping calm and carrying on, but I’m often not. I can push down stress and fear, but it usually ends up resurfacing, generally in the form of anger or fatalism.
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Denial, panic, rage, or chemicals: what unhealthy coping mechanisms will you adopt as we stare eye to triangular appendage with the koosh ball of death?
Neither reaction is uncommon, but the anger can be sudden and even a little scary to me. I read about a 68 year-old couple who took Trump at his word regarding chloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19 and, not knowing that this was hydrochloroquine (for malaria), ate chloroquine phosphate tablets used to clean fish tanks. The husband died. The wife remains in critical condition at a hospital, admitting that she shouldn’t have trusted a president who lies as easily as he breathes.
“Fuck those stupid pieces of shit,” I fumed to a friend. “They should toss his body and her dumb bitch-ass out with the garbage. People who aren’t idiots will need those hospital beds.”
That’s vicious. This was, after all, a scared couple looking to a leader (no matter how deeply unqualified) for a safe way out of all this. People do illogical and dumb things when they’re afraid. Given that we’re all afraid right now (whether we want to admit it or not), and most of us are coping with it in some way that is more emotional than logical (whether we want to admit it or not), I should have some empathy, but I don’t want to and I don’t particularly feel like apologizing for it.
Because that poor, stupid couple became a microcosm for everything that infuriates me about this entire situation–all the ignorance, greed, excuse-making, whataboutism, self-righteousness, and willful blindness of a society that can’t even agree that vaccines are a good thing, evolution is a fact, and recognition of common humanity is more important than scoring political points. I don’t care if that’s a bad look. On a radically, brutally, honest level, that’s why I’m telling you. Revenge may be a dish best served cold, but anger is most savory as a communal feast. Dig the fuck in, kids.
But the fatalism runs deeper, and is equally primal. This past Wednesday, I felt very shaky. I could barely sit up straight, and I felt like I couldn’t pull enough air into my lungs. I felt a slight chill and hints of nausea on top of that. I put on a sweatshirt and lay down on my bed, feeling the room spin. This is it, I thought. This is where it begins.
I’m 37, healthy, and in good shape, so I figured I’d probably survive, but I also began to consider the possibility that this was going to be a fatal case of coronavirus, and in a week I would be dead. I considered all the things I hadn’t done, all the places I’d never been, presuming that I had all the time in the world. I began thinking about the fundamental intertwining of death and life, something American culture has never been comfortable with, my arrogant faith that I would live long enough to do something important. I realized I had no control over the situation, and had tried my best. Could I fight through it? I didn’t know, and all I could do was try to persist.
Mictlantecuhtli back-to-back with Ehecatl,
From the Oaxacan Codex Borgia, the death god Mictlantecuhtli and the wind god Ehecatl–death and life, back to back. Mexicans were always better at accepting this stuff than gringos.
My memento mori inner monologue had just gotten to the point where I thought it would be neat if somebody in skull facepaint lit ofrenda candles for me next Dia de los Muertos when was interrupted by two realizations: 1) I was transitioning off the keto diet, and 2) anxiety can make you shaky and give you trouble breathing. No fever and no coughing. By God, it looked like I was going to pull through.
I still hope whenever I DO die that somebody will light ofrenda candles for me on Dia de los Muertos. I’m a creature of my interests, after all, even when facing my own mortality.
And perhaps I’m a bit too dramatic for my own good.
Seriously, though–any takers? (Photo by Paolaricaurte)
People I’ve talked to who have been to prison say that you have a lot of time to really think about yourself, your life, and the choices you made that got you to the present point. Social distancing is hardly prison (I’m guessing even Club Fed won’t let you have Netflix and a Steam account) but I have–we all have–plenty of time to think and reflect.
I’ve got as many flaws as anybody else and probably more, but I think I’m pretty good at extracting positive lessons from bad situations, and for all my anger and fatalism and the fear underneath it, being here, now, in this uncertain time makes me realize that perhaps I prioritize the wrong things.
Like how my reputation as a writer (“the voice of his generation!”) is worthless shit compared to creating stories that people care about. Being a darling of the critics and academics is a brief thing influenced as much by fashion and politics as innate quality. People who write about humanoid rats and gunslinging necromancers don’t generally become voices of their generation anyway.
Or how if I were to catch coronavirus and become one of the mushrooming number of deaths resulting from it around the globe, in my final moments I would regret never having another boxing match and never seeing Tikal or Angkor Wat far more than not being debt-free. When I can finally get out of here (and we must each of us presume when rather than if), I should make it a point to go places I’ve always wanted to see and do things I’ve always wanted to do.
Tikal Temple1 2006 08 11.JPG
A wise adult investment (Photo by Raymond Ostertag).
There’s a poem by the Aztec king Fasting Coyote that beautifully and rather hauntingly sums up the sort of thoughts I think many of us are having right now. I can’t remember the exact translation, but it goes something like this:
Even jade will crush. Even gold will melt. Even quetzal plumes will tear. Not forever are we on this earth; for only an instant do we endure.
Use it well.

Love & Wolfskins

Before Hallmark, Valentine’s Day was a Christian substitute for a Roman holiday called Lupercalia, a fertility festival in which men and women would run around flogging each other with wolf hides. Over the course of 1500 years, give or take, this S&M-laced orgy became our present-day cards ‘n’ chocolates obligation/celebration. I’m sure there are some couples out there keeping up the old traditions. Good for you.

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More exciting than Godiva and a dozen roses–admit it.

I always liked wolves. My Hebrew name, Zev, means “wolf,” and they were Odin’s beasts, which my imagination warped into an ancestral, totemic, Hebrew Norse connection. They’re social, loyal, and loving with each other, but they’ll also tear your fucking throat out if you threaten them or the other wolves they care about. There’s something I like about that.

I matched with a woman once on a dating app because I mentioned drinking mead in my profile. Her: “When you drink mead, doesn’t it give you the intoxicating feeling that you’re saving the bees?!?” Me: “Nah, that’s just an added bonus. Mead gives me the intoxicating feeling that if I were drinking it 1,000 years earlier, I’d be dancing around giant wooden statues of the Viking gods wearing a wolfskin and painted with woad.” The ancient Norse didn’t paint themselves with woad, but I figured that would be a lot less creepy than saying “wearing a wolfskin and painted with sacrificial blood,” which is probably more likely. She didn’t text me back. I didn’t care. If you can’t handle me in wolfskin and woad, you don’t deserve me in business casual over cocktails.

Valentine’s Day seems to annoy a lot of people, single and coupled. I don’t really get this, because I find that it’s actually quite easy to ignore. It’s never been great in any relationship I’ve been in (sometimes it’s been downright awful). But alone? No problem. If I’m single on Halloween, that’s when I really feel that aching, empty sense of aloneness. If you’re a certain kind of person, you’ll get what I mean.

A few weeks ago I went out with a woman I met on an app. We had great chemistry, the kind where you order one more beer just so you can enjoy that electric attraction, that screenplay banter. Then she said, “I always knew one of my foundational purposes in life was to be a mother.” “Oh…I don’t want kids,” I replied. “Well, this won’t work,” she said. Wile E. Coyote, meet tunnel painted onto cliffside.

That irritated me a lot. Why the fuck do you want kids? I thought. We’re at, what, 7.5 billion people, one dipshit Trump-tweet away from a fucking nuclear war, and you think we need kids? I don’t know from parenting, but I can tell you this: a scorched wasteland roamed by rapacious biker-gangs and genetically warped mutants is no place to raise a child. In the cold light of morning, the flaws in this line of reasoning were more apparent, and it even occurred to me that perhaps I, in wanting to leave my writing to the world rather than descendants, was the greater evolutionary anomaly.

I read an article recently–I’ve lost the link–about how educated, single adults without kids are the Information Age equivalent of the celibate monastic class that produced thinkers like Thomas Aquinas. I found this really funny like all my single friends and I should be composing motets, illuminating manuscripts, and performing Gregorian chants. Soli Deo gloria. Left swipe. But I have noticed that I am part of a discreet class of people who seem to have opted out of the traditional cycle of growing up, getting married, and having kids. Our reasons for this vary. For some luck hasn’t been on our side. For others, the choice has been willful. For still others, it’s been both. But very few of us don’t date, or at least try to–and don’t have long rants about how much online dating blows.

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Not my life.

I got divorced in 2016. No scandal. But, as Harlan Ellison so brilliantly put it, “My problems didn’t go with her problems at all.” If you’ve been divorced, you know that it pauses your life like a stopwatch. We’re so programmed to find the one that when we think we have and it fails, it stuns you. If you’ve ever boxed, you know that the worst thing about taking a really good shot to the head isn’t so much the pain, which you can shrug off with adrenaline and willpower, but the sheer effort it takes to clear those stars out of your eyes and re-cogitate. Divorce is like that.

About a year afterward, I got hookah one Sunday with a good friend who’d been through a very hard breakup a few years before. We gave our standard rants about dating, and then he said something very wise. “What you have to do, Hunter, is look in the mirror and ask, ‘Would I date me?’ And if the answer is no, figure out how to change that.” I wouldn’t have dated me. I’ve tried to change that. There are some things you can’t change.

He’s a good guy, this friend of mine. He wants the one. He wants the family and kids. It makes him bitter sometimes, and he’ll take refuge in a half-dose of the red pill. He’s not an incel or anything like that, but he’ll verge into the paranoid worldview that sees things in terms of alpha males and beta males. “Never ask women for advice about women,” he told me once. “There’s a saying in the red pill community, ‘A wolf doesn’t ask the opinion of sheep.'” I told him that was the stupidest fucking thing I’d ever heard.

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The food chain: a bad dating model.

If we’re wolves–and in love we often seem to be–I don’t want to be paired up with a sheep. I want to be paired up with another wolf. A flawed study gave us the assumption that wolves divide themselves into alphas and betas. What wolves have are more like family units. They don’t segregate themselves along those bullshit lines, and neither should we. But we do. And we will.

I don’t believe in the one. I don’t mean that bitterly; I just don’t. There must be lots of ones out there. On a raw personality and chemistry level, each of us probably has ones living in rural China, the suburbs of Lagos, Bandar Seri Begawan. Ones who we’ll never meet no matter how many profiles we swipe through on Tinder. Ones who, but for language and geography and culture, we might be completely happy with. Sometimes that thought haunts me. Sometimes it comforts me.

It would be nice to have a partner in life, but my standards are high. She doesn’t need to be a supermodel and she doesn’t need to hold five PhDs, but I want someone who I have real chemistry and attraction with, mental and physical. When you step out of the ranks of aspiring parents, the chances of finding somebody like that drops precipitously. It’s a basic evolutionary drive, and most people won’t opt out of it. But if you’ve opted out of it, chances are you won’t opt back in. I won’t, and that’s non-negotiable. I’m at peace with it.

I know a lot of kick-ass parents. I look at them and their kids and think, Thank God you reproduced. We’re at, what, 7.5 billion people, one dipshit Trump-tweet away from a fucking nuclear war, and you had the steel gonads to bring kids into that? I don’t know from parenting, but I can tell you this: if we’ve got to traverse a scorched wasteland roamed by rapacious biker-gangs and genetically warped mutants, I’m glad it’s you raising the next generation.

But it’s never been my dream. Part of this is logical; my family has some mental issues in its genome that I don’t want to put on anyone. But a large part of it is also just disposition. I want to travel. I want free time to pursue my hobbies, to write. If I want to box five nights a week, get a beer with friends on a weeknight, or take a Sunday afternoon to go shooting, I can do it–no check-ins, no permissions, no babysitters.

People can be weirdly hostile about this. The r/childfree chat group on Reddit calls the standard responses to this “bingos.” “Don’t you like kids?” (Sure. I like being Weird, Fun Uncle Hunter for a couple hours). “What if your kid grows up to cure cancer?” (What if my kid becomes the next Adolf Hitler? He had a pretty normal childhood) “That’s so selfish. What if your parents felt that way?” (I wouldn’t be around to regret it; unless you’re Buddhist, in which case I’d float around in the Bardo a little longer and be born somewhere else). This last reason is especially idiotic to me; what could be more selfish than bringing a human life into this world to keep up with the biological Joneses?

I really could’ve just posted this instead of writing a blog.

We use the term “lone wolf” mostly in connection with terrorism nowadays. It’s more evocative than “dangerous solo radical,” I suppose, carrying connotations of isolation and savagery. But actual wolves sometimes live alone too. Sometimes they eventually join packs and sometimes they don’t, but either way they’re still viable, healthy, wolves with all the loyalty and ferocity and mythic Odin stuff that connotes.

I’m happy to be that way. I’m also happy for those of you who’ve found the one and proven me wrong. I hope your night is whatever flavor of romantic you like–especially if it involves wolfskins.