Author Archives: Julia Dahl

About Julia Dahl

Julia Dahl writes about crime and criminal justice for CBSNews.com. She was born and raised in Fresno, Calif. and now lives in Brooklyn, NY. Her debut novel, Invisible City (Minotaur Books), is now available.

“Are You Jewish?”

invisible-cityYes. But it’s complicated.

My mother is Jewish, which, as my grandmother used to tell me, means that the Nazis would have come for me, too. My dad, on the other hand, is Christian. And not just a Christmas Christian, he is a church-going Christian; a Christian who left his career as a lawyer to be ordained when he was 55. A Christian who wears a cross around his neck. My sister and I grew up “both.”

Let me explain.

My mother is a proud Jew, from a family of Southern Jews for whom Judaism was their primary identity. My grandparents went to temple almost every Friday night of their lives. My grandmother used to tell me that that’s what their group would do as teens in the 1930s in Nashville: temple, then out for a movie. My great-grandfather was a prominent Zionist. He ate with Golda Meir and gave jobs to hundreds of European refugees at his hosiery mill during World War II.

Then, in 1972, my mom married my dad, and my great-grandfather sat shiva for her. She had grown up in his home and she never saw him again. The wedding was small; immediate family were the only ones on either side who showed up. Everyone else was too angry and anxious. Neither is converting? What will the kids be? Confused!

But guess what? We weren’t confused. The message my parents sent my sister and I was about faith in God, about love and kindness and about the power of tradition. Although the rest was important to them – my dad takes communion every week, and my mother never misses her parents’ yahrzeits – the differences, from a child’s perspective at least, were basically unimportant. Was Jesus the messiah? That was the divergence as I saw it. But why focus on that one thing when pretty much everything else seemed essentially the same? Love God, love your fellow man. Seek justice, be honest, do good.

As a child and adolescent, it was relatively easy to move between the two faiths, and I found myself taking on the role of contrarian. I never felt more Jewish than with Christian friends. When people asked me what religion I was I’d say both, although the idea was always for me to choose once I “grew up.” For my 13th birthday, my parents gave me a gold necklace with two pendants on it: a Star of David and a simple cross. They said I could wear them however I wanted to and I chose to wear them together, but it didn’t sit well with people. Everyone seemed offended, or confused. I stopped wearing the necklace at all after a few months.

As the years went by, I came to understand that I didn’t need to mark myself. I went to Hebrew summer school as a child and Sunday school at my dad’s church as an adolescent. My sister had a bat mitzvah, but I did not. Sometimes we accompanied my grandparents to Friday services. The whole family celebrated the High Holy Days, Passover, Easter, Christmas and Hanukkah.

As an adult, I have always identified as Jewish. As my grandmother said, “We need more good Jews.” And, how can I say it, I feel Jewish. You can choose Christianity, but Judaism chooses you, and that means something to me.

Being a Jew, for me, now, is about claiming the joys and burdens of a tribe of people I respect. Even growing up in the 1980s, the Holocaust was very present in my home. My grandmother told me stories about her cousins, European Jews who were barely observant, who considered themselves Frenchmen or Germans, but who were forced to announce themselves as Jews and be killed for it. Would you stand up and announce yourself? was the implicit question. And the answer, for me, was always yes.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on May 12, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

The Previous Tenant

By | Tagged ,

julia-dahlIn October 2007, my husband and I were looking for an apartment in Brooklyn. We’d seen too many to count and none worth the price, so when a one-bedroom just off Prospect Park popped up for $1200 we jumped. On the way to the appointment, the broker gave us the news: The man who lived in the apartment until last month had committed suicide there.

We took it anyway and when I went to sign the lease at the landlord’s office in Borough Park, I could tell he was pleased to have unloaded the apartment.

“He was a very sick man,” said the landlord. “He stopped taking his medication. His family was devastated.”

After about a week, the woman in the apartment next door came to introduce herself. I asked if she knew the man who’d lived here and she said yes.

“His name was David,” she said. “He was a teacher. And he was really nice.”

I told her what the landlord said about him, and she had a different story.

“He was Hasidic,” she said. “And he was gay. His family abandoned him.”

Then she peered into the apartment and said: “They did a good job of cleaning it up.”

The first piece of mail addressed to him arrived about a month later. It was a post card from Spain. Judging by the handwriting, the note was from a woman. More letters arrived over the next few months: a flyer with a photograph of a man in lipstick advertising a performance in the Greenwich Village; something official from the Teacher’s Retirement System; a check-up reminder from the local hospital.

I didn’t open any of the letters, but I kept all the mail in a folder in my desk. As a reform Jew who grew up in Central California, I had only recently realized that communities of ultra-Orthodox even existed in the U.S., and, I have to admit, the people who lived in this world fascinated me. I saw them on the train, dressed in clothing that seemed from another time; clothing that separated them, that screamed, I am Jewish.

I started to read about their community, and the more I read, the more I wanted to know David. I listened for him, but never saw signs of a ghost. For a while I toyed with the idea of tracking down his family and bringing them the thick folder of mail. But I realized that that would be an exercise in selfishness. If they hadn’t wanted to hear from him, they certainly wouldn’t want to hear from me.

So, because I could only imagine him, I did what writers do when we get curious: I started to write about him. Well, not him exactly (although you’ll find a reference to him in my novel, Invisible City), but the world he came from.

And I still have his unopened mail.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on May 7, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Why I Write About Crime

By | Tagged ,

invisible-cityFor the past 10 years I have devoted my professional life – and my imagination – to things most people would rather not think about. I have written about teenagers stabbing their parents to death; about rapists gone unpunished; about the high rate of suicide among police officers and soldiers; about mass shootings and children gone missing and bodies unidentified for years.

Sometimes, people ask me why this is the path – or in journalism-speak, the “beat” – I’ve chosen. Usually, I shrug and smile and say something to end the conversation: “I guess I must be missing a chip.”

But the truth is more complicated.

As Jews, we learn about evil early. The Holocaust is personal. We hear the stories and we know that if we had been born just a little earlier, in the place where our grandparents lived, we too would have been the victims of this great crime. And as a potential victim, I couldn’t help but think: who are the people who did this? Why? What did it feel like to be pushed onto a train at gunpoint? How did all those Nazi officers, born human just like me, turn into killing machines? We’ll never really know, I suppose, but as I grew up, they were questions that gnawed at me.

And then, my freshman year in college I took a course called “Suffering and Salvation.” The primary focus of the semester was to examine this question: How can God exist, and be both good and all-powerful, with so much evil in the world? We read St. Augustine and the Book of Job; Letters from a Birmingham Jail, Albert Camus, William Styron and Elie Wiesel.

One day in class, the professor screened a series of films depicting the death camps. I’d never seen such graphic images: naked, skeletal bodies being carted on wheelbarrows to mass graves. Piles of people in shower rooms built for murder. It was harrowing, but the professor challenged us not to look away. If they had to endure it, she said, the least you can do is bear witness.

As a crime reporter, I bear witness to a lot of evil. And not just the things that are easy to point to and call evil. I see evil in the system that imprisons and executes innocent people too poor to afford decent counsel; evil in the teenagers locked in solitary confinement; evil in the thousands of rape kits languishing in police storage across the country; evil in the hate-filled man who takes a gun to Jewish institutions and guns down three people.

Crime is what we call the evil we do to each other. This evil must be witnessed, and it must be chronicled. We must be made to see the ugliness in ourselves. As John Steinbeck so perfectly put it in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech: “The ancient commission of the writer has not changed. He is charged with exposing our many grievous faults and failures, with dredging up to the light our dark and dangerous dreams for the purpose of improvement.”

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on May 6, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy