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Activism as an Aphrodisiac

Originally published November 2005. Republished June 6, 2012

When I met the man who would become my husband, I had just gotten out of a dysfunctional relationship with a judgmental Catholic conservative Republican racist, sexist, and homophobe. He hadn't started out that way, as far as I knew. Or maybe it was just that I hadn't yet realized how important my liberal Democratic justice-and-freedom-for-all values were to me — that they were my core, and nonnegotiable.

My agnostic/atheist (non-Jewish) husband and I met in an environmental studies class in college, learning how to protect the Earth. His free time was spent serving as a big brother to a developmentally disabled boy, while I volunteered at the Planned Parenthood clinic in town. We were people of giving, of acceptance.

I had often wondered where one gets one's core belief system of what's right and wrong, whether one is on the side of the big guys or the little people. What shapes a person? In the case of my old boyfriend, he learned from his parents — who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and became wealthy — that money was prized above all else. My husband, on the other hand, developed his character in direct contrast to his parents. For every ounce of their conservatism, he grew two ounces towards liberal. Every dollar they had was another he eschewed, favoring nature's riches and the value of the human spirit.

I believe I developed my values in direct response to my upbringing in a city apartment with my progressive-minded divorced mother who espoused charitable giving and social and political activism. From the day I took my first steps, she was active with, and gave money to, organizations dedicated to achieving equal rights for women, educating and training the jobless, feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, eradicating and preventing diseases, making the environment safer through clean air and clean water and dismantling nuclear power. "My motivation was primarily to make a better world for you," she explained recently.

My mother took me with her when she voted, enrolled me in racially diverse public schools, practiced reuse and recycling before it was popular, and purchased no-name brand health food. In addition, she encouraged my participation in the democratic process from an early age: When I was ten and was upset about the government's plan to draft women into the military, she suggested I write to President Carter to express my views; by fifteen, I was engaged in a prolific back-and-forth with a Congressman who opposed reproductive choice.

Somewhere along the line, I learned that activism was in my blood. According to an essay he wrote called "My Arrest," my great-grandfather Philip was a socialist revolutionary, in charge of the illegal department of literature in Russia. In 1906, he was arrested for carrying propaganda in his overcoat and sent to prison. Before the trial that would have sealed his fate — possibly requiring him to spend the rest of his life in Siberia — he left the country and came to America.

Though the judge at his citizenship hearing told him we did not need any socialists in America, the citizenship papers were granted, "to the dismay of my witnesses," he wrote. He went on to pursue his beliefs fervently. He ran for New Jersey Assembly (but always lost) each time Norman Thomas — the socialist, passivist, and activist — ran for president. He was a lifelong member of The Workmen's Circle — dedicated to Jewish community, Yiddish culture, and social justice. He kept a small metal bust of Eugene Debs — the great union organizer and political activist — on his mantle. And, according to the family lore, he gave more money to charity than to his own children.

Though his son — my grandfather — was never particularly active in politics, he carried on his father's vocation, as a teacher. By day, he devoted his life to teaching high school science in public schools; by night and weekend, he taught Hebrew school, night school, and Sunday school. He gave charitably to causes he believed in and, at the time of my birth — in honor of his father and to set me on a course of understanding — he set up a trust with Histadruit, Israel's largest and most powerful worker and trade union, which paid me $100 a year for the first thirty years of my life. His sister became a teacher as well and an active labor zionist. (Coincidentally, her nephew by marriage was Andrew Goodman, one of the three Freedom Fighters killed in Philadelphia, Mississippi, in the 1960s, while helping black citizens register to vote.)

All of this history was unknown to me when I became an anti-nuke, pro-environment, anti-apartheid, anti-racism, pro-choice, pro-labor, pro-gay pride activist and sympathizer. Throughout my high school years, my friends and I traveled to Washington, DC, to march for these causes. We traveled to our state capital, and attended rallies and protests in our own backyard. My first job was as a phone canvasser for a pro-choice organization; my next, as a volunteer at a nonprofit environmental group, which ultimately led me to decide to major in environmental issues, attend a college that offered such a program, and resulted in meeting my husband. The two of us have since spent our entire professional lives in the education and environmental fields, also following in the footsteps of my forbearers by giving charitably, more and more each year as our incomes grow.

Thirteen years have passed since my husband and I first began dating — when we saw our first movie together (Oliver Stone's JFK), visited the local farmer's market together, and shopped at the co-op together. We're slightly more conservative than we were then; we're more frustrated than idealistic, and we understand the concept of negotiation over civil disobedience. But our core beliefs have not changed — they remain the cornerstone of who we are as individuals and a couple. I jokingly threaten to divorce my husband every time he threatens to forgo voting due to a lack of good candidates. We rant and rave at each other as we read the paper in the morning, aghast at the latest political maneuvers and appalled at the continued state of inequity and injustice. Our daily negotiations about social issues — the products we buy, the companies we invest in, how much energy we use, what kind of car we should drive — are all part of what keeps our fire lit. I couldn't have it any other way.

© Sue Eisenfeld, 2005

A language, literally meaning "Jewish," once widely used by Ashkenazi communities. It is influenced by German, Hebrew and Slavic languages, and is written with the Hebrew alphabet. It is comparable to the language of many Sephardi communities, Ladino. A supporter of the ideal that Israel be defined as a Jewish nation state. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Sue Eisenfeld

Sue Eisenfeld's essays and articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Gettysburg Review, Potomac Review, The Washington Post, Washingtonian, Virginia Living, Blue Ridge Country, and other publications. Her essays have been listed among the notable essays of the year in The Best American Essays in 2009, 2010, 2013. She is a two-time Fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the recipient of the 2010 Goldfarb Family Fellowship. She holds an M.A. in Writing from Johns Hopkins University, where she currently is on the teaching faculty. Her first book will be published by University of Nebraska Press in 2014.

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