As a dramatist and a brand narrative consultant, I make up stories for a living, but the following story I am going to share with you in this essay is not made up. In a time of fake news and so-called truthiness, there is nothing fictitious in this story. It really happened to me today and I will try my best to convey it to you as accurately as possible and with as many of the exact details as I can recall. So, here’s the story:
I recently joined LA Fitness Sportsclub. Whenever I go there, I warm up by going into the sauna. So, just this morning, I engaged in my usual routine and before my spinning class, I entered the sauna to get my sweat on. As I entered, I commented out loud, “Boy, it’s hotter than normal in here.”
Sitting on the upper level bench, a bearded, tattooed guy in swim trunks smiled at me and said, “Welcome to Hell. And that guy over there’s Lucifer,” pointing to his friend standing against the wall. I waved hello to Satan and being a friendly guy, the devil waved back at me.
We all laughed as I sat down. As always, there’s this awkward moment where semi-naked strangers attempt to sus out whether they need or want to converse with the other semi-naked strangers sweating profusely in close proximity to them. But before I could decide what would be appropriate this morning, the seated bearded guy next to me started talking. He was probably around 40 years old and he wanted to share with me his theories on the health benefits of saunas.
I listened and then referenced a theory of my own that goes something like this, “Saunas raise your core body temperature to above 100 which mimics what the body does when it’s under attack with a virus and thus, stimulates the immune system. Google it if you don’t believe me.”
And then, he replied, “I don’t believe much of the stuff I read on Google and either way, the elites want us all to die anyway.”
Hmmm. Not sure where this was going, but I tried to keep things light by replying, “Well, the world is overpopulated anyway. Ha.”
And then, he responded back with, “Hey, it’s all a function of the Jewish conspiracy. The Rothschilds and the Rockefellers are trying to create a new world order.”
DAMN! I didn’t see that coming. Now, let me stop for a second. This guy wasn’t a crazed, deranged Charles Manson looking Neo-Nazi. In fact, I couldn’t tell you his nationality, but his dark brown-skin would probably make him an enemy of most Neo-Nazis. All I really knew about him for certain was that he didn’t think I was Jewish, so he confided in me his belief that the Jews have been engaged in a long-standing conspiracy to rule the world and oppress people such as himself for eons.
And suddenly, a small window opened up and for the first time since the slaughter in Pittsburgh, I felt like I understood the terrifying reality of how a human being could enter a synagogue and gun down other human beings for no other reason than sheer ignorance and hatred.
Like many, I used to believe that we lived in a Post-Anti-Semitic world, or at least we Americans did. I even wrote a play in which this was stated and now, unfortunately, I need to rewrite that play. This saddens me so much that I can’t seem to motivate myself to do the rewrite, so the play sits on my shelf and can’t be produced.
But wait a second. Shouldn’t I have instantly identified myself as a Jew? Shouldn’t I have spoken up and defended my people? Maybe, I don’t know for sure. Could I have changed his opinion if I spoke up? Maybe but the prospect of getting into a brawl and he and I sweatily grappling semi-naked in the sauna did not seem very appealing.
Looking back, I am a little ashamed that I didn’t say anything, but in the moment, I was a bit too stunned to respond. And frankly, as a writer, my first instincts were to try to understand how he had come to such beliefs, and not lash out. Either way, before I could learn more, he said he was hot and needed to leave the sauna. With a warm, “Take care, bro,” he held his fist out for a little brotherly fist bump as he disappeared, leaving me there, wide mouthed, shocked and confused.
It was an unexpected and surreal moment that I am only beginning to process by writing this essay. Like a voyeur at a Klan Cross burning, I felt like I had been witness to something I should have been prohibited from experiencing. If he was a racist and I was African-American, he surely would not have revealed his true self to me, but I was dressed like a biker (Not a leather-clad Harley biker but a lycra-clad mountain biker) and he just assumed, we were both similarly oppressed victims of the Jewish conspiracy. At no time in our conversation, did he express any consciousness that he might be conversing with the enemy.
And so I ask, what would you have done if instead of me, you were the one in the sauna sitting next to him?
I don’t know, maybe you are more heroic than me and if so, good for you. The world needs more heroes, especially today, but I’m no hero. All I can do is write about what happened, and maybe through my words and thoughts, stimulate a few other people and if I’m really lucky, make a tiny impact and create a little more awareness.
But I do wish that as he exited, I offered a final, soft-spoken salutation of “Shalom.” Yet, of course, one only thinks of clever retorts post facto. That’s what fiction allows us to do. Write what we wished we had said. Usually in the moment, a clever retort tends to only exist in a distant, far off land.
So, yes, the truth is that I said nothing and he escaped.
Now, it’s easy to write him off as a deluded pawn of our hate-spewing demagogue of a President. But that seems too facile. Sure, this guy didn’t have all his facts correct – especially his error of including the Rockefellers as members of the Jewish conspiracy, since well, the Rockefellers are not and have never been Jewish. But he did also reference the Rothschilds and in doing so, aligned himself with a grand tradition of Jewish Conspiracy theorists that date back hundreds of years…
I think there is value in seeing him and his comments as endemic of something bigger, as exemplary of the human need for scapegoats and conspiracies and simplified solutions to explain the awful complexity of human existence. Any form of hatred that’s existed for hundreds, nee thousands of years, is not going be dealt with easily and solved over night. There are no simple answers here and maybe that’s why Jewish conspiracy theories have survived for centuries. As long as Jews appear to succeed while other ethnicities still struggle, hatred will also thrive.
So where does this leave us and why is it even worth writing an essay about this experience, especially since I don’t think my bearded conspiracy theorist will read this and even if he did, I think he’s too far gone to have his mind changed?
But I do think there’s value in telling the story and stimulating a discussion. So then, let a civilized conversation ensue and may a tiny bit of illumination may result. And maybe right now, that’s the best first step any of us can hope for.
So let me sign off by saying, “Shalom, Welcome to Hell, and let’s hope you never meet my friend, Lucifer.”
Poet. Professor. Playwright. Filmmaker. Brand narrative consultant and mensch.