Saturday, March 31, 2007

Alternative Four Children

In a traditional seder, we speak of four children, each of whom asks a different question of the seder’s leader. (Not the four questions. A different four questions.) The idea of this story seems to be to teach children what kinds of questions they should be asking, and what kinds of questions they had better keep to themselves. Presumably, adults already know these things. The traditional “four children” is bad pedagogy, and it’s offensive besides. Tonight, let’s assume that all of us have all kinds of questions throughout our lives. Together, we will consider some of the questions that we all have asked before, and probably will again, as we muddle through the journey out of our narrow places toward liberation.

The first voice asks, “Where does the journey begin?” Ze is ready and eager to change the world, just as soon as someone will tell hir how. Join a picket? Write a letter? Just say the word! To this voice we respond, the journey has already begun. Ze may have a notion that freedom is something ze will be able to hold in hir hands. Ze may be looking so hard toward this goal that ze overlooks all that ze has accomplished already. We need only remind hir that ze is as capable as anyone of working for freedom, that in fact ze is already doing it, and ze will be ready to point hir own way.

The second voice asks, “But, we’re free, right? So, what’s the problem?” She is content with her life; she doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about. This voice needs to be reminded that freedom is not something you own. We respond to her question by again telling the story of how the Israelites came to be slaves in Mitzrayim – how freedom taken for granted quickly turns to chains. And we remind her that Moses himself was raised in opulent comfort in Pharaoh’s own palace – yet he could not experience freedom while his people were enslaved. Likewise our freedom will never be complete until all people, everywhere are free.

The third voices says, “No, no, no! That’s not the way to liberation! Why can’t we do it my way?” To be the best activist has become a point of pride for him. He has lost sight of the goal and become mired in the details. To this voice we respond, Imagine if Miriam and Moshe had stopped to debate which of them was the better prophet, while Pharaoh’s army breathed down their necks! Perhaps Moshe got fed up with Miriam’s incessant singing. Perhaps Miriam thought Moshe’s antics with the staff were childish and ridiculous. So what? They were on the same side. And there was room enough for both of them to lead in their own unique ways. We remind him that we have plenty of enemies to keep track of, without making enemies of each other. Instead we must not only work toward justice, but also work in justice, in community, together, all of us.

The fourth voice cries in chorus from every direction, “The work is too hard. We fight and fight and never win. We are tired. How can we go on?” To these voices we respond, we were strangers in Mitzrayim, and have been strangers in every land of the world, since. And yet we do go on. We are here, alive and kicking, and free enough to ask each other questions, and that means we have won so far. Like the first voice, these overwhelmed voices need to be reminded that they are already doing what seems impossible. And we can also tell them that fighting on the exhausting front lines of our movements is not the only way to work toward liberation. Some other ways are: to hold each other, to ask for help when we need it, to make art, to make love, to make ritual, to teach and learn together, just like we are doing tonight.

For more creative haggadah writing, check out The Love & Justice in Times of War Haggadah, by Micah Bazant & Dara Silverman.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Weather at Auschwitz


When my friend first moved here (to the North East) from the Bay Area (of California), he was wearing his warmest winter coat by mid-October. It was in the lower 30s (F) outside - just about freezing. We northerners were reveling in autumn, not yet acknowledging winter. Our coats and long underwear were still in storage. We wore warm, rugged vests over hoodies with thumb holes. He wore a big puffy ski jacket, with an insulated hood, and gloves. "If you're wearing that now," we said, "what will you do when it gets really cold?"

"It gets colder than this?" he said, and we laughed. He said, "Well, at a certain point, isn't cold just cold? I mean, it's already below freezing. What difference can another ten or fifteen degrees make?"

That winter I had three cavities in my front teeth, and no dental insurance. I knew with especially clarity that cold is not just cold. At 20 degrees above zero, puddles freeze and it snows. You shiver. Your nose runs, and your toes turn red. You play in the snow. At 20 degrees below zero, your breath freezes. Snow flakes are so small and hard that they can cut your face. Your eyes tear, and your skin cracks. Breathing makes your jaw ache, even if you don't have cavities. Even smokers don't go outside without mittens. There's cold, and then, there's cold.

And then there's hot. Years ago I traveled with my (then) partner to be with his dying father in Dallas. It was August. Before we left my partner warned me, "You're gonna hate it. It's gonna be really hot there." I shrugged, unwilling to seem less than perfectly supportive by admitting that the trip might be hard for me. Later I asked a friend, who also used to live in Dallas, "At a certain point, isn't hot just hot? I mean, once it's a hundred degrees out, how much worse can 110 be?" She rolled her eyes. "Oh no, trust me. It's hot."

And I learned about hot. When it's a hundred degrees, it's, you know, hot. At 100 degrees, you see heat ripples on the highway. Your shirts get sweaty in the armpits and around the collar. You don't want to wear layers, even if you're trans, but you do anyway because it's Dallas, and it's less dangerous to look like a boy than like a babydyke. When you go outdoors to have a smoke, you stick to the shade. When it's 110, or 120, you see heat ripples on each other. You shirts get sweaty everywhere. You still don't want to wear layers, and you still do, because it's still Dallas, and your binder gives you heat blisters that bleed and scab to your undershirt. When you go outside to smoke, the shit you inhale is not noticably warmer than the air, but it is noticeably drier. There's hot, and then, ...

I bring all this up because of a letter I got yesterday from a friend who's studying abroad in Europe. Her Spring break took her to Poland, and a tour of several concentration camps with their associated memorial exhibits. She wrote this post describing, among other things, that Auschwitz did not make her cry. This worries her.

There's hot, and then, there's hot, but there's only so much the body can do to cool itself. At a certain point, hotter is still hotter, but there's just nothing more the body can do to cope with the heat. At 110 degrees, your body is pulling out all the stops. At 120, it can't respond proportionately.

There's tragedy, and then, there's tragedy. When a friend or relative dies, you feel sad, and you feel guilty, and you feel overwhelmed. Maybe you feel as if the world might end. Maybe you cry. When two people die, I guess it's twice as tragic, but do you really feel twice as sad, guilty, overwhelmed? Do you cry twice as long? What about ten people? What about a million? What about a third of the world Jewish population, and more than half of the European Jewish population, in a period of a handful of years? Can you cry six million times as long? Twelve million?

There is no possibilty of proportionate emotional response to a tragedy on the scale of the Nazi Holocaust. We were born, this friend and I, some 35-40 years after the end of the war, and our generation is still grieving. I suspect we will grieve for a while yet.

My friend quotes the philosopher Adorno, who said "There is no poetry after Auschwitz."

I made a paragraph break because I think that needs a minute to sink in. I first read it last week, and I am still swimming in its implications.

Take another minute if you need to.

I'm going to go out on a very long, slender limb here. I want to say that there is another side to Adorno's coin, which is, after Auschwitz, there is only poetry.

Our bodies are not physically capable of expressing the degree of mourning that the Holocaust requires. We can't cry enough. We can't rage enough. And not only can't we express it - we can't even feel it. If we were to feel the extremity of emotion that we think we should feel about Auschwitz, we would literally die of sadness. Some people do.

And so, what is there but poetry? When hard facts don't do justice to the enormity of a tragedy, maybe metaphors come close. This seems especially appropriate for us as young Jews, now two or more generations removed from the Holocaust. We weren't even there, so it's no use to say what happened - that's not exactly the point, or it's not the only point, for us. So why not turn to poetry, or to any art of creative expression, where the point doesn't have to be the point anyway?

These thoughts are rough and unfinished, but I will trust my forgiving readers and post it anyway. FYI, this is only part of my reponse to my friend's original post. More of it can be found in my comments there.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Airport Adventures

Airports are great. You never know what might happen. This time, the adventure was mostly amusing rather than threatening, harrowing, or otherwise traumatizing.

For this story to make sense, you should know that my hair is short and dark brown, with long-ish bangs dyed bright orange. Not hair-color orange - orange like the fruit. The inside of the fruit. Or maybe like a mango. Anyway, it stands out.

I was in the Baltimore International Airport, en route from my home base in the North East to do some family stuff in Miami Beach. (I really do have family there, and we really did have stuff to do. It was not just a good excuse to be in Miami Beach in February, although it was also that.)

I was walking quickly because I had just gotten off of a moving sidewalk, and regular walking speed just seems so slow when you get off of those things. A maintenance worker with an obvious, probably mild, developmental disability called to me from across the wide, empty hallway. He was pushing his cart back in the direction I had just come from. I stopped, he stopped, and we carried on this conversation by shouting to each other across humming of the moving sidewalk:

Him: Hey! I like your hair!
Me: Thanks!
Him: It's really bright.
Me: Yup.
Him: What's your mom think?
Me: She hasn't seen it yet. (This was a lie. She doesn't particularly like it, but my haircolor is probably the least of my mom's worries about me.)
Him: Oh. You have a boyfriend?
Me: Not exactly. (Actually, not at all. Why'd I say that? I don't know. Maybe force of habit, from all those years when people would ask me if I had a boyfriend, and I had to decide whether or not to tell them about my girlfriend.)
Him: Oh. You will.
Me: Gosh, thanks. (I meant it, oddly.)
Him: Yeah, someday you will have a boyfriend. He'll teach you to change your hair back.
Me: Oh, um, okay ...
Him: Have a nice day!
Me: You, too, dude. You, too.

This was only the first of several bizarre interactions I had in between Miami Beach and home. In addition, I was mistaken once for a 16-year-old woman and once for a 14-year-old boy, encouraged to hurry up and give my parents grandbabies, asked if the baby sweater I was knitting was for my own child and also if it was for my younger sibling, and once I sat for two hours next to an older, apparently middle-class woman who was very earnestly engaged in reading Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickeled and Dimed, a book that was assigned to me three times in three years of college, and which makes me angrier than any other book I've ever read.

Mmm-mm, airports. Never a dull moment, I'm telling you.