Egherman

"Let people be different"

Category: Projects

The Rhythm of Tragedy

When I was little I fell in love with the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer, rereading our copy of Zlateh the Goat dozens of times. Poor Zlateh was getting too old to give milk and the family that kept her was flailing financially. They needed to eat. A decision was made to sell Zlateh to the butcher so that the family could survive the winter. On the way to town a snowstorm trapped the goat and the young boy taking her to the butcher. Zlateh kept the boy warm through the storm and provided milk.

Spoiler alert: they survived the storm and turned back to the house where Zlateh lived out her life as a valued member of the family.

Don’t Let Me Read Miss Understood

When I needed more stories, I reached for the adult novels of Mark Twain, Sholem Aleichem, and Isaac Bashevis Singer. I under-understood them, like so many of the other books I read as a child. I wasn’t ready for the layers of plot and emotion and character. I wasn’t ready for the way that the comic became tragic. I wasn’t ready for demons that weren’t harmless. What I was ready for was the rhythm of the sentences and the shape of the words. And that’s what I read for.

There is a rhythm to tragedy—especially Jewish tragedy—that feels comic. It begins with a set-up and ends with a punchline. This is the way that we pass our lore through the generations and relate our horrors to children without traumatizing them. The stories are four-dimensional, beginning with humor. With time, the stories unfold, revealing a new dimension of pain and tragedy. The stories unfold again, warning of coming harm and providing hints for survival. They unfold again, and the humor feels fresh and sparkling.

The imp in the novel I am writing is desperate to warn of coming harm. But does anyone listen? Of course not. Who listens to warnings? Not even the characters in my stories listen. See:

 “We’ve had it up to here with the warnings. Everything is a warning with you. And nothing can be changed. Fires come when they come. Hunger comes when it comes. Sickness comes to the hail. We run and run and run and still Death finds us all. Who knows what to do with warnings?”

If fictional characters won’t listen, who will?

An Epitaph

Everything I come across during the research for the novel makes me wish to be a small part of a big community that can make the world laugh.  On my worst days, I am afraid that humor numbs us and keeps us from acting or taking danger seriously. On those days I treat myself to a few episodes of Brooklyn 99, and then I go back to the work of trying to repair the tiniest cracks in the world. I remind myself that there are other ways to communicate and that humor renews us.

This brings me to Sholem Aleichem’s grave and the epitaph he composed for himself:

Do ligt a Id a pashutier – Here lies a Jew a simple-one,
Geschrieben Idish-Daitch fur weiber – Wrote Yiddish-German (translations) for women
Un faren prosten falk hot er gewein a humorist a schreiber
– and for the regular folk, was a writer of humor
Die ganze lieben umgelozt geschlogen mit der welt kapures
-His whole life he slaughtered ritual chickens together with the crowd,
(He didn’t care too much for this world)
Die ganze welt hot gutt gemacht – the whole world does good,
Un ehr – ohoy vey – gewehn oif zuress – and he, oh my, is in trouble.
Un davka de mohl gewehn der oilom hot gelacht
– but exactly when the world is laughing
gecklutched un flegg zich flehen – clapping and hitting their lap,
Dought er gekrenkt dos weis nor gott – he cries – only God knows this
Besod, az keyner zohl nit zeiyen – in secret, so no-one sees.

Oh how fortunate he was to have died before the world burned.

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Big announcement: I am writing a novel

Well, it’s about time, right? It’s not as though I haven’t wanted to write a novel since I first took pen to paper way back when I was seven years old. So what’s taken me so long? Where do I even begin to answer that question? Maybe with this list:

  • I started so many novels just because I had good ideas, but they lacked heart, and I lacked the perseverance to muddle through
  • I didn’t trust myself enough
  • I was never compelled to write the way others are: now the demand is greater
  • Every word I typed was like drawing blood.

So what changed? Essentially, I changed. The biggest part of me that changed was the corniest part, the part realists will laugh at, and that is this: I finally allowed my ancestors to start helping me. It’s not like we hadn’t been in conversation for decades. We had been. We’d been talking, quietly, since I was four.

When I was four and my great-grandmother died, my mother explained that people live on in our memories. I was a completely literal child and took that to mean that I was responsible for remembering my ancestors, even if I didn’t know them. From that day on, I began a memory project with imagined ancestors. I imagined the grandfather who died when I was two as Colonel Sanders. I imagined my great-grandmother the way she was photographed in a hat and wool coat. I imagined people I knew and people I didn’t. I still feel responsible for the memories of the dead and now there is a cacophony of voices in my head. It includes friends and loved ones who died of cancer and car accidents, old age and heart disease, suddenly and slowly. They all live in me. They are me.

At a low point not too long ago, I was talking to a friend who sensed that I wasn’t paying attention to my ancestors. He counseled me to light a candle and ask for help. I did.

Yeah, yeah I know half of you think this is ridiculous. I used to be you and that was exactly my problem. I no longer see any value at all in denying a connection to the past or in silencing a kind of genetic memory that has been undeniably part of me since childhood. I wonder now why I did so much work to suppress my connection to the past. Who did I impress by rejecting the magic inside me? Who benefited?

I’m done with that part of my life.  And now I’m writing. I will be blogging about the process here. If you’d like to be part of the conversation, sign up for the newsletter:

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Who Has the Right to Ritual

Who has the right to ritual, to define what is and what isn’t appropriate or appropriated, to declare themselves as a member of the tribe?

Grave marker at a small dilapidated Jewish cemetery at Babi Yar

Grave marker at a small dilapidated Jewish cemetery at Babi Yar

Mourning the more than 33,000 Jews executed at Babi Yar isn’t the only reason I am collecting recordings of Kaddish. I am also trying to claim tradition and ritual and to grapple with a religion I’ve loved and hated, but never quite shed.

The right to ritual isn’t something I’ve come to contemplate only recently. It’s just that now, I am realizing that I can stake a claim to a tradition that isn’t always, or even often, friendly to me or people like me.

Who am I? I’m a rootless mongrel like so many of you. How far back do my Jewish roots go? I used to care, but no longer do. Who cares? What I know is that right below the center of my breastbone is something that is and always has been physically and psychically connected to centuries of Jews that came before me. It is undeniable and unshakeable.

Yet, walking into a synagogue fills me with anxiety. I feel unrecognized and unwelcomed when I stray from the congregation I grew up with. I feel judged for the decisions I’ve made, for the love I’ve chosen, for the laws I flout and for those I’ve forgotten or never known.

I’m bored by impersonal rituals that lack heart and services that seem to be more for entertainment than for participation.

I’m more scared by rejection from the community than by threats of terrorism that the bag checkers and security guards pretend to protect me from.

What has made the synagogue feel unsafe to me is not outside its walls. It’s inside.

I understand that we are a threatened community. This makes us want to diligently protect our borders. It makes us want to protect our traditions. Yet that protection can go too far. It can become like an auto-immune disease that kills off exactly what it needs to be healthy. (Full disclosure: allergy sufferer and asthmatic speaking)

I say it’s time we let down our guard more than a bit and find ways to welcome strays and mongrels like me. There are more than a few of us.

Here’s my first challenge to you who are part of active Jewish communities. Find a way to welcome newcomers and strangers. Assign the extroverts among you the task of being friendly. Give some space to loners. Try it. Tell me if it works.

And please send me a recording of Kaddish. Instructions are here: Prayers for Mourning

Thanks.

 

 

Prayers for Mourning

Kaddish

Kaddish is the Jewish prayer for mourners. It’s said every day for eleven months after the death of a family member. After that it is repeated yearly on the anniversary of the death.

It marks a completion. Its meaning is unimportant. The sound of the words, spoken in ancient Aramaic, is what is important. The rhythm. The melody. The comfort of the words.

In Night Elie Wiesel wrote of men reciting Kaddish for themselves as they approached their deaths. He wrote about his anger with G-d. Why should he sanctify a G-d who allowed the crematoria? Still the prayer rose inside him.

As it rises in many of us.

I need your help

I am collecting recordings of people saying and chanting the Kaddish for a soundscape.

Make a sound recording or video of you, your friends, your minion, your congregation, your family saying Kaddish. You can use the microphone on your phone. You can use a better microphone if you have one. It’s okay to send me video files even. Whatever you can do is welcome.

Sending your files to me

You can send me files from your computer or smartphone using the following link:

https://www.dropbox.com/request/8abXNn6Gj6CGxT540xku

Use Dropbox to share your prayersRecord your reading from your telephone

You can also make a recording of your prayers of Kaddish using your telephone. Here’s how to record your message:

1) Call LifeOnRecord, +1-800-437-3009 by May 1, 2017
2) When prompted, enter your Invitation Number: 33848
3) Record your message after the tone. When finished you can either hang up or press the # key. If you press the # key you’ll be given options to listen to your recording, accept your recording, or re-record it.

If you are not in the US and Canada, find a local number here: http://www.lifeonrecord.com/faqs.htm#countries

The flower burning in the Day—and what comes after…

Babi Yar (Babin Yar) 2016. Nineteen years before I was born 33,700 Jews were killed in a massacre 2 miles from the center of Kiev in a wooded area called Babi Yar.

A few days after the Germans took Kiev on September 11, 1941, signs began appearing ordering Jews to appear near the site of the Jewish cemetery.

Failure to do so, the signs read, would result in being shot on sight.

The Jews thought it was for resettlement. Another resettlement. It wouldn’t be the first time.

Eighteen days after the Germans took Kiev, the massacre began.

This was one of the first huge mass executions of Jews by the Nazis. It was the beginning of the Final Solution.

The killing continued throughout the war. An uncounted number of Roma and Ukrainians were also killed there.

Who was killed at Babi Yar and how many exactly, may remain a mystery. When whole families are wiped out, there is no one left to count them.

Towards the end of World War II, the bodies were dug up. The bones smashed. What was left, burned. The history of the place was repressed first by the Nazis and then by the Soviets. Still, it would not remain a secret.

Today it is a rambling park. Construction crews work to reshape it. Kitsch sculptures mark the locations where Jews were killed. A menorah. A child with a headless doll. A stack of heroic bodies.

A highway borders the site. There is no west or east. No south or north.

Broken tombstones from a small Jewish cemetery in Babi Yar

Broken tombstones from a small Jewish cemetery in Babi Yar. Taken July 13, 2016.

The prayers you share are for them. They will be part of a soundscape (like a landscape painting, but made of sound) that I am creating specifically for the site.

Thank you for participating.

Please share with others.

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