After the Destruction, Over the Sea

The other day a friend, knowing my interest in the history of the Suburban Judaism in which I was raised, sent me some prayers written by the reform rabbi Abraham Soltes. Soltes had a fairly typical successful career of a mid-20th century rabbi, serving in a variety of pulpits and chaplaincies throughout the Northeast, including as chaplain of the military academy at West Point. Later in life he added some credentials at Tel Aviv University, and in a corporation.

His prayers are notable for how completely and comfortably they identify Judaism with the project of American Suburbia. One is a “Prayer for American Enterprise”, which he recited upon the opening of a new department store. He invokes God’s blessing for “this great enterprise, whose open shelves and abundant displays symbolize the fruitage of the noble partnership of freemen working together under God[.]” In another, a prayer for the opening game of a little league baseball season, he praises the “Lord of Limb and Spirit” for “having cast our lot in this wonderful land[.]”

It would be easy, as Jewish radicals, or at least, as Jews attempting radicalism in the year 2020, to mock and deride Rabbi Soltes’ contentment in a post WWII America. Easy, too, to judge his and other Suburban Jews complicitness in White Supremacy and White flight and capitalism, to judge their smug, self-serving liberalism. And certainly I’m not advocating that we, as inheritors of this Judaism and its serious flaws and sins, overlook the work that needs to be done in atonement.

But today I’m thinking about what the emotional content and appeal of Suburbia must have been to people of Rabbi Soltes’ generation, which is to say, my grandfather’s generation. How must it have felt, to go through tenements, and the Depression, and the War, and then to find a new life, outside the City? Your family the first family to live in your new split level house. Your feet the first feet to touch your new, fresh lawn. Leaving your parents back on the Lower East Side or in Brooklyn, everyone and everything in your life impossibly young and vital, as you bear children, as you speak English, as you get jobs working as an engineer of jet engines, or spaceships. What must it have felt like, to come through hell, to be the future, deep in this green and growing land? It must have felt like the end of the world.

A Skeptic & The Grey Lady

I am reading the New York Times. In my father’s opinion, it is overdue. Of his three children, only my sister Amy has shared his dedication to the paper. Ever since 10th grade, when my sister realized she could outguess what our social studies teacher would opine about next from the pages of the times, she’s been a daily reader. My elder sister, Julia, was once a frequent reader, but as adulthood’s burdens encroached on her mood and anxiety, she has abandoned the paper for more escapist avenues of infotainment. As for me, I have long preferred my news piping hot from someone I know. That is, I am ashamed to say that for most of my adult life, I have been using social media as my primary news source. I wait for people to react in outrage or amusement or disbelief, and it is with a helpful dose of humanity and pure bias that I ingest the day’s events.

I will say, this has led, yes, to the erosion of American democracy, but also a wonderful sense of superiority to the newspaper. After all, why wait until the Times has a new edition to find out what the president has tweeted? I can just go to twitter. Why wait for the Times to report on the tragic death of a young black man at the hands of police? Facebook live is already at the protest. Verification takes time, and time, well…this is the 21st century: who has time?

It would be nice (it would be publishable!) if this were a story of me learning to love traditional journalism. The fact is, I continue to get my information fresh from my peers on social media. I go to the New York Times for variety. You see, the twitter stream, the facebook timeline, they’re dull. All information, jokes, complaints, poems, outrage, cruelties, acts of love, acts of terror, they all have the same formatting. As Mcluhan taught us, the medium is the message, and one tweet looks much like another, whether it comes from president or proletariat, the same mind numbing bursts of writing. So I have turned to the Times for some variety. A modern love story is illustrated differently than an obituary. Photojournalism essays stand out in stark pictures, one from the other. Articles vary lengths. I am enjoying the leisure of the bourgeousie before his paper, the grand stroll through the world as it exists today. I have come into my inheritance as a New Yorker. I am reading the New York times.

The King is Dead, Again: the Echo of an Obituary

Melvis Kwok died a few days ago, which I know because a rather supercilious New York Times, having reported on the Elvis impersonator in 2010, decided to do a quiet Sunday obituary.  The man who took up the title of the Cat King, Elvis’ Chinese nickname, Kwok was a consummate busker,  parading the neon lit streets of Hong Kong’s Lan Kwai Fong district with serenity and surrealism. Kwok began impersonating Elvis in 1977, the very year the King died. What electric thing passed through the screen, over the many miles between Memphis and Hong Kong? Who knows how a king survives? Of that first encounter via the documentary “Elvis: That’s The Way It is”,  Kwok said “I cried for a long time.” 

This connection, born in tears, played out in lights and sequins, guitars and strangled renditions of It’s Now Or Never is special. As Arthur Miller writes, attention must be paid. It is that strange link between collector and collection, between celebrity and fan, between obsession and obsessed. There are moments when a human being, hidden from the world by his ordinariness-obscured by the simple and transparent fact that he has two eyes, two arms, two legs, and a beating heart, just like everyone else-when such a person becomes a glittering, golden thing. Such was the rise of Elvis, that shining sun. Such was the life of Kwok Lam-Sang, who orbited him and reflected his light. Who might we orbit? When might we rise?

Funny Weather We’re Having

The day the coup came, we woke up to a creative destruction. My neighbors, it seems, are planning to sell their house, so they have embarked on extensive rennovations. Atenea, my wife, was delighted, as she always is, to hear the familiar strains of Spanish from the crew working next door, and she went outside to chat with them and gossip about what the neighbors are up to.

I spent the morning too caffeinated to eat, watching the run off elections in Georgia. Around noon, I expressed my contrarian opinion on the ascendant Democratic party on a variety of social media websites. It will do us no good, I warned. I choked down a cliff bar and found myself in an improved mood. Made some pasta and felt even better.

In the afternoon, when white supremacists took over the capitol of the United States (“how can you tell?”) I watched transfixed, then angry, then bored, then transfixed again, this time fearfully so. The national guard was called, the police were bolstered, the FBI showed up, none of whom have much experience in stopping white supremacists from doing things they want to do. The day’s skepticism surged, this time on a full stomach.

There is a moment in the Wizard of Oz (1939), when the Wicked Witch has interposed a field of poppies on the Yellow Brick Road, so that Dorothy and her animal companions, Toto and the Cowardly Lion, all fall asleep from the dangerous fumes of the intoxicating flowers. As the Scarecrow dithers, and the Tin Woodman rusts from his own ineffectual tears, they are saved by the magical intervention of Glinda, the Good Witch, who sends a snowstorm in the middle of the clear blue day to dull the poppies effect. As the chilly snow dissipates the sleepy fog, the Cowardly Lion, played by the comedian Bert Lahr, wakes up and yawns. He looks around at a snow-covered field of poppies, a world completely altered by the fierce competition of forces well beyond him, and says, “Funny weather we’re having!”

The night is young and curfew has been called for an hour from now. I sit at my desk and listen to the sounds of creative destruction, or construction, and think about the brown men in the house next to me, who have been working all day in what is most likely their second country. Do they know that the Nazi flag is flying in Washington tonight? It’s been a long hard day of work. I should go see if they need anything.

Elegy For Number 10

What to say about the small man in the number 10 Jersey, the always kicking Golden Kid, who grew into El Diego, the hand of God, and by his own cocaine-fueled reckoning, God himself? He rebuked the Pope for his golden ceiling, rebuked his sportsman elder, Pele, for his age, rebuked England for their war on Argentina with two goals. What to say of these two goals, most infamous, most miraculous? How to improve on the passionate words of Morales, with their mix of science fiction (“what planet do you come from?”) religion (“Thanks be to God. . .”) and pathos (“. . . for these tears . . .”)?

Let us say simply this. There will be many obituaries today remembering the bad man Maradona, his excesses of indulgence, his courting of controversy, his broad shoulders that could fight everyone. Those obituaries have entirely missed the point, of the Goal of the Century, of a life of sport, of Sport itself. Maradona can not be measured over a lifetime, but in a split second, in the beauty of evasion and motion, in the barrilete cosmico, the cosmic soaring. Is it a tragedy that Maradona peaked in 1986, and lived another 34 years? Maybe. Is the Goal of the Century a life-defining, life-justifying masterpiece? Yes.

As Maria Tallchief said of dance, “In every sense of the word you are poetry in motion. And if you are fortunate enough…you are actually the music.” Diego Maradona was, for several brief moments, the music. That was his gift. As long as he was alive, even as he aged, even as he gained weight, was forced to retire, was committed to a psychiatric hospital, fled to Cuba to kick cocaine, that gift was still in the world. Now it is gone. Adios, Maradona. Siempre Maradona.

What I Want To Achieve In My Writing

In December 2016, I wrote the following in a google drive document called “What I Want To Achieve In My Writing.”

First, I am most concerned with writing something beautiful. That it have the clarity, catchiness, melancholy, humor, rhythm, tenderness and unity of thought that I love in writing, this is what I mean by beautiful.

Secondly, I hope to express what I mean. To accurately represent some thought or feeling, to show how it developed, to make it seen.

Thirdly, I will strive to make my writing Jewish. That is, it will reflect at least one of the complexities of Jewishness that are such a deeply entrenched part of my life. Something in every piece of my writing must be explicitly Jewish, as everything I say and do is affected by this identity. More simply put, I will tell Jewish stories. 

Fourthly, I must attack fascism and authoritarianism at every possible turn. The cruelty of the Powerful Few against the people must be constantly exposed, mocked, scorned, decried, defeated.

I am reflecting on this document for two reasons, one personal, one political.

I’ve recently had work accepted into several literary magazines, and I’m wondering how well I did on these goals in pieces that are becoming my first public writing to a larger audience. I do not know if I am far enough away from those pieces to evaluate them. I do not know if I can make a fair judgement one way or another. I do know that these considerations were indeed at the forefront of my mind as I wrote the pieces that are being published. Perhaps that’s enough.

The political reflections involve, of course, the last point, and the recent election of Joe Biden. I am not so naive as to believe that Fascism as a threat will recede with the election of a doddering moderate, no matter how far he may be pushed left. It’s not that I’m concerned that I’ll need to give up the fight against Fascism in my writing. Rather, I am wondering how the struggle to outwrite Fascism will shift, grow and change in a world where Neoliberalism rules the day? What new tactics will I need in my poetry when I must remind the reader that the enemy is still here, when it is hiding behind technocrats?

The Passed Pawn

I wrote the following during a Holes In the Wall 180 remote residency. I’m grateful to the Holes In The Wall Collective for holding space for my writing. Check out the residency website here and their general website here.

Chess is a game of constrained fractal movement. My earliest memories of it are of confusion and frustration, as my quickly growing childish hands, the largest in my class, knocked pieces over by accident and could not recall where they had been. I was prepared to love chess, with its 16 pieces, so convenient to fiddle with. Then I learned I should never touch a piece unless I was prepared to move it. The game turned to ashes in my young mouth. I was already too big, had too much energy, did not know when to sit, did not know my own strength when playing with others. Like the line of pawns I could not escape, I was always in the way of something important. One more past-time where I’d be too much? No thank you.

I picked up the game as a patient in a mental hospital in North Carolina. They didn’t call themselves a mental hospital, nor did they call me a patient. I was a “guest” at “a residential healing farm.” Such luxuries can be bought, for a rich man’s broken son, here at the start of a disastrous century. Place still failed the burrito test. I didn’t know about the burrito test at the time, a fellow crazy told me about it years later. Can you wake up in the middle of the night and microwave yourself a burrito? A simple task, a basic choice. If access to microwaves, burritos, and decisions are denied to you, than you are in a facility that has failed the burrito test, and you may not want to be there.

But we were allowed a chess board and pieces. Something clicked this time. My most frequent opponent was a Colombian of uncertain diagnosis with a languorous manner. He’d lean back in the comfortable chairs in our common spaces, and when I looked unsure about a move, would say, “Make the move. At least there will be fireworks.” Now when I reach middle games, I think of explosions, and I start to hum the 1812 overture.

I lost a lot of games to the Colombian, and to my friend Liam. Liam has the distinction of me being able to use his real name in a piece about that mental hospital because he’s dead, and can’t sue me for calling him crazy. Liam was bright, and younger than me, and depressed. He leaned into every activity they gave us to do, with what passed for passion among us depressives. He was even using the woodshop and leather working tools-it was a very ritzy mental hospital-to make a chess set. Sometimes we’d play on his set. I’d lose those games too.

Time moved on. I left the “residential healing farm” and tried to continue farming, since it was the only thing I’d done so far without panicking. Liam died his death, which was strange and painful and sad. Farming, when done without a staff of supportive mental health professionals, turned out to be too stressful. In three years, I was living in Montreal with a girlfriend, swearing never to go back to farmwork. Then Montreal got too cold, and the girlfriend and I moved to New York, where we got engaged. I returned to college, and then broke up with my fiancee, because things got too hard. I moved in with friends in Washington Heights and she went back to Canada.

This is when chess really picked up the pace. I began to study the game, to the neglect of my school work, which I eventually dropped out of. I’d play endless rounds of games with friends on the app from I’d read about Lasker, and Tarrasch, and Nimzowitsch. Nimzowitsch says about passed pawns, pawns that have made it a certain distance up the board and have been passed without being taken by their opposite pawns “for me the passed pawn has a soul just as a human being does. It has wishes that slumber unrecognized within it and has fears of whose existence ‘it hardly suspects’.” I bought set after set after set of chess men. I have about 15 now. Don’t ask me how much I spent, I wish I had that money back.

Here’s the important thing about chess: I never got better. I win a game here or there, when someone’s not careful. I mostly lose. Badly.

Chess is fractal. It goes all the way up, and all the way down. But fractal patterns look different at different scales. I fail at chess. Did I also fail at life, with my mental health breakdowns, my depression, quitting farm work and various schools, ending my relationship with my fiancee, frittering away my father’s money on chess sets, of all things? I have lost time, and material, and have no strategy. In some ways, my life with depression is very much like a chess game.

Fractal patterns look different at different scales. I beat depression by learning that life is like a chess game: you can lose and still have fun. You can lose and it’s still a game that you’re playing. There is always another game. Keep playing. I am a passed pawn. Depression and Madness had their shot to end my life. I survived, I kept moving forward. I have wishes that slumbered unrecognized within me. I am learning to recognize them. I make the moves. At least there will be fireworks. And I might end up a king.

Our Plague Year: After

There are thoughts I don’t want to allow myself to think. There are thoughts that I am not allowed near, for fear that thinking the thought makes it true. There are thoughts that I am not allowed near because of how hard they are to think, to picture, to hold in the mind. There are thoughts that are both.

Not without sadness, but nevertheless cheerfully, we go about our days. Hello, how are you? Nice to talk to you. Yes, I’m struggling too. I’m sorry to hear it’s been so hard. After all this is over, we should get a drink. Post-pandemic, let’s hang out. Once people are travelling again, you should come stay by us.

What if there is no after? I have never been a technology optimist. I have never believed that we will invent ourselves out of the struggles we have to share. I was suspect when smart phone apps were hailed as the solution to this or that problem. The “Information superhighway” becomes the dark and terrible corners of the internet all too easily. I believe that solidarity and caring are underrated solutions, chemistry and robotics and programming overrated.

So why should I believe that there is a magic vaccine waiting for us, on the other side of tomorrow? Why should I think I will live to see an after this? Because I am young, and life stretches out before me? Because I am healthy, thank God, and I have the means to stay that way? Many others have had these advantages. They did not live to see the end of the Virus. They did not live to After.

It is not that I believe the disease will or won’t catch up to me, that I am in danger. It is that I am curious about what we are not admitting to ourselves about what it means that this virus is here. Perhaps it is a matter of how young I am. I am of a generation that could not stop climate change. We watch powerless as the waters rise, the storm grows more severe, the species grow rarer, and then disappear all together.

We are no strangers to grief, titanic grief, grief beyond the limits of ourselves. And yet, we entertain the idealism of our grandparents and parents, who run the papers, the news stations, the governments, and of our children, who naturally have not seen what we have seen yet. Oh, there will be a vaccine next year? I’m sure there will. Yes, I love you too. Yes, I can’t wait to see you, after all this is over.

But what if we began with: the world has changed, as it will always change. It has changed disastrously. We must grieve the old world, as we welcome the new. We must hold each other tightly, as one by one we are picked off. We’re all in this together now. After all, what comes after life?

ADHD: A personal history

For #ADHDAwarenessMonth, I’m sharing a piece of writing I did about two years ago on diagnoses, parents, and the social theory of disease.

There are so many words that imply that things are untrue, unreal, ephemeral, but the things they refer to are solid and undeniable. Take the idea “Societally constructed” for instance. It reeks of disdain. “This is only societally constructed.” we might say, “it has no natural existence, no biological basis.” But try going up against your society. Try stepping one toe out of line. Feel the weight come crashing down.

My disease is societally constructed. The truth is, the chemicals inside me, the balances of humors, the delicate interplays of lightning between cells, all that ticks away smoothly and surely. Instead, what is out of balance are the people around me, their hopes and fears for me, their hopes and fears OF me. I have known this from a young age, even when I parroted back ideas like “chemical imbalance”, even when I trustingly took pills from my father’s hand and swallowed them. 

Psychiatric diagnoses are like first kisses, both a culmination and a beginning. Just as it’s hard to pinpoint that first moment when you want to kiss someone, find them desirable, hope they want you as well, so too it’s difficult to know precisely when you begin to suffer, when a fear becomes anxiety, when sadness deepens into depression. And just as first kisses are erotically and romantically tinged with everything that can come after, sex, a romance, a marriage, children, a life spent together, so diagnoses borrow gravitas and tragedy from all they imply: struggles with symptoms, treatment and its side effects, and of course, death. Even diagnoses that should by all rights be framed as “good news, it’s just X” come shaded with the near miss of “I’m so sorry, I’m afraid it’s Y.” We never forgive doctors their proximity to death, and they seem to bring it into every pronouncement they make. 

My father is a doctor.

In second grade, my teacher took my scissors away. I couldn’t be trusted with them. I had a tendency to use them to snip at my sleeves. Then I would explore the holes I had made, unravelling my sweaters around me, endlessly fascinated by the patterns in the weft of the fabric as I pulled and pulled the loose strings I had created. I have often found this project of destruction cathartic and revealing. I learn best about something by taking it apart to the point where it no longer functions. But teachers aren’t there to make sure that you learn best, they are there to make sure that you conform to certain practices that are called an education, that you sit still, and absorb information dutifully and quietly. Teachers are there to discipline.

My mother is a teacher.

What was so frightening, about a small boy who chewed holes in his clothes, wrote dismal poems about God, and spent too much time by himself? The truth is, quite a lot. Children are unnerving, we do not like who we are in their eyes, how they reflect so much back. My father procrastinates, my mother worries. A child who daydreams is called “Inattentive” a child who grows agitated is called “Hyperactive.” Later on, he may be depressed or anxious or narcissistic. 

I was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder when I was 9, the year after they took my scissors away. It apparently doesn’t exist anymore. Only Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and its three subdivisions: Predominantly Inattentive, Predominantly Hyperactive-Impulsive, and Combined. Where do diagnoses go when they no longer exist? What becomes of us patients who are treated for Hysteria, Idiocy, Nervous Agitation, Attention Deficit Disorder (no Hyperactivity)? Some of us get new diagnoses, sure. I myself have been awarded Major Depressive Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Sometimes multiple diagnoses present at the same time. That’s a rather contented but crowded feeling, like wearing one layer too many on a cold day. Sometimes you get stripped of your diagnoses when they give you a new one. That’s quite sad, like when your friend who lives next door moves away and a new kid your age moves into the house and your mom sets up a play-date with him. The house is more familiar than your new friend. You still feel depressed and anxious, but no, apparently you’re just fooling yourself and others, because what you’ve really got is a Personality Disorder. 

I could teach you about ADHD. It would involve doctors with grandiose names like Melchior Adam Weikard, or Sir George Frederic Still. But I am not a teacher (like my mother) and the history of doctors (like my father) is not a history I’m interested in. Instead, I wonder about the boys. ADHD is diagnosed more in boys, about twice to three times as much as in girls. I wonder about these boys, these fidgeting boys, these daydreamy boys. Mooncalves and luftmenschen. And I wonder what happened to them before the ritalin, before the classroom aides, before the doctors were even consulted. Did the teachers take their scissors away? What about in a time before teachers? Were boys daydreaming as hunter-gatherers, as peasants and serfs, as mill and farm laborers? What happens to a boy who can’t take an education, if you don’t give him one? I worry about them, these long dead boys. What happened when they were caught with their minds wandering? Did they fail to see that saber-toothed tiger leap? Were they beaten for failing to notice that the local lord or priest was passing by? Did they get their fingers caught in the mill’s wheels and machinery? I fear that inattention at crucial moments decreased the survival chances of those with ADHD. We are being bred out of the species. Soon there will be none of us left.

Of course, that brings up the question of genetics, which in turn brings up fate and destiny. Then again, the mere fact of a psychiatric diagnosis and treatment brings up questions of brain chemistry and then that brings up free will. All this because of a few holes I cut in my sweaters! And a few twirled pencils. Doodles in the margin. Never finishing a thought. Long hours spent staring out windows when I should be, oh, I don’t know, doing math, quietly, in a chair? Or playing politely and not overly-robustly with the other children? There are any number of things a child should be doing, should be prepared for, should be educated for. We have so much we want to say to them, so much we want to teach. And they just want to stare out windows, or cut holes in their sweaters. Education is a process where our dreams of adulthood, which is to say, our regrets of what we were unprepared for and our hopes for the future, meet children. Regrets and hope and children. Put them all in one big building and you have a school.

But you put all those children together and you start to notice things. Or maybe it’s more that you don’t notice things. When you have 30 children in a room, after all, they start to blur together, tiny voices at half your height, running around. But what stands out? One child doesn’t sit when he’s told to sit. Doesn’t seem to even hear. You write to his parents, they say, he doesn’t pay attention when we say sit either. And after enough of this muttering between adults, it’s off to the doctor. And the doctor administers tests. Long tests. Standardized tests. Hard tests. The doctor analyzes information. Medicine is a process where ideas about Science meet the human body in distress. Science and distress and bodies. Put them all in one big building and one thing you’ll have is a hospital.

I have read Foucault. When you are skeptical of things like education, or psychiatry, inevitably someone gives you Foucault. Foucault makes it easy to grow philosophical, and cynical, about education, and easy to grow philosophical and cynical about medicine. If you can’t tell by now, I am skeptical of the projects of psychiatry and education, and their relationship. The school room becomes the hospital, or, in my case, the psychiatrist’s office, all too easily. But there’s a missing room from my story: The Jail cell. There are worse things to do with children’s bodies besides pump them full of odd drugs, and too many children in this country, usually black or brown children, have their inability to be educated-that is, disciplined-not medicalized, but criminalized. Put regrets and bodies and distress into a big building, and one thing you’ll have is a prison.

But skepticism aside, one still needs to learn, and one still needs to heal. And for all the Freudian analyses coupled to the Foucauldian ones, my father is not some sadistic mad doctor, sticking me with pins and filling me with pills, and my mother is not a harsh school marm humorlessly demanding I behave. They have only ever wanted me to learn and heal, which is to say, to grow up. It’s not fair to tear down the projects of education and medicine just because I like cutting holes in things.

ADHD makes growing up difficult, because fundamentally, it is an atrophied sense of time and consequence. The ADHD child has difficulty understanding the connection between an action and its result. The longer a result takes to make itself known, the more unfathomable its connection to the action for the ADHD child. This is why I never practiced my trombone, this is why I never joined a sport. I could not understand the correlation between a skill becoming less frustrating, less difficult, and the suffering through it being both. Suffering always felt like just suffering, never suffering towards a goal. 

This profoundly impacted my sense of right and wrong. If suffering is not redemptive, does not repair or teach, then it is just cruel. And so I find myself opposing my parents’ disciplines, their disciplines that discipline, medicine and education, and the hospitals and schools and prisons that that disciplining entails. To force the body to sit when it would run, to drug it until it will sit, to jail it if it will not sit, this is abhorrent to me. And so is growing up.

Mental illness is many things, but surely it is also a discordance between what is socially agreed to be reality and what an individual experiences. I was told I was just growing up. To me, it was Kafkaesque torture. Classrooms full of activities I couldn’t see the point of. Being told to rely on skills I couldn’t master instantly, and so, couldn’t imagine ever mastering. My mind racing at some moments, and some moments, taking hours to simply gaze at a leaf, thinking nothing. In love with books and stories, I was powerless to make sense of my own narrative. I awoke every day in a body that was constantly getting older, having new needs and abilities, unsure of how I’d got there.
I have been on and off prescription grade stimulants since I was 9 years old. I have been in and out of therapy since I was 9, too. I have been in and out of school since I was 6. I am now 31. I do not know how dishes get clean, even when I wash them. I do not know how this essay got written, though I wrote it. There are thoughts I’m not allowed to go near, and one of them is the idea that my parents were complicit in my medicalization as an indirect way of addressing their own short-comings. I don’t know if I should or want to say that. For one thing, it might not be true. But for another, it is not as productive as saying, “Society medicalizes all Mad people because of the shortcomings of society.”

The Fight At The Start Of The World

Atenea and I got in an argument today discussing the Rosh Hashanah dvar torah we heard, which she loved and which I found myself struggling with. The dvar was about the story of Hagar and Sarah. Briefly summarized, when Sarah struggles to conceive the promised heir of Abraham, she “gives” Hagar, her enslaved Egyptian servant, to her husband, that they might have a son. When Sarah perceives a change in attitude to her from Hagar during Hagar’s pregnancy, she demands Abraham allow her to deal harshly with the enslaved woman, who then runs into the wilderness. Hagar is then rescued by God, whom she calls El Roei, “God who sees me” and she and her son, Ishmael (“God will hear him”) is eventually restored to Abraham’s household, though Ishmael, too, will face the wilderness eventually.

The dvar torah, delivered by Rabbi Tamara Cohen, paid special attention to a reading of Hagar and Sarah’s relationship as one of tragic unequals, sisters in womanhood whose ability to treat one another well is disrupted by the hierarchy between them, what Rabbi Cohen, quoting Isabel Wilkerson, described as a caste system. That caste system Rabbi Cohen paralleled to the Wilkerson’s description of the American system of white supremacy and racism. This reading was a familiar one to Rabbi Cohen, who has for years been exegetically expounding on the relationship between Sarah and Hagar as exploitative and cruel on Sarah’s part, often imagining some sort of reunion and rapprochement, perhaps on Sarah’s deathbed.

Using the works of Black Christian Womanist theologians and anti-racist writings, as well as Jewish feminists, Rabbi Cohen examined her own assumptions as a white, Queer woman rabbi in imagining that coming together of Hagar with Sarah, her oppressor. Would Hagar even want to forgive Sarah? Are we, in imagining this scene, exculpating ourselves from our own mistreatment of the Other, particularly a racial Other? Are we white Jews exemplifying white fragility by demanding that Black Jews and other Jews of color forgive us, that Hagar forgive Sarah?

While offering no tidy conclusions, Rabbi Cohen reflected on the fact that in the moment and community of reconstructing Judaism, she is grateful for the opportunity to do so. Rabbi Cohen praised the Reconstructionist movement’s rejection of the language of Chosenness, and their openness to Torah that can include other theologians, saying how powerful it is that these are shared texts between traditions. She also remarked that we must further the cause of Black Jews’ Torah, and encouraged a post holiday donation to Ammud: The Jews of Color Torah Academy.

The argument between Atenea and I grew out of our sharing of thoughts on the dvar torah in a breakout group. I spoke first, and pointed out that I’m not a Reconstructionist, that I do believe in using language of Chosenness to describe the Jewish people’s relationship with God, and that I felt alarmed by Rabbi Cohen’s use of non-Jewish theologians. I made the point that I believe that we did not by choice and freedom “share” these texts and traditions with Christians. Rather, I believe the texts to have been wrenched from the Jewish context by cultural and physical violence. I did not say that the texts were then forced on Black thinkers by the same forces of violence. Perhaps I should have.

In either case, Atenea pointed out that I had focused on the theological details of Chosenness and the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, when Rabbi Cohen’s point had been about the mistreatment and exclusion of Black people and People of Color from our spaces, about Racism more broadly, and in particular about Hagar, a character of great significance to Black Jews and Jews of Color. Rabbi Cohen had called on us not to deflect or be fragile when confronted with our racism. Had I not just done that very thing by refusing to address her substantive point?

The fight, as my father says, was not about the fight. It was about what certain others hear when certain people say certain words, what it sounds like for a white man, Jewish though I am, to say in front of his Latina wife, Jewish though she is, “I am Chosen and others are not.” What does that mean for my family, thought Atenea? What is this man saying about the suffering of people of color like me and mine, the struggle and toil of our lives compared to the ease of his? Is he saying it is deserved? That it is right? That it is Chosen?

I always seem to learn something from Atenea when we disagree. I hope she would say the same, and fear she would not. I want to share what I learned from my wife during our disagreement, because I think it’s relevant to all Torah, especially mine: Whenever we talk Torah, including in one on one discussions, but especially in public discussions, we must, must, MUST be speaking Torah with respect and openness to everyone in the room. We can NOT be teaching a Torah of exclusion, of the smallness of the soul, of ourselves. We must always be teaching a Torah of welcoming, of the soul as expansive, the Torah of Others. If God sees Hagar and hears Ishmael, then we must imitate God. We must see and hear the people all around us, and what they have to teach.