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.

My Empress

In the arrogance of youth, I once remarked to a science teacher that science had yet to explain the wind. He replied with a not overly detailed but thorough explanation of basic meteorology. The distortions of the atmosphere, responding to tectonic movement, create the wind. So as the earth creaks and bulges to contain its own pressures, the windows of my house follow suit. I’m thinking about that, as an unseasonal tempest outside rattles said windows, and strips the beautiful, trumpet like purple flower petals off my empress tree.

I didn’t always think of it as “my empress tree.” Before it bloomed, I considered it a rather ugly addition to my property, and a potential litigious trap: the roots are pushing up the sidewalk; if someone trips and falls, I could be in trouble. In those days, of distrust and distaste, I thought of it as “that tree out front” or simply, “the tree.” I didn’t even bother to identify its species until the week the flowers appeared. Its name only appeared when it became beautiful. So too, the genitive “My empress.”

I have always cherished my relationship to beautiful, precious things. For many years and in many cases, simply being in relationship, knowing that such a thing was in the same world as me, has been enough. To know where the Mona Lisa is in relative distance to oneself, to see the Chrysler building in the skyline, to peer through glass at the folios of Shakespeare; that suffices. That fulfills.

But sometimes I need to possess an object, be possessed by it. So collecting begins. I won’t say much about the theory of collecting. If you’ve read “Unpacking My Library” by Walter Benjamin, he comes very close to a capital-T Truth on the nature of the collector. But deep within the mysterious relationship between person and object, I hope to still find something to say.

When I was a child I’d collect playing cards and fortune cookie fortunes, circuit boards and tchotchkes. A child’s collecting, like much of a child’s life, is about exploring and differentiating. I wanted to know the wide world of the objects I collected, and I wanted these objects to set me and themselves apart from the other objects around me. My mother, herself an avid collector, encouraged me to read about my objects, to learn how to seek them out in odd corners and memorable places. So books became added to my collections. Books about beetles, about history, about books. My knowledge of the world blossomed through my knowledge of the items around me. The world was explored as it entered my little room by the stairs.

Differentiation, the process by which my objects would set me apart, and my interest in them would mark them as special, proved trickier. My mother’s patronage had a price. Anything that took up space in her house, bought with her or my father’s money, was, by her accounting, hers to do with as she wished. I could defend my possessions while I lived with them, but when I left home at 16, I learned the great grief of the collector, bereft of his collection, starting from scratch.

Even in adulthood, to differentiate my individual self by my objects, while building collections of clothes, books, shoes, chess sets, records, has been difficult. Due to my ongoing struggles with debilitating anxiety and depression, I don’t work. My father and mother provide me with a generous allowance on which I live. A pleasant problem to have, and you are right. I am very blessed and lucky. But what, precisely, do I own, bought, as it is, with my father’s money?

Perhaps this is why I prefer the neutral grammatical descriptor “genitive” over the more capitalistic “possessive.” When I speak of my tree and my house (a mortgage my father cosigned) and my books and my records (bought with my parents’ money) or my clothes (gifts from my mother), am I truly in possession of any of them? Or am I simply in relation to these objects, that swirl around me in an intimate way?

In any case, I’ve just had to make some big decisions for “My empress.” Over the summer, she has grown bushy and inconvenient. Her shade starves the grass and flowers in my front yard. Her branches makes walkers on the sidewalk duck. So I’m getting men in to cut those branches, strip them, open up a little more air.

What do I owe this tree? What does this tree owe me? I trim it back, it lives another day. I collect it, in the sense that it is one of my things, a bauble I have control over. Or perhaps I collect it, in the sense of “collect your relatives.” I call it back, I rein it in, I am in relationship to it and when it is out of line, I need to do something.

And then there is one more way it is mine. As I look out over the tree in its splendid morning light, it is golden and emerald, it is shady and glorious. Perhaps it reproaches me for shaving off a branch or two here or there. But it defines my house in its regal bearing, its preening branches. I am its, as much as it is mine. It reigns supreme over me. My empress.

It Does Not Matter

I wrote this piece two years ago on a different platform, and have decided to share it here on the anniversary of Allende’s death.

Today, on the 45th anniversary of the United States backed military coup that toppled his democratically elected socialist government and ended his life, I read the last public speech of President Salvador Allende of Chile. It can be found in Spanish and English here. The speech was delivered as the military battered down the door, and in recordings of it, you can hear the hammering, and the shouted instructions to Allende to open.

I was struck by one phrase in particular, where Allende regrets that the “calm metal of my voice” “el tranquilo metal de mi voz” will no longer reach his beloved Chileans. It is a stunningly beautiful phrase, a stunningly modern one. What do these two values, beauty and modernity, have to do with the moment they were spoken in?

Beauty has many political uses, not all of them trustworthy. A stirring song in one quavering brave voice, a flag in the breeze, the precision and repetition of a military march; all these tend towards unity, and the aesthetics of unity, tend towards fascism. The goal of a single purpose, a single will, behind the actions of many, is ultimately authoritarian, and can not be trusted to have the interests of those many in mind. But beauty can also create depth of feeling, true empathy, and thus lead to the compassion and solidarity of a just community. Seeing the pain of another distilled to its essence, and knowing you must rise up to their aid; seeing the love between neighbors, friends, lovers; one man’s struggle to do what is right, all these bring us together in remarkable ways. I choose to believe that this is the purpose of the beautiful in Allende’s speech.

As for modernity, there is the sad possibility that Allende, in alluding to “the calm metal of his voice,” was acutely aware of his existence in the lives of the people he served, led, and died for. The only way Allende reached Chile, reached the campesinos and trabajadores who peopled his political hopes and imagination, was as a calm, metal voice, a radio signal. In his last moments, it is achingly clear that Allende was aware that a modern leader is, ultimately, not much more to his people than a tinny voice in a box and a series of images in the newspapers.

What of the calm -or not so calm- metal and digital voices in our own lives? We are 17 years past our own historiographically significant 9/11, in the heart of the empire that reached out and squashed Allende like an annoying insect. Our own politicians are experts in manipulating the series of images and sounds that attest to their existence in our lives. President Bush was a masterful performer and stager of state theater. From his Mission Accomplished landing in a flight suit, to his Texan growling that he wanted Bin Laden, “dead or alive,” Bush and his team crafted images that dominate our senses to this day.

There is a certain anarcho-cynicism in my thinking, and there are days when I wonder: was Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” any more of a ridiculous posturing, a Big Man swaggering above the heads of us little people, than Allende’s calm metal voice? But ultimately, I have to pay attention to context, not just of Bush and Allende’s relative political positions and actions, but of the words themselves. Allende follows his regret that he will no longer reach the Chilean people through their radios with two simple words. “No importa.”

“No importa.” “It does not matter.” By dismissing his own sentimental longing to be able to go on, to keep talking to Chile, Allende makes the most radical point of his whole speech. The radio, the newspaper headlines, the armies marching in the street, the American Empire: they do not matter. Only you matter. You, el campesino. You, the woman worker. You, the youth. You are Chile. You are the People, El Pueblo, and you will go on, forever, in glory and strength.

A Question About The Past, In Search Of The Future

You have a miraculous machine, a machine that does wonders. You turn it on. The machine welcomes you, it knows you, this is one of its wonders. You ask the machine a question, and the machine shows you a magical space. In this magical space, you can see and speak with your loved ones, no matter how far away they are. For this the machine extracts a terrible price. You try not to think about the terrible price the machine extracts as you talk to your loved ones. They are so dear to you, you are filled with joy at the mere knowledge that they still exist, that they are here, that you can reach them, talk to them. Sometimes, you talk about what a terrible price the machine, which they also have, is extracting from you. You say, how can it be so terrible? It is merely what is required by the machine.

Then you remember the evil men. These are evil men who also have miraculous machines. They have done and said terrible things, and the machines have learned from them. Learning is the most marvelous, wondrous thing that the machine you have does, and it is the terrible price that it is extracting from you. Every day, the machine learns, and every day, you speak to your loved ones, and every day, it knows more and more. The machine tells the evil men what it has learned, and the evil men now know you, better than you know yourself. They do their evil with their machines and their knowledge of you. Every day your loved ones grow more and more frightened. Every day you grow more and more frightened. When you turn on the machine, when you go to the magical space, you speak with your loved ones, you discuss their fears and yours. The evil men know this, as they know everything that your machine knows. The evil men speak amongst themselves, in their own magical spaces. They quite like being feared, they agree. It suits you, says one evil man to another. Likewise, he replies.

Remembering the evil men, remembering the magical place, remembering the miraculous machine, it all hurts. You wish not to remember. This is the machine’s other wondrous trick. You do not have to remember when you use it. It can take you away from so many memories, it can ease and soothe and calm. This is yet another terrible price that the machine extracts from you: your pain, your memories.

If you were allowed your memories by the machine, perhaps you would remember when it was a simple machine, a tool like many others. Could it do wonders then? Yes, of course. All tools can do wonders. Let us imagine the early days of this miraculous machine, since we can no longer remember them. The days before you asked the machine a question, and it would respond with a magical space where all your loved ones gather. If I said to you simply, there is a machine, and it does wonders, what would you imagine it could do?

Kill the Dog

Content Warning: Animal cruelty, Nazism.

A friend’s great uncle killed and ate a German shepherd that belonged to a Gestapo officer; he butchered and ate it with his fellow prisoners. By depriving the Nazis of a weapon, he provided a meal for his Jewish brothers. He consumed that which would have destroyed him. With his teeth he rent apart the flesh that would have, with its teeth, rent apart his flesh. Perhaps this is what is meant by justice, and perhaps this is what is meant by “We cannot destroy the Master’s house with the Master’s tools.” He did not train the dog to attack its master. He could not do that, could not turn the living tool on its original holder. He could only kill the dog and eat it, gaining strength to survive the long war.

Have I ignored the life of the dog? I remember reading the work of a German writer, who said he turned against the Nazi regime as a child because his Jewish neighbors’ dog was killed when they took the Jews away. His Nazi nurse tried to comfort him by saying, “Don’t cry, it was a Jewish dog.” The ridiculousness of this response was the beginning of the end of this German’s Nazi education; he was, forever after, subversive in his heart. What would this tender hearted child have thought of Jews eagerly slaughtering and fending off starvation with the meat of this other dog? Would his sympathies have become muddled? Nazis kill dogs. Jews kill dogs. Aren’t we all just dog-killers?

We are not children. We know context matters. The shooting of a dog, pathetically barking as its masters are dragged away to a concentration camp, that’s a tragedy that ends our infatuation with power. Once that infatuation is well and truly dead, we can rejoice in the idea of a starving prisoner rising against and eating a dog who tormented the prisoner at the end of its master’s leash, a dog who probably had eaten better than the prisoner. We have journeyed from the soft heart of childhood, to the cold fury of an adult longing for Justice.

What we can not account for, is the dog. We can not know the soul of this creature whose natural loyalty has been abused, turning it into a weapon. We can not know whether the dog, under a better master, would have been faithful and kind. In the world the Nazi builds, we can not question whether the dog is a tool or a living creature, with thoughts and feelings of its own. Do dogs love? Do they care? We can not pet the dog, can not sink our fingers into its fur until our hands stink of dog, look into its tender and soulful eyes, and wonder how like us it is. We can only kill the dog, and feast.

On Home: Letter to Alexis, a German friend, June 2020

Dear Alexis,

Well, as it turned out, I owed you a letter about home anyway! So let us talk home and house and heimat und die unheimlich. 

When I was a boy I read a wonderful children’s book called the Big Orange Splot, by Daniel Pinkwater, in which Mr. Plumbean lives in a beautiful house next to several other, uniform beautiful houses. They all look alike. Everyone praises this “neat street”. But one day, a mysterious pelican carrying a can of paint drops said can on Mr. Plumbean’s house, leaving a wild orange splot. Instead of submitting to his neighbor’s demands to restore the house to its suburban conformity, Plumbean paints his house additional wild colors to match and accentuate the splot. Then, when his neighbors come one by one to remonstrate, he convinces them all to make their houses look like “where they like to be, and make it look like all their dreams.” So the street grows heterogeneous and not neat. Lovely little moral about resisting conformity, no?

I am at home in the Northeastern United States, specifically in what we call the Midatlantic states and their coastal cities. New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania. This part of the world is known by its people, its original people, as “Lenapehoking” or “Lenapehawken”, the Place of the Lenni-Lenape, the Real People, also known as the Delaware tribe. I have read that other Algonquian-speaking peoples sometimes referred to the Lenape as the Grandfather people, some idea of them as progenitors of the other indigenous peoples of the Northeast. I’m not too well informed on that. Unfortunately, the life and history of the Lenape is not integrated into the curriculum of local studies that I was subject to in my youth on their land. They themselves are mostly distantly displaced, largely on reservations in Oklahoma, Wisconsin, and Ontario.

My house is situated on a sedate semi-affluent street in a sedate semi-afflutent part of northwest Philadelphia called Mt. Airy, one neighborhood south of the truly wealthy and White neighborhood Chestnut Hill, and one north of the more impoverished and working class and Black neighborhood of Germantown. We chose the area for its unique history of housing integration, and the role the Jewish community we joined played in that history. The Germantown Jewish Centre was a leading voice in the neighborhood’s efforts to resist blockbusting and redlining and all that racist real estate garbage that is one of the more recent chapters in this nation’s shameful history of discrimination and cruelty. The synagogue is often proud of that history, and sometimes I worry it rests too much on its laurels. Then again, my inbox is full of calls to actions for Black Lives Matter from the indefatigable community listserv, so maybe the kids are all right after all.

What seems to impress most of our visitors are the colors we chose for the house. A lovely sunset orange for the dining room. Bubblegum pink for the stairwell bannister and our bedroom. Purple for the office. It was important to me that the house be colorful, almost garish. I took inspiration from our time in Atenea’s Mexico, which I think flattered and satisfied Atenea. I have lived so much in institutionally grey spaces, spaces where I was not encouraged to think of the walls as my own, spaces where the walls did not cheer me. Now my walls encourage and gladden me, they do not just constrain me, and I am grateful to them.

This house is a product of my father’s wealth, which is, of course, a product of his father’s. The United States was unique in its early permissiveness towards Jews gathering familial wealth. My father is a doctor. His father was an engineer, and claimed once he could have made a fortune if he had invested, as he was invited to, in prefab housing. Are you familiar with the concept? Basically mass produced houses, produced in slabs and easily transported by truck or train to their location, where they could be simply assembled. This sort of housing became hugely popular in the fifties and sixties, leading to a millions of “neat streets” where the houses all looked the same, and a massive housing boom which the population could keep up with but the market couldn’t. But I digress. In any case, I never met a Jew of my grandfather’s generation who didn’t miss out on a fortune if they’d only invested quickly enough, and they all seemed to turn out fine, and their sons turned out fine, and their grandsons turned out like me. 

I think I am beginning to write to you of Heimat, that mysterious notion that could, if possible, answer the question “Where are you from?” Do you see where I’m from? Lenapehoking, where the houses all look the same for the last 70 years. All neat in a row, we go about our lives, which are deeply divided and different from each other. We are suburbs grown wild, a massive pastoral fantasy inflicted on the City. My homeland is this sprawl and contraction, sprawl and contraction. Tsim tsum we call it in kabbalistic Hebrew. The contraction of God to make space for what? For all. For home.

What I like most about the wikipedia article on Heimat was the observation that Martin Luther used the word in his translation of Bereishis 24:7, that is, of the words מֵאֶרֶץ מוֹלַדְתִּי, “from the land of my nativity” which goes to show how little Luther knew, both of Torah, and of what the word Heimat would come to mean a mere handful of centuries later. History and Judaism have made a fool of Luther and a mockery of his translation. Why would Avraham avinu, our father Abraham, refer to his birth place as his “homeland”? He does not long for it in a romantic sense, he does not construct it as any more of a pastoral fantasy than his current lived reality, the nomadic life in Canaan. If Avraham has a homeland, he is in it as he speaks, in Canaan which will be called Israel, the land he was promised by the God he believes in unerringly. Stupid Luther. 

So tell me Alexis, what does Heimat mean to you, as a German? To me, German Heimat will always be shadowed by the death of the 6 million Unheimlich, my beloved fellow Jews, who are stubbornly not part of the concept, just as they inhabit it fully and beautifully. I’d say forgive the invocation of the Kollectivschuld, but like, we both know that that’s not how this works. This works where I get to talk about losing a world, and you sit there and wonder how to prevent the nation you were born in (your heimat?) from sinking back into that kind of cruelty, which robs people of a world. You are a person of good conscience, and I believe in your ability to make the world a better place.

Together, me with my unheimlich lost world, and you with your collective guilt in heimat, we’ll find a way forward. 
Love, Mordecai

On Jews, Looting, and Whiteness

As the George Floyd protests spread across the country and the world, my social media flooded with protest news, infographics about police brutality, and calls for solidarity. But there was a note of hesitation, primarily from older white Jews, uncles and bubbes and synagogue friends, commenting on my friends’ posts. They wanted to support the protestors, they really did. But what was all this looting? Why couldn’t the protests proceed “peacefully”? While my wife sent resources explaining the problems inherent in judging Black reactions to police violence, I thought about what in the history of my elders could be causing them so much concern. Too young and too American to be personally haunted by Kristallnacht, I wondered if they were perhaps thinking of a very different night of broken glass.

In the wake of the 1977 New York City Blackout, there were many questions. Con-Ed and the city wrote reports about why the grid had gone down, what could be done in the future to prevent such widespread outages. Grandmaster Caz and countless other DJs wondered what kind of music they could make with the new advanced sound equipment that had been looted from the stores. Sociologists and historians asked why there had been so much looting, especially compared to the similar Blackout of 1965. And one historian, Herbert Gutman, in the New York Times asked, “What about the Kosher Food Riots of 1902?

Despite his example’s specificity, Gutman’s point was broad, and nuanced. He notes the dehumanizing nature of the widespread animal metaphors in the editorials and magazines after the Blackout to discuss the majority Brown and Black looters. Gutman points out that in 1902, contemporary newspapers and commentators used such metaphors to describe the Jewish women who protested sky-rocketing kosher meat prices, many of whom were beaten and arrested. Gutman’s view of history vindicates the Jewish rioters, and by extension the Blackout looters. “Now . . . we know . . . about the world of our mothers and grandmothers. But do we understand enough about ourselves and the world in which the contemporary American poor live to comprehend the pained message that came to us [during the Blackout]?”

If we take Herbert Gutman’s argument at face value, we could see it as a particular tendency of post-Holocaust anti-Fascism. Gutman’s condemnation of the language used by commentators foreshadows Dr. Gregory Stanton’s classification of dehumanization as one of the Ten Stages of Genocide. But if we look closer, we can see an urgent racial message for White Jews that was ignored in 1977. 

Gutman’s empathy was not widespread. The Times ran a series of letter responses to him that howled “How dare you compare my mother and grandmother’s Lower East Side to the Bronx of 1977?” Later that month, Ed Koch would pull ahead in a contentious Mayoral race by condemning looting and crime, promising to campaign for capital punishment in New York state, in an audible racist dog-whistle. Gutman published a response to readers, further equating the Jewish rioters with the struggle of Black looters, citing the history of Black protest contemporary to the kosher meat riots, and comparing a quote from a Mrs. Ablowitz to a line from Langston Hughes.

Arrested during the 1902 disorders, [Mrs. Ablowitz] told a magistrate: “We know our wounds. . . We don’t riot. But if all we did was to weep at home, nobody would notice it.”

The black writer Langston Hughes would have understood Mrs. Ablowitz, and she would have understood Mr. Hughes when he wrote: “Seems like what makes me crazy has no effect on you/ I’m gonna keep on doing until you’re crazy too.”

Mrs. Ablowitz and Mr. Hughes did not share a common history. But a thin line connected them. A space filled with animal metaphors did not separate them.

Gutman speaks to Jews who had immigrant mothers and grandmothers in the riots, 2nd and 3rd generation American Jews, largely White and Ashkenazi. He draws an explicit line between their economic struggles and their insurrectionary politics and the poverty and rioting of Black and Brown New Yorkers in his time. In doing so, this middle aged White Jewish labor scholar showed himself significantly to the left of his community, who roundly rejected the comparison he was making.

The truth is, we are in a similarly divided position today on the Jewish left. Race remains a deeply controversial issue, with some of us examining our privileges as a community, and others wondering, what privileges? The shades of post-Holocaust leftism in Gutman’s argument may be less resonant to us, but the six million remain ever-present in our organizing. 

Karen R. Bodkin, in her insightful “How Jews Became White Folks And What That Says About Race In America” looks at the evolution of Whiteness to include the waves of Southern and Eastern European immigrants who came over in the so-called “Golden Age” of Immigration. She posits this process was completed with the cementing economic advantages of the G.I. Bill and redlining post World War II, the exact generation Gutman addresses in his New York Times op-ed. In light of her work, Gutman’s op-ed takes on a very different mission. 

Gutman is asking White Jews to remember the bad old days, when a Jew had no business talking to the police. When hunger was everywhere, and the prices climbed higher every day. Remember the fury, remember the insult, Professor Gutman seems to say. Remember the pain. And let it explode, outward. Now do you understand? Now are you with them, or against them?

In our grandparents’ day, Whiteness called to us as a safe haven, a place of rest and prosperity. Never mind its obvious contradictions and ambivalence towards us. We could make it here, in this country, if we played along. The George Floyd uprising, and the increasingly frequent cries from Jews of Color, demand our attention as White Jews. Every moment of Black insurrectionary violence is an invitation to all Americans but particularly to those of us with our own histories of suffering and struggle. We can remember the Jewish revolutionary program, the calls from within the tradition for Justice, our martyrs, our heroes. We can join our fellow Black Jews and other Black comrades in the street. Or we can continue accepting the dubious promise of White Supremacy that if we ignore our neighbors’ suffering and stand by the authorities, then we will stay safe.