20 July 2010

The Shadow Ghost

I'm fairly certain it was a ghost that knocked me on my ass in Trumpeldor Cemetery in Tel Aviv yesterday.

I had gone there to spend the middle part of the day, in the blazing heat and some precious moments of shade to compare experiences I often have when visiting places like Boston or Philadelphia (or living in New York) and visiting the graves of the Founders of America.  Trumpeldor Cemetery in Tel Aviv, is the eternal home of many of the city's Founders, as well as some key figures of early Zionism like Max Nordau, Ahad Ha'am and H.N. Bialik.  The city's first mayor, Meir Dizengoff is there, along with Saul Tchernikovksy, the painter Nahum Gutman, and the Yemenite singer Shoshana Demari.  It's a tranquil, beautiful place, set among some of the older houses and apartments of the earliest parts of the city--a mere 100 years old.  Appropriate to the culture of Tel Aviv, the dead are democratically arrayed and one sees, in the epitaphs carved in stone and marble, a colorful diversity of individual and aesthetic expression that speaks to Tel Aviv's generally creative nature.

Constitutionally, I'm a valorizer of the past.  Always have been.  In broad historical strokes, I'm one who generally believes that certain things about life were "better" before and one of those things is a sense of history and a singular commitment to reaching a goal.  Having recently started watching the HBO John Adams series with my kids, visiting colonial cemeteries on class trips, and comparing that experience to the unsophisticated and ludicrous rhetoric one sees coming out of American political movements today, I generally like to imagine that if the Framers and Founders could arise today and consider the inane expressions of political life in the United States today, that knock some heads together and teach many of these folks a lesson or two.

Well, I have the same generally perspective when it comes to those who built the state here.  What they created out of whole cloth, the massive migrations, the building of cities and infrastructures, the undeniably great odds they faced--I tremble to imagine I'd be capable of such achievement.  Feeling humbled and fortunate to be walking among their graves, I started taking pictures to enjoy later, in the cool comfort of my friends' apartment.  Walking from Bialik to Nordau from Shenkin to Dizengoff from Gutman to Kishon I was cognizant of trying to channel each while also owning the experience, commodifying the memory into a presentable, digestible, teachable series of stories and pictures.  Leaning into one such grave, that of one Leon Hazkel from New-York ( I loved the font, the dash, the simple presentation of the name on the stone ) I readied my camera and suddenly fell.  Having just run that morning, I thought on the way down, "I'm in good shape, I can slow this disaster" and so seemed to resist the backward tumble.  But something kept pushing at me, and as I seemed to do a gravity-defying feat of back-breaking heroism, I eventually gave way, twisting my knee, banging a rib or two, cutting a finger, all with the camera in my hand.
I lay in the white dust for a few moments, coming to my senses.  Had I hit my head?  (No.)  Was I bleeding?  (Not really.)  Were those ribs or an organ?  (Ribs.)  I looked around in case I needed help, which I didn't, and then slowly came to my senses.  I thought of malaria and riots; of whole families picking up and starting a city; of an ancient language being re-invented; of economies built; of a nation made.  As I slowly rose, I imagined a shadow standing over me, kindly mocking my pretentious aesthetic.
The shadow of history knocked me on my ass.  Ephemeral and immaterial--both of us.  So I jumped up, grabbed my camera, and took its picture before it got away.

On the day before Tisha B'Av, a day commemorating the ancient destruction of Jerusalem, we Jews mourn not only past historical destructions but our own propensity to devour ourselves with hatred, with anger, with unchained egotism, with self-service.  Even the accumulation of memory and history runs the risk of turning abstract ideas into objects of idolatrous worship.  Land, people, faith, God, and yes, pictures of things marking the dead.

"Well, look at it this way," my friend said later in the day.  "At least you didn't fall into a hole in the ground."

Not yet.  The shadow ghost knew what he was doing.

On the ground, son.  Now pick yourself up, dust yourself off.  Go build something.  And let the dead rest.

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