10 June 2013

Faces in the Crowd

Maybe it's all the shining silver rain, the slate grey light, and the muted greens of the new-leaved trees that highlights the stories our faces tell but there's so much to seeing people these days that reveals what it is we're all about:  our aspirations and mistakes; our soaring dreams and our usually redeemable fallibilities; and even the enlightened ones, emanating grace--and the evil ones, evoking pride and manipulation like a scalding, dangerous flame.  It's all there for us to see.

In this light we're all so perfectly human.  And by design, we're meant to see that essential humanness.

Evil, according to the Psalmist, is when God hides his face from man.  Righteousness is expressed in being seen.  "For the Eternal is righteous, he loves righteousness; the upright shall behold his face."  And, "How long will you hide your face from me?  How long will I take counsel in my soul, having sorrow in my heart by day?  How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?  Behold thou and answer me, Eternal my God; lighten my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death."

Yesterday out walking with the dog, I encountered some neighbors, an elderly Asian couple walking their dogs.  Usually we nod to one another in silence as our dogs explore each other's essentialness as lesser beasts.  These are modest moments.  But yesterday it seemed to last, so I broke the silence with words.  The wrong ones.  But the intent brought forgiveness.

"He's from Hong Kong," I began, mistakenly having assumed the couple to be Chinese.  Oh, the exclaimed, how interesting.  "Yes, a writer friend raised him in Hong Kong, brought him back to Brooklyn, and gave him to us.  He's nearly 10 years old now."  And then more silence.

"We're Japanese," they said, cracking a smile.  A robin attached to a fence over my shoulder--it's chest puffed in anticipation of the worms the rain had brought.

"Oh," I pivoted.  "And I'm an idiot.  I'm terribly sorry."  But then, to shamelessly save the moment, added, "I have recently begun a study of Japanese haiku.  It's something I've always wanted to read as a complement to Psalms, which I love so much.  I'm a rabbi."

My words like dried chestnuts,
crushed in pavement,
under car tires in autumn.

"My husband is one of the leading experts in haiku in North America," said his wife.  And so he gave me masters to read and invited me to come visit him and learn more about them.  "Basho's good.  And Buson, and Issa."  I nodded obediently.  They were the three I had decided to begin with.  We parted ways (our dogs had long moved on) and agreed to meet soon on the berm to continue the conversation.

What does it mean to meet a man and woman face to face?  To look into their eyes, past appearance, and discover an essentialness that is beneath the surface?  I thought of King David, beseeching God to show his face, to eradicate evil from the face of the earth.  I thought of Levinas, daring us to see, in another's eyes, the Divine Image, the Radical Other of Existence, and the commandment "not to kill."

I returned home, grabbed my collection of haiku and went to Basho and felt a great laugh, deep from within, the laughter of recognition and truth:

Year after year
on the monkey's face
a monkey's face.

King David and Basho talking to each other.  It will be a great summer.

07 June 2013

No Alternative

Early this morning, a gray and rainy day, I stood in line to get into my synagogue in a traffic jam of kids in strollers, parents and care-givers, umbrellas, jackets and clumsy boots.  One big mess.  A beautiful mess.  The crowd moved throughout the building, some up the stairs to their classroom and past the kitchen where a dozen volunteers quietly made 500 meals for residents of the Gravesend Houses off Neptune Avenue and 33rd Street in Coney Island.  Mayor Bloomberg praised those efforts in a speech he gave to the board of the URJ last week, a source of humility and pride for our community and its ongoing efforts post-Sandy.

Pride for the recognition, of course, but humility when one sees face to face the poverty that torments thousands in our city.  Driving down Neptune Avenue, one could see small pockets of flooding accumulating from the last day of rain, strong gusts of wind from the storm Andrea unburdening herself on the shoreline, and while comfortable and mission-driven in my car with meals for 500, a certain anxiety crept into my consciousness, for the next storm, for the 'fire next time.'

The chronically impoverished took the hardest hit from Sandy and as the car pulled up to the housing project and a few volunteers came to help me unload, I looked to my left and saw a line of others getting groceries from the back of a truck.  Scaffolding shielded them from rain but provided no permanent shelter or work.  After all, scaffolding is usually up to repair facades in this city.  The need for permanent, affordable, livable housing, with jobs and schools to lift these people to a dignified existence--this is the infrastructure we so desperately need.  Driving back I heard the Mayor being interviewed on the radio about this weekend's wet weather.  My car wheels kicked up a small pond in my lane on the Belt Parkway.  Part of the problem is a broken down sewer system that needs replacing; it takes time, he said, but we're making progress.

He's right.  From bridges to highways; from housing to schools; from poverty to homelessness to hunger to gun violence, change is a long, slow road.  But we have to travel down that road together, no matter what distinctions one hides behind.  The rain and wind, as Sandy taught us well, are the great equalizers in this town.  You can run but you can't hide from the next one, just around the corner.

That was the anxiety I was feeling driving in the rain.  There'll be another storm.  It will be just as devastating as the last.  Maybe worse.  And like before, we'll dig ourselves out of it and help each other.  No alternative.  Thank God for today.

Harry the volunteer at Gravesend told me that as I passed to him cartons of apples, egg salad, tuna and turkey sandwiches.  "The synagogue's turkey sandwiches are delicious," he said with a big smile.  "It's Friday, Beth Elohim is coming, and they're bringing us turkey sandwiches!"

I nodded across the way toward people in line.  "Gotta help,"  he said.  "No alternative.  Thank God for today."
Back at the synagogue I met with a mom who is organizing against gun violence.  We made a plan for me to call rabbis next week and get them to sign a national letter encouraging legislators to pass meaningful laws to help prevent gun violence.  It'll be one phone call at a time; not too difficult; necessary.  She made a couple interesting observations in our meeting:  that a number of people want guns to protect themselves against other people in their community who are tormenting their communities with guns.  Case in point:  this past weekend in Brooklyn there were a number of shootings that traumatized the neighborhoods in which they took place and not everyone concluded that fewer guns were necessarily the answer.   Another point, of course, is that while the nation is finally galvanizing around debating meaningful legislation, impoverished and predominantly black and minority neighborhoods, have been plagued by violence that exceed Sandy Hook exponentially.  That the real coming together after Sandy and Sandy Hook will be in recognizing the systemic problems will not be solved until we understand the real connections and responsibilities we have for one another.  After all, the availability of good jobs, decent housing, and good schools are a solid gun prevention program, too.  In other words, everything IS actually connected.  And it's usually happening right where you live.  Solving big problems often comes from seeing them as small problems, relevant to where you are, locally.

When Korach leads a rebellion against Moses in Numbers, claiming "each of us is holy--why do you think you're so special?" he betrays a dangerous construct which leads to his downfall.  The Sages argue that besides being a humble servant--Moses didn't ask to lead, rather circumstances demanded that he lead--Moses understands that holiness only works in community when a community is unified as "one people."  When there is a shared purpose and vision and sense of shared responsibility, of fate.  "Each of us is holy," betrays Korach's mis-reading of history--the dangers, if you will, of an over-abundance of individuality.  Our individual desires and rights, so passionately held up as American ideals, run the risk of threatening the very foundation of our unity as a society.

Sandy's rains washed away those distinctions; diminished the city's divisions; and brought each of us closer to one another--not just to help one another get through the rough times but in order to begin to understand what work there is to be done so that in the end we are "from many, one."  One big mess that we clean up one person at a time, one home at a time, one project at a time, one street at a time, one  city at a time.

No alternative.  Thank God for today.

06 June 2013

Ordered, Sorted and Chosen

What do those who talk through seeing say when it comes time to write about what they saw?

A year ago MB wrote from London to recommend that I read Robert Capa's Slightly Out of Focus, the great photographer's memoir of the Second World War.  I was, to use an overused yet ironically appropriately phrase, "blown away."  Capa's visual recall in this extraordinary piece of work is beyond belief.  His heroism and humor deeply imbedded in his writing that instantly added a finish to his photographic work that makes me miss the man even more any time his pictures appear--either randomly, in a book, or an museum gallery wall.  His voice amplified by his images, his images amplifying his voice.  That was the peculiar way in which "a man invented himself."

A few weeks ago MB wrote again from London telling me to read Bernard Gotfryd's autobiography, Anton the Dove Fancier.  Gotrfyd, a Newsweek photographer for thirty years, is a survivor from Radom, Poland, found work in the Radom ghetto developing Nazi film of their own atrocities, survived Maidanek, and after a career of capturing images and talking to his subjects about their lives and his, was encouraged to record his story.  His book is one of the most honest and profoundly moving memoirs of the Shoah I have ever encountered.  Modest in its scope but as deep, dark and ominous as Aharon Appelfeld for what is not said, Gotfryd tells stories, like Capa, through his astoundingly accurate image-memory.  He remembers in pictures.  And then tells you about it.  
As night crept away from morning early last week after reading his stories, mind lingered on things:  a pen; a loaf of bread; the underside of concentration camp barracks;  a mother crying on her last day with her son.  None of these actual pictures were in the book, of course.   But one imagines them as pictures in his mind, seen, and the reflected back through a life of capturing images with a camera, and then late in his career, writing them down.

In his collection of photographs, The Intimate Eye, Gotfryd and his son Howard describe how fellow Holocaust survivor Primo Levi came to encourage the photographer to tell his own stories in words and of the homage Levi wrote to Gotfryd three years before Levi's tragic death--words that would appear on the back of Anton the Dove Fancier:  "Bernard Gotfryd shows himself to be an exemplary man, mild and strong, never desperate, in constant search for goodness even in the most extreme situations.  We are grateful to him for this book because it makes us think."

The photographer is usually silent behind the camera.  We only ever know what the photographer thinks by the refraction of the images through their lens, onto a page, and only then, before our eyes.  But in Gotfryd's memoir, the Shoah's witness with an "intimate eye" on horror and humanity, the disturbing closeness of the destruction of European Jewish civilization, a developer of shapes and shade on a sheet of paper, is made real through words.  

"I have never written about things as they happened," said the Israeli writer and Holocaust survivor Aharon Appelfeld.  "To my mind, to create means to order, sort out, and choose the words and the pace that fit the work."

The refractions and distillations of Gotfryd's memory is one of the most quiet and powerful testimonies we have.  "The reality of the Holocaust surpassed any imagination," wrote Appelfeld.  "If I remained true to the facts, no one would believe me."

In Anton the Dove Fancier, Gotfryd has 'ordered, sorted and chosen' the words that create indelible images of humanity from all angles, never to be forgotten.