What does change taste like? [this page updated on 3/18/21]
How do we know whether we’re really getting out of that narrow place of servitude or just dragging the whole of that mythical Egypt with us but calling it change? This year , approach Passover with some new imagery, focusing on how we build coalition and move together toward redemption. It starts, this short book suggests, in being honest about how the “millstone that is Egypt” affects different populations differently: In the fight for racial justice in the U.S., we are NOT all marching together from the same starting point — that millstone has been weighing differently on Black and brown and white populations for many decades.
Exodus and Exile: Thoughts on Coalition and Redemption focuses on what it means to leave a place, people, or ideas behind and head out toward something that works better for everyone. It is meant to prompt some new thinking, particularly around racial justice issues.
A PDF download is available here, free of charge. UPDATE: Print copies are now available (See below). If you are able to contribute to the cost of this project, please consider doing so through the “A Song Every Day” Support link.
The book will be challenging to some for different reasons. It was challenging to me for many reasons, too. I am still considering this a BETA version with the hope that a fuller work, including additional perspectives, will develop in time. Comments and suggestions are welcome.
Some Essential Connections and Thanks
Thanks to Rabbi Gerry Serotta, director of the Interfaith Council of Greater Washington [former, now retired], for much support and teaching over the years and, in particular, for encouragement and ideas that helped shape this project. Thanks to Norman Shore, independent teacher of Torah in the DC area, for his support and teaching over many years and, in particular, for encouragement and corrections as my thinking evolved on the blog, “A Song Every Day.” Thanks to Rabbi Hannah Spiro, of Hill Havurah, for her enthusiasm and detailed comments on an earlier version.
Thanks also to Barbara Green, Bob Rovinksy (z”l), Norman Shore, and others who have supported “A Song Every Day” financially. And thanks to readers of earlier versions for comments and corrections and to those who contributed thoughts over the years, on the blog and via Facebook or other platform, on related topics.
I am also deeply appreciative of the work of every author quoted here, living or not. I am in particular dept to Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Phyllis Trible, Galit Hasan-Rokem, Rabbi Shais Rishon (MaNishtana), and Marc Dollinger. I am also grateful to DC’s Cross-River (Black-Jewish) Dialogue for helping hone my thinking.
All errors of interpretation, spelling or grammar, or any other kind are mine.
ORDERING AND DOWNLOAD
Download Exodus and Exile: Thoughts on Coalition and Redemption. (PDF HERE)
Print copies are available for a contribution of $6 or more, to help defray printing and other hard costs. Please use Support link and be sure to include your postal address. [2021 note: email songeveryday (at) gmail (dot) com to check on availability.]
Babylon — in fact, “The Three ‘Bavels'” — is featured this past week on the English portal for “929,” chapter-a-day study in the Hebrew Bible:
The place name, בבל, bavel can refer to: Babel, Babylon, or Babylonia. Each of these ancient “Bavels” suggests a model for the 21st century….
The rise of Bavel/Babylonia was a rejection of Ps 137: it moved Judaism itself from a circle, with the Holy Land at its center, to an ellipse, with two centers defining its orbit. And in creating a second vibrant center, Babylonian Judaism opened up the way for many more “centers” to come, throughout Jewish diasporic history.
These three models – Babel, Babylon, Babylonia – represent three numerical possibilities for sacred centers in our lives…
— “The Three ‘Bavels’: Babel, Babylon, Babylonia” full post
929 is in its second three-year cycle in Hebrew and just launched its first English cycle on July 15, with the help of Drisha Institute in New York. 929 “invites Jews everywhere to read Tanakh, one chapter a day, together with a website with creative readings and pluralistic interpretations, including audio and video, by a wide range of writers, artists, rabbis, educators, and more.” (More at The Forward.)
Follow the English site on Facebook and/or by email. If you land on a page that is all Hebrew and want English instead, look for “EN” at the top left to switch.
Teachers from many corners of the global Jewish community are participating. DC area people might notice that Dr. Erin Leib Smokler, one of the founders of DC Beit Midrash (2002-?), is a contributing author.
I launched the “Exploring Babylon” project on this blog in October 2017. Stage One was to run for roughly 40 weeks, from Sukkot through Tisha B’av. WordPress statistics tell me that I’ve posted 40 times in the category, “Exploring Babylon,” although not entirely on the weekly schedule I’d originally planned, and Tisha B’av is fast — no pun intended — approaching (eve of July 21 through dark July 22).
Not sure yet what shape Stage Two will take. Comments and suggestions welcome.
Where Exodus Metaphors Fail
Meanwhile, a recent interview with the author of Black Power, Jewish Politics returns us to the basic challenge that impelled me into this project.
When I talk generally with white Jews about why Jews are involved in social justice or civil rights or racial equality, they’ll talk about this shared history of oppression.
And the problem is that American Jewish history and African-American history are 180 degrees opposite on that question. One of my African-American colleagues, he said, “If I ever go to a Seder and the Jews say that they know what it’s like because they too were once slaves in Egypt,” he’s gonna punch ’em.
Because if Jews have to go back to ancient Egypt to get the slavery metaphor, then they’ve kind of missed that American Jewish history is a story of rapid social ascent, and African-American history is the legacy of slavery. That argument is insulting, and it’s very elementary.
And, of course, I found that the people actually involved in the movement in the 50s, they knew that. And they were quite clear that they were not buying into that.
— Marc Dollinger, 6/4/18 NPR interview
In the struggle for racial and other forms of social justice, might the language and history of Exile serve where Exodus metaphors sometimes fail?
And, as we move through the month of Av and on toward a new year, how might we use ideas about exile and Babylon, in particular, to inform us?
As the source of a long intertextual journey, Psalm 137 generates the poetic vocabulary of exile: “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and cried as we remembered Zion.” The pleonastic “there,” repeated in the third verse, calls attention to itself by its very redundancy; syntactically superfluous, “there” defines exile as the place that is always elsewhere. Being elsewhere, being far from Zion, is the pre-text for poetry….(p.9)
With the (re)territorialization of the Jewish imagination in the twentieth century, a radical shift takes place in the relative position of ends and means, of original and mimetic space, of holy and profane, of ownership and tenancy. If exile is narrative, then to historicize the end of the narrative is to invite a form of epic closure that threatens the storytelling enterprise itself–an enterprise that remained alive, like Scheherazade, by suspending endings. Conversely, to claim an absolute place for the exilic imagination is to privilege the story as the thing itself; the map for the territory, language without referent; and to regard “nomadic writing” as the inherently Jewish vocation…. (p.14)
— Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi, Booking Passage
Again, comments and suggestions welcome.
May the mourning of the weeks ahead bring us some new light.
Although it’s pretty clear from context, and maybe everyone else knows, I did look up “pleonasm” for my own edification. Here’s a useful and not overly ad-filled explanation of pleonasm. BACK
Ezrahi, Sidra DeKoven. Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Modern Jewish Imagination. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000. BACK-2
Although just published (May 2018), Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” was completed in 1931, based on work begun in the 1920s. Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon relates the story of a West African and his experience, before, during, and after U.S. slavery. Some of the content, as well as story of its publication, shed light on #ExploringBabylon.
Oluale Kossola (Cudjo Lewis) was born in Benin, West Africa, around 1841. He was captured by Dahomian warriors and temporarily held in a barracoon, before being sold to slavers. He was then transported to the U.S. on the Clotilda, the last known trans-Atlantic slave ship. At age 86, Kossola granted Hurston interviews that became Barracoon. The long trail from Hurston’s work to publication is related in the current volume by its editor, Deborah G. Plant.
One reason the publication did not appear back in the 1930s was Hurston’s refusal to rewrite Kossola’s vernacular speech in more standard English. I find that listening to Hurston’s voice helps set the scene and prepare the reader for her rendering of Kossola’s speech:
Kossula ceased speaking and looked pointedly at his melon rind. There was still lots of good red meat and a quart or two of juice. I looked at mine. I had more meat left than Kossula had. Nothing was left of the first installment, but a pleasant memory. So we lifted the half-rinds to our knees and started all over again. The sun was still hot so we did the job leisurely.
Watermelon halves having ends like everything else, and a thorough watermelon eating being what it is, a long over-stuffed silence fell on us.
— Hurston, Barracoon, p.40-41
Songs and Names in a Strange Land
Oluale Kossola (Cudjo Lewis) explains the naming of his children:
“In de Afficky we gottee one name, but in dis place dey tell us we needee two names. One for de son, you unnerstand me, and den one for the father. Derefo’ I put de name of my father O-lo-loo-ay to my name. But it too long for people to call it. It too crooked lak Kossula. So dey call me Cudjo Lewis.
“So you unnerstand me, we give our chillun two names. One name because we not furgit our home; den another name for de Americky soil so it won’t be too crooked to call.”
— Kossola, Barracoon, p.72-73
Kossola describes for Hurston the funeral of the first of his children to die:
“We Christian people now, so we put our baby in de coffin and dey take her in de church, and everybody come look down in her face. Dey sing, ‘Shall We Meet Beyond De River’. I been a member of de church a long time now, and I know de words of de song wid my mouth, but my heart it doan know dat. Derefo’ I sing inside me, ‘O todo ah wah n-law yah-lee, owrran k-nee ra ra k-nee ro ro.’ [not translated].”
— Kossola, Barracoon, p.74
Exiles in Babylon believed they would one day return home, meanwhile pining: “How shall we sing the LORD’S song in a foreign land?” (Ps. 137:4). Kossola seems to ask, instead: Can we ever sing our own songs in this land from which there seems no escape?
Strange, Familiar, Tales
This parable, among several Kossola shared, was told after the death of his wife:
“’You see Ole Charlie dere. S’pose he stop here on de way to church. He got de parasol ’cause he think it gwine rain when he leave de house. But he look at de sky and ‘cide hit ain’ gwine rain so he set it dere by the door an’ go on to church. After de preachin’ he go on home ’cause he think de parasol at Cudjo house. It safe. He say, “I git it nexy time I go dat way.” When he come home he say to one de chillun, “Go to Cudjo house and tellee him I say sendee me my parasol.”
“’De parasol is pretty. I likee keep dat one.’ But I astee dem all, ‘Is it right to keep de parasol?’ Dey all say, ‘No it belong to Charlie.’
“’Well,’ I say, ‘my wife, she b’long to God. He lef’ her by my door’
— from Kossola’s parables, Barracoon, p.92
This tale comes from a medieval collection of midrash:
[Rabbi Meir is at the house of study, and Beruriah is at home, when their two sons both die suddenly on the Sabbath. After Meir returns home and the Sabbath comes to a close…]
“Rabbi,” she then said, “some time ago a deposit was left with me for safe-keeping, and now the owner has come to claim it. Must I return it?”
“Can there be any question about the return of property to its owner?” said R. Meïr, half astonished and half indignant that his wife should entertain a doubt.
“I did not care to let it go out of my possession without your knowledge,” replied Beruriah, seemingly in excuse, and, taking him by the hand, led him into the room in which the bodies of their two sons were lying on the bed. When she withdrew the cover, R. Meïr broke out in tears and plaints. Gently Beruriah reminded him of his answer to her question about the return of a treasure entrusted to one for safe-keeping, adding the verse from Job (i. 21): “The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”
— from Proverbs 964, Yalkut Shimoni
as quoted in the Jewish Encyclopedia
I would be very interested to learn if Christian lore includes stories similar to the tale about Beruriah and Meir (2nd Century CE) and Kossola’s early 20th Century parable.
Strangeness in the Story
One more note from Deborah G. Plant’s comments:
In face of Kossola’s recollections, the social constructions of “My People” and “Africans” were deconstructed by the reality of ethnic identifications, which not only distinguished tribes and clans but also generated the narrative distance and the ideological difference that rendered one ethnic group capable of regarding another as “stranger” or “enemy,” and allowed that group to offer up the “Other” to “the Trans-Atlantic trade.”
“One thing impressed me strongly from this three months of association with Cudjo Lewis,” Hurston writes. “The white people had held my people in slavery in America. They had brought us, it is true and exploited us. But the inescapable fact that stuck in my craw, was: my people had sold me and the white people had bought me. That did away with the folklore I had been brought up on – that the white people had gone to Africa, waved a red handkerchief at the Africans and lured them aboard the ship and sailed away.” [footnote]
— Plant, editor, Barracoon, p.124-125
Hurston’s struggle, comparing what she learned from Kossola with what she’d been previously taught, is reminiscent in some ways of David W. Stowe’s comparison of the Exodus story with that of Babylonian Exile.
Zora Neal Hurston (1891-1960) Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo.”
Foreword: Alice Walker. Editor: Deborah G. Plant
NY: Amistad (HarperCollins), 2018.
Interviews were conducted in 1927. Book was completed in 1931. More on this volume from HarperCollins
Short, clear background piece. NPR story about the publication BACK
Footnote in Barracoon cites Zora Neale Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road: An Autobiography. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press , 1984. p. 200 RETURN
“Has this song gone on too long?
A song of reward and punishment
for exiles in Babylon and elsewhere”
The theme repeats again and long
this song of punishment and reward
Is our pain fault or accident?
The heart is indeed most devious!
You say that we’ll be cursed if we
trust in folks whose strength is flesh
that we’ll lose heart,
turn our thoughts away
We’ll feel just like a desert bush,
parched, alone, and unaware
that good might come
that water could be flowing
And then You say that we’ll be blessed
if we trust You
and You alone
We’ll be like trees that will not lack for water
You promise we’ll not think of drought,
our leaves will be forever fresh
we’ll have strong roots and bear more fruit
But is it wise to pretend no heat is coming?
The theme repeats again and long
this song of punishment and reward
What could it harm, I’m bound to ask,
if I were just a wealthy fool?
Saved or doomed? God only knows!
You’re refuge, you’re chastisement
Probe my heart and heal me now
Or has this song gone on too long?
Who gets justice in this world?
I’m a shepherd who has lost the way
The theme repeats again and long
this song of punishment and reward
— V. Spatz, 2018
from Jeremiah 17:5-8 and surrounding verses
As noted in previous post, “A Song of Reward and Punishment,” which is what Max called Jeremiah 17:5-8, just seems like something Leonard Cohen would have written. I imagine something that sounds somewhere between “Darkness” (“Old Ideas,” 2012) and “You Want It Darker” (eponymous album, 2016).
Several updates below. In addition to the many other things he left us, Max Ticktin z”l (1920-2016) left behind a lot of books, and his family kindly offered them to interested community members. Some of the volumes I inherited this way are from a Tanakh that was re-bound, as a gift for Max early in his rabbinical career, with pages opposite the text for his own notes.*
Some of Max’s notes are straightforward translation or links to related verses. Some are literary, some theological. Occasionally, his chuckle is obvious. Sometimes the notes are just opaque, to me anyway. Whatever the content, I consider it a great privilege and pleasure to have Max’s scribblings accompany me in my studies. (See also The Hebrew Bible (Greenspan).)
Some Notes and Questions
Here, pertinent to this week of Behar-Bechukotai, are some annotations for Jeremiah Chapter 17 (Haftarah for Bechukotai is Jer 16:19-17:14).
I am hoping someone with more background and/or better skill at reading Hebrew script can decipher this comment:
“A song of…[??]”
?? שכר ועונש ??
?? retribution? punishment? payback?
UPDATE 5/11: sources tell me my rendering of the Hebrew “שכר ועונש” is correctly spelled and can be transliterated “sachar va’onesh” and translated as “reward and punishment.”**.
And maybe some experts at English handwriting can fill in what I’m missing here:
19ff — dialogue of Jeremiah and God on God’s [??] the transformation of people!
Note: based on other passages, that lonely lowercase “a” = “and,” and the lowercase “t” = “the.”
UPDATE 5/13: A member of the Fabrangen community suggest that the word I couldn’t read may be “inclination.” Another points out that “the letter ‘C’ with a bar over it is often an abbreviation for ‘with’ in the form ‘cum’.” So, then we’d have something like: “dialogue of Jeremiah and God on God’s inclination with the transformation of people!”
Babylon and Transformation
Not sure exactly what this haftarah, with or without Max’s commentary, adds to #ExploringBabylon. But I am very interested in two images for God, both found in Jer 17:13 —
“mikveh yisrael [מִקְוֵה יִשְׂרָאֵל]” or “hope of Israel” and
“mekor mayim chayyim [מְקוֹר מַיִם-חַיִּים],” or “fountain of living waters”
and how these are related to “the transformation of people!”
More to come, maybe. Meanwhile, please let me know your ideas about how to read the above comments.
[On this 40th day of the omer, making five weeks and five days. — 5778]
* I recall Max mentioning this gift and how much it meant to him several times, and I expected that regulars at Fabrangen and Jewish Study Center activities would share similar recollections. But I have not heard from others who remember him saying this….which makes it all the more interesting that it turns out I know family members of the rabbi who gave Max these books.
ADDITION 5/11(not exactly “Update”): It’s not the most common of conversation topics, but somehow, long before Max died, Rabbi Danny Zemel of Temple Micah (DC) mentioned to me that his grandfather had once related, with great fondness, giving the special, re-bound copy of the Tanakh. Rabbi Zemel’s grandfather, Rabbi Solomon Goldman (1893-1953), served Anshe Emet Synagogue in Chicago from 1929-1953, where he and young Max connected.
Long after that brief conversation, while exploring the books the Ticktins were giving away, I happened upon two volumes that resembled the ones Max and Rabbi Zemel had both described. I was so excited, I had to double-check that the family meant to part with them. I was reassured and gratefully added them to my pile.
When I emailed a picture of the fly leaf to Rabbi Zemel, he recognized his grandfather’s writing. So I was delighted to be able to share one of the volumes with Rabbi Goldman’s family.
On occasion, I marvel at the odds of that book making it back “home,” in a sense. The Jewish world is sometimes small, but Reform and havurah circles — like Temple Micah and Fabrangen — don’t interact all that much; my participation in both communities is unusual. So, I am tempted to call it “bashert [fate, destiny].” But then I see Max rolling his eyes at me and explain it instead as follows.
Max had an uncanny ability to connect deeply, and very specifically, with so many people: Everyone who passed through that Ticktin library after Max’s passing surely found a special treasure that seemed destined just for them. In addition, although I never knew him, Rabbi Goldman had a large impact on Judaism far beyond his own, influential congregation — and clearly he made an impression on Max who, however accidentally, impressed on me, as Rabbi Goldman did on a young Danny Zemel, that these books embody an enduring connection between lifelong students of bible. TOP
** “A Song of Reward and Punishment”? Didn’t Leonard Cohen write that? Maybe Sarah Rindner’s recent piece on “The Lehrhaus” — which links Leonard Cohen and this week’s Torah portion — put the idea in my mind. But I can somehow hear him singing it, even though I’m pretty sure there’s no such song in his opus. In any case, establishing that the words on the page say something like, “A Song of Reward and Punishment,” is only prelude to understanding the passage from Jeremiah and its context….
Chapter 20.1 focused on monsters and storytelling, touching on the intersection of migration experiences and trauma. In follow up (with apologies for the delay), a few notes about the academic fields of migration and trauma studies and their relevance to #ExploringBabylon.
To begin, David W. Stowe discusses the application of trauma and migration theories to biblical studies* and, in particular, to his exploration of Psalm 137.
Migration and Trauma
On trauma theory and bible, Stowe writes:
Certainly the Bible provides voices that resonate with pain caused by the experience of the Exile in Babylon….
Reading the biblical literature through the lens of trauma theory suggests an agonizing experience during the Golah [Babylonian Exile]. Recent work in trauma theory and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) shows that symptoms associated with psychosis and other mental illness are symptoms of the human psyche struggling against an overload of anguish. Distortions in verbal and written communication [which Stowe and many others identify in the Book of Ezekiel, for example], even a failure to communicate at all — to become mute — reflect strategies of self-defense….
— Stowe, Song of Exile, p.8-9
Stowe looks at migration theory in the same context:
Because we learn so much about Moses’ long attempts to win freedom from bondage for his compatriots, we assume that Egyptian slavery must have been harsher [than that of Judean exiles in Babylon]….
To flesh out this monochromatic picture of the Golah experience, scholars have brought to bear analytic tools from the social sciences, in particular the recent field of migration studies….An important contribution in the recent scholarship lies in drawing distinctions between different categories of people who formerly might have been simply labeled “exiles” or “refugees.” These blanket terms obscure a host of subtle variations: between migrants, exiles, refugees, and members of a diaspora; between voluntary and involuntary migrations; between internal migration and migration that crosses political boundaries.
— Stowe, Song of Exile, p.10
Stowe’s specific discussion of Psalm 137 awaits another day and another post. Meanwhile, though, his remarks above link back to Junot Díaz’s Islandborn: how differing immigration experiences lead to different recollections and relationships around the country departed — including, in many cases, a silence hard that can make it difficult for younger generations to learn their family’s past.
Stowe’s remarks also relate to a very different style of biblical study.
The Book of Job
The Book of Job offers linguistic, literary, and theological challenges when it comes to assigning authorship or even declaring the century in which it was committed to writing, in whatever form. See, for example, these authorship pieces by Columbia’s Brennan Breed and Elon Gilad of Haaretz. Moses Sokolow explores Talmudic ideas about authorship and elaborates on those with another suggestion.
Sokolow first argues, in Tanakh: An Owner’s Manual (full citation below), that three or four of the seven Talmudic suggestions for Job’s authorship overlap chronologically so as to suggest a consensus around authorship in the time of the Chaldeans (Babylonians). He then goes on to present a hypothesis:
Since Ezekiel lived during the era of the Chaldeans and was the only biblical author acquainted with Job, it is not a priori unreasonable to ascribe the Book of Job to him, particularly if we now take note of the one Talmudic opinion [of seven] we have thus far omitted: “Iyyov lo’ hayah ve-lo nivra’” – “Job never existed”; his story is only a parable (Bava Batra 15a).
The usual understanding of the Book of Job is that it addresses the question of theodicy….
But what if Job were the personification of the Jewish people? What if the destruction of his home, the loss of his wealth, and the death of his sons were parables for the destruction of the Temple, the forcible exile, and the many concomitant deaths and privations suffered by the Jewish nation? Ezekiel’s prophetic mission was devoted to reassuring the exiles that God’s presence was among them even in Babylonia, and that there would be a return to Zion and a restoration of the Temple. Could the Book of Job, then, not be Ezekiel’s own “Holocaust theology,” offering the conventional explanation for suffering (sin), rejecting it, and replacing it with the reassurance that there was a divine plan for history as there was for nature, and that our inability to perceive the former is in no way different from our like inability to comprehend the latter?
— Sokolow, p.43
Sokolow’s suggestion is presented in a different framework from biblical studies working from predominantly Christian sources. Both methodologies lead, however, to further discussion of trauma and migration in relation to biblical stories.
on this 27th day of the omer, making three weeks and six days
Here are two fairly recent relevant collections on migration, trauma and other theories of exile:
Interpreting Exile: Displacement and Deportation in Biblical and Modern Contexts. Ranier Albertz, ed. Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2011.
By the Irrigation Canals of Babylon: Approaches to the Study of Exile. John J. Ahn and Jill Middlemas eds. NY: T & T Clark International (Continuum), 2012.
Note, please, that Stowe, like many other scholars in the field called “biblical studies,” cites predominantly Christian sources. Moreover, some remarks in Song of Exile suggest his exposure to Jews is limited (see Song of Exile page) — which is not uncommon in Christian biblical studies. For more on this topic generally, see also “Babylon and Adventures in Bibleland” as well as “Babylon Basics.” BACK
Tanakh: An Owner’s Manual: Authorship, Canonization, Masoretic Text, Exegesis, Modern Scholarship, and Pedagogy. Moshe Sokolow. NY: Ktav, 2015. BACK
A Monster Chronology
On March 15, I watched author Junot Díaz interact with a room full of youngsters, introducing his new book, Islandborn (Dial Books for Young Readers), discussing the writing process, and exploring the concept of “monsters.” I subsequently told everyone who would listen about how much I’d enjoyed seeing the students and the author respond to one another and how exciting it was to hear their conversation.
In our brief interview after the book event, I was really struck with the way Díaz answered my question about addressing monsters with young readers: “I don’t think they need to hear anything from me about the monsters they face….If their lives are anything like mine, they know.” It seemed clear he was including very personal monsters as well as the kind that took over “the Island” in his book and in real life. For better or worse, though, I left this topic right there and shifted focus to public libraries, which was the issue I’d been sent to cover.
In the week since Díaz’s personal history piece was posted on-line, I have found myself returning again and again to the way I saw Díaz address young readers who wanted details about the specific monster in Islandborn or answers about monsters more generally. Look, he told them several times, returning their attention again and again to one spread in the book: Look at the way the monster was defeated, through people joining together.
That’s what he told me, afterward, too:
The key is to help [young readers] confront and work through their experiences [with monsters], forge friendships and solidarities.
And a version of that is what he tells us in “The Silence”:
I was fortunate. I had friends around me ready to step in. I had good university insurance. I stumbled upon a great therapist….
He also explains in “The Silence” a little of how his children’s book and his decision to share his personal story relate:
Over the last weeks, that gnawing sense of something undone has only grown, along with the old fear—the fear that someone might find out I’d been raped as a child. It’s no coincidence that I recently began a tour for a children’s book I’ve published and suddenly I’m surrounded by kids all the time and I’ve had to discuss my childhood more than I ever have in my life. I’ve found myself telling lies, talking about a kid that never was. He never checks the locks on the bedroom doors four times a night, doesn’t bite clean through his tongue. The cover stories are returning. There are even mornings when my face feels stiff.
There will undoubtedly be more to say — from the perspectives of literature, sociology, or other fields — on Islandborn and “The Silence.” There is definitely more to say about trauma and storytelling, in- and beyond #ExploringBabylon. There is much more to discuss, for example, around the popular academic theory that trauma affects so much of the telling, and omissions, around the Babylonian exile. In addition, the period of the Omer — between Passover and the Revelation-focused holiday of Shavuot — has related undertones.
For now: Immense gratitude to Junot Díaz for his writing and his in-person teaching, for his bravery and his compassion; and wishes for continued healing to him and to all in need.
— On this 16th day of the omer, making two weeks and two days
UPDATE: The event described here, including the brief interview with Díaz, took place on March 15, 2018. The piece below was posted on April 1. The New Yorker article, “The Silence: The Legacy of Childhood Trauma” — which has a LOT to say about monsters and trauma — was not published until April 16. See also, “More on Monsters and Storytelling.”
Exploring Babylon Chapter 19
A new picture book, by Dominican-born author Junot Díaz, has a few things to tell readers of all ages about trauma, exile, memory, and the importance of storytelling — good topics for Passover and #ExploringBabylon.
Islandborn relates the tale of young Lola — who attends a school where “every kid…was from somewhere else” — trying to draw a picture of her native country for a homework assignment. Having left “the Island” before she could remember, she enlists help from community members, and one older neighbor tells her something shocking:
“A long time ago, long before you were born…a monster fell upon our poor Island.
“…For thirty years the Monster did as it pleased. It could destroy an entire town with a single word and make a whole family disappear simply by looking at it.
“[Eventually…] heroes rose up…got tired of being afraid and fought the Monster….The Monster tried all of its evil tricks but in the end the heroes found the Monster’s weakness and banished it forever.”
Islandborn, Díaz’s first children’s book, is illustrated by Leo Espinosa, originally from Columbia. (NY: Dial Books for Young Readers, 2018). See Random House and Publisher’s Weekly.
The name of “the Island” is not specified. The name of the Monster is also omitted, along with those of heroes who “banished” the Monster.
Many readers will undoubtedly think of the Dominican Republic, where Díaz was born, and the dictator who ruled ruthlessly from 1930-1961, before the author’s time. But the book itself and publisher’s descriptions deliberately do not offer any historical details.
Díaz has explained in public events that he intentionally left the island unnamed so that the reader could bring their imagination to the story. He adds that there are monsters in many countries and there are many kinds of monsters (not all are dictators); he wanted this story to be about more than one place or experience.
— Social Justice Books
In addition to allowing for readers to use their imaginations, though, the idea of leaving “the Monster” unnamed has a particular resonance for Jews and other Hebrew Bible readers: After an enemy attacks the most vulnerable members of the community during the Israelites’ trek through the desert, God gives Moses the strange commandment to remember to forget the enemy’s name:
And the LORD said unto Moses: ‘Write this for a memorial in the book, and rehearse it in the ears of Joshua: for I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.’
— Exod 17:14
…thou shalt blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; thou shalt not forget.
— Deut 25:19
When I told fellow Jews, over a recent Shabbat, about Islandborn and how the book relates its tale, each one mumbled some version of “blot out the name!” And that heritage has raised many questions over the centuries about what and how we remember and what and how we re-tell.
Legacy and Response
Social Justice Books suggest that “one place where young readers could handle a more accurate narrative, than what is offered in the book, is in the description of what happened to” the unnamed heroes:
Lola was told, “No one knows really [what happened to them.] It was so long ago.” The truth is that we actually do know what happened to the Mirabal sisters and countless others….A response that children could handle would be “Sadly, many were killed, but others survived. Their children, like you, continue to work for a better world today.”
Some social studies teachers and individual parents may want to discuss the specifics of Dominican history around Islandborn or use it to discuss motivations behind much immigration. Díaz, however, prefers to steer the conversation in more universal directions.
At a recent Islandborn book talk for young readers and writers — 1st through 5th grade, accompanied by a few pre-schoolers and adults, at a DC Public Library branch — the first young person to speak declared: “Monsters aren’t real.” In response, Díaz spoke generally, first agreeing with the student and then explaining that his home country was, in fact, once “taken over by a very bad man who was kinda like a monster.” The author never mentioned the Dominican context again and never got more specific.
After the event, I asked Díaz if he ever addressed young readers — like those at Capitol View Neighborhood Library, where we met — by helping them name monsters in their lives. Again, he rejected a more specific path: “I don’t think [local youth] need to hear anything from me about the monsters they face….If their lives are anything like mine, they know.”
Instead, the author argues: “The key is to help them confront and work through their experiences, forge friendships and solidarities.”
Toward that end, Díaz asked young readers to look at how the people eventually defeated the monster. He drew attention to the illustration above, noting that all monsters have a weakness that can be used against them, and that people joining together is essential….Students at Capitol View noted, based on the illustration and their own experience, the role of singing in uniting people.
How We Tell the Tale
The tenor of the Islandborn youth discussion at Capitol View remained largely philosophical and literary, rather than historical. Several young readers asked questions around why monsters do what they do. The author suggested several reasons, including the example of an older sibling wanting more than a fair portion of a treat meant for sharing. In response to another student, Díaz raised the concept of literary tropes around monsters.
Still, one ten-year-old did wonder, “What about the good people who are killed by the monsters before it’s defeated?” Díaz suggested, given that the age range present and how close to the end of the allotted time the question arose, that the young person talk to him following the group gathering.
In a similar vein, a local rabbi recently shared that his very young children do not know about the tenth plague [death of the first-born], despite its prominence in the Passover story. Of course, age and maturity of audience must influence content or emphasis in storytelling. Beyond age-appropriateness, however, the question of what to tell and what to omit is a deeper issue:
If we don’t relate the horrors, how will we ensure that victims are remembered and future generations informed?
How do we ensure memory and sensitivity, without perpetuating trauma?
Depending on the depth of our storytelling, how do young people — and the older people they become — relate to our state of exile?
At one point in Islandborn, after neighbors have opened up to Lola about the good and the horrible on “the Island,” child and grandmother have a key exchange:
“Abuela, did you know about the Monster?”
“Of course, hija. Why do you think so many of us are here in the North?”
The previous chapter, “Exile, Passover, and Melting Pot,” looked at nine bible verses using the word “kur,” usually translated as “crucible” or “furnace.” This addendum shares the odd midrash on one such verse, mentioned in the earlier post, which suggests some ideas about Passover, exile, and learning.
Each appearance of “kur” involves “great trouble and misery” (1906 Jewish Encyclopedia) and all relate suffering to sin. The phrase, kur ha-barzel — “iron blast furnace” or “iron crucible” — appears three times as a reference to Egypt, from which the people were rescued to become “God’s own.”
Isaiah employs a similar metaphor, the phrase “kur oni,” in reference to the Babylonian exile:
הִנֵּה צְרַפְתִּיךָ, וְלֹא בְכָסֶף; בְּחַרְתִּיךָ, בְּכוּר עֹנִי
Behold, I have refined thee, but not as silver; I have tried thee in the furnace of affliction [or poverty].
— Isaiah 48:10
(more of this passage below)
A midrash, retold in Sefer Ha-Aggadah, discusses the meaning of Isaiah’s “furnace”verse:
[The prophet] Elijah said to Ben He He (some say to R. Eleazar): The verse “Behold, I refine you, but not as silver; I test you in the furnace of poverty” (Isa. 48:10) implies that, among all the good states of being that the Holy One scrutinized to give to Israel, He found none better than poverty.
— Sefer Ha-Aggadah, Bialik & Ravnitsky, 341:57
The Talmud passage, on which this is based, adds a “folk saying” meant to further elucidate the point:
א”ל אליהו לבר הי הי וא”ל לר’ אלעזר מאי דכתיב (ישעיהו מח, י) הנה צרפתיך ולא בכסף בחרתיך בכור עוני מלמד שחזר הקב”ה על כל מדות טובות ליתן לישראל ולא מצא אלא עניות אמר שמואל ואיתימא רב יוסף היינו דאמרי אינשי יאה עניותא ליהודאי כי ברזא סומקא לסוסיא חיורא:
Elijah the Prophet said to bar Hei Hei, and some say that he said this to Rabbi Elazar: What is the meaning of that which is written: “Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tried you in the furnace of affliction [oni]” (Isaiah 48:10)?
This teaches that the Holy One, Blessed be He, sought after all good character traits to impart them to the Jewish people, and He found only poverty [aniyut] capable of preventing them from sin.
Shmuel said, and some say it was Rav Yosef: This explains the folk saying that people say: Poverty is good for the Jewish people like a red bridle [barza] for a white horse. Just as a red bridle accentuates the white color of the horse, so the challenge of poverty draws out the purity of the Jewish people.
— B. Chagigah 9b
Wm Davidson Talmud, via Sefaria.org
line breaks added for ease of reading
Hershey H. Friedman discusses the red strap midrash within the context of economics and Jewish history:
The enigmatic statement quoted in the Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Chagiga 9b), “Poverty is so fitting for the Jew, like a red strap (or saddle) on a white horse,” is interpreted by Rabbi Elijah, Gaon of Vilna, in the following manner. A horse is saddled up when it goes out; in the stable everything is removed. So too, the Jewish people should wear their poverty when they go out in order not to arouse the envy of the gentiles. Within the privacy of one’s house, however, wealth is good (Kreuser, p. 171*).
— “The Simple Life: The Case Against Ostentation in Jewish Law”
*Kreuser, Yissachar Dov. Genuzas Ha’GRA. Jerusalem: self-published (in Hebrew), 2000.
Friedman concludes on the ethics of ostentation and wealth:
The sages recognized that very little good can result from a splashy, gaudy lifestyle. On the contrary, it produces envy, suffering, arrogance, dishonesty, and shaming of the impecunious. The Torah teaches us that ostentation is not the true purpose of wealth, helping others is.
CooCoo for Coco argues differently from a fashion perspective and use of red in ancient Jewish ritual:
Similarly, poverty is neither romantic nor exotic nor aesthetic….Nonetheless, often the most challenging situation, that which pumps blood and flushes faces, is that which accentuates inherent virtues, allowing the best in us to take a well awaited strut down the runway….Evidently, poverty and predicaments in general, draw out the best in man, like a scarlet strap on a white horse….
Thus, the pages of Hagiga advise not an abstention from all fiery passions but, in fact incorporation of these powers in appropriate amounts in order to enhance one’s unadulterated virtues; the secret to salvation lies in complementary accessories accentuating natural qualities. White purity is all the more noticeable when countered by a tempered amount of florid flush…
–“Horsing Around the Right Way: Fashion Lessons from the Talmud”
Isaiah’s phrase “kur oni,” a furnace of affliction or poverty, resonates in the Passover seder, when we eat “lechem oni,” bread of affliction or poverty. Isaiah’s prophecy suggests that God is teaching the People through exile, a common understanding of the Exodus as well (the “iron furnace”). Moreover, the passage from Isaiah seems to say that the People could not, or at least did not, learn from prior experiences.
Some questions this raises:
Are there lessons from Exodus and Exile that are uniquely learned from those experiences?
What was NOT learned in the Exodus that was to be learned in Exile?
What about poverty: does it teach specific lessons? or is that romanticizing a difficult state of being?
Do we need some kind of “affliction” to learn?
How do we use the seder to (re)create experiences that bring important learning?
“You have heard all this; look, must you not acknowledge it? As of now, I announce to you new things, Well-guarded secrets you did not know.
Only now are they created, and not of old; Before today you had not heard them; You cannot say, “I knew them already.”
You had never heard, you had never known, Your ears were not opened of old. Though I know that you are treacherous, That you were called a rebel from birth,
For the sake of My name I control My wrath; To My own glory, I am patient with you, And I will not destroy you.
See, I refine you, but not as silver; I test you in the furnace of affliction.
For My sake, My own sake, do I act— Lest [My name] be dishonored! I will not give My glory to another.”
More at Sefaria or Mechon-Mamre