Monsters, Exile, and Storytelling

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

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.

Islandborn

(c) Diaz & Espinosa.Islandborn. Dial 2018.


“The Monster”

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?”

— on this second day of the omer, 5778

Seeing You in 42 Familiar Places (Mattot-Masei Prayer Links)

“In that small cafe;
The park across the way;
The children’s carousel;
The chestnut trees;
The wishin’ well.

“I’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar places…
I’ll find you
In the morning sun
And when the night is new.
I’ll be looking at the moon,
But I’ll be seeing you.”

The relationship described in the Fain/Kahal song is so strong that it imbues the very landscape with the absent loved one. A similarly powerful relationship between God and the Israelites is described in midrash on the Torah portion Masei, with its 42-stage journey recitation. (Mattot, the penultimate, and Masei, the final portion of Numbers/Bamidbar, are read together in non-leap years.) And in many ways, the siddur is designed to call prayer participants and God to remember “the park across the way,” like the stages of the desert journey, prompting renewed recognition.
Continue Reading

Emor: A Path to Follow

The story [of the blasphemer, Leviticus/Vayikra 24:10-23] is noteworthy in that it is one of only four incidents in the Torah in which Moses is shown asking God how to decide an issue (the others are Numbers 9:6ff, 15:32ff, and 27:1ff). Moses sought God’s judgment because the punishment for blasphemy had not yet been detailed. More significant, however, is the placement of this story. It is, in effect, a cautionary tale, coming as it does on the heels of the sections demanding holiness and morality from the Israelites. Continue Reading

Acharei Mot: Something to Notice

Acharei mot [after the death].”

This expression refers to the deaths of Nadav and Abihu after they “came near” (elsewhere: “brought strange fire”) before the Lord (see parashat Shemini). For some readers, I imagine, it’s a relatively simple chronology-determining statement: this happened after that. For people who have experienced a cataclysmic loss — the early death of a parent/care-giver, e.g., or the untimely loss of a partner — at some point in their lives, however, “after the death” can be a more powerful divisor: there’s pre-loss life, and then there’s life acharei mot: no simple ordering of narrative events; there’s a fundamental change in the person’s universe “after the death.”

For a long time, I believed that my own father’s death, when I was 16, was simply one of many elements that shaped my life. As I get older, however, I am more and more aware that I have experienced life in two distinct portions: the first 16 years of life in a family with my father, and acharei mot…. So, the title words of this week’s portion usually stop me cold.

This year, untimely loss in a friend’s family laid an even stronger focus on those words, as I watched another family struggle with figuring out how to manage life “acharei mot.” But this year I also noticed some interesting things about the other words that open this portion.

Va-yedaber YHVH el-Moshe acharei mot shnei bnei aharon…dabeir el-aharon achicha…

The LORD spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of the LORD. The LORD said to Moses: Tell your brother

Continue Reading

Shemini: Great Source(s)-2

This may not seem immediately related to the portion, Shemini, in anyone else’s head. But Louis Armstrong — both voice and trumpet — has always sounded to me like a man who has experienced strange crossings with their share of harrowing times and losses…not unlike what the families of Aaron/Elisheva and Moses/Zipporah — and the Israelites, more generally — have been experiencing. For me, this is most evident on Moon River:


Yitro: A Path to Follow

This portion begins with one of the three clear mentions of Zipporah, daughter of Yitro (Jethro), wife of Moses, mother of Gershom and Eliezer, and sister to six unnamed women mentioned in Exodus/Shemot 2:16. The other two clear references to Zipporah occur in the portion Shemot (chapter two, as noted above, and 4:24-26); Moses’ “cushite wife,” who may or may not be Zipporah, is mentioned in Numbers/Bamidbar 12, at the end of the portion Behaalotekha.

See Drawing Back: Zipporah’s View for a midrash incorporating the Shemot/Exodus references to Zipporah and family. There are other pieces about Zipporah in All the Women Followed Her,* where this midrash was originally published.

See also Yitro, For Something Completely Different

*See Source Materials for full citation and more references.

———————
The “Opening the Book” series was originally presented in cooperation with the independent, cross-community Jewish Study Center and with Kol Isha, an open group that for many years pursued spirituality from a woman’s perspective at Temple Micah (Reform). “A Song Every Day” is an independent blog, however, and all views, mistakes, etc. are the author’s.

Drawing Back: Zipporah’s View

Drawing Back

A Midrash on Exodus 4:24-26 [18]

Moses and I have long agreed that our journey left us in very different places. Only recently, though, have I come to wonder if we even shared a starting point…

In the beginning, I remember, both boys [1] were almost trampled to death when the elder tried to push his new brother off my breast. Plus, the little one wasn’t nursing well and screamed himself to sleep without drinking enough for that day’s heat. When I couldn’t rouse him at first, I began to panic. So, of course, my milk wouldn’t let down when I was finally able to awaken him. It was just eight days after the birth of our not-yet-named son, and I was losing blood again. I was exhausted, missing my sisters, and wondering again if this trip were truly necessary. But my husband – about some things anyway.

First, he’d gone to Father, telling him with an urgency I had not seen since that long ago day at the well [2] that he must see how his brethren were faring [3]. With Father’s blessing, he’d rushed through the preparations and we’d made our good-byes. Then, when he was all but on the road, he’d returned in another rush, telling me that the boys and I should accompany him, that we would all live in Egypt. Finally, as the donkeys were already proceeding, Moses had rushed back once more for the staff he used in shepherding.

In fits and starts through the day’s journey, I had heard more words from that man than he ordinarily spoke from one new moon to the next. He’d told me again about the bush [4] and the staff, the promise of redemption and his need to be among his people. Mostly, though, he’d repeated the same fears: “Why would Pharaoh receive a man of the slave people, a man who’d actually fled court to become a shepherd? Would any Israelite trust a man raised in Pharaoh’s palace? Would they recognize him as a fellow?” [5]

Moses wasn’t hearing my responses, and I knew those were not his only fears, so I let the silences grow. Then just before nightfall, Moses began to speak again, this time of a land of milk and honey and a river of blood; the need to bring the people into God’s presence and the terrors that faced everyone before the redemption could take place. That was when he began to shiver.

The night was quite warm, so at first I assumed the shivering was exhaustion. Still, I remember hesitating to halt our journey, thinking Moses might tell me more if we kept our pace. Eventually, though, I felt the need to lie down and suggested we stop.

Moses barely spoke as we settled in for the night. The boys were already sleeping, and I was beginning to drift off, when he suddenly sat up and shouted, “Not my first born!” [6] Moses shook in his cloak, mumbling something about that river of blood and where it would lead. He was sinking deeper into the grip of the fever [7]. He began struggling for breath, and each gasp seemed to be emptying the little room of its air. For a time I feared Moses’ struggle with the fever might engulf the boys and me as well.

I remember thinking how easily men seem to link blood with death and how constantly they must be reminded that blood is also the source of life. Still bleeding myself from bringing forth the exquisite new life sharing my wrap, I suddenly pictured Moses shortly after Gershom’s birth, demanding that he be circumcised according to Israelite custom. How I’d railed at Moses then!” [8] And, as Moses continued to shiver, I found myself repeating aloud what I’d shouted at him over Gershom’s birth: “Why should your fathers’ God want the blood of this perfectly formed babe? Haven’t I shed enough?”[9]

But that night, kneeling between new life and near death… that’s when I experienced a clarity as sharp and all-encompassing as a birth pain… and as impossible to recall after it has passed.

I can tell you that my fingers refused to uncurl afterward, so hard had I clutched the flint [10]. I can relate how I touched Moses with the blood, telling him, “You are a blood bridegroom,” and how, soon after that, I saw Moses’ fever depart. But none of that explains how the wound I inflicted allowed our family to breathe again that night, or how its scar eventually became a lifeline drawing Moses back to us.

I can tell you how, when Moses finally sat up, I recognized his expression. I’d seen it many times before, on the faces of men at festival rites with my father only there was no joy in Moses’ face, just awe and determination [11]. I can repeat what I told Moses then,”You are a blood bridegroom to me.” I can describe Moses’ response, his solemn nod, the way he carefully placed my hand on his shoulder before pulling our wide-eyed Gershom to his side and picking up our bandaged infant. And I can tell you that it wasn’t to me or to the children that Moses looked when naming our youngest. But does that explain how, even as I felt his shoulder under my hand, I knew that I could no longer hold Moses? Does it give you any clue to the terror I felt as he leaned forward and away from me, intoning “Eliezer– God is my help”? [12]

There is so little of that night’s experience that translates into everyday language. If I tell you that Moses and I lived the rest of our marriage from opposite shores of that river of blood, am I speaking your language? Perhaps I should simply tell you how glad I was to let Aaron and Moses continue on alone after that night.” [13]

Over the years I’ve come to be grateful that I was not destined for prophecy or priesthood. But, I do still regret that I never succeeded in making anyone else understand what was so clear to me that night…

I was never quite sure what Aaron knew in the beginning, and after the tragedy [14] we couldn’t speak of such things at all. Miriam, who received and responded to prophecy as naturally as most people breathe, simply could not — or would not –understand how different things were for her brother or for me. [15]

Even father — who was able to help Moses share the burden of his prophecy, to get through to him when no one else could [16] — couldn’t unburden me. [17]

1. Gershom, Moses’ and Zipporah’s first child, is introduced and named at Exodus 2:22 and again at Ex 18:3. At Exodus 18:3-4, two sons are named. I am following a line of commentary that assumes both boys had been born at the time of this trip, although the second had not yet been named (or circumcised; see, e.g., Shemot Rabbah). Other commentary has the second child born during this trip, and so outside Midian. Still others assume that only one child was born before this incident, leaving the second to be born back in Midian, while Moses and Aaron are in Egypt.

2. Exodus 2:16-21.

3.Exodus 4:18.

4. Exodus 3:1-4:17.

5.Exodus 2:1-15.

6. Sarna’s note on Ex 4:23 (The JPS Torah Commentary) links this verse, which closes with “Behold, I shall kill your firstborn son,” words Moses is told to speak to Pharaoh, with the incident at the lodging place that directly follows.

7. In The Depths of Simplicity: Incisive Essay on the Torah (NY: Feldheim, 1994), R. Zvi Dov Kanotopsky suggests that it is the potential leader’s tension between obligation and fear that causes Moses’ illness and that Zipporah’s cure is a reminder of the covenant and his role in its unfolding. I have blended this midrash with the picture of Zipporah that emerges from the myriad other commentaries and midrashim on this odd passage.

8. The brevity of the “night lodging” passage and its use of pronouns and verbs without clear referent leads to much confusion, and so food for comment, ancient and modern. Who does the threatening: an angel? God? Who is threatened: the elder child, the younger child, or Moses? Who is circumcised here Moses or one of his children? and who does Zipporah touch with the blood? Who is the “bridegroom of blood”? Are there two separate referents in the two uses of this term?

In addition, commentators disagree about why the attack took place: was it punishment for a failure to circumcise? a pre-leadership test of Moses? Nor is there agreement about why Zipporah took the action she did: as a magical rite of Midian origin? as a sign of the Israelite covenant, which she understood from her husband’s teaching? an action that seemed necessary to her, based on the situation alone?

9. Some traditional commentary on Ex 4:24-26 suggests that Jethro forbade circumcising his grandsons; Zipporah’s opinion is not recorded.

10. Ex 4:25.

11. Jethro is known as “the priest of Midian” (Ex. 3:1, 18:1).

13. Zipporah is not mentioned in the text between Ex 4:26 and Ex 18:2, when Jethro comes to Moses in the desert with “Zipporah, Moses’ wife, after she had been sent home.” Rashi’s commentary has Aaron suggesting that Zipporah and the children, not being Israelites, not be forced to suffer, and Moses agreeing to “send them home.”

14. Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu die “offering alien fire before to the Lord” (Lev 10:1ff).

15. See Numbers 12:6-8, where God tells Miriam and Aaron that they do not understand the difference between Moses’ prophecy and those who receive visions and dreams.

16. See the account of Jethro’s visit to Moses in the desert at Ex 18:1-27, especially Jethro’s telling Moses, “The thing that you do is not good. You will surely become worn out, you as well as this people that is with you — for this matter is too hard for you, you will not be able to do it alone. Now heed my voice,…” (Ex. 18:17-19)

17. Zipporah is a footnote-lovers’ dream. She appears only three or four times in the Torah: she is called by name only in Ex 2:21, Ex 4:25, and Ex 18:2 and is possibly the “Cushite” woman who is the focus of Numbers chapter 12. Yet it is this marginal character who stares down God (or a messenger thereof) in order to save her family–and, as a result, the Israelites. In three short verses, a woman who lives largely in the footnotes, or in the white space between the Torah’s letters, makes possible the redemption of the Israelites and the birth of the Jews.

18. This story originally appeared in All the Women Followed Her: A Collection of Writings on Miriam the Prophet & the Women of Exodus, edited by Rebecca A. Schwartz. Rikudei Miriam Press, 2001.

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Drawing Back: Zipporah’s View by Virginia A. Spatz is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.