November 15, 2008

My father and I are walking in the park outside their home. It’s a sunny Friday afternoon in Jerusalem, children are playing,  birds fly about. and from nearby East Jerusalem the call of the Muezzin is heard, calling the worshippers to the mosque. Soon it will be sundown and the Sabbath-Siren will pierce the same sky. A flock of ravens lands on the lawn next to us. My father looks at them and his mouth tightens. ‘I hate ravens’, he says, ‘afraid of them.’ I sort of knew that – its part of the family lore of random facts having to do with my father’s Holocaust experience. ‘But why exactly?’ I ask him. We’ve been talking about specific memories of his on this walk, and I’ve been taking hasty notes on my left palm as we’re circling the park. I’m trying to talk to him about his faith – not to re-probe the painful memories – to get beyond the facts. ‘They ate bodies. This was in Auschwitz – they would swoop down on us in flocks of 20 or 30 birds and use their beaks to grab the body parts of the corpses that were just laying there. They used their beaks to puncture the eyes. I don’t know why, maybe it was more juicy.’
Father and son walking in circles, burdened by a past that keeps binding us both to ancient wounds, and both of us, for different reasons, don’t or won’t let go.  This weekend marked his father’s Yahrtzeit – the date on which it is estimated that my grandfather, leading his community as the last rabbi of their town, reached the gas chambers in Treblinka. The Hebrew date this year falls on November 9th – also the commemoration of Kristalnacht. Israeli TV channels are broadcasting special programs in commemoration and in our living room two memorial candles were lit tonight – one for my grandfather and one for his son, my father’s younger brother Shmuel, who most likely perished with his father on the same day. ‘Your father had never lit a candle for his brother before tonight, for all those years’ – my mother confides in the kitchen. ‘I’m not sure why.’
Vayera, this week’s Torah installment, contains the birth of Isaac and then his Binding, tas well as the the exile of his brother Yishamel, not to mention the demolition of Sodom. Genesis packs ’em in – so many verbs, so little time.
The Binding  is the big story here…father and son walk together, not far from where i sit right now, active particpants in a terrible act of blind faithm bound by destiny. But I choose to focus on another difficult moment in these chapters – one  glance and its fatal consequences.
Chapter 19 in Genesis tells of the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. (Nothing in the plain text describes rampant homosexuality, by the way – the crimes of Sodom are greed and selfishness). Lot and his family get the VIP treatment and are rescued,  warned not to look back on the loss of their home and loved ones –  to just move on. Lot and his two daughters march on and survive, but Lot’s wife – known in the oral legends as Edith – famously looks back into the pain, and is frozen on the spot.
“But his wife looked back, behind him, and she became a pillar of salt” (Gen. 19:26)
When does the act of looking at one’s history become destructive? When does turning back to look at what used to be – become not reflective but obsessive, dangerous, fatal?  When is it time to let the past be and only focus on the future? Having spent a month here, so close to my father again and to his Holocaust narratives – am I becoming, like him, like Lot’s wife, immersed in this saga of horrific memories? Can I walk away? Can he?? Is it time to persuade my father to stop dwelling, remembering, discussing what was? Do I have the right?
We took another walk today and I asked him about Lot’s wife and the wisdom of her choice. ‘The problem’ he says, ‘is that most people don’t want to know what lies ahead and prefer to dwell on what already happened, even if it’s terrible.’
‘And maybe’, he adds after a long pause, ‘it’s a blessing for her… not to continue with the memories..’
This ‘looking back’ reminds me of ‘rubbernecking’ on the highway, peering at wrecked cars – this human tendency of ours to probe, like ravens, into the dark and the dead. Looking back at our pain, like ‘rubbernecking’ may lead to clogged roads, within.  Inspired by this story, and by this reading of Mrs. Lot’s choice I challenge myself today to glance in the rearview mirror – but not turn and look back while driving. Somehow, I need to learn how to honor the past,  keep recording the tales – but not stay there – move on to a deeper understanding and a possible healing, reoncilation with the past. Isn’t that the real role of  stories and storytelling, just like salt – making everything last longer and taste better…
I wonder: When you look in the rearview mirror of your life – what do you see?

FIVE Fall (in Love)