Everywhere I go, I take photographs of street art, graffiti, stickers, and images that capture a moment that seems important and meaningful in some way: a teddy bear sitting on a table or a stuffed dog or rabbit that has been lost (hopefully only temporarily) by a young master. A photograph on cobblestones with a face that no passersby will recognize.
I am not sure why exactly I am drawn to this form of expression. Perhaps, it has to do with its transience and anonymity. Much of these pieces will endure for only a short while and are often without authorship. Even those artists like Keith Haring, who has achieved worldwide recognition, have pieces that have been lost forever.
Or maybe it has to do with the connection that is created from one person to another in the act of expressing something, an emotion or a call to action. These acts may appear simple, but there is something deeply human in this action. It is like each word or image has a voice, and it is simultaneously saying, I am here. I exist. I am real. You exist, too, and you are not alone. In this moment, we are one.
Wandering around the city of Rome, which seems to be in a constant state of falling apart and being pieced back together, one cannot help but reflect on transience and mortality. The presence of so many foundations begs the question of the ever-elusive idea of the fountain of youth and immortality.
For some, having children is a way of ensuring their own immortality. Their genetics and their memory will live on in at least the next one to two generations, but then what? I have no memories of so many of my ancestors, without whom I would not be alive today. Without any human children of my own, how will I be remembered? Will I be remembered?
Does it matter if I am?
Susan Griffin (1992) wrote in A Chorus of Stones that we are each composed of the memories and experiences of those who came before us. I cannot help but wonder about this idea as I wander through European cities where so many Jewish people once lived and now perhaps haunt their former streets and homes.
As a child, I grappled with Judaism, particularly upon hearing about an incident where a temple barred a young boy from participating in a field trip when it was discovered that his mother was not Jewish and therefore by Jewish law, he was not truly Jewish either. At the very tender and impressionable age of 12, I was horrified by this story, which the adults around the table seemed to receive as quite natural. This moment marked the beginning of my shift away from the Jewish faith.
How could I support a religion that would seek to exclude its own members? Weren’t there precious few Jewish people left in the world? Why did it matter if one’s mother was Jewish anyway?
As a teenager, I engaged in heated battle with my own mother, claiming that I didn’t have to be Jewish if I didn’t want to be.
You are Jewish because I am Jewish, she would shriek back at me.
So it went, on and on, for years.
There seems to be a kind of obsession around the fundamentalist religions. I think it is not coincidence that so many people I have spoken with describe themselves as recovering Catholics. These religions expect and demand complete acquiescence some baffling discontinuities. Acceptance without question has never been my strong suit. I have a naturally fiery and stubborn disposition. If anyone dares to tell me that I cannot do something, it only serves to strengthen my determination to prove them wrong.
Can we escape from an identity built upon the lives of so many who came before us, whose memories and genes make up who we are today?
I am not so sure. At least, in my experience being raised in a Jewish family, I can very strongly relate to the myriad films in which Woody Allen obsesses over being Jewish while also grappling with his Jewish-ness.
In the beginning of the movie Annie Hall, one of his first lines (after bemoaning the briefness of life, which is over far too quickly) is a paraphrasing of a line from Groucho Marx: I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.
I think that for me, I might be more inclined to want to be a member of the Jewish community were they to accept someone like me into their fold. However, I have never felt at ease in this community. Growing up, I had the feeling that being Jewish was somehow a kind of competition to prove one’s ultimate Jewish-ness. I failed miserably at this competition, which was why I found it kind of ironic and also hilarious that I have been the sole Jew in so many of the remote corners of the globe where I have lived. This unique situation gave me the status as the “resident Jew,” and people would ask me on a regular basis to answer questions about the Jewish religion for them. I invariably failed this test as well. I knew many of the tenets and traditions of Judaism, but I could not for the life of me explain the rationale behind them.
Most of my answers went something like this: I don’t know. Someone decided to do this a long time ago. They probably had a health reason for doing it, which has now become obsolete. But because Jews are so adamant about upholding tradition, we continue this practice to this day.
I have failed my continued efforts to escape Judaism’s grasp. In groups, I share humor with a Jewish flavor. Then, I think about the idea that even the seemingly simple act of using humor connects me to my heritage. Aren’t most of the world’s comedians of Jewish descent? Or is this just another nod toward the Jewish comedian rulebook?
Can we create our own truly unique identity or has this identity already been designed through years of evolution, genetic predetermination and experimentation, and the passing on of energy, memories, and lived experiences?
Can we escape the blood that flows in our veins?
For many years, I convinced myself that this was possible, but the older I get, the more sensitive I become and the more drawn to the experiences of the people who came before me. If not for several courageous souls, I might not even exist in this form I have taken for this life. I can only write from my own experience, but I feel a deep emotion when I bear witness to the suffering that came to pass for so many Jewish people for so many thousands of years.
In our recent travels to Darmstadt, my husband and I noticed small brass squares that had been embedded into the sidewalk. While he attended a conference, I wandered the streets of the city and found more and more of these markers; there were many pairs and sometimes several all clustered together in one spot. Upon closer inspection, I noticed that on each one had been inscribed a person’s name, birth date, and the German words for taken and died, along with the year of these two events. I had to look up the German words, but the places where people had died were already familiar: Dachau, Auschwitz. I felt a haunting chill move from the earth up through my entire body.
Perhaps, it is not just that these people experienced a fate that could have befallen me had I lived in a different place in a different time. It may also be that on my own spiritual path, I have studied the ideas from Buddhists, yogis, and philosophers, who claim that we are all the same and thus we are all connected and responsible for each other. This question warrants further reflection. I can say that I do not feel the same haunting response in the depths of my being when confronted with other suffering. I feel sadness but not the same feeling that their fate could easily have been my own.
Has my own, often fiery, struggle with my heritage shown disrespect for the sacrifices of those members of my family who came before me? So many of those individuals perished for no reason other than being Jewish. They may have experienced their own struggle with the Jewish faith and/or not even considered themselves to be Jewish, but their identity was set nonetheless.
One of the presenters at the conference my husband recently attended in Rome suggested to me that in battling against the identity and teachings my parents had bestowed upon me, I was actually engaging with it.
The revolt is also a yes, he said. Even saying no is a link.
He used two hand gestures to demonstrate this concept. The first was to create two fists with his hands and knock those fists together. The second was to open each fist and link the four fingers of each hand and draw the link energetically apart, showing it to hold. Even as each hand tried to separate from the other, the link became stronger as a result.
In some ways, to be Jewish is to be an “other,” to be alone. I am an “other” for people of different faiths. It is no accident that Kyle sings the lines, “I’m a Jew, a lonely Jew, on Christmas” or that Jewish people joke about going to a Chinese restaurant on this holiday because the rest of the world is engaging in a celebration that is closed to us.
Perhaps, then, at the age of 36 I can accept that I am indeed Jewish and not just the “ish” part (another joke that I have enjoyed slipping into conversation about religion over the years).
This doesn’t mean that I want to go to temple or hang out with other Jews. Indeed, just as I may be Jewish, I am also an “other” in this community. I was drawn to the synagogue/museum in Rome, but I could not bring myself to go inside. Just the thought of going through security and standing inside the wrought iron fences that surrounded the building caused a strong sense of dread and imprisonment. Instead, I walked slowly around the periphery of the building, picking up rocks and taking photographs. It seemed appropriate; to be on the outside looking in, for this is a metaphor for relationship with the Jewish religion.
I am ever on the outside, looking in to the Jewish faith and reflecting on what it means for my own spirit and soul.
Similarly, as I walk in this body, I am ever trying to understand what is happening on the inside.
I know that this body I inhabit may be transient, but I have the sense that my soul and the energy that swirls around with me may endure. So I create my own artwork as I walk my own path, inspired by and made possible by so many others who came before me.
We are all little waves on the same ocean [but] I’m just a little pixel in the picture, the conference keynote speaker and composer, Sven Helbig, had said to those of us listening in the audience. What can I do?
What I can do is continue to paint and share my work with others so that we both may feel less alone.