For the first time in the now two years that I have been posting, I received an email questioning the worth of it.
45 is still in office. Congress remains cowardly. Yes, there are some inroads of integrity as a result of the midterm elections, but…
Perhaps this questioner is unaware that I could never be brash enough to imagine I can change the oligarchical agenda or minds polluted with hate.
As I’ve said from the very beginning, all I but desperately hoped to do was offer an affirmation for those who — while keeping Jefferson’s dictum to maintain a vigilant watch over those in power — never abandon attention to people and things that matter.
After all, sarcasm, shallow irony, and cynicism are easy. What is difficult is to refrain from saying, “Honey, can’t you see that I’m watching the news?!” Or refrain from turning every conversation into a rant instead of asking, “So, tell me what’s been happening with you?” To instead feed the birds or visit the one grieving down the street.
When the synagogue in my home city of Pittsburgh suffered the hate-initiated mass killings, 45 of course drew attention to himself.
Noah Farkas, the nephew of poet Joy Friedler, is a rabbi in Los Angeles who answered the killings with an invocation to his city. He kindly allowed me to excerpt his:
A Prayer for Pittsburgh: Invocation at the Los Angeles County Board Of Supervisors
Published October 30, 2018
Thank you Supervisor Ridley-Thomas for asking me to come this morning. Indeed it is a difficult morning. The last few days have tested our resolve. On this past Shabbat, the sabbath, a man filled with hate murdered eleven worshipers simply because they were Jews. They came for respite and found only violence. But I would be remiss if I did not mention that this attack-the bloodiest massacre of Jews in this country’s history-an attack meant to divide us, was a singular event. Just hours earlier two elderly African American patrons were gunned down in a grocery store because of the color of their skin. At the same moment, an assassination attempt against our nation’s leaders and former leaders was still unfolding. Such violence, such hatred, such cruelty.
As a nation we must understand that an assault during the sabbath is an assault on the sabbath itself. It’s an assault on all of us, not just Jews. On the poetry that is America.
If we are to overcome the hatred, racism and anti-semitism that has reared its ugly head we must set for ourselves the task of reaching across our divides and be fully present for each other. We cannot live only with an either/or paradigm that says that when I win you lose. Or that when you win I must lose. Your redemption cannot come to fruition on the back of my neck, nor can my freedom be at the expense of your blood and treasure. Yours and mine are the same.
It was at night when they came for us. It was at night when the Nazis marched against us. It is at night when they broke the glass and burned the crosses. Came into our houses of worship, our schools, our businesses, our homes. It was at night when the tophets glowed the brightest.
In the morning, joy will come. In the morning, for only in the morning, after a long night, in partnership with other people, together, do we dare say it will be good
.–Rabbi Noah Farkas
I can’t help noticing the ways this invocation lays itself within every place in our lives, our towns and cities, our schools and churches, our neighborhoods, our divisive hearts. We have received permission from 45 to break the fragile bonds that hold us together. Farkas seeks to mend them.
And I think that is one of the great gifts of the arts. The bonds formed by noticing the sameness and the differences. There is Bohemian Rhapsody and there is Debussy. I began each of my poetry writing classes by reminding the students that it is good to find out what we have in common and where to find common ground. “But in our poetry class we are going to seek out our differences. You are safe here to be who you are. It MUST be safe here for each of you to be you. And that is going to reveal through your art that you are not the same. However we will refrain from being cruel. There will not be room for even one eye to roll. We are going to delight in our differences.”
The Man Who Wanted to Change the World
He thought changing the nouns
might help. No one could say
“gun” in the same old way. You
would have to pause, say,
“What’s the name again? Oh,
yes, sassafras.” You would hear,
“Give me the wisteria to the car,”
or find yourself asking, “Why
don’t we add some whispers
to the bottom line?” He realized
this one long, hazy afternoon
while staring up into the trees,
into the wild acceptance
of their branches’ tangle. He
watched the light settle on
the leaves. He believed
the robins, vireos, and
nuthatches could see it.
Later that evening drying
his dinner plate, he felt everything
around him leaving, felt himself
alone amid the sparkles of remaining
dust. Before bed, he addressed, sealed,
and stamped a stack of empty
envelopes, one for everyone
he loved. The next morning
he made his first list: bread dough,
lightning, salt, candle, mourning dove,
while he thought of last laugh,
coffin, profit margin, highway, lie.
From Broken Symmetry (Wayne State University Press)
My thanks to Rabbi Farkas for permission to share his invocation, and to his beloved Aunt Joy Friedler, a poet whose valuable work I encourage you to explore. Her latest collection is Capture Theory. Her previous collections include Dutiful Heart and Like Vapor.
Rabbi Farkas’s commentaries can be found at https://noahfarkas.com/
A video of his complete invocation can be found at https://vimeo.com/298000094
My friend Karen Marie Schuen Rowe, on the Big read of Station 11 in Holland, Michigan, wrote this wonderful letter, which goes straight to the heart of what the arts can do for us in troubling times. And I think how lucky her students are to have her.
On April 1 (perfect!) my new book, St. Peter and the Goldfinch, will be released by Wayne State University Press. Preordering is up at that link, and Julie says stay tuned for news of a PARTY!
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