“Were I Human”

“Were I Human”

Ariel: Your charm so strongly works ’em.
That if you now beheld them, your affections
would become tender.

  PROSPERO
Dost thou think so, spirit?

 ARIEL
Mine would, sir, were I human[1].

Nita Schechet, a feminist literary scholar and peace and human rights activist passed away last November. I was deeply saddened by her untimely death not only because I knew her personally, but because she died before her writing and scholarship received proper recognition. I decided to write this blog post as a tribute to her contribution to the world of actively political literary critique. I wish I had thanked her sooner for the profound and wise way in which she wrote about the catalytic role that literary texts play in our work for social transformation. From the minute I first opened her book Disenthralling Ourselves: Rhetoric of Revenge and Reconciliation in Contemporary Israel[2], it felt like it was written especially for me. It is a book of artful intertextuality that pays tribute to texts – literary, scholarly and other forms of human discourse – from Shakespeare’s Tempest, to Rachel Tzvia Back’s On Ruins and Returns[3], and Jonathan Lear’s Radical Hope[4]

Schechet’s book title is inspired by Abraham Lincoln’s address to the US Congress on December 1st, 1862, where he called for the emancipation of the slaves:

 “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”

Lincoln called upon the American people to hold themselves to higher moral standards, to re-create themselves as a nation.

Writing is a form of creation. In writing, we take that all-too-familiar raw material called words to create new meaning. Writing about Nita Schechet is my way of recognizing and appreciating her scholarly legacy; it is my way to make a small contribution to a body of works that seeks to make this world a better place.

Oh. And how our world needs healing right now. In times of politics of hate, racism and misogyny, of politics that mocks the rule of law and the values of justice and equality, our world is in desperate need of politics of profound humanity.

Humanity. This is what Schechet’s book is about. It is about the human potential capacity to hold itself to high moral standards; about humanity as that which urges us to disenthrall ourselves of violent and oppressive behaviors deeply rooted in a culture of victimhood and revenge.

Schechet wrote about the moral imagination as vital to achieving social transformation. Moral imagination requires two essential ingredients: first, the capacity to imagine a shared future good, even when it is out of sight, and second: the capacity for empathy and compassion. She believed that active reading of literary texts and narratives serves to spark moral imagination and foster communal resilience that can facilitate the transition from a culture of victimhood and revenge towards a culture of reconciliation:

“The catalyst for the essential change from collective repetition-memory to the recollection memory of reconciliation is the development of a moral imagination through active reading”.

Rachel Tzvia Back, a wonderful Israeli poet gave me Nita’s book as a gift. It dedicates a whole chapter to Back’s second book of poems On Ruins and Returns that she wrote during the terrible years of the second Intifada.

Back’s poetry is profoundly compassionate; her poems are woven with the deep concern for the safety and well-being of her own children, as well as for those of other mothers, Jewish and Palestinian. And at the same time, her poetry takes no mercy on its readers; it is a poetry that focuses its gaze on the death, loss and excruciating pain that are part and parcel of every war. Back’s poetic language takes the dust off the worm out words; it caresses them with a loving, firm hand, and gives them back their full and deep meaning. Death, in Back’s poetry is very graphic: dismembered bodies, blood, human tissues and nails scattered in the battlefield:

Soldiers on their knees in the sand

Mothers watching

soldiers on their knees

sifting and searching for body parts

do not think of next worlds

they think only of

lost worlds

I hope that after reading this blog post, you will want to read Rachel Tzvia’s Back poetry and Nita Schechet’s book. I hope that every elected politician that tells the world that “the next war in Gaza is inevitable” and every elected politician who will support this statement will read Back’s poetry and be reminded of the devastating, tragic, shattering, wounded and bleeding meaning of war.

[1] Shakespeare, William: The Tempest, Act V, scene I
[2] Schechet, Nita. Disenthralling Ourselves: Rhetoric of Revenge and Reconciliation in Contemporary Israel, New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2009
[3] Back, Rachel Tzvia. On Ruins and Return. London: Shearsman Books, 2007
[4] http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674027466

Passover: a Journey Through Tradition and Change

Passover always brings with it memories of smells and tastes and sights and sounds.

The smell of cooking and cleaning.

The taste of the gefilte fish that Grandmother Luba, may she rest in peace, used to make, that we will never taste again.

The sight of the shiny patent-leather shoes that I wasn’t allowed to wear until the night of the Seder.

The sounds of the reading of the Hagada, the songs, the family jokes that we tell year after year.

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Memories….

The imperative, “and you shall tell it to your son” takes on a new meaning, as Daniel, my first born, sits on my knees for his first Seder, nine months old, smiling and enchanting.

My private exodus from Egypt, several years later, with a small suitcase and a shattered heart.

The first time that I took Na’ama, my daughter, to buy shoes for the holiday, so that she could stand tall and proud on a chair as she recited the four questions.

And the questions that repeat, year after year.  Why are women absent from the Hagada, and why are the answers to “How is this night different” always the same.  And what should I tell my son and daughter – what have I done to make a difference since last Passover?

And so, I wish everyone a happy holiday.  May this be a good holiday, celebrated with loved ones, and may you lack for nothing.  And, this holiday, as we sit around the table, we will ask, “How is this night different,” but we won’t be satisfied with the same answers.  Because there are many who are still waiting for an exodus from their own personal Egypt.  Because slavery has not been banished from the universe and freedom has not been distributed evenly to all.

May we be part of those who make a difference.

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