Morning. November Ninth, Two Thousand Sixteen.
Sad and unslept, I want to say words of comfort, but none come. I want to say words of hope, but none come. Sometimes, the bad guys win.
But I also think that there is a response to pain. I recall that the Eastern European Jewish world I’ve been learning about through my study of Yiddish was a world subject to violence. It was a world in which coarse and hate-filled people, who feared differences and scapegoated others, held power over our grandparents and great grandparents.
It was a world in which communal action was sometimes covert and indirect. It was a world of spiritual resistance, and great cohesion. In horrible conditions there was also creativity, and joy, love of learning and love of life. As a rule, the despised Jews of Europe did not turn their backs on each other or on the world. And, often at great personal risk, and in the face of bitter disagreement over what course to take, they acted to try to bring something better. And even those who were no longer believers had a great belief in ideas, and in words.
Here in America, young Yiddish writers who had left their families suffered loss and dislocation, bewildering change and loneliness. In exquisite detail, the poets documented the way of life they loved but had left, loyal to their memories but less so to the old place itself as it transformed. And at the same time there was an intense expectation for the future. There was anger and hope, love, new experiences and new individual forms and opportunities for self-expression. The end of WWI, pogroms in Europe, limits to immigration, the depression, debate and disillusionment over Communism in Russia. Buffeted by history and by disappointments, taken up by the work of daily life and by children, somehow the endless dialog and the outpouring of creativity continued.
All this was in Yiddish’s toolkit already when Hitler came (through democratic election), and a civilization was laid waste. In the same generation, the rapid and simultaneous blows of Stalinism, assimilation, and Zionism worked independently to erase Yiddish from remnant Europe, America and Israel. Now the language itself was victim, but even so, the words came and came, in a flood of elegy and lament. With only each other to hear, Jews kept writing their lyric tributes, praising the ruined world, building for a future that would not happen, as a tribute, as an expression of the dignity of the human being.
I write today to convince myself that trying to make sense of being a human being in a nasty world, and then sharing not the answers, but the quest, is worth doing. We have role models for this.