By Gary Corseri
February 5, 2009
I had the good fortune to be born a hybrid: half Sicilian Catholic and half Ukrainian Jew. Beyond that, I was blessed with parents who let me evolve my own identity in my relationships with the Divine and the human.
On both sides of my family tree there were fools and sages, cynics and dreamers, the myopic and the far-seeing, the generous and the greedy. I grew up in a middle class Jewish neighborhood in Queens. On weekends we were far more likely to spend time with my father’s rather large extended Sicilian family than with my mother’s rather small Jewish family. My friends went to shul and studied for their bar mitzvahs. I went to my best friend’s bar mitzvah, and once I went to a Christmas Mass with one of my Italian aunts. I liked the bar mitzvah because I got to drink a little wine. I didn’t like the Mass so much because I didn’t understand the words and I soon got tired of all the sitting and standing. But I liked my Aunt Sadie’s face when she prayed.
I think I was in junior high school when I learned the phrase “hybrid vigor.” It stuck because I imagined it applied to me. I felt privileged being what I was, able to look on both sides of the prism of truth. Occasionally, a friend, a relative, or someone just met, would tell me I would have to choose at some point between the religion of my father and that of my mother. But somehow that meant choosing between father and mother, and I never figured I could, for I knew them both to be decent people. If they found their own pathways to God, they managed to teach me by example that there were different ways up the mountain. By example they taught me to lead an honorable life, to be fair, to be just.
Though they argued often and loudly, I came to understand that their arguments, their volubility with words, were expressions of the dramatic nature of their characters. I never doubted the love between them. They argued because it was the way they danced, the way they sang to one another. They never argued about religion. Maybe they figured they could each ascend their own way up the mountain–so long as they were within calling distance of each other.
I was in my early teens before I understood much about the Showa. We were in Miami Beach, in the famous Wolfies Restaurant on Lincoln Road, when an older man my mother knew slightly as a business associate of her father, joined us briefly at our table. He wore a short-sleeved “Florida” shirt, and I couldn’t help noticing the numbers tattooed on his forearm. Afterwards I asked my mother about it and she said she was glad I hadn’t asked while the man was sitting with us. Then she explained.
I had already learned about World War II, of course. I knew about World War I and the Civil War and the Revolution and I’d heard of the “Thirty Years’ War” and the “Hundred Years War.” Like it or not, I found myself smack-dab in the middle of the Cold War, liable to be emulsified by Russian missiles at any second. I was beginning to wonder if the history of humankind was nothing but the story of a long war punctuated by all-too-brief periods of tranquility.
The Russians were the enemy, but in those years, the years of a famously mumbling president (we’ve had a few since!), Interstate-building and the early, svelte Elvis, the Germans were the enemy, too. At least in my neighborhood. My best friend grew livid over my association with a German kid who lived three or four streets away. “I hate his guts,” he told me, “I hate his rotten guts.” He could never tell me why. It was nothing personal. It would be years before I understood he was mimicking the fear and loathing he’d learned at home.
I was sixteen when I experienced prejudice directly. I had fallen in love with a blond-haired, blue-eyed Polish-Jewish girl whose family forbade her from seeing me until her grandmother explained that it was all right since my mother was Jewish and that meant I was, too. I didn’t accept this formulation and I still don’t. I still wasn’t going to choose between father and mother, but if it meant I could go out with Susan, that was fine with me.
My family moved to Florida soon after, and by age eighteen the femme fatale was a dyed-in-the wool upper-class WASP, and this time it was her father who couldn’t stand my swarthy (good?) looks and my funny, hard-to-pronounce, operatic last name. So, by my late teens I was catching it from both ends of the ballpark. And all I wanted was a little nookie.
Prejudice….It cuts all ways….
The quality of mercy blesses him that gives and him that receives. But prejudice is a blade we hold in our bare hands. It cuts the giver and his object.
Somewhere along here, as I was experiencing all this pain that came out of loving, I decided that the only way I could win at this game was by not giving in; not becoming like the small-minded people who couldn’t see the love in me, the youthful reaching-out, the sense of wonder, the apprehension of beauty and grace in all its manifold forms.
I was reading a lot. I read Allan Bullock’s Hitler: A Study in Tyranny and a couple of other books on the rise and fall of the Third Reich. I understood the wretched Treaty of Versailles, the shame and humiliation of the Germans after “the war to end all wars.” I learned from William Shrier that a nation could go insane, that a people, just like a person, could suffer from megalomania and paranoia. I knew from the parents of my German friend that there were good Germans (my friend’s parents, less privileged, with heavy accents, were always hospitable and friendly). I knew from the books that many good Germans had tried to speak out to stop the Nazi juggernaut; but they’d been quashed, silenced, or killed; their lives destroyed, their writing and work discredited. Good guys don’t always win: it’s one of the painful lessons we learn from our childhood and from history.
I used to wonder if I would have had the courage to cry out against the madness, to take on mother and father, wife and brother, friend, son, sister, daughter to express myself forthrightly; to stake my claim in humanity, reason and justice. I wrestled with the angel of doubt. It was one thing to be the oppressed people–the Jews, the gypsies, the Blacks. They had their life and death challenges, their cauldrons of fire, dens filled with lions. But to be a dissenter in the oppressors’ clan, the “weak link” in the chain of unity–the united front, the united-we-stand determination to root out evil or build a state or empire–that presented me with inestimable psychological challenges: nuances of identity and identification little different from a religious calling.
These challenges first came to the fore during the Vietnam War.
At fourteen I’d composed a song on my saxophone. The lyrics went something like this: “Our forefathers built a nation, / Strong in every way– / A wonderful country that maintains peace / It’s name the U.S.A….”
Gentle reader, I will spare you the rest. The point is, I was a true believer.
Then, in 1965, a special assembly was held at the University of Florida. I was nineteen, still bearing my sophomoric infatuation with my Waspish girlfriend whose family couldn’t stand me (they never even knew I was half Jewish! That would have been the coup de grace!) and suddenly Lyndon Baines Johnson was trying to whip me into righteous fury against people I’d never met, people who had done me no personal harm. There was the president of the university, and the deans, and a couple of other V.I.P.’s up there on stage trying to impress upon me and every other student–especially the males–just how important this Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was and how it was going to change our lives, so we’d better start thinking seriously about R.O.T.C., our duty, our country, freedom and democracy.
But I was still reading books. Books by Black authors like Richard Wright, W. E. B. DuBois, James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansbury, Amiri Baraka. I read books by the pacifist German author Herman Hesse, and books by the dissident, Jewish philosopher Martin Buber. I read the dystopic visions of Orwell and Aldous Huxley. And I was listening to the speeches of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. That awful period that began for me with that surreal assembly did not end until 1975, with the fall of Saigon, the abandonment of our imperial ambitions in that small part of Asia, the loss of some 60,000 Americans and over two million Vietnamese. I read magazines like Ramparts and alternative publications like The Great Speckled Bird and the Boston Phoenix. Later I read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, and I wept for the genocide of those free and reverent nomads, the first Americans. And when I put all the reading together and all the listening together–what the people who were telling me to go and kill other people were saying … well, it just didn’t jive.
In the course of that terrible decade I taught in public schools in California and Massachusetts, and taught at the University of Florida as an Instructor for three years. There was no way to keep the war out of the classroom. Not if one believed in dialogue and dialectic as the foundation of democracy. My students wanted to talk and write about their deepest thoughts and feelings. I encouraged them. My approach was heuristic. When they asked me my thoughts, I expressed myself as clearly as I could. I graded them on the clarity of their expression–my job as their teacher. If they reached conclusions different from mine, that was their prerogative. One of my best students was the daughter of a military man. She reached different conclusions. Yet she aced my course. Her arguments were clear and cogent, and if I believed she was wrong, I could only hope that in time she would see the light.
This liberal approach earned me the enmity of some colleagues and administrators. Liberal, as in “liberal education,” was not yet a dirty word, but it was rapidly becoming one with Nixon and his “silent majority.” I learned that reason and clarity are, like certain customs in Hamlet’s day, “more honored in the breach than the observance.” I also learned that I would not buckle under. It cost me. It probably cost me a couple of good jobs–academic positions I had earned my rights to, and viscerally wanted. If I had kept quiet, “toned it down,” “put my energies elsewhere,” perhaps I would have remained in academia. My college roommate, also outspoken, wound up in Canada, where he’s a respected social critic today. Never underestimate the power of luck in our lives. I think it was Mencken who said that.
Towards the end of his life, the great nonagenarian Jewish painter, Marc Chagall, was asked why he had spoken out so vigorously on the social and political issues of his day. He shrugged and said, “We have to live with ourselves.”
Sometime during that terrible and terribly exciting decade, my feelings about the Jewish people began to change. I had been proud of the Jews for standing shoulder to shoulder with Blacks during the early Civil Rights Movement. They had lent financial and moral support and had put their bodies and careers on the line. Some Black leaders now say there was too much support, too much guidance–and maybe it’s so. But Blacks had suffered the apartheid of the post-Civil War period for a hundred years and I don’t think the Civil Rights Movement of the 50s and 60s could have gotten off the ground without the support of an inside group that had made and was making it.
I was proud of my half-Jewish heritage then. I have come to believe that there are no people anywhere who cannot take pride in their background–if they know the best of their stories. The Tower of Babel was never completed simply because people did not know how to tell other people their best stories.
But a strange thing happened around 1967 with the Six-Day War. My mother and I were visiting relatives in New York at that time, and suddenly, people who had never been political, could talk of nothing else. They said Israel was being threatened as it had not been threatened at any time since its founding. It was incumbent on all Jews to support Israel. The dialogue was changing.
Reform Judaism had been an honorable term in my childhood. Slowly, like the word “liberal,” the word “reform” became pejorative.
A great many Jews who had put themselves out trying to reform and improve the US system seemed almost embarrassed by their former efforts as they now fixated upon Israel. As a resurgent, recrudescent Israel, attached more and more firmly to America’s globalist ambitions, won war after war, employing first-rate technology against left-over technology, triumphalism reared its ugly head again–even as it had in King David’s time–as Jews began to believe God was on their side, victory was inevitable, the Promised Land would be restored, the Temple rebuilt.
A dreamy shepherd boy named David helps the warrior Saul establish a kingdom. David builds a small empire, taking another man’s wife in the process, alienating his son Absalom. Upon David’s death, another son, Solomon, later judged the wisest of men, arranges the death of his brother, Adonijah, extends the empire, tightens the reins of rule. When he dies, the northern tribes seek redress of grievances, to which the son of Solomon responds, “My father hath chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions.” The northern tribes judiciously rebel against this tyranny, and the empire dissolves into the two warring states of Israel and Judah, led respectively by Jereboam and Rehoboam.
History would be a great antidote to mythology if the two weren’t so inextricably entwined. Men will die and kill for their myths and their dying and killing make history, with its own awful imperatives lasting through generations.
With Israel’s easy victory in the Six-Day War, a new clan of military heroes arose–Moyshe Dayan and Ariel Sharon among them–new myths were created, old truths laid aside. Jewish popular psychology began to change, noticeable to me at the most personal level, within my family and among my friends.
Every new plateau of awareness reveals new vistas of ignorance, new mountains to climb. The struggle for awareness is eternal. I guess that’s why God has to live forever. God, as the Abrahamic religions envision God, is the only one capable of perfect awareness. But if God needed six days to create the earth, I guess it could take all of eternity to realize perfection.
The rest of us struggle with our personal histories within the matrix of tribal and world history. It’s a confusing mishmash of memory and amnesia, legend, truth, half-truth, religious verities and fabrications. It is not so much that humans do not learn the lessons of history, as that they learn them incompletely—or simply learn the wrong lessons.
Judaism offers a time-honored way to confront the confusion. At its best, it is a religion of core values (The Ten Commandments) that accepts change with Joblike patience, and perseveres, like Job, in its quest for understanding and justice. It has been an evolving religion from the beginning. From Abraham’s time it surrendered iconography and human sacrifice. The Old Testament is an anthology amended by various editors over a period of hundreds of years. Some five hundred years after the fall of the House of David, the Torah is given its final form. Samaritans break from the mainstream of Judaism, and Persian influence brings in the angels, the figure of Satan, final judgment and the resurrection of the dead. A Jewish reformer from Nazareth changes Judaism by forcing it to dig in its heels and define itself in the light of a Christianizing Roman Empire. Judaism is Hellenized, Socratic dialogue metamorphosing into Talmud and Midrash. Fourteen hundred years after Rehoboam, the Babylonian Talmud replaces the Palestinian Talmud. Sects like the Karaites emerge and decline. Kabbalah and Hassidism emerge and remain. False messiahs like Sabbatai Zevi come and go.
It is a river: like any long-lasting tradition, full of rapids and shallows; deep, clear water and stagnant pools. Parmenides said one could not step into the same river twice. Rivers either dry up, or they flow, changing their course, taking the renewing rains, making their beds as they find their own direction. “All the rivers flow into the sea,” Solomon tells us, “yet the sea is not full.” We can always learn; the sea can never be full.
Modern Judaism has been defined by two events: Zionism and the Shoah. Both are the results of eighteenth and nineteenth century nationalist movements. Zionism emerges from the failure of Reform Judaism, the “science of Judaism,” to find a welcoming home in the Western European democracies and, more especially, the Russian empire. Furthermore, the nationalisms of our modern age have been spurred forward and justified by a misunderstanding (often deliberate) of Darwin’s Origin of the Species (1859). Where Darwin had spoken of “natural selection” as a means of adaptation to environment, imperialist apologists (like Herbert Spencer in England and William Graham Sumner in the U.S.), heard “survival of the fittest”–the right to conquer and subdue. Darwin himself revisited the question of human survival and adaptation, specifically addressing the moral dimensions of the struggle in his less well-attended-to Descent of Man (1871), the book he considered more important.* (See David Loye’s Darwin’s Lost Theory of Love, iUniverse, 2000). In Descent, Darwin emphasized the moral dimension of human choice, our capacity for compassion, empathy and understanding; the divine role we have in shaping our destinies. Growing a longer tail might do very well in helping lizards adapt to new environments, but for the human species, a finely-tuned aesthetic sensibility is apt to work much better.
Regrettably, Darwin’s later considerations were lost in the hoopla over Origin. So we have Judaism attaching itself, perhaps understandably, to the jingoism of 19th Century Robber Barons and European expansionism. Within this industrially and scientifically fermenting age, we have the collapsing Ottoman Empire and a Germany that has reunited after 200 years of dissolution following the Treaty of Westphalia. Buttressing nationalism, also spurred on by mis-reading Darwin, is the misguided “scientific” theory of eugenics, championed in the US by health enthusiasts like Kellogg, and later finding a place in the frenetic writings of a little corporal and failed painter in defeated Germany.
A manic alchemist could not have concocted a more sinister, combustible brew.
The manifold lessons of the Shoah, the physical suffering, the mental anguish of betrayal, the guilt of survival, the sense of emasculation and impotence, the searing, indelible memories, have been encapsulated in a poignant phrase: Never again! That phrase, in all the languages of the world, is the birthright and obligation of every Jewish child and every Jewish sympathizer, inextinguishable as the light of the Maccabees, a new covenant Jews have made to one another.
It is a vital, vibrant phrase. …But how can it possibly encapsulate all that the Shoah has to teach?
There is another lesson of Shoah, too often neglected. Perhaps some think that it undercuts the first message, but I think, instead, it makes for a more compelling, even more obligatory vision: that is, that any people, no matter how highly educated and “civilized,” have the seeds of destruction within them; any people, losing their way in the wilderness, are liable to lash out at others in an atavistic, barbaric fashion.
Never again must the Jews allow what happened to them to happen to them. And, just as compellingly, never again must Jews allow anyone to perpetrate such malice and violence against another.
Much of the story of Judaism since the Six-Day War and the Occupation is now about the lessons of the Shoah. Zionists loudly proclaim the first part of the message, using it to justify an ever expanding occupation and expropriation of lands. Jews from Brooklyn and New Jersey arrive in occupied Palestine, thumping on Bibles like Southern tent-revivalists, pointing to obscure passages as though they were ancient deeds and land titles. Behind them, they marshall the powers of the I.D.F. and the American military-industrial complex. They can also point to any number of Biblical passages that depict Yahweh as a jealous God who will wipe out every man, woman, child, goat, sheep, cat, dog and goldfish who defies Him.
Never again! they shout, and they shout down those who have learned other lessons. In Leviticus I read, “If a stranger sojourn with you in your land, ye shall not vex him. The stranger who dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.” And, a little later, “If thy brother be waxen poor, and fallen in decay with thee; then thou shalt relieve him: yea, though he be a stranger, or a sojourner; that he may live with thee.” And, most conclusively, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”
Hasn’t it always been about strangers and sojourners and neighbors and brothers? Once outside of Paradise, the first great sin is fratricide. Then, Ishmael is sent packing by his half-brother Isaac; Joseph is sold into bondage by his jealous brothers; Esau is duped out of his inheritance by his brother.
Do we not live in strange times? Zionists have jumped into bed with Christian fundamentalists who believe in their heart of hearts that these same Zionists must be restored to the land of Israel so that they can die in hellfire when Christ returns to earth to save the believing Christians who are ferried up (naked!) to heaven in a rapture. Is there any more fantastic alliance in the Bible? Only the non-aggression pact between Hitler and Stalin could stretch our credulity more!
And these same Zionists claim that anyone who would gently remind them of the other lessons of the Shoah, and, indeed, of the humane face of Judaism–these same modern-day Zealots abhor their gentle admonishers as nothing but self-hating, anti-Semitic Jews!
So the fratricidal war of the Semites continues. Jew against Jew, Jew against Arab, Semite against Semite. Zionists and their fundamentalist Christian allies are wedded to a vision of apocalypse that may very well turn the 21st century into humankind’s bloodiest yet–if not it’s last!
The handwriting is on the wall, and we are at a defining crossroads.
In the history of any long-enduring people, there is much to take pride in, and more than a little to look on with shame. The human story is fluid, unfinished, evolving.
Are there 18 million Jews in the world? Then there must be 18 million versions of what Judaism is. Or, in Clintonese, it all depends on what is is.
Dialogue and dialectic have been fundamental to the Jewish tradition since the Talmud and the Midrash. There is no longer a Sanhedrin to tell Jews what to think and to condemn heterodoxy. Thinking, liberal Jews have been silenced by the rhetoric of the right, cowed by extremists into supporting policies that demean and dehumanize the other brother, as well as the self. Judaism, like all religions, like the story of humankind, is still unfolding, the human spirit still evolving. We can look back three thousand years to the House of David, but can we also look forward three thousand years to the House of Peace? Or does our imagination and groping for truth only move backward?
Perhaps the words of Albert Einstein may guide us on our way: “My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable, superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble mind.”
If we perceive the present time as the pivot upon which eternity rests, we gain a sense of the weight and immediacy of the moment . Every moment of our lives we are destined to choose, and we had best, like Einstein, approach the crossroads with humility. No one can say he has his finger on the pulse of a religion because no one can have his finger on the pulse of a river. We are in it and of it, and we may be carried away blindly or try to get our bearings and understand where we’re going and how best we may captain the frail vessels of our intelligence.
So here I am, a half-Jew of the diaspora, wondering if there is a role for people like me in Judaism, and, if not, why not, and if so, what? I have to speak out and protest because, as the Talmud teaches: “If I am not for myself, who am I? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” A hybrid can’t help thinking about wholeness and reconciliation. Diaspora Jews are, in a way, the “other brother,” the one who went wandering. They took their questioning attitudes with them. Abraham didn’t question God’s dictum to sacrifice his son, but Job, broken and tortured, finally did question God’s judgment. Out of the Whirlwind, God says, basically, Never mind, you couldn’t possibly understand! (The ending a later amendation of the original, more Promethean tale.) But timing, as always, is crucial. Job gets his just deserts only after the turmoil and after the questioning!
This spirit of questioning and challenging–both the eternal verities, and the verities of the Zeitgeist—I take to be the crucial, life-saving, life-affirming core legacies of the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. “Iron sharpeneth iron…” Solomon wrote. “So a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend.” The wise man counsels his friend not to drive when drunk, not to steal the wife of another man, not to hitch his wagon to a seemingly invulnerable military-industrial complex wedded to Westernity (Westernization and modernity). Perhaps as great a legacy is the striving after justice–justice forged by the layering of doubt, and hope, and hard-won wisdom.
I may be like Esau, the hairy, “matted” brother who came out first, with his brother’s hand on his heel. Tricked out of his inheritance, Esau plots murderous revenge on his brother, who flees when he hears of it. Jacob goes into the wilderness, pines for Rachel, suffers and sweats at the hands of Laban, and, after fourteen years, returns to the land of his father. He has learned much. Fearful of retaliation, Jacob sends Esau propiatory gifts. Esau, too, has learned much. He has prospered. He has gathered four hundred men to his tent. A hunter and military man, he has the power to swoop down on Jacob, his wives and his children. Instead, he embraces him, he welcomes him home.
It is the embrace of reconciliation grown out of suffering and new-found acknowledgment of their heritage. It is the acknowledgment of mutual suffering, reparations, acceptance and forgiveness.
After a while, Esau travels on, perhaps to greener pastures, perhaps merely to fulfill the wanderlust of his spirit. Perhaps to impart the counsel of his years. Perhaps he met the descendants of Ishmael on his way and they embraced each other, too. (I like to imagine one of his offspring found his way to Sicily, where he married a zesty woman with Greek blood.)
For my money, it’s one of the gems of the Bible, one of the stories they might have told at the Tower of Babel to keep from splitting into fractious tribes. If they had got their stories right, they might have built something worth building.
In a sense, we are all hybrids, composed of many strains of race, creed and culture. There are many stories of violence, ignorance and betrayal. We can cling to them, cling to that vision of what we have been.
Or, we can acknowledge, evolve, reconcile, and move forward.
Gary Corseri has posted/published his work at hundreds of websites and publications, including Dandelion Salad, Thomas Paine’s Corner, Cyrano’s Journal Online, The Village Voice and The New York Times. He has performed his work at the Carter Presidential Library & Museum, and his dramas have been presented on Atlanta-PBS and elsewhere. His books include the novel, Holy Grail, Holy Grail and the literary anthology (edited) Manifestations. Columbia University will broacast some of his poems on the Anne Cammon show on February 6, 9 P.M., at 89.9 FM (WKCR; also, accessible henceforth at www.wkcr.org.)