Monday, March 5, 2018

Finding Hope in Truth Telling

I have a memory of the Washington Monument, pink in the glow of the sunrise, as I taxied to the airport, quite a breathtaking image. I once worked for a company headquartered in DC so have made many trips there. Recently I was returning for a conference.  This time, however, it felt as if I was entering enemy territory, a sentiment I’ve never felt even with past presidents with whom I’ve disagreed. I used to feel as if this was in part my city. Now with the current White House occupant, it felt tarnished. 

It was a bit like my first and only visit to Germany. Prior to that visit I always considered going to Germany verboten. This was the country that murdered my family. What can I say? I’m slow to forgive. Now I know Germany has worked to come to terms with its history, but I had this very strange visceral reaction to the beautiful landscape as the train headed towards my destination. I was angry. How dare it be so beautiful after the horrors they wrought. Only my purpose justified that visit. I was part of the first group of Jewish genealogists to do research in the Holocaust records.

Last year I came to DC shortly after the election for the Women’s March. That too seemed like sufficient justification to enter enemy territory. So, what brought me this time? For a number of years, I’ve attended a museum conference focused on Jewish museums ( I’ve learned that as an artist who tells stories, much of what I do echoes the work of museums. This conference was focused on the responsibility that museums bear to create dialogue and to tell the important stories of our time and our history truthfully. At their best they are truth tellers and play an important role as our society undergoes turmoil. When we talk of the role of the press and of courts in holding up a society that values core principles, we also should consider the role of museums in educating, challenging and engaging the populace.

While the conference addressed these topics, my visits to national museums, also underscored this. The two portraits of the Obamas had recently been revealed and I decided to focus my one free day on the National Portrait Gallery. My niece met me at my hotel and we walked to the nearby metro. When we entered the Gallery, the main attraction was clearly the Obama portraits. President Obama’s was in the Presidential Gallery while Michelle was located in a different area of the museum. 

A line, beginning in a large covered atrium, snaked toward the painting for those who wanted to take a picture of themselves in front of it. While that seemed a bit silly to me, at least for myself, it was actually quite touching to see a young African American child before the portrait, for whom the Obamas represented the idea of possibilities once thought unreachable.

The Presidential Gallery (also online) soon captivated me beyond the Obama portrait. There is a portrait of every president and a description of them as a leader and the times in which they were called to lead. I was struck by the fact that slavery was an issue that  presidents began to struggle with in the 1830s and it left its imprint on every administration up until the Civil War and its aftermath.

Now I must admit that I was not happy about the idea of our current occupant taking up space in the gallery someday, but was somewhat reassured by the fact that the text did not sugarcoat anything. If they were corrupt, it hit it head-on. And yes, we had some who were considered corrupt long before Nixon or our most recent occupant. There were several who wrought damage that took many years to right. Andrew Johnson ascended to the presidency after Lincoln was assassinated and Reconstruction took a turn as he supported returning power to the white Southern planters and depriving freed slaves of their rights. He came within one vote of being impeached.

Even the “good” Presidents had their flaws. It noted that Teddy Roosevelt opposed birth control for women, and immigration. Teddy!! For the most part they were men of their times and carried the beliefs and prejudices of those times. I was struck by the fact that Lincoln alone, seemed to transcend his times.

I was surprised and pleased to discover a painting of the four women Supremes and found much of interest in the museum's artwork.

At the end of my conference we met at the US Holocaust Museum and went through the exhibition. Here I was struck by the way Hitler positioned himself as the only one who could improve the plight of the country and the use of the People’s radio to pump out propaganda to the populace. The same position is assumed by the current occupant and the radio has become the cyber sphere. I closed my visit with several hours in the National Museum of African-American History and Culture after hearing the director speak eloquently at the conference. The museum goes from African culture and slave ships to Jim Crow laws and intimidation by lynching, providing a different perspective on the debates referenced in the portrait gallery.  It concludes by celebrating the influence black culture has had on our society in its many dimensions.

Normally I don’t get past the National Gallery. This visit felt especially rich in the history it shared and its relevance for today. The museums gave me hope that truths will be told. 

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

The Boundary Between Discipline and Sloth

Are there certain things you do religiously, with intention and regularity? My husband for example goes to the gym three times every week. Never fails. And that doesn’t include his regular thirty-mile bike ride to and from our studio. 

I must confess to lacking that level of physical discipline, although his discipline has helped to encourage me in my habits. If nothing else, it guilts me into working out on a more regular schedule. Disciplines of the mind are more my forte. For a number of years, I have tracked my reading and blog writing. And how do you track? On the most fundamental level we count. We set that number against a goal. For many years my goal was five books and four blogs a month.   To be disciplined you often have to be a bit of a number counter. How else do you know you’ve achieved your goals?

I have always feared losing the structure of a disciplined life. When I left my work life, I was especially concerned that with no regular routine I would settle into laziness and sloth. I’m not quite sure where that comes from, but it does cause me to overcompensate a bit.

Now I’ve learned a few things over time. One is that we each have areas where discipline comes naturally and areas where it doesn’t. Disciplines of the mind or of the body are just one division. We can appear to be extremely disciplined in one area while not at all in another. Most of us are not disciplined in all spheres. It is just too much to take on, so we decide what matters most to us or comes more easily.

 I also have learned that we have to really define our objective carefully, so our measurement is meaningful.  Numbers are productivity driven and that doesn’t work for everything. For example, anything creative has its own process. It doesn’t necessarily happen on our schedule. The goal is more one of showing up and taking the first step and then the second. I may start painting and then paint over it and begin again. That counts as discipline, but in a way that respects process. If my focus was on making my living from selling my work, then a number goal might be appropriate, and I might also be doing a different kind of artwork.

I’ve also learned that sometimes we can choose to abandon a discipline when the discipline itself runs counter to the meaning of the effort. For example, as I neared the end of the year and was a few books shy of my target, I found myself rejecting those eight-hundred-page books. The discipline had begun to detract from the joy of reading. And sometimes external factors get in the path of discipline. Certainly, this past year my constant need to be informed of political matters has redirected my reading energy and affected my ability to remain focused on story, except for the story unfolding within our Capital.

This is the year I’ve decided to let go of some of my discipline, to abandon my reading goals and to write when I feel like writing. Laziness and sloth, here I come.

Maybe when our political world settles down, I’ll settle back into my rhythm of reading. In the meantime, I’ll catch up on some of those extremely long books. I’m not going to disappear from the blogosphere but may be writing this blog with less frequency. I began the year with a burst of enthusiasm and signed up for a number of writing classes at our local writing center. I want to begin roughing out a book idea and thought that might help move me forward. I have no shortage of writing to do, albeit for a different purpose. So, I hope you will continue to join me on this journey as I test the boundaries between discipline and sloth.

 photocredit- meneya at morguefile

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

A Runway of Time

I woke this morning to an open calendar. No outside commitments, meetings or obligations, a full day to fill as I wish. I scroll up and down just to make sure I haven’t missed anything. A blessedly blank page. I wallow in the unexpected luxury of a runway of time.

Now that doesn’t mean I don’t have plenty to fill it with, just that no one else gets to fill it for me. Next stop, my to do list. There I find several tasks that truly demand a runway of time. This is not just an hour or two gap in my schedule. A runway of time allows me the time necessary to settle into an idea,  to work on a painting in a way that requires contemplation before I can even begin, to write in the meandering way that writing often requires or to take on a time consuming video project with transcription and editing. It allows time for process and thought, not merely squeezing in one more thing in that eternal quest for productivity that I am so prone to.

These are the type of projects that fall to the bottom of my list where they languish if no deadline forces my attention. Video projects in particular, form the bottom layer in my archaeological dig of to dos. And so I decide to tackle the backlog that has sat there for years. 

So what composes this layer? Mostly old women. I don’t mean that metaphorically. I have several interviews with women in their 90s and older who I wanted to record while I still could. They include the then 101 year old grandmother of a family member. Her recent death at 106 forced my attention back to the partial transcript I had left abandoned.  Apparently you have to die to get my attention. I also do the website on the former Jewish community of the Polish town from which my grandfather came. I document family histories of people from that community. I have several interviews with Holocaust survivors from there, all needing transcription and editing. One who recently passed away knew my family in Poland and with this fresh commitment  I am eager to revisit that recording. My friend Dora, in her 90s, also from my ancestral town, reminds me that we have some recordings to do and we don’t have forever.  

The software has changed since my last stint of editing and I have to relearn how to work with it. It is slow back and forth work with occasional gems to reward me. One recording takes me back in time, placing me in dialogue once again with my interviewee, but with five years of perspective on aging. Now I am approaching an age milestone myself and it makes me reflect on how someone views aging when they have blown through all those milestones. My 101 year old interviewee talked of the party her friends threw her at 99. “I don’t think they thought I would make it to 100,” she laughed. “Well you showed them,” I had replied. And then some, I think now.

I think about the questions I sometimes ask elders in interviews, the meaty ones. What were the challenges you faced? What gives your life meaning? Perhaps it’s too early for me to know my final answers. More challenges, more meaning yet to come.  I discuss those questions with my friend Dora. Dora has often told me that you have to find younger friends as your age group shrinks. I’m one of them for her. I know her well enough to anticipate her answers to these questions. We talk about how life is such a surprise, how we are a surprise.  So many unexpected things can happen and isn’t that wonderful? We are both optimists. I am well aware that I am in a sweet spot of life, a time of discovery and meaning. Past youth and middle age, but not yet “old.” “Old” is always someone else.

I begin to notice the increasing ratio of grey heads in our yoga classes, just an occasional tattooed woman in her twenties to remind us of true flexibility. The ratio increases for classes during the work day.  I think back to my yoga classes when I was that young woman, minus the tattoos and flexibility. I remember visiting my aunts in Florida not so many years ago and them admiring my slim waist. Now I know they were mourning their own once youthful figures as I too notice younger and slimmer forms. I slip between ages, suddenly seeing with clarity what I viewed with a myopic gaze when young. Every age comes with its benefits and detriments. There is some freedom in no longer focusing so much energy on appearance, now I care more about function than form. I glance at my husband on the adjoining yoga mat, a trim and handsome graying man. I don’t think of him as “old” either, part of my bubble of people of like age to whom I grant immunity in my perception of aging.

 Now I am free to focus on the things that matter to me and let life unspool in often unexpected ways. There is a growing awareness that life is finite, reinforced when parents die, then the occasional high school classmate. That one time sense of immunity has been pierced. My personal runway of time is shrinking and infinitely precious.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Walking on Eggshells

 I had written earlier of an arts and study partnership through which I work with an Israeli artist to commemorate Israel’s seventieth birthday. Our assignment was to agree on a text and each develop an individual artwork on that theme, perhaps sharing other elements if we chose.

Our first task was to successfully connect by video chat which took some doing. My partner soon knew me better than I intended when she heard my frustrated expletive when the communication didn’t appear to be working. Oops, apparently it was, so much for first impressions. We’ve had a number of chats since and gotten to know a bit about each other. We then began to tackle our second task, agreeing on a common theme.

As part of our study we read and discussed several texts, among them the Declaration of the State of Israel which is largely a vision statement. It paints the hopes and dreams of what Israel could be. It speaks of how the Holocaust further demonstrated the need for the State of Israel. Despite outlining the vision, the Declaration is grounded in reality. In the body of the statement it talks of “loving peace, but knowing how to defend. “ It recognized this would not be an easy road and acknowledges that while our eyes must be on peace, they must not neglect defense. This is not surprising given that Israel was built on the bones of the Holocaust.  For Israel to offer a place of refuge to Jews around the world, it must first be able to offer a place of relative safety. We agreed that this would be our common text to explore.

As I read the vision statement, I found myself wondering how we had done at achieving that ambitious vision that promised a nation "based on freedom, justice and peace . . . equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex . . . freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture . . .safeguard [of[ the Holy Places of all religions." It went on to offer to its Arab inhabitants "full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions.”

Arab Israelis make up 21% of the population, 1.6 million.  Arabs who live in East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights were offered Israeli citizenship, but refused and are considered permanent residents.  They are entitled to become citizens and they receive municipal services and have voting rights in the municipality. 

So what are the facts? Freedom of religion is afforded to all religions. Israeli Arabs have political rights with a consistent history of serving in the Knesset.  Every state-run company is required to have at least one Arab Israeli on its board. Holy places are safeguarded. The one exception for Arabs is an exemption from compulsory military service. A major bone of contention is the Jewish nature of the state and the right of return afforded all Jews, the very core principles that underlie the state. This is a right which feels personally important when I look at the fact that throughout history the Jews had nowhere to flee when their lives were at stake. 

So vision vs reality? It seems to me that the divide is largely created by the need for security. The fact is that Israel has not been able to deliver on the vision of peace as it is not a one-sided choice. The clause on defense in the Declaration speaks to this reality.  So how to represent these concepts?

We find vision in several Biblical texts. In Numbers 13:23,  Moses sends out the scouts to bring back the fruit of the land.  They bring back grapes on a pole born between two men.  In the sky of the painting you will see faint grape-like clusters in the clouds.  In Deuteronomy 30:19  God calls upon us to "choose life, that thou mayest live, thou and thy seed.”  Choosing life is closely allied to loving peace. This is not a culture or belief system that breeds suicide bombers, looking to a reward in the afterlife. To capture the idea of the continuity of life, I took the form of DNA and wove it through the sky. Within it is the quote from Isaiah 2:4 "Lo yi-sa goi, el goi che-rev" which in its entirety means "Nation shall not lift up sword against nation. They shall study war no more.” Also in the sky is the form of a bird, actually a flying scroll, an image of an archeological find that can be found on the first stamp with the name of Israel in 1948.  Below the sky is the image of church, synagogue and mosque all co-existing.

All of these passages speak to choosing life and peace, not war, and yet the importance of knowing how to defend is also recognized in the Declaration.   I decided to use a checkpoint as a symbol of security as a line awaits passage. Some checkpoints are wooden guard posts, others are turrets and I opted for the latter. The figures are suggested, not distinct, with the exception of the three by the tower. The checkpoint sits atop a rocky promontory constructed of crushed egg shells as we are frequently walking on eggshells, trying to balance competing objectives. The State of Israel, while a long-time dream, came to fruition out of the Holocaust. Life was shattered, much of our people destroyed and a new life was created in Israel. Many countries turned their backs on the Jews during the war, including the United States. They did not offer a place of refuge in an uncertain world. This is an important role that Israel plays. It will always be a refuge to Jews around the world.  It will always be a place that understands the importance of being able to defend. Eggs of course represent life, but in this case, crushed, they represent the destruction of life. In rebuilding upon the shards of that destruction, we are all too aware of the importance of security.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Readings: Dislocations of Culture and Gender

As I survey the list of my favorite readings in the prior year, I note that there are quite a few set in Asia, not an unusual topic in my reading. I grew up reading books by Pearl S. Buck and have often wondered at my affinity for Asian-related literature. Perhaps our early reading leaves its fingerprints. My last post discussed books that explored the experiences of immigrants to the United States. Both of the following books touch on dislocation in a different way, through the intersection between different Asian cultures, particularly when one enters the other’s culture. 

This year I went back to an author who I have written about in the past, Tan Twan Eng.  A few years I read his book The Gift of Rain and was awed by the sheer beauty of his writing. Eng writes of Malaysia where he grew up, and what little I know of Malaysian history came from his prior book. I find that reading historical fiction often fills in the gaps in my knowledge of history. In The Garden of Evening Mists (2012), Eng introduces the reader to the many layers that make up Malaysian history; British rule, Japanese occupation and Communist insurgents. He explores the relationship between a Japanese garden designer and a female judge of Chinese descent who was held captive during the war. As the story unfolds, so does the wartime experience, raising more questions than it answers. There is a puzzle at the heart of this, but it is not a story where all the loose ends are wrapped up. The reader is left to draw their own conclusions. Along the way we are also introduced to Japanese garden design and the tattoo art of horimono.

Pachinko (2017) by Min Jin Lee is an epic novel that traces four generations of a Korean family over a span of eighty years. Beginning in 1910 when Japan ruled Korea, it follows the family as they move to Japan.  In Japan, Koreans are considered outsiders and their choices are often limited. Even if born in Japan, they are required to register as an alien every three years.  As they are closed out of many occupations, pachinko parlors become one of the paths to employment. This is a book composed of many individual stories set within this broader history and the constraints placed upon ethnic Koreans.

There is another theme that recurs in my reading, that is the presence of women in unexpected capacities. Women are often in the role of “the other” even within their own culture. We need not go to another country to experience a sense of dislocation.

We returned from a trip to Yellowstone and Glacier this year and I was especially struck by the beauty and unusual visual sites of Yellowstone. I was a receptive reader when I stumbled across the book Letters from Yellowstone (2000) by Diane Smith. This book is set in 1898 and is the story of a young woman who joins a field study in Yellowstone. The study leader assumes she is a man and goes through a bit of an adjustment when he learns that his expectations are incorrect. I found it fascinating to step back to an earlier time in Yellowstone, especially because fresh from our visit I could picture many of the places they described. The story is told solely through the letters of the team to colleagues and family. I was a bit skeptical about that approach initially, but felt that ultimately it worked well, especially in expressing the voice of Miss Bartram as she carefully weaves herself into the team and proves her value.

In The Weight of Ink (2017) by Rachel Kadish, another young woman pursues an unexpected path when she relocates to London from Amsterdam to serve as a scribe to a blind rabbi. This gives her the opportunity to study and develop her intellectual gifts while she navigates a world that would easily squelch those abilities. This story is told in two periods, the London of the 1660s and the early twenty-first century.  It involves the discovery of a cache of documents from the earlier period that led the present-day historians on a search for the story of the scribe.  While the search of the scholars was necessary to create what proves to be a fascinating exploration, I was most intrigued with the early story.  The author does wrap up the loose ends in a way that is both clever and believable.

There are a few other books that I especially enjoyed noted below:

Hero of the Empire by Candace Millard 2016- an excellent story of Churchill's formative years during the Boer War, reads like a novel.

We are Called to Rise by Laura McBride 2014 – four stories come together in one event, and yes there is an immigration story within this as well.

Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger 2013- based in 1960s Minnesota with the hindsight of forty years, a coming of age story with life-altering events.

Stolen Beauty by Laura Lico Albanese 2017 – the story of Adele Bloch-Bauer, the subject of Klimt’s well-known portrait and her niece Maria Altmann, who successfully reclaims her painting from the Austrian government.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Political Affective Disorder: Reading in a Divisive World

As sunshine peeked through the window, our yoga instructor began to talk about Seasonal Affective Disorder.  I mouthed, “Political Affective Disorder” to my husband on the adjoining mat. He raised an answering eyebrow.  The symptoms are similar: anxiety, lack of focus, feeling disheartened and deflated. It is something we’ve both experienced this year.

As we near the end of the year, I begin my annual taking stock and realize that this has not been a normal year.  I am a goal setter; books read, blogs written, museums visited. You name it, I count it. This year I’ve given myself permission to lighten up.  My five books a month fell to four.  My blog frequency dropped.  The gap of course has been filled with monitoring our political space, fearful that I might miss something that threatens life as we know it. This has taken a toll on my book reading and altered its nature.  

Now normally almost half of my reading is non-fiction. That requires a level of attention and focus that I just didn’t have this year. Not only was I reading more fiction, but it had to immediately grip me. I was too easily distracted.  More books lie abandoned for a failure to immediately engage. It is probably not their fault, more likely my diminished attention span. On the plus side, the books that survived my engagement test have often been extraordinary.  I’ve long since abandoned reporting on a list of favorite books confined to a designated number, instead I will tell you over several posts, some of the standouts that share common themes or approaches. The ones in this post all seemed to serve some purpose for me in either finding calm or understanding the world around me.

Quiet Books With Depth

I began the year by discovering the author Amor Towles, author of A Gentleman in Moscow.  Trying to describe this book often fails to capture its extraordinary nature. A man is confined by house arrest to a hotel for the duration of his life. What dramatic possibilities does that permit? Well at least two and those prove to be rich and promising. We explore his character as he deals with these restrictions while attempting to have purpose and meaning in his constricted life. The fact that he is a witty and thoughtful character enriches this dimension. And remember he is housed in a hotel, and not just any hotel, the famed Metropol, with its regular cast as well as a constantly changing one. The world comes to him. A third dimension is added through the time period and location, beginning in Russia in 1922, it spans a period of thirty years. Having loved this book, I quickly sought others by this author and discovered Rules of Civility, a novel set in New York City in 1938. This rich novel explores the movement of a young woman into high society, despite more humble roots. Both novels present witty and well-developed characters, but of the two I must confess a preference for A Gentleman in Moscow with its more restricted circumstances, allowing a deeper dive into one character with less distraction. For me there was also significance in considering how we find meaning in life even when it has aspects at which we chaff.

I then moved on to a NY based novel, Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney.  This too is a book that doesn’t lend itself to a quick snapshot. It begins with an 85-year-old woman who is on her way to a party, working her way through New York City on foot.  It is another character study into a strong character with wit. Turns out Lillian Boxfish is based on the real-life character of Margaret Fishback, one of the highest paid female copywriters of the 1930s and known for her witty poetry and ad copy. The city of New York is also a central character viewed through a time dimension spanning from the 1920s to 1985. Just as A Gentleman in Moscow, much of it takes place in the head of the central character, a quieter kind of novel offering calm in a time of chaos.

The Immigrant Experience
Many of the books I read offered an education in the immigrant experience, often the limited choices that undocumented immigrants face and what that may mean for their American-born children. Two books in particular explored this theme: The Leavers by Lisa Ko and Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran. The Leavers is told through two voices, the mother, an undocumented Chinese immigrant, and her son, abandoned at age eleven without word upon his mother's deportation. He is adopted by well-meaning affluent parents, but remembers his former life and community, uncertain of his place within the world and his personal identity. Always lurking is the question of what happened to his mother, a mystery he ultimately solves. 

Lucky Boy deals with the story of an undocumented Mexican immigrant who becomes pregnant on her way to America. She raises her child in his first year or two, a devoted mother, until she too is sent to a deportation center. Her child is given to foster parents, an Indian couple who loves him deeply, sympathetic people on both sides of this equation. Unable to claim her son, his mother is faced with a system which would readily remove her child if she doesn’t step outside of the rules.  This was a side of immigration that was new to me and very disturbing. While told through fiction, it was true to the actual experience. There is a disconnect between federal immigration and the state child welfare system, with the latter often treating the child as if s/he has been abandoned when the parent is seized by ICE and housed at a deportation center. Often that is due to a lack of communication between the two systems.

A non-fiction essay, Tell Me How it Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions by Valerie Luisella also offered a perspective on immigration with which I was unfamiliar, a glimpse into the experience of children immigrating from South America.  The author volunteers as an interpreter for undocumented children who often flee alone to the United States.  Safety from gangs is often an impetus, an issue in which the United States bears some complicity as the gangs arose in Los Angeles in response to Mexican gangs. Deportation of the gang members just served to spread the poison to a country which lacked the resources to hold them in check. The book is more about questions than answers. The children are asked to complete a questionnaire for information that is used by attorneys to explore avenues to keep them in the US. Luisella uses this questionnaire as the vehicle to tell the stories of the children. 

Scapegoating the "Other"

Much of my reading seems to have focused on trying to make sense of our world, so divided between us and them.  To this end, I found a work by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks to be especially meaningful. In his book Not in God’s Name, Sacks focuses on the human tendency to turn on those we perceive as "other."  He attributes it to our search for identity and for those who we identify as our tribe. Inclusiveness and exclusion go hand in hand. If we have identity, "us", we also see its inverse, "them". When our world fractures, we fall into dualism. Dualism is when we attribute evil to an outside force, simplifying the world into good and bad, us and them. Scapegoats are targeted and we tighten our group bonds by attacking the "other.” Sacks examines this concept through the lens of sibling rivalry as addressed in the Bible. Moving from Cain and Abel to Jacob and Esau to Joseph and his brothers, Sacks shows the evolution by example of how we are to resolve these differences. Ultimately, he finds the answer in role reversal, stepping into the “other’s” shoes. You can read a more extensive review I have written here.

Until beginning this post, I must confess that I hadn't realized the role that reading has played for me in making sense of this disturbing time. It has in fact served to deepen my understanding and helped me to find a place of calm from which to face this very uncertain world.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

A Search for Facts

Creating artwork often provides me with a lens on the world, something I am always trying to make sense of. I want to understand it on a factual level and ultimately, I want facts and my emotional response to line up in a congruent whole, like a row of cherries clicking into place on a slot machine. In today’s world, I need to spend a lot of time vetting my facts, considering the source, their politics and how independent their judgment truly is. Both the need to vet, and the difficulty in doing so, has become very evident to me with a current project.
I am participating in a collaboration with Israeli artists to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Israel. The focus is on Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. There is a cross-cultural element baked in as our experience in our respective countries may offer differing perspectives. Already in my discussions with my Israeli partner, we have explored how the military service requirement in Israel serves a unifying purpose that we lack here in the United States where military experience touches a small segment. I have also been struck by how many of the Israelis came from somewhere else. Many of them have chosen Israel as their home rather than being there through an accident of birth. Aliya we call it, going up, as if to the very mountain where it began for Moses and the Jewish people.
As part of this project we discuss a variety of texts; biblical, poetry, music and historic documents. I read them looking for the words that cause me to pause, to pay attention, words that stir questions. Unlike some of my fellow artists who have spent much time in Israel, I am relatively new to first-hand experience with only two visits, both in recent years. When my Israeli counterpart and I spoke of early impressions, I remembered contributing to the planting of trees in Israel as a child. As a teen, I remember reading Exodus by Leon Uris. For a teenage girl, this was pretty heady stuff. I was ready to go join a kibbutz.  The six-day war fell during my teenage years and was a source of pride for Jews everywhere. We knew we were well represented on the Nobel prize list (22.5% in case you were wondering), but fighting back, and winning, was something new. 
Every Jew grew up with the history of the Holocaust lurking as a reminder. In my family, we had one survivor who came to the United States after the war. When I was a child, he would pick me up at the airport when I went down to visit my grandmother in Miami. I stayed with her in her little apartment on Collins Avenue, walking in excruciatingly tiny steps, slowed to match hers, as we visited the fish market on her round of errands. The eyes of huge fish glared back at me, surrounded by the rapid-fire cadence of Yiddish as old women jostled to the counter to make their purchases. I would carry my grandmother's chair to the beach, where she would meet her deeply-tanned geriatric boyfriend. My entry into that somewhat mysterious world was framed by the bigger mystery of this cousin with his weighty story. I would look for the tattooed number on his arm, curious, but too intimidated by that somber history to intrude with questions. Years later as an adult, I interviewed him about his memories. Later still, I became aware of the shadow behind that solitary cousin, the fifty members of our family who did not survive, who were murdered.

It is out of these experiences that I find my emotional response to Israel predicated on these facts; If you are a Jew, the world can turn on you. Even the US, turned its back on Jews during WWII, sending refugees back to their death, rejecting legislation to take in 20,000 Jewish children. As I learn about our immigration history, I am often shocked at my own country. It seems unfathomable to question one’s safety in the United States, and yet, history gives me pause.

With Israel, I always have a place of safety. At the end of the day it boils down to this: a well-founded distrust of my safety at the hands of others in this world, contrasted with a place which would always open its arms to me. If you are Jewish this awareness resides within you on a visceral level. It attunes you to threats in the environment and sensitizes you to others under threat. That sense of vulnerability shapes your politics and your sense of responsibility to others. It is a part of Jewish identity and a part of the relationship that many Jews have with Israel.
The world was happy to embrace Israel when it was the underdog who made the desert bloom. Today, it is a more complicated story. Another underdog vies for attention, another set of claims, information skewed in the cause of partisan views. My search for simple facts is frustrating. I look at college campuses and the BDS movement as I remember the simple and often uninformed lens through which I once saw the world as a young college student. The world was much more black and white and righteous indignation was often the predominant response. I wanted the world to make sense then too and hadn’t yet learned to accommodate the grays. The simple world of planting trees and teenage fantasies has become much more complicated.  
Antisemitism is never far from the discourse of those who object to Israel’s existence. It is a slippery devil, mutating to invade this new host, an ugly virus that always seems to find a home. I am deeply disturbed by this nascent antisemitism that has begun to enter college campuses and politics, finding homes in countries I once thought of as reasonably enlightened.
And still, I am a Jew. It is part of my heritage and my responsibility to value truth and honesty and self-reflection, to question if we have met the standards we would choose to live by. How have we done at creating a society that is congruent with those values? That is the question I come back to as I begin this exploration. There are practical realities that must be balanced, security in a world where others would seek our destruction. How does one maintain an open society in the face of danger?  Israel is a complex society with many divisions even among Jews. The Haredim in Israel, the ultra-Orthodox, are worlds away from my secular brand of Judaism and yet they have excessive influence within Israel on many issues. I remind myself that there are sharp divisions in American society as well. We aspire to an ideal, but seldom live in one. And so, I begin.