mikveh

On Wednesday night, I took in a performance of “Mikveh” at Theater J at the Washington DC Jewish Community Center. (And thanks to my friend Rabbi Tamara Miller, who led an interfaith panel on “Water and Ritual” afterwards, my ticket was comped! Free stuff = good.)

The two-hour piece takes place exclusively in a mikveh in an Ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Israel; all of its characters are female (although the male characters — the husbands — play important roles in the action off-stage). A mikveh, or a bath used for the purpose of ritual immersion, is the way in which these women regain ritual purity after menstruation. Ostensibly, the women come to the mikveh each month for the same reason, but it becomes clear during the course of the play that things are not as they seem with the mikveh’s regular visitors.

One of the most serious secrets that is revealed to the two mikveh attendants, who supervise immersions to ensure that they are completed according to halacha, or Jewish law, is the physical abuse suffered by one of the women, Chedva, at the hands of her very powerful — and purportedly very religious — husband. Ultimately, the women who end up at the mikveh together each month band together to help this “battered wife,” as well as to comfort each other in their respective problems.

I didn’t love the way that the domestic violence was handled on stage. For one, the new mikveh attendant, Shira, a community outsider and the subject of much speculation and gossip, is set up as Chedva’s savior. New on the scene, she tricks Chedva into accepting a DV helpline number, is insistent that Chedva leave her husband, and then offstage, after a particular bad beating (we assume), makes the decision to remove Chedva from her home and hide her and her daughter.

As my friend Alicia notes in her blog post on battering in public places,

often, survivors would say that they didn’t want people to get involved because it only made it far more dangerous for them- they know their abusers best, and how to survive just enough. they know their partner’s moods, schedules, patterns. they have had to. they are surviving. they are incredibly resourceful and resilient. other folks coming in to “save” them only makes abusers mad (and leaves the survivors feeling more disempowered). and those abusers very rarely take it out on the strangers. they take it out on their partner.

It was great to see the very different women in the play come together to buck the patriarchal world of Jewish Ultra-Orthodoxy, but I couldn’t help but feel that the narrative was a little insulting to those women. Were they not capable of seeing the abuse and devising an organic solution, one specific to their community? Wasn’t Chedva herself capable of deciding if and when she left her abusive husband? Plus, the scene in which Shira is trying to get the other women in the mikveh on board with her solution suffers from being an unfortunately strained, melodramatic moment on stage.

I was also concerned that the literature around the play didn’t contain any trigger warnings, which it really should, dealing as it does with the traumatic issues of domestic violence and rape. (The website and program do contain the spoiler that the play contains nudity (gasp!), which seems both kind of obvious and not really a big deal at all.) Indeed, it was really hard for me to be unexpectedly faced with fairly graphic representations of these issues. One of the women (spoiler alert) commits suicide over, in part, the non-consensual sex that she has with her husband. It’s not pretty.

I did enjoy the variety of women’s experiences that were presented in the play: All of the characters were seeking something slightly different from her mikveh experience. Unfortunately, the presentation was on the heavy-handed side.

the other wes moore

Last Friday I finished The Other Wes Moore. I can’t recall how I first heard about the book, but I was disappointed to learn last week that I just missed the eponymous author’s appearance at Politics & Prose. I wanted to ask him a question that’s been bothering me since I finished reading.

The book details the lives of two black men of approximately the same age who both grew up in inner-city Baltimore without their fathers. One (the author) is an Army combat veteran turned Rhodes Scholar turned investment banker turned youth advocate. The other is serving a life sentence in prison, without parole, for his role in an armed robbery that led to the death of a police officer.

The author first heard about his name-doppelganger when he was studying abroad in South Africa. When he called home the first time after arriving, his mom told him the coincidental story of a manhunt that was taking place throughout the mid-Atlanic region for a man named Wes Moore, a bank robbery suspect. Later, stories about the two Wes Moores (the Rhodes scholarship of one, the apprehension of the other) were published in the Baltimore Sun on the same day.

Upon learning about their similarities in background, the author began a correspondence with the felon, which eventually led to their meeting and, later, to the book. The author claims to have had the other Wes Moore’s full cooperation, which is born out by the detailed descriptions of the felon’s life, as well evidence of the many interviews that the author conducted with the other Wes Moore’s family and friends.

The stories of the two men’s lives are fascinating, both in their similarity and in their eventual divergence. And I think that the author is trying (and succeeding, for the most part) to make a very interesting point about the problems that young black men in particular face in in the inner city in the United States today. There certainly can be a hair’s breadth between success and failure in that environment.

The book’s cover contains these two trenchant sentences: “The chilling truth is that his story could have been mine. The tragedy is that my story could have been his.” I think the first sentence is true; the second, I’m not so sure about.

It turns out that Wes Moore the felon maintains his innocence of the crime for which he was convicted. The author (for reasons that are not clear to me) chooses to be somewhat circumspect about this fact; it’s not until the beginning of the third part of the book that the claim of innocence is revealed. Wes says to Wes during one of his prison visits, “I wasn’t even there that day.”

The author expresses to the reader his incredulity that the man sitting across from him, whom he’s been corresponding with and speaking to for years, could still be insisting on this version of events. The implication is that the author doesn’t believe the other Wes Moore, though he doesn’t say so outright. And I feel confident that the author would have vigorously pursued this claim had there been even a shred of evidence to support it; moreover, he would have been in an excellent position to do so, as he had gained the aforementioned cooperation and trust of those closest to the other Wes Moore. But he doesn’t, and so the reader is left to assume both that Wes Moore is guilty, and that that the author doesn’t believe his claims of innocence.

While in prison, Wes Moore became what the author describes as a “devout Muslim,” the outward sign of which is the long beard that he grows. And this is where the book’s central argument seems to me to fall off the tracks: I don’t understand how anyone can claim to be a “devout” follower of any religion and at the same time completely refuse to take responsibility for his/her actions. The author wants to argue that it was mere chance, for the most part, that allowed him to succeed while the other Wes Moore ended up in prison. But I think that it is perhaps the one man’s willingness to hold himself accountable — in contrast to the other’s complete abdication of that responsibility — that might be the key factor in the difference between the two.

For the most part, the author portrays the other Wes Moore as a likable character, a man limited by his environment despite his attempts to get out. But the reveal at the end of the book left me confused, and a little angry. I would find the other Wes Moore to be much more sympathetic if he had expressed even some regret for the actions that led to the death of a police officer. But at the end of the book, I was wondering how the author could expect me to care about his story. And really, I think the author was fully aware of this dilemma, which is why he buried the other Wes Moore’s claim and then quickly moved to another topic.

But I would have liked to ask him about it.

refuge in hell

Yesterday I finished Refuge in Hell, recommended to me by one of my Melton instructors (and University of Maryland Hillel executive director) Rabbi Ari Israel. Ari brought up the book during the Melton lesson about Yom HaShoah; we were discussing the post-war debate by Israel’s Knesset about whether to designate a day as “Holocaust Remembrance Day.”

Hard as it is to imagine in the early 21st century, when the Holocaust is generally considered *the* defining Jewish experience of the 20th century (rivaled only perhaps by the non-unrelated event of the founding of the state of Israel), there were members of the Knesset who spoke out against establishing such a day. For some, the issue was choosing a day to be symbolic of the extermination, as many Holocaust survivors rightly considered every day of the war to be “Holocaust Day.” Others argued that the victims of Nazi genocide should be remembered on the traditional Jewish day of mourning, Tisha B’Av, which commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples.

Ultimately, the Knesset decided to designate the 14th of Nisan, the anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising (April 19, 1943), but this was problematic because the 14th of Nisan is the day immediately before Pesach. The date was finally moved to the 27th of Nisan.

During our class, the discussion wound its way to the commemoration of Holocaust, when Ari brought up the fact of Berlin’s WWII-era Jewish hospital — which had potential to become a symbol of Jewish survival but never did. In fact, most people don’t even know its story.

Daniel B. Silver’s book would seem to be the definitive history of the institution (in English at least). Silver is an attorney, not a historian, who just happened upon his knowledge of and interest in the hospital, which inspired him to write the book — but his account is obviously exhaustively researched and documented (including interviews with former hospital employees). The story begins a little slowly, and is slightly repetitive at the outset, but overall Silver presents a detailed view of Jewish life in Berlin from 1938 to 1945, during which time the hospital survived as the one, improbable outpost of Jewish life in the headquarters of the Third Reich.

One of the most interesting details that Silver uncovers is the role that intermarriage played in the hospital’s survival. Pre-war, German Jews were among the most assimilated in all of Europe, leading to a much higher rate of Jews’ marrying Aryans than in neighboring countries. Although Nazi racist ideology would, all other factors’ being equal, have not considered these Jews to be any different than less assimilated Jews, German ideals about the sanctity of marriage trumped (for a while) the Nazis’ ability to dissolve these family ties through deportation and arrest. Thus, Jews in what were deemed “mixed marriages” (although in many cases the participants themselves might not have considered them so) were afforded more privileges than other Jews. And many members of these mixed marriages worked, or came to work, at Berlin’s Jewish Hospital. So while intermarriage in descried in the United States in the 21st century as a threat to Jewish life, in Nazi Germany it might have contributed to its survival.

And herein lies the main reason that Silver posits for the obscurity in which the hospital has languished, in historical terms: It is admittedly difficult to seize upon, as a symbol of Jewish survival, an institution that may well owe its existence to intermarriage and assimilation.

Silver concludes the book with an afterword, in which he notes the current locations and occupations of the hospital employees. I was struck by how . . . ordinary their post-war lives war. Almost all emigrated from Germany and then found fairly pedestrian employment in their adopted countries. Perhaps the routine and quotidian was by then a siren call, after years of living on the brink of hell. But I think the post-war stories also serve to underline the fact that it was ordinary people, pressed into extraordinary circumstances, who contributed to the survival of a Jewish institution — and therefore many Jews — in the heart of the Nazi regime.

nightmare

Last night I woke up from a dream that left me almost too scared to move. My husband was in the guest bed in the other room (he spends some nights there so as not to disturb me, an extremely light sleeper, when he knows it will take some time for him to fall asleep). And the cats weren’t in my line of vision. I fumbled for my iPhone to read my e-mail or my Facebook and Twitter feeds, desperate for something else to think about, to replace the images seared in my mind’s eye.

As in real life, I was called to the hospital to serve as an advocate for a sexual assault survivor. Her boyfriend had accompanied her on the trip to the emergency room. But a routine rape exam turned hellish when it became clear that he was the perpetrator. And he wasn’t yet done hurting her. He came after her with a surgeon’s scalpel, which she managed to use to cut a huge gash in his palm. She got away, leaving him to hunt me in a huge green operating room. When he found me, he lunged for me — but I jammed the scalpel into his stomach, twisting it as he fell on me. I could feel the blade slide through his soft belly before I woke up in a sweat.

The word “nightmare” always makes me think of the horse of Selene’s chariot from the east pediment of the Parthenon. (Part of the Elgin marbles, it now stands on display at the British Museum.) The animal is supposed to have pulled the moon across the sky all night and then into the sea. Its flaring nostrils, bulging eyes, and drooping jaw make it seem as seem as exhausted — and scared — as I feel after a bad dream. It is, in many ways, a literal “night mare.”

I have these vivid, horrifying dreams with fair regularity, and on the days following them, like today, I walk around in a fog, not sure if the waking world is more real than the one I left. In a lot of ways, it doesn’t feel as real. On these days, I find it helpful to try to immerse myself in yet another world — often a book or a TV show. They ease the transition back into what I know, rationally, to be the real world. Today it was The Other Wes Moore, which I’ll write about tomorrow.

On days like this, I am grateful to the chroniclers of other worlds.

and the heart says whatever

I made the decision to start blogging (again?) while reading Emily Gould’s And the Heart Says Whatever. Those familiar with Gould’s story might rightly be wondering if I well understood what I had read.

Gould gained notoriety as a rather merciless editor of Gawker, the “daily Manhattan media news and gossip” blog, during its heyday a few years ago. Her co-worker spilled the details of their workplace affair to Page Six magazine in February 2008; she told her side of the story to The New York Times Magazine later that year. An unreformed oversharer, Gould chronicles her twenties in New York City – including her stint at Gawker – in her memoir. Her entire life to this point could easily be characterized as an object lesson in the erosion of privacy in the modern world.

I eagerly read the NYT Magazine cover story when it came out. In fact, I read it a couple of times, and a few more since then. There’s just something compelling about Gould’s style and story. (To be honest, I also read some of her old Gawker posts, her current blog, her ex’s writing, a Vanity Fair article about her post-Gawker relationship, and basically anything else the Internets would give me.) But reading the book, I kept wishing it were more like the article, essentially an 8,000-word blog post.

Criticism of Gould’s book has been extensive. But this Jezebel post clarified for me what she was trying to do: Not be Elizabeth Gilbert. I happen to be a fan of Elizabeth Gilbert’s writing (and Gould happens not to be), but that doesn’t make me like Gould’s work any less.

I doubt that I’ll give And the Heart Says Whatever to my cousin, to whom I did give Committed. And I have to admit that I was hoping for more clarity at the end of what are essentially a series of essays, held together by the thinnest of threads. But I want to be Emily Gould no less than I want to be Elizabeth Gilbert, which is to say, not that much. But I identify with both.

After finishing ATHSW, I tweeted, “Sometimes I read a book at the exact right time, and other times, at the exact wrong one. Finishing Emily Gould‘s new book now.” (And she responded, which was kind of thrilling!) I think I meant that the book got me thinking and, perhaps, being too critical of my life thus far. But it made me want to write more; hence, this blog. I do worry about opening myself up to a charge of narcissism, as so many have leveled against Gould, but reading her book made me realize how much of my life I don’t (and haven’t, and want to) process.

Gould’s NYTM article was more like Elizabeth Gilbert than her (Gould’s book). And I think that I wanted her book to be more like the article (and thus, like Elizabeth Gilbert) because I want my own life to be more like Elizabeth Gilbert’s.

I’m 31 years old, and I still don’t have it all figured out. I caught myself wondering today, with unemployment looming and increasing body dismorphia (just two of my current obssessions): Am I still young? Can I really change? Will I become the person I want to be? And who do I want to be, anyway?

One of Gould’s former co-workers tweeted today about ATHSW: “‘Angsty’ is the wrong word. THE HEART SAYS WHATEVER is about figuring out who you are and who you want to be, and that’s hard for everyone.”

Agreed.

Update: I just shelved And the Heart Says Whatever in the memoir section of my personal library, and guess where it now sits? Yup. Next to Eat Pray Love (Gilbert, then Gould).

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