becoming van gogh

van gogh’s basket with six oranges

At the end of October, my husband attended a nerd conference in Denver, so I tagged along for a bit of a vacation and to see my family that lives in the area. While there I went to see the awesome Van Gogh exhibit at the Denver Art Museum.

“Becoming Van Gogh” is really well done. The special exhibit, featuring more than 70 pieces from 60 different public and private collections, traces Van Gogh’s evolution as an artist during his 10-year career. I didn’t realize quite how brief of a time Van Gogh was active: He only decided to become an artist at age 27, after an unsatisfying start as a pastor and missionary to a working class mining community in rural Belgium. At 37, he died under mysterious circumstances, returning from painting in a wheat field with a gunshot wound. Though the internets claim that it’s “widely accepted” that he killed himself (despite the fact that a gun was never found), the exhibit suggested only that it might have been murder.

The exhibit included many of Van Gogh’s famous works — but alas not Starry Night. Since it’s probably Van Gogh’s iconic work and almost everyone recognizes it, I at first wasn’t that disappointed not to see it. However, I realized (and perhaps this should have been obvious) that there is nothing like seeing a painting in real life, especially Van Gogh’s. The picture of the painting above, for example, barely does justice to the overwhelming brightness of the whites, blues, and oranges in the painting itself. I couldn’t take my eyes off of it.

landscape under a stormy sky

van gogh’s landscape under a stormy sky

And now I know that what’s odd about this is that Van Gogh, early in his apprenticeship, did not employ color much at all; his early works can only be described as drab — the palette related to his choice of subject, everyday working folk, whom he desired both to realistically portray and to ennoble as sufferers of the human condition. The Potato Eaters, which was included in the exhibit, is a good example of this early work. It was only after he studied color theory and became obsessed with Japanese woodcuts that his paintings began to evidence the bright hues that would later become his signature. One of my favorites from the exhibit (besides Basket with Six Oranges above) was Landscape Under a Stormy Sky.

I started this post almost two months ago and only just have been able to finish it — and now the exhibit closes in less than a month, and it’s apparently not traveling (not that very many people would/would be able to travel just to see an art exhibit). However, if you can, it’s certainly worth the trip. (And buy your tickets ahead of time! I wasn’t sure what my schedule would be, so I didn’t do so, and visits were sold out through my stay: I had to wheedle my way in, and I was only barely able.)

joseph anton

Joseph Anton, you must live until you die.

So Salman Rushdie tells his alter-ago – the psuedonym, a combination of the first names of Conrad and Chekhov, respectively, and how he is referred to by his British protection officers – as he embarks on what turns out to be a 13-year journey under a death sentence decreed by Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran on Valentine’s Day in 1989. In this book full of irony, it’s no small irony that the man whose fatwa called for the killing of the London-based Indian expat – for blaspheming Islam in his novel The Satanic Verses – died a few years later while the writer lived on.

First, a confession: I’ve never read anything of Rushdie’s until now. I read an excerpt from this book when it was published in The New Yorker in September, and I was hooked. I tried to read Midnight’s Children a few years ago, and I just couldn’t get into it. It might be time to try something again.

The memoir of his life under the fatwa – with digressions into his child- and young adulthood – is told in the third-person, which is jarring at first but quickly becomes natural. The choice reflects Rushdie’s alienation from himself during this trying period of his life. He is forced to chose the cover name so that the members of the Special Branch of the Metropolitan Police (in charge of personal protection in the United Kingdom) who are his constant companions during the first nine years of the fatwa can refer to him without raising suspicion about his identity; to his extreme dislike and irritation, the men on his detail shorten the name to Joe. Rushdie in other ways ceases to become Salman: He is denounced as Rushdie the apostate (by a large part of the Muslim world), Rushdie the self-aggrandizer (by one of his ex-wives), Rushdie the ungracious (by the British press). His life almost ceases to become his own — and is certainly no longer his intellectual property, as plays and movies and articles and books and stories are written about him and the fatwa. And his new world narrowly circumscribed by what he is “allowed” to do.

Rushdie writes movingly of the pain of those years. Two marriages collapse under their weight, as well as numerous friendships and relationships with colleagues. His interaction with his then eight-year-old son is severely curtailed. For the first few years, he must move every few months, and he is constantly in search of new accommodations. He is almost always afraid – less for himself than for the risk he poses to his loved ones and colleagues. While none of his family is harmed, a foreign translator of The Satanic Verses is murdered and another is almost fatally shot. His publishers face death threats, bookstores carrying his books are bombed. It is for these casualties that Rushdie feels unrelenting guilt.

But Rushdie himself has more than his fair share of trials. Support for free speech — the main issue at hand, as he sees it — does not always come from where he expects, and he feels the betrayal of his colleagues acutely. But he is not always able to confront his accusers (whether erstwhile colleagues or new enemies), which leads to the intermittent, unsent, and often hilarious letters that appear in the text. “It was a time,” Joseph Anton reflects, “where comedy had to be found in dark places.”

The British government in particular is upsetting in its silence and its general inaction on the fatwa. Under house arrest, Rushdie feels like a prisoner, and the resulting depression leads to long periods of writer’s block. His second wife, whom he married just before the fatwa, is breathtaking in her betrayal. But lest the reader began see the author of The Satanic Verses as martyr (another mistaken identity), Rushie is also unflinchingly honest about his own shortcomings: the tactical errors he made in his own defense, the affairs he had (he cheated on three of his four wives).

salman rushdie with the satanic verses in 1992

History plays a large role in this part of Rushdie’s life. He had the misfortune of being targeted by Iranian extremists when U.S. and U.K. citizens were Hezbollah’s hostages in Lebanon; both countries ask for his silence at various times out of fear for their safety. On the other hand, as Rushdie notes at the end of the memoir, he had the fortune of not being this target in the internet age, when the more rapid spread of information might have raised the risk of his detection. (One of the more interesting motifs throughout the book is the development of technology: It begins with him composing drafts of his work on a typewriter and ends with his purchasing of a laptop. The scene of his first encounter with a cellphone is hilarious.)

The book also brought up for me, as a future clergy member, the danger of being on the wrong side of history: For various reasons, stakeholders who by all rights should have been vociferous defenders of free speech were   In addition to politicians and writers, many religious leaders condemned The Satanic Verses on the basis of “offense to Islam,” including the chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, Immanuel Jakobovits, who went even further, declaring that “both Mr. Rushdie and the Ayatollah have abused freedom of speech.” In one of his impossible letters, Rushdie rightly condemns his “making false moral equivalences.”

For indeed as Jews well know, in the words of Heinrich Heine: “Where they burn books they will in the end burn people too.”

happy first birthday

On Tuesday No Power in the ‘Verse turned one! I started this blog in the midst of applying to rabbinical school, and I am now trying to finish up my first semester. In that time, I’ve written 63 posts — more than my goal of once a week! Thank you, dear reader(s?), for accompanying me on this journey.

where the magic happens

where the magic happens

Some of my favorite posts:

My most popular post (because, I think, my husband shared it on Facebook) was about my being forced to think about what makes a marriage.

I continue to enjoy writing posts about the books I read, but those don’t seem to garner many readers. But that’s okay: They, like this blog in general, are first and foremost for me.

This space is proof that writing is a very effective form of therapy.

feminist fishbowl

On Wednesday I spoke on a panel — or more properly, a fishbowl — about feminism at my school’s community time (held once a week for an hour-and-a-half) in advance of our winter seminar the week before school starts again in January, which will be on the topic of feminist theology and practice. Also on the panel were a faculty member (a man) and two fourth-year students (a man and a woman).

We each had four minutes (!), and I was super nervous, in part because I still don’t know the community very well, and I am just not sure where people are on feminism (yes, I know). In the end, I felt that it went really well. It was such an important experience for me personally, since, as I’ve been sharing, I’ve been having a hard time with the very painful misogyny in many of the texts that we’re studying. It felt great to have my say, to share my worldview. Which is, of course, the essence of feminism.

These are the questions that I was asked to respond to, and following that is what I said (slighted edited from notes into a more readable format, and including a few sentences I had to cut on the spot in the interests of time).

1. What does feminism mean to you?
-What is your working definition of feminism/feminist practice?
-How did you arrive at this conception of feminism?
-How is feminism lived out in your life? Your relationships? Your work? Your Jewish practice?

2. Why is it important for Hebrew College, as a community, to be talking about feminism?

____________________________________________________
My feminist practice works towards the liberation of all marginalized people, not just women. I have unerring commitment to intersectionality: The patriarchy perpetuates not just sexism but lots of other -isms/privilege: racism, ableism, cisgenderism, heteronormativism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, etc. The identity of an oppressed person is not just shaped by gender.

Essentially, our world is perfectly suited to educated, wealthy, straight, white, able-bodied, cisgendered men, and there are way more people who are not that. This means that a very small group of people have power and privilege. I’d like to create a world that is suited to all people.

patriarchyI can’t walk away from misogyny, so I can’t walk away from feminism. And I won’t walk away from feminism, because it is the only defense I have in world that is hostile to me –  not the other way around.

I’ve never taken a women’s studies or feminist theory class. In fact, I spent my college years doing just about the opposite, studying classics (ancient Greek and Latin texts). The definition above was forged in the fires of the rape crisis center where I worked as a hotline counselor and hospital advocate for seven years; I received extensive training before I started and ongoing training as I continued to volunteer. I answered crisis calls on a 24-hour hotline, and I went to the hospital when patient identified as a sexual assault survivor. (For simplicity, I will be talking about survivors as women, but I want to acknowledge that women are not at all the only people who are raped.)

I understand the phenomenon of sexual assault in a feminist context: that is, rape is about power and control, and not desire or libido. It is perhaps the most violent manifestation of patriarchy, and it is a direct result of the “rape culture” in which we live.

Rape culture is set of beliefs that encourages male sexual aggression and supports violence against women; it views sexual violence as a fact of life, when in fact what we think of as immutable is an expression of values and views that can change. In addition to its the part it plays in the lives of women, rape culture also narrowly circumscribes men’s roles.

A few examples: rape culture is 1 in 33 men and 1 in 6 women being sexually assaulted in their lifetimes; rape culture is encouraging women to take self-defense as though that is the only solution required to prevent rape; rape culture is the claim that sex workers can’t be raped; rape culture is the threat of being raped in prison being an acceptable deterrent to committing crime; rape culture is tasking women with the burden of not getting raped and failing to admonish men not to rape; rape culture is refusing to acknowledge that the only thing a person can do to avoid being raped is never to be in the same room as a rapist.

My feminist practice is based on the principle that the personal is political. Just to give two examples: I listen. I know precisely my experience of sexism, but that does not mean that I know what it’s like to be queer, or a person of color, or disabled, or any number of things. It behooves me to check my privilege and to listen and to accept as true others’ telling of their experiences

And on the flip side: I tell my story. As an excellent web resource says, “Because women’s stories aren’t told, it’s incumbent upon female feminists to tell their own stories, to fill that void, to be unrepentant and loquacious raconteurs every chance we get, to talk about our bodies, our struggles, our triumphs, our needs, our lives in every aspect. It’s our obligation to create a cacophony with our personal narratives, until there is a constant din that translates into equality, into balance.”

Finally, why is it important for Hebrew College, as a community, to be talking about feminism? Because we’re still asking that question.

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