Sign In Forgot Password

In the dark spaces

03/02/17 15:24:59

Feb3

Like many children I was scared of the dark. One of my earliest memories is of running down the shadowy, seemingly endless passage of our home in Bulawayo. Darkness touches our deepest fears; its about the unknown, the primordial forest, the blackness hovering over the depths of Creation. The second verse of Genesis tells us that this was how it all began: “the earth was astonishing empty and darkness was on the surface of the deep…” (Gen 1:2). Soon after, God gives this terrifying blackness a name and it is called “Night” which is countered by “Light” called “Day” (7:5).

God may call it “Night” but human beings soon discover that they can create a condition of darkness in daylight, murkiness to counter clarity, opacity where there should be transparency. Despite this, we long for the simplicity of pure light, where ‘right is right’ and ‘wrong is wrong’, where evil wears a black-as-night cape and good a shimmering coat of starlight. We hunger for human beings to be simple and obvious in their goodness and identity.

We regularly go through periods in our history as homosapiens when we reduce complex issues into clear-cut, simple categories. American journalist Susan Faludi suggests that the contemporary Western obsession with identity may be a reflection of this need for easy simplification: “I wonder”, she says “if a lot of it is a kind of nostalgia for a past when, supposedly, people felt connection to each other.” She adds: “the greater battlefield of our time, is identity whether it’s Trumpism, or Brexit, or Isis… these are all manifestations of some kind of out-of-the-box, pasted-on identity”.

These comments of Faludi are from an interview about an astonishing book that she wrote last year called “In the Darkroom”. In this challenging biographical journey she enters into the darkroom of her father’s identity and discovers that life and identity is never black nor white but a frustrating, tense and tenuous dance between night and day and also a playful show of shadows.

In 2004, Susan Faludi, the Pulitzer prize-winning reporter received an email from her estranged father Steven (they hadn’t spoken for 27 years) with the subject “Changes – a bit of interesting news” The “bit” of news was that he had undergone gender reassignment surgery in Thailand and was now known as Stephanie. She gets on a plane to Budapest where Steve had returned after the fall of communism and so begins the book.

This is a beautifully written book, sparse and succinct in its observation, incisive, and compelling in its narration; profound humorous and unsettling. It’s not a book for the squeamish nor for those seeking simple solutions to the complex issues of today. This is no sensationalist account of what it means to be ‘trans’ or adopt a new gender, not the bland ‘when-did-you-first-start-thinking-you-were-a-woman’ kind of revelation (to adapt Rachel Cooke’s phrase). It is rather a deeply thoughtful meditation on Western, American and Jewish identity as well as a “tricky meditation on the construction of gender roles”. (David Samuels)

It’s about contemporary Jewish identity because Steven Faludi, (hence the darkroom) a photographer, was born Jewish in Hungary, suffered as a teenager with the onset of the war, dramatically rescued his parents from certain death but also lost most of his family in the Shoah. Some of his family including his parents made it to Israel while he settled in America. The book explores the complex layers of Steven’s/Stephanie’s identity. It poses difficult and uncomfortable questions as much about the fluidity of gender identity as about the shifting sands of Jewish identity. It’s about the denial of identity and it’s about the affirmation of identity. For much of his life Steve tried to escape his Jewishness; there is self-loathing and derision of Judaism. When he returns to Hungary he plays down the alarming rise of antisemitism, the black-shirted youth marching through Budapest’s public squares, the violent attacks on Jews and Roma.

Susan Faludi, who throughout the book is on her own investigation of Jewish identity doesn’t accept easy explanations. She is suspicious of those quick ‘out-of-the-box’ labels. She is unconvinced that psychological ambiguity can be turned into “certainty in the flesh”. She will not accept the idea that the past is simply past.

One of the most dramatic moments comes at the end of the book when parent and child go to see the exhibit at the National Museum on the fate of Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust: Most of the exhibition mounted by the right-wing government for PR reasons, is about German culpability for the deaths of 565,000 Hungarian Jews; just two small plaques evasively make mention of the Arrow Cross. It’s only in the basement (one of the “Darkrooms” of the book) they find hidden away some portraits of Hungarian survivors and their descendants including the Friedman/Faludi family by Israeli photographer, Aliza Auerbach.

“Let the people in Hungary look at them” my father burst out “They turned their backs. They said, wow, it’s none of our business. They never looked at who was taken. These people were just like them. They spoke the same language. They were your neighbours, they were your friends. You let them die. These were the ones you allowed to die. Let them look so they can go home and not sleep in peace”.

Erik Erikson, Harvard psychologist who wrote extensively on identity, admits on the very first page of his famous work that he really has no idea of what identity is. (And he sure was confused about it as he changed his Jewish name and had a large cross on his office wall!). Identity today and especially Jewish identity is infuriatingly difficult to define and rightly so. We have a tendency, in our thirst for verisimilitude and definitiveness, to write out many Jews because they don’t fit our categories. Even the Halacha, known for it’s austerity, allows for the fluidity of identity. We need to be extremely cautious in our dismissal of other Jews. If we could spend as much energy on trying to bring Jews in as we do on trying to keep them out, we would be a richer, stronger community.

This week’s parasha (Bo) touches on the tremulous darkness, the חשך מצרים, the ninth plague, that of blackness, in the land of Egypt. It’s a palpable, tangible darkness that immobilises the Egyptian people. But perhaps its’ worst characteristic is that it cuts people off from one another “nobody could see their brother” (Ex 10:23); it breaks down communication and the capacity for empathy, for sharing the sorrow. This is the darkroom of the human soul, the dark night of the soul. But there was light in the Jewish home and hearts. In a world of shadow and fog we need to constantly seek the sparks or at least the comfort of the half-light, and the reassurance that the mix of light and dark is the essence, the chiaroscuro of the human heart.

 Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Ralph

Fri, 15 November 2019 17 Cheshvan 5780