Here Are the First 15 Pages of My Unpublished Novel, THE NIGHTS

THE NIGHTS

“Night is deliverance.”

– Tayeb Salih, Season of Migration to the North

A scene:[1]

She took her to Toledo to seduce her.

Toledo, Spain, that is, not Ohio, and she being Aisha and the other she being Lena, my older sister, the eldest of us four Kahanes.

Let’s try that again.

Aisha took my sister Lena to Toledo, Spain, to seduce her. This was back in spring of 2006, when they had been living in Berlin for a year, working diligently (too diligently, actually, thus the trip) on their modern American English-language translation of the Thousand and One Nights, and not sleeping together, which is not what Aisha had had in mind. They lived and worked in a storefront flat in Kreuzberg, the Turkish neighborhood the hipsters loved, but back then they still sat at their desks with papers spread around them, and the Persian rug Aisha stole from her husband sat unused on the floor, dotted with cushions, a kid of leisure-lounge area. (Eventually they would eschew the desks and spend all their time on the floor, lounging. But we’ll get to that.)  In spring of 2006, you recall, the two American wars were dragging on and Katrina had recently doused New Orleans and Dubya’s approval rating hovered around twenty percent.

But Lena, my sister, wasn’t concerned with American current events. She had graduated from Princeton with a degree in Linguistics and was living in Europe with her favorite professor, Aisha Wasila, and together they were rewriting The Nights for a modern American audience. It was going very well: if nothing else, those four years at Jersey’s fanciest country club had imparted to Lena excellent writing and research skills, and military-grade study habits, a work ethic the nation’s premier Presbyterian university could be proud of, in a Calvinist, good-works sort of way.[2] In their first year in Berlin, Lena and Aisha had categorically sifted through the thousands of Xeroxed pages of multiphonic versions of The Nights Aisha had copied from many dozens of manuscripts and anthologies in the tri-state area over the past seven years, then schlepped across an ocean in seven boxes when they moved. Now the copied tales were laid out along the southern wall of the apartment, organized by provenance and subject, Toledo, Istanbul, Paris, Algiers across, Sindbad, Aladdin, Scheherezad down.

It was from this well-lit, well-organized enclave of healthy work habits and professional relationships that Aisha looked up one morning from her work table and turned innocently to Lena, her charge, and asked, “Have you ever even seen a Medieval Arab city?”

“No,” Lena scoffed. She lived plumbly in the ahistorical present, in a converted storefront apartment in the formerly East Berlin, with a woman who had been her professor and would be her lover, but for now was only her roommate, and her boss. “Have you?”

“Only my hometown,” Aisha replied, but did not give its name. She looked at Lena’s profile, its cameo sheen: the long white neck, the subtle nosey bump, the black shadow of hair. The girl was ready for the next step. “You don’t find this problematic?” Aisha went on. She clutched at the papers that littered her desk. “That you will write Basra with never having seen it?”

“I’m not going to Iraq,” Lena said.

“No.” Aisha looked out the wide front windows at the chic Berliners ambling by. “I suppose no one is, save your soldiers and your tanks. No, we will go to Toledo.”

“They’re not mine,” Lena whined. She was still looking at her computer screen, where she’d been typing out a new draft of the Hunchback’s Tale. “You’re American, too.”

“Citizen, not ethnicity.”

“There is no American ethnicity. I’m Jewish.”

“Don’t remind me,” Aisha said. She stood up, closed her laptop, and smoothed her hair. “Come, we must pack.”

[1]               It always opens with a scene.

Or perhaps use a question:

How does one begin a story like this? With a scene:

Or maybe I could allude to the beginning of The Thousand and One Nights, which opens at the bedside of a dying king.

No: Too soon. Patience, storytelling is all about Patience, Nathan (I tell myself: I being Nathan, your humble narrator.)

Let’s leave it as it is: A scene. The rest is implicit: every story opens with a scene. Even the first one: big bang, om, tsimstum, breishit bara, heaven and earth, lingam and yoni, Krishna and Shiva, the opening dance.

All right, okay, I get it: a scene, sure, but my God, make it grand.

[2]               This would be in sharp contrast to my own experience at Princeton, where I gleaned the alternative skill set of hobnobbing and substance abuse, a charted course which would eventually see me duly punished, freeing me up to narrate the unusual tale of my sister’s escape to Germany (an 21st century inversion of the typical holocaust-era tale).

——-

A plotter, Aisha had already bought the tickets. Aisha was cunning, but she was organized about it. Had she even pushed Lena and Ted together, that first day in Arabian Nights class? I don’t know. And if she was already researching the Nights at that time, she redoubled her efforts, so that by the time Lena graduated four years later, Aisha had a foreign fellowship all lined up. All she needed was an assistant who could read Turkish, Arabic, French, and Greek. Luckily, she had trained her protégé well. Now Lena watched as Aisha packed for a long weekend escape: two cashmere sweaters, a black cardigan and a white pullover; three t-shirts, black, white, and tan; one pair of slacks and one pair of jeans; two brassieres, one black and one beige; five pairs of underwear, three briefs and two thongs; four pairs of socks, one wool; one pair of water-resistant boots and one pair of loafers; and a small cosmetic case containing mascara, lipstick, a toothbrush, toothpaste, conditioner, shampoo, and a hotel-sized bar of soap. Then she separated out the boots, the jeans, one sweater, one t-shirt, one set of underthings, and looked up at Lena, who had stood above her, watching, and said: “For the plane. Plus jewels. Well? Go pack.”

Lena put some clothes in a bag and soon they were on the airplane. The Eurozone crisis was a vague forethought in the some corners of the universities and Spain and Germany had nothing to say one another. The metro on both sides was good, but Berlin’s was better. When they arrived, Aisha could speak Spanish. They took the Metro to the Atocha station and Aisha bought their commuter rail tickets to Toledo and they killed an hour in the atrium, drinking espressos. Around them under the filtered sunlight milled dark women with their sleep ponytails tied into elaborate knots and this was what Lena had thought Italy would be like, and did, until a few months later when they went to Rome.

The commuter rail sped south and to Lena, who had never seen Spain, or any other arid landscape, the blank plateau seemed designed by Miguel Cervantes himself for the express contextualization of Quijote’s interminable quest. Looking out the window, Lena recognized that for the Knight of La Mancha, son of this flat, expressionless land, delirious fantasies were the only recourse for spiritual survival. On the train car with she and Aisha was a large group of schoolchildren shepherded by two school teachers, one old and one young, who turn turns ignoring the children. Aisha sat in the aisle seat reading a magazine in Spanish and periodically looked up at the window to deliver Lena a disquisition on how the Mideival Moorish occupation of Spain had brough not only Scheherezad but also algebra, astronomy, and Aristotle to Europe.

Then, in an hour, it was eight hundred years ago. From the train Lena watched Toledo rise out of the plain like a city built atop a giant turtle’s back, all the stone and brick the same color as the earth itself, the buildings like barnacles stuck to a shell. From the train station at the outskirts of the city they took a taxi to the studio apartment of an absent person Aisha knew from somewhere. (In every European city they went, and this was the first of many, Aisha would know a missing person. So Lena never met any of them, never found any witnesses to fill in the gaps about Aisha’s life. Lena got to know Aisha’s friends by their houseplants, their foreign woven rugs, their furniture, stark or plush, the painted details on their dinner plates.) The cab wound up into the city through narrow streets, and the locals hugged stone walls to let it pass. Their apartment was on the third floor of a building undifferentiated from its neighbors, denoted only by a numeral alongside the narrow wooden door set into the stone, which opened to a surprising formica liner on the stairs. Inside, bright white walls and a window box that needed watering, suspended over the view of a beautiful alley. In one corner a kitchenette, in another a loveseat, in a third, a narrow futon with sleeping space only for one.

For two days they walked. Munching on marzapan bought made in a convent by nuns, they entered every synagogue and cátedral and mosque. They saw suits of armor in shop windows and children’s swords for sale and above every streetred streamers were hung as though a festival had just ended, or was about to begin. Each church boasted its own Goya, the jazz-age faces wracked with grief, the heavenly light dissolved among the jewel-toned villagers and hills. In an ancient mosque-cum-synagogue with faded Coptic Jesus on the wall, Lena caught her breath and hoped those were tears in her eyes.

Lena insisted they go to the Jewish museum, tugged by some vague unstoppable internalization of our mother and her mother and hers: You went to Europe and not to the Jewish museum (there was always one, wasn’t there)? Ach! Go! Go! Go!

Inside the retiring synagouge the walls were covered, floor to triple-high ceilings, with Hebrew script. Lena stood under the light emitted by the rose-cut windows in the high stone and felt like a black ant inside a Torah scroll, ecstatic, trapped. On the second floor, the women’s section had been converted into a gallery for dead Jews’ things. Lena stood at a map of the post-inquisition diaspora and watched as the Jews to whom she was least related fled Spain for Paris, Amsterdam, Istanbul, Algiers. These Sephardic Jews were not our Jews. When the Temple fell, they went east, into Europe, while we middled in Germany, inventing Yiddish, before schlepping east.

A fat Spanish woman with hair dyed red approached smiling and asked, “Eres Judeo?” and Lena said, “Si,” and when Aisha appeared the woman included her in her broad beatific gaze. “Hermosas?” “No,” Aisha said, “somos investigadoras de la historia Judaismo,” and the woman smiled sadly and nodded her grey roots and drifted away.

Aisha led Lena by the elbow to a glass case holding shawls and candlesticks begging to be used, but locked away instead. “The Megillat Ester,” she said, indicating a tiny scroll unrolling into endless miniature Hebrew script. “Orientalists suggested—mostly notably in the 1912 Encyclopedia Brittannica entry on the Nights—that Scheherezad and Queen Esther were the same woman, both second wives to an ancient, insomniac Persian king, both with unusual sway over such a powerful man.”

“Is that true?” Lena asked. She peered into the glass case, looking for answers.

“Are the texts true?” Aisha stood close beside Lena, matching her breath. “It doesn’t matter if they’re true. They’re symbolic. They’re true mythology. Look at the symbolism in the first few lines.” And she offered an approximatae translation. “And there, in the time of Ataxerxes—he Ataxerxes, who reigned then from India to Ethiopia, and so forth, in the third year of his reign, and seven chamberlains, and the seven princes.”

“It’s a lot of sevens.” Looking closely, Lena could see the repetition of the Hebrew word seven, שבע , across the first few lines, the mythic three-pronged ש, the little crowns rising off its slick calligraphy. Lena turned and walked to the banister and looked out over the empty shul. Here in the women’s section the light from the rose windows hovered at eye level on the far wall, igniting the calligraphy with flames. On the ground floor, three steps led up to an ark that stood open and empty, the velvet cushions long gone, the Torah scrolls adopted or burned.

That night, after tapas and Tempranillo on Zocodaver square, Lena and Aisha returned to the absent friend’s flat. The night before they had slept chastely side-by-side, but tonight Aisha had other plans. Of course, I wasn’t there. But I can imagine. Did they stand at the window, watching the moon hover over the narrow streets, downing another glass of wine? Did Aisha brush a tendril of my sister’s long hair from her face, did she whisper entreaties of love? Or perhaps it was a roving foot, a meandering hand, that reached for my sister’s body when they were already tucked into the narrow bed. She must have expected it, in some way. Aisha was a highly sexual person. Lena was a year gone from Ted, her first and last true love. Who knows what her body needed, or could settle for, in that heady moment, head swimming with intellectual excitement, her body hot with the day’s excercise and wine. I imagine a few tender kisses in a foreign city was all it took, the first finger pulled (if I may say so) from the dyke. When they returned to Berlin, to their shared apartment, Lena was Aisha’s, at least until now.

 * * *

Phew! Call it Freudian, but for me writing and shitting have a lot in common. Both involve dropping my pants (figuratively in the former sense), my most private self exposed, and dedicating myself the difficult work of self-excavation with extreme purpose and single-mindedness. I really have to push. In both cases I must identify hidden interior material, composted and compacted after its long, winding journey through my being, and eject it (moaning and groaning all the while) into some blank white receptacle of my distress. If Geertz suggested that delayed gratification is the central psychological feature of the modern world (not to mention the modern novel, am I right? Bueller? Cervantes? Anyone?” then I am not ashamed to declare myself the first to proclaim (if  not downright discover) that constipation just might be the governing metaphor of mankind’s contemporary, technologically mediated existence.

Of course, if Lena were here, she would object that our world’s first novel, if we are defining the novel by its embrace of the conceit of delayed gratification (which is to say, suspense), is not Don Quijote but rather that endlessly iterated collection of tales to which my sister would insiste the Quijote is obviously, indeed explicitly, indebted, Nathan, that is, The Thousand and One Nights. But returning to an earlier point, the invocation of The…Nights, in whose pages waiting strikes a decidedly sexual tenor, allows us to infer that the action of delayed gratification is an inherently sexual or preferably sensual act. By which I mean—the holding it in—before, you know, letting it out—I mean—it feels good.

And woe to you if you call them “The Arabian Nights,” since as Lena will tell you (O for she has studied—under, literally under!—such a venerable scholar of The Nights) these tales traveled the Silk Road from Africa to China, and were originally recorded by the Persians, and have been transposed into all the world’s great languages, soon to be including (no offense to the Briton Burton) American English.

I know what you’re thinking—what, suddenly with a BA and three years of private cunning linguistic lessons from Aisha, Lena’s the master of the modern American idiom? Ahem?! Narrator here!

Far be it from me to protest that she doesn’t even live in America, because, then again, neither do I.

But I oughtn’t apologize: this is my story, even if they’re Lena’s facts, and so what if I’m cramped up in a moldy bathroom on the repossessed Israeli shores of the Mediterranean. (Yes, despite Aisha’s protestations, this story is Jewish. But at least my heritage offers the literary precedent of Portnoy, Sr., for my cramped-up kischkes.) And sheesh, if Lenaa told this tale, you’d miss the whole delicious context: that is to say, our family, the Knight-Abraham-Kahanes. As much as Lena may have thought running away from us all to Germany exempted herself from this grand Jewish-American tale of which she is a necessary part, it didn’t. Why do you  think she ran away in the first place?

I’ll tell you why: it’s because she fell in love with a schvartze. A black.

Ted.

Ted Knight, no relation.

Tadik “Ted” Knight, whose Arabic-inflected given name didn’t help matters as far as the social hostilities unleashed by Lena’s miscegenation were concerned, despite everyone’s protests that the issue wasn’t that Ted was black but simply, defensibly, that he was a goy.

Yeah, right. The old shaygetz excuse.

Of course, ours is a contemporary American family, so our bigotry was never so explicit (except in a few instances, when it was), but Lena was a good girl and a good daughter, played soccer in high school and excelled in her studies, she went to Princeton for Chrissakes, and so after years of satisfying my parents’ every wish for her this last, enormous failure needed only to grate on her for a few years before the bough cracked and she split.

It didn’t help that he asked her to marry him. What was she supposed to say, yes?

Aisha was the wild card. Aisha, who had been watching Lena and Ted since the first day they met, who then, when Lena was at her most vulnerable, pounced. She carried my sister away to Berlin, business class, where they still stay, living, working, and fucking even now, as we (figuratively) speak.

But, in Lena’s case, every trip has to come down eventually. Even now, as dusk falls over Berlin, the rumblings of her next abandonment are beginning to break the placid surface of her socialist work-life-conflation with Aisha. (Aisha, who, like any adulteress, hadn’t minded Lena’s fickleness when it was she Lena was leaving for.) If Lena had anything to say on the matter, she would insist that bad luck has followed her from the get-go, that she’s not a leaver but a loser, not the schlemiel spilling soup but the schlemazel unto whose lap it is spilled.

Oh, fuck her and her long hair.

Forgive me. As the eldest of her three brothers, I am not impartial. I am also among those whom Lena has left.

This is all easier to tell than show, but I know that isn’t the way. I won’t waste any more of your time hypothesizing as to the roots of Lena’s commitment-phobia, whose infinite set of possible originary causes begins with our parents’ divorce and extends back to the Russian pogroms, the destruction of the Second Temple, the eviction from Paradise itself.

And here I get ahead of myself, or more precisely, behind. I’ve all but already declared that storytelling takes patience, takes time—from both of us, reader, you and me, so stick around and I’ll explain it all. Just picture me the hare, plodding forward one step at a time, while fleet-footed Achilles (standing in for my plot) advances upon us from the starting line. Movement may be impossible—I know, I know, tell it to my bowels—but it is certainly probable (thank God!), that is, difficult to avoid. Zeno’s protestations notwithstanding, I promise the story will catch up with us in time.

And anyway, it’s midnight here, and I’ve been perched on the toilet too long, and I know you’re eager to get to Berlin, where my sister and Aisha lay sprawled on a woolen carpet embroidered with a rendering of Eden (whose potent symbolism will presently be revealed).

Could it be? I think I feel something stirring down below. If you’ll excuse me, I have pressing business to attend to. Ah, the armchair historian sinks to a new low.

Exeunt.

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Thoughts on Composing / (A) Composition

You know you’re a writing teacher when you read an awesome article that combines content, form, style and structure to make its point clearly and beautifully and think: I want to put this in a syllabus. Or so it was for me, with Larissa MacFarquhar’s requiem for Aaron Swartz in last week’s New Yorker, which you should read.

But actually, I don’t want to talk about that piece. I just squeezed it in there for kicks; I actually want to begin with a moment in another article from the same magazine issue, a profile on jazz pianist Jason Moran. There is a moment where Moran is teaching a lesson at the New England Conservatory of Music to a student named Chase Morrin.

“How would you play that song another way?” Moran said when [the student] finished.

“Is that rhetorical?” Morrin asked.

“No, it’s not. I want you to do it now.”

Morrin started again, but Moran immediately rebuked him for imitating the style of a famous piano player. “I don’t want to hear that stuff,” he said. “You’re more creative than that. That’s good for him, not for you. I want you to go somewhere else.”

Morrin began playing very fast, almost antically.

“Stop,” Moran said. “Stop. it’s its own rhetoric now. Once you start doing a bunch of arpeggios, it’s like an exercise. In the beginning, you didn’t know where things were going. I want us to maintain that uncertainty. I don’t want to see autopilot. Where I want you to start is, I don’t know. I want a whole lot of I don’t know.”

Then the article moves to Moran’s next lesson.

This moment reminded me of a meeting with my creative writing thesis advisor, my senior year of college. We had been meeting every week or two to talk about my work. For the first month or so, I had been attempting a novel about a student who gets pregnant and decides to keep the baby. But it was bad, and then Juno came out, so I switched to writing short stories, which were better. My advisor wanted twenty pages every week. I would send them and we would meet in his office in the arts building on Wednesdays, which was the only day he was on campus, or sometimes we would get a beer. And I remember once, we were in his office, facing each other each from our own slim couch, the afternoon light falling on us through west-facing windows, and I said something to the effect of, “Inspiration is weird. Where does it come from.”

And instead of really answering me, he told me to read Bob Dylan’s autobiography, Chronicles, which had recently been released, that Dylan had a better answer for me than he did. So I went and read Dylan’s book, and listened to the not seminal album, Oh Mercy, around whose recording the book revolves, and smoked cigarettes out of my dorm room window and watched the people walking on the street beneath, knowing they’d never look up. And at some point I went back to my little couch and kept reading and that day or another day found the part where Dylan describes a song as a thing that kind of hovers in front of him, and you can’t get to close to it, and if you try to grab it, it will vanish, so you have to just sort of respect its distance from you, and slowly approach it through writing.

(I looked for the passage just now on Google Books but without much luck. A keyword search for “inspiration” turned up nothing; “in front of” fared slightly better. I found this: “This song is like that. One line brings up another, like when your left food steps forward and your right drags up to it.” But even that’s not quite what I remember. I think it was in pp. 150-200. Maybe you will find it.)

Bob_Dylan_Chronicles,_Volume_1

And I remember the first semester I taught composition full-time, I had one class where everything was just right–the kids where great, the classroom was big, with an A/V hookup. The professor before us taught a class about jazz, and I thought maybe that left us some good vibes in the room. We had a bunch of musicians in that class, music students studying jazz guitar and cello and music composition, and when I assigned the writing-on-writing paper at the end of the term, I said they could write about writing music if they wanted, and some of them did. One girl turned in a bunch of MP3s with songs she’d written, and her essay was all about them–where they came from, what they meant.

It’s funny, a few weeks ago I wrote this post on Jewish-African-American relations, and ever since then I’ve felt this pressure to write the follow-up posts I promised, on all sorts of important topics I detailed in that piece. And in the process of not following up I realized that part of the hang up is that I write about Jewish-Afroamerican relations every day, I just don’t share it with you: because in the novel I am writing, have been writing forever, my Jewish main character moves from a relationship with a black man to one with an Arab woman. But y’all don’t see that book, because that’s the difference (for now, at least) between writing fiction and writing a blog.

On Friday I was working on this scene where my protagonist finds another character dead in her apartment. I’ve written this scene maybe three or four times; I was looking through some old drafts. The funny thing is, all of my drafts from grad school are beginnings. Together they add up to almost the whole novel, but every time I turned pages in, they started at page 1. I remember a professor at grad school telling me to be patient, that you can’t write a whole novel at once, that I had to let the thing unwind. Now, finally, I’ve managed to hide this death til the middle. But it’s taken me five years to learn how.

About Jason Moran, the jazz pianist, the established saxophonist Greg Osby said this: “I could hear the history of the piano in all that he did. He wasn’t like a twenty-one-year-old who wants to play everything he knows all the time. It was not a bombardment. he did all the right things, and more.” Later, Moran gives a student to another lesson, Jiri Nedoma, who is working on an original composition. “‘You have to add an introduction,’ [Moran] said when Nedoma finished. He balled his hands together and opened them as if to reveal something. ‘Unfold the song slowly,’ he said. ‘You can’t show me the whole thing at once.'”

And now my mind flies back to college, to my last March and April there, spent writing a thesis, when I would take my laptop to the reading room in the music library, and face wide windows that looked out into green spring trees. I remember rewriting the same story from the perspective of three different characters, how little details emerged each time, how the friend could see around corners that the aunt couldn’t. Those were the days when I felt like I could be a writer, like there was nothing better I would rather do than sit in a room, looking at the trees, taking real life and making it something greater, something with language and form.

Review of a Review: An Opportunistic, Back-Door Entrance to a Subject I’ve Been Avoiding (That Is, Black-Jewish Relations)

freedom seder

via emory.edu

Cord Jefferson begins his Bookforum review of Joshua Bloom and Waldo E Martin Jr.’s new book on the Black Panthers, Black Against Empire, with a seemingly off-topic invocation of American Jewry. “For years it’s been said in circles both polite and impolite,” Jefferson begins the piece, “and in ways both delicate and indelicate, that America’s blacks should learn to live more like America’s Jews.” Three paragraphs later, this observation’s relation to the Black Panthers, and to Bloom and Martin’s new book, finally becomes clear. “The book reminds us of how close we came to a world in which America’s blacks were, in fact, acting like the Jews. In the 1960s and ’70s, the Black Panthers tried very hard to build a nation in which black people were sectarian, autonomous, and prosperous in much the same way Jewish communities throughout the United States had been for decades. And for their efforts, the Panthers were sabotaged, prosecuted, and murdered.”

Now, I just sat down to eat a bagel and read my new Bookforum, and then I read this piece, and then I ran up here to write to you. For some time now I’ve been avoiding opening this very door, this door onto the world of comparative history and literature and cultural studies between Black and Jewish culture. I went to see Eugene Jarecki’s new documentary on the drug war, The House I Live In, and was surprised and excited to see it begin with Jarecki’s personal reflection’s on his family’s escape from the Holocaust. But then the movie was disappointing, so I didn’t write about it, and I didn’t do then what I’m going to do now, which is slide my own self into the frame and explain that my identity as a Jewish woman has so much to do with what I’m doing here, in this world of African-American Studies.

And then last week I bought Emily Raboteau’s book Searching for Zion, which I believe compares the African and Jewish diaspora experiences, through travels to Israel, Africa, the Carribbean, the Deep South. But I’m not sure, because I haven’t read it yet, though I wondered if, when I read it, I would feel compelled to tell you some true things about my identity.

You see, approaching this subject is hard for me because I’m in it. On this blog I have been honest and transparent insofar as I am a woman or a rap fan or a teacher or a writer but I have never really come out as a Jew. If you know me you already know, and if you don’t it hasn’t mattered. I could write with some privacy about Cornel West and James Baldwin and Philip Roth and Exodus and slavery and diaspora and freedom and stay as impartial as a squirrel in a distant tree but I’m not, I’m right here, and I’m Jewish.

Yesterday I read this piece on Tablet about the inscription on Ed Koch’s gravestone of slain journalist Daniel Pearl’s last words: “My mother is Jewish, my father is Jewish, I am Jewish.” A perfectly fine declaration of Jewish identity which I also could make. And then Koch’s headstone attributes these words thus: “(Daniel Pearl, 2002, just before he was beheaded by a Muslim terrorist.)”

How disgusting.

For all those concerned with the whitewashing of Ed Koch’s obituaries regarding his soiled reputations on AIDS and race relations in New York, don’t worry: of his own volition he has immortalized his intolerance on his own tombstone. “Muslim terrorist.” As though one thing had anything to do with another. As though Judaism is still defined by its existential threat, by the history of axes hanging over our scrawny, pious necks. As though being a Jew is permission to do that thing which has been done to us for millenia, that thing which had the Roman geto created for us, that is: to profile.

time blacks v jews

1969 cover via Time.com

Unlike the late Mr. Koch, I prefer to define my culture in positive terms, as a collection of books, stories, people, places, beautiful objects, historical documents, songs, melodies, language. I am not afraid to quarrel with another Jew’s picture of Judaism because argument and interpretation are part and parcel of my proud tradition. You see, I am one of those Jews: the social-justice oriented, ecumenical, liberal, egalitarian, concerned with the human rights of Palestinians and the freedom and dignity of all Americans of all colors and creeds, the progressive, the pro-birth control and anti-war, the pro-honest criticism of Israel, the anti-AIPAC, the anti-checkpoints, the anti-hate Jews. There is too much irony to cover. There is Lupe Fiasco and Jesse Jackson and Coleman Silk. There’s Israel’s Black Panther Party and the schisming of Black-Jewish solidarity and stories of slavery and freedom and community and song. To do so I will need to be present and honest and proud.

Cord Jefferson writes about the Black Panthers by pointing out to us that they tried to act like Jews. They tried to keep the money in the tribe. They started charities and schools and institutions dedicated to uplifting the members of their community.  The problem was, the Black Panthers didn’t look like Jews, because Jews look like white people. Despite  not celebrating Christmas or believing in Jesus or having any heritage from Germany or England or Sweden or France, despite my connection to a broad diaspora of Jews who speak all the world’s languages and are themselves the world’s colors and shapes, despite feeling in my heart that I am not white the way white people are white, when I walk out of my house in America every morning, I am white. (Maybe not fifty or a hundred years ago, but today, yes.) And so the J. Edgar Hoovers of the world do not see me as a threat.

There is so much to say. I won’t rush. Think of this as me opening a door, to let the breeze in. Passover is coming next month, the most important holiday for a social-justice Judaism, the holiday in which we tell the story of our exodus from Egypt, that story which is not ours alone. In the ritual of the Seder, the Passover meal, we build Jewish theology and practice out of a simple fact: we were slaves in Egypt, and God delivered us. Is that cause to rest on our laurels or extend the same hand to others?

I won’t answer. I’ll just make my new category and post this thing. Thanks for listening – and don’t worry, my next post is on Frank Ocean and Kendrick Lamar. -T