“A poem … can be a message in a bottle, sent out in the – not always greatly hopeful – belief that somewhere and sometime it could wash up on land, on heartland perhaps.” – Paul Celan, “Speech from Bremen,” 1958
In November, I attended a leadership event in Philadelphia hosted by Jewish Reconstructionist Communities. During one session, my 14 colleagues and I were asked to reflect on our Jewish journeys and to offer a five-minute narrative about what had led us to the conference. As the overhead clock ticked, I had no idea what to say.
One brave person spoke first of being raised in a multi-faith home. Her Judaism was informed by her Unitarian upbringing and the warmth she felt in Christian as well as Jewish circles. She wanted to work in a multi-faith capacity to bring people together.
Thursday, November 12: Suicide bombers kill 43 people in a largely Shia neighbourhood in Beirut, Lebanon. The bombs explode while families walk, shop, and congregate after work. ISIS claims responsibility for the attack, which they say was purposefully sectarian.
At least five of my colleagues spoke about their commitment to social justice. They were organizers who worked for unions; or with incarcerated youth; or with children in foster care. My colleagues told stories of how their Jewish lives were interwoven with their need to work on tikkun olam (repair of the world).
Friday, November 13: Multi-pronged attacks in Paris result in 129 deaths. A state of emergency is declared. Police raids are ongoing and civil liberties curtailed in pursuit of security. President Hollande announces that France is at war against ISIS. In Canada, Prime Minister Trudeau faces pressure to suspend the promise of asylum to 25,000 Syrian refugees.
At the conference, my colleagues offered their stories. I held back, until I was the only one left to speak.
“I don’t know what to say,” I admitted. “I want to tell you something positive. I don’t want to tell you that my Jewish life is haunted by loss. I don’t want to say that I can’t always find meaning in Judaism when so much in this world is unjust.”
I tried again: “I don’t know the words to all the songs and prayers, but I like that our tradition values niggunim, because even if you don’t remember or never learned the words, you can soon sing along to the melody.”
Although my Jewish past is marked by loss, more than anything, I am inspired by evidence of thriving cultural life. I love it when teenagers tell me they adore their Jewish youth group, or about the teachers who inspire them, or about how devoted they are to KlezKanada, a non-religious and all-ages celebration of Yiddish music, culture, dance and language.
I am inspired by the dedication of two little kids I know who prepared and performed musical selections, on violin and cello, at a recent Kabbalat Shabbat service.
I am inspired by the members of the conversion class at Rabbi Pauline Bebe’s Communauté Juive Libérale whom I met in Paris over a year ago. They each had a Jewish family connection, but were raised communist, hippie, Catholic, Protestant or secular. Julie keeps kosher now and was eager to choose her new Hebrew name. Aléxandre and I discussed plans to translate Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan’s masterworks into French. And Olivier worried about meeting with the Beit Din in a few weeks. We shared stories after services and over cups of espresso and glasses of wine. I loved the eagerness with which they discussed halachah and their commitment to live Jewish lives in secular France.
Back at the conference, I articulate a tentative understanding. Although my Jewish history involves loss and fragmentation, my creative practice is inspired by, and hopes to contribute to, a more vibrant cultural life in the wake of these losses. I find myself paraphrasing the German-French-Jewish poet Paul Celan: my artistic work is like a “message in a bottle,” offered to the sea in the hopes of reaching heartland – somewhere, somehow.
I tell my colleagues how inspired I am by the work they do. I close my comments with a word of gratitude for niggunim. We don’t have to know the words – we can simply join in when we are ready, in our own way.