“Those outside the academy tend to think of history as settled, as a simple recounting of what events happened on what date and who was involved in those incidents. But while history is what happened, it is also, just as important, how we think about what happened and what we unearth and choose to remember about what happened.”
“History is not the past. It’s the method we’ve evolved of organizing our ignorance of the past…. It’s the record of what’s left on the record… It’s what’s left in the sieve when the centuries have run through it…. It’s no more the past than a birth certificate is a birth, or a script is a performance, or a map is a journey…. It’s no more than the best we can do. And often, it falls short of that.”
“The common denominator of so many of the strange and troubling cultural narratives coming our way is a set of assumptions about who matters, whose story it is, who deserves the pity and the treats and the presumptions of innocence, the kid gloves and the red carpet, and ultimately the kingdom, the power, and the glory. You already know who. It’s white people in general and white men in particular, and especially white Protestant men, some of whom are apparently dismayed to find out that there is going to be, as your mom might have put it, sharing. The history of this country has been written as their story, and the news sometimes still tells it this way—one of the battles of our time is about who the story is about, who matters and who decides.”
“[U]nderstanding history as a form of inquiry—not as something easy or comforting but as something demanding and exhausting—was central to the nation’s founding. This, too, was new. In the West, the oldest stories, the Iliad and the Odyssey, are odes and tales of wars and kings, of men and gods, sung and told. These stories were memorials, and so were the histories of antiquity: they were meant as monuments….
“Only by fits and starts did history become not merely a form of memory but also a form of investigation, to be disputed, like philosophy, its premises questioned, its evidence examined, its arguments countered….
“This new understanding of the past attempted to divide history from faith. The books of world religions—the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Quran—are pregnant with mysteries, truths known only by God, taken on faith. In the new history books, historians aimed to solve mysteries and to discover their own truths. The turn from reverence to inquiry, from mystery to history, was crucial to the founding of the United States. It didn’t require abdicating faith in the truths of revealed religion and it relieved no one of the obligation to judge right from wrong. But it did require subjecting the past to skepticism, to look to beginnings not to justify ends, but to question them—with evidence.
Sixty years after the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the nation still needs to be reminded of what Martin Luther King, Jr. called “the fierce urgency of now.” My husband, the brilliant and thoughtful Alexis Romay, recently had the honor of translating Dr. King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech into Spanish. The book has a forward by National Youth Poet Laureate, Amanda Gorman, also translated by Alexis.
Tonight, Monday, January 16 (at 7PM), on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Alexis will be reading and reflecting on the experience of translating this important work at Watchung Booksellers, in Montclair, NJ. The event will be in Spanish. You can register here.
One Saturday some years ago, while visiting Toronto with my husband and mother-in-law, I saw a group of Orthodox Jews, two bearded men and roughly 12 boys of various ages, about a block away. They were dressed identically in white shirts and black pants, yarmulkes and payes, but no hats. As they approached, the patriarch looked from my Cuban husband to my Cuban mother-in-law, and then said to me, “Good Shabbes.”
I nodded cordially. People outside the tribe often ask me if I’m Italian, Lebanese, Greek, Indian, but Jews always know otherwise.
“Shabbat Shalom,” the patriarch insisted, and I nodded again. It took me a block and a half to realize that he’d been waiting for me to say “Shabbat Shalom” back to him, and that I had been rude. I should say that what passes for a Sabbath statement among my lapsed Jewish relatives is more akin to, “Would you like some more Mu Shu Pork?” My parents, grandchildren of Jewish immigrants from all over Eastern Europe, have always kept in touch with Jewish culture, ideas, history and politics. They avoid Jewish observance almost… religiously. I do the same.
My mother-in-law was impressed that Jews could identify each other at such a distance. But I’ve seen her son play “Spot the Cuban” in the swirling chaos of Penn Station at rush hour, and he can pinpoint which decade the Cuban came to the US. He’s always right; we know this because he goes right up to the Cuban to verify his intuition. Kind of like saying “Shabbat Shalom,” but everyone is so gregarious, it’s astonishing that anyone makes their trains on time.
Does some kind of vestigial recognition of cave affiliation survive in contemporary humans? We’d just seen a thoughtful exhibit on Darwin at the Royal Ontario Museum, and I wondered: in this time of ideological separatism and tribal carnage, are human beings a single species anymore? And what about the Jews? Jews may be few and far between, numerically, but we are hardly together in our minority. Was the patriarch saying, “Go ahead, marry a shvartze. You should still celebrate the Sabbath.”
My fellow Jews were clearly not going to the Darwin exhibit. A pity: the patriarch might have noted that in evolutionary terms, he had won. He’d been fruitful and multiplied, in the way of good Jews and successful species. At that time, in my secular corner, with zero offspring, we were looking at extinction.
My husband and I have since become parents to one energetic, charming child that we’re raising Juban. Once, my then 6-year-old froze in his tracks as we crossed paths with two Hassidic men at Newark Airport. “Are they magicians?!” he asked with excitement. I realized that I’ve neglected his Jewish education. I want to give him the strong dose of secular Judaism that I had growing up in a Reformed Jewish home in New York City, a very Jewish metropolis. Can this be done in a suburb of intermarriages, without setting foot in a synagogue, I wonder?
The train of thought that started in Toronto is still on my mind all these years later. Are the Jews a single species with wide variations —Judaeus pius antiquus and Judaea femina libera, for example —or are we now two different species, Judaeus exactus canadiensis and PostJudaea scriptora obstinata? If we’re to survive, our species must adapt. But if there are any Jews around in a few centuries, it won’t be because of adaptors like me. I now realize that being recognizably Jewish to everyone —not just to other Jews— can be a dangerous thing, and a lonely one. Perhaps the patriarch’s gesture was one of inclusion and adaptation, not ownership and disapproval. I probably should have taken a page from my extroverted Cuban husband, and stopped to chat for a while.