Surrealism, Antisemitism and Parenting in the Age of Vegetables

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, March 3, 2017 – 5 Adar, 5777

My mother was an artist in her younger days. That played out in my own life as I was dragged first reluctantly and then happily to New York City’s many world class museums. I had a thing for English portrait and landscape painters as well as many of our early 20th century masters. The cubists, the pointillists, even the surrealists exerted their influence on me.

And not just me. Salvador Dali’s paintings of melting clocks have become common enough that even people who are not interested in art have likely seen these images at some point. It would be hard to overstate the influence of these artists on our collective psyches. Part of their motivation was to channel the imaginative powers of the unconscious and the dreaming mind into their work.  As a result, they’ve changed the way we talk about reality. Who among us hasn’t had a moment when we’ve commented to someone, “I had this really surreal experience?”

A goal of surrealism was to shock us out of our commonplace assumptions so that we could see how very strange the world we live in is. Surrealism was also interested in capturing how our thoughts flit from one subject to another.

That’s exactly what happened to me at our Tuesday dinner table. It was time to let our boys know about the 100 bomb threats that have been called into jewish community centers around the country and the recent vandalism of cemeteries (a third one in Rochester, NY had five headstones overturned on Thursday morning). We wanted to control the message and see if they had heard anything. They had not so we discussed it in an age appropriate manner until we sensed their attention was starting to drift.

With hardly a beat missed, our conversation changed from bomb threats to “you need to eat more broccoli.” They did too. Their dad may be a one time chef, and their mom may be a California health nut, but that doesn’t mean they’ve yet acquired a taste for vegetables.

The transition was surreal. Strange because in the moment there was nothing jarring about the segue. It just flowed, one seeming non-sequitur after another, most of them unnoticed. But on reflection? Bombs and broccoli. Isn’t each about taking care of yourself in the ways we can? One you should avoid, the other you shouldn’t.

Mom’s early efforts paid off. In college, I deepened my aesthetic appreciation, visiting museums of my own accord. For my own edification and interest, I picked up André Breton’s Nadja. It’s considered the world’s first surrealist novel. In the opening pages, the narrator is smitten by Nadja and asks, “who are you?” Her reply has haunted me ever since. “I am the soul in limbo.”

Okay, limbo is a Catholic theological concept, but we get it. We are all wandering a bit lost, our fate not quite sealed, our deeds neither so horrendous to damn us, nor so good to assure our salvation. That’s a rabbinic concept as well–we should all view ourselves as teetering on a moral seesaw, so that our every next action can change the balance of our lives.

To be in limbo is to live without moorings, without a solid sense of your self or your place in the world. It is the experience of living without a purpose or a destiny of your own. I feel sorry for anyone who has never suffered this dislocation of the soul, because it is a common enough condition that most of us go through at moments. A person who has never felt the pangs of limbo probably lacks much self-awareness and may have limited capacity for compassion. Moreover, getting lost is the first step to finding your way home.

I feel even worse for those stuck in perpetual limbo, for this is galut, the state of spiritual exile where we are never quite at home with ourselves. Which brings us to antisemitism. Another French book I read in college was Jean Paul Sartre’s Réflexions Sur la Question Juive–Antisemite and Jew. Sartre tellingly observed that antisemitism is a baseless passion by which the middle class claim their own nation by seeing in the Jew an evil power that damages society.

In other words, the Jew is responsible for the nativist’s failures in life. That is why Sartre opined that “if the Jew did not exist, the antisemite would have to invent him.”

Hatred corrupts our souls. It disempowers ourselves, because our focus shifts from our own purpose and destiny–the home we are each meant to build for ourselves–to the lives others are living. There’s that telling statement, “resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” But with resentment, we at least have some sort of relationship with the person who offended us. Anti-semitism, Islamophobia and racism are judgements against entire groups of people–people, in other words, whom we have never met.

So here’s the hard ask. Two asks really. I am writing primarily to my people–to my fellow Jews. We feel the sting of antisemitism. We know the dark and long-lived history of persecution. Many of us are walking scared these days, worried for our childrens’ safety. Let’s take sensible precautions, by all means. Not to do so is foolish. Here at the synagogue and behind the scenes, we are certainly strengthening our security measures. But after we’ve done what we can sensibly do, can we find the courage to let go of our own fear? That’s the first ask.

The second ask may be harder still. Can we muster some measure of compassion for the antisemites who are knocking over our graveyards and shooting guns at our synagogues? Apprehend those responsible? Absolutely! Stop them before hand? Even better! Yet realize they are living in a hell of their own making. They’ve chosen permanent limbo, and isn’t that heart-breaking?

Let’s live fearlessly and be compassionate in a time when the oldest hatred is finding fresh vigor. What could be a more surrealistic juxtaposition? Yet like broccoli, such a choice is good for us too. So much healthier than resentment.

Shabbat shalom,

Rav D