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Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Hana Memorial


The Nash family came to Petrolia every summer from around 1982 to 1992 to spend two weeks of vacation enjoying our time together as a family, away from work for Peter and Judy, and school and also our other parent’s house for the rest of us kids.
            We would load up our huge white suburban van from our house on Granite Creek road in Santa Cruz, 5 bikes attached to the back, and full to the brim with clothes, art supplies and whatever else we needed for our trip.  We spent the night at the White Deer Motel near Willets and finished our journey the next day, stopping at Murishe’s in Redway to stock up on food for the lunches and dinners Judy would make, and our sugar cereals for the mornings- Captain Crunch, Cocoa Puffs, Lucky Charms.
            We spent days on the Mattole river, swimming, making mudball tracks, skipping rocks.  At this cabin here on Evergreen way, we climbed this great Maple tree in the front yard, played Tiddly Winks, Monopoly, Poker.
            I particularly remember spending time with Hana, those summers.  Her creative energy was abundant with writing and art work, and organizing Rocky (then known as Elijah) and I in theater productions, which we performed for Petrolia neighbors, here in our cabin.
            Growing up with Hana in Santa Cruz, I was probably the brother who was closest to her.  Her spark and curiosity about people opened up the world of people’s inner lives in such an engaging way.  I studied math and physics, and though Hana did not engage in the same technical abstraction as I did, her questions and interest in my work could bring back my own love for the subjects.  Many times, when my enthusiasm for physics was flagging, Hana’s engaging interest could remind me of my early and true motivations. 
            Our conversations about our family were equally stimulating, ranging from how the trauma of the Armenian genocide had been passed down through the generations to how the quest of Herman Bernstein (my great grandfather) to understand the origins of war and honor the Jewish people weighed on us today.  Talking to Hana, life felt big and important.
            Hana and I grew apart over the years as she tried to find her place in the world as a sensitive artist and I pursued my own views and work in academics and science.  I worked with complex, ambiguous views of the world and our family, and Hana maintained a more childlike purity and certainty in her convictions.  I searched for a balanced picture where all the various parts of my family could coexist, and she focussed on the purity of those moments of togetherness and support where her creativity thrived, and she felt direct connection to the spirit of life.  I was in the process of mending together for myself the disparate pieces from the two sides of my family.  Hana was sympathetic, but following her own path.
            Even when we hadn’t been in touch for many months, Hana would be on my mind almost every day for the past ten years or so.  I often pictured her here in this cabin on Evergreen way, even years before she moved to Petrolia.  Sometimes, when I was off in New York, or in France, and my origins seemed so far away, I would picture returning to this cabin , where Hana would be there to offer me something that would be the key to reclaiming some lost part of myself.
            When Hana actually moved into this cabin, however, a few years back, it was very hard for me to accept.  I knew she was struggling, not finding the collaboration and respect she yearned for, and some slow process of mental illness was taking its course through her in both hidden and overt ways.  She claimed this cabin as her own, without giving reasons I could understand, and getting angry if questioned on this.  She needed a home and felt entitled to one.  I decided I would accept her living here, but withdraw my interest.  This would be Hana’s home, and not a home for me: the family concept I was working with: Nash/Hammer/Kamian/Silbert/Bernstein,  I would keep seeking elsewhere for the tenuous sense of extended family I had started to consolidate in my life.
            Spending time here in this cabin, a few months ago after Hana had disappeared, however, I felt that I rediscovered Hana’s perspective and her spirit.  Hana’s intesity of caring, aesthetic sense, and conviction was compelling and softened my heart.  I discovered the tape in the player next to her bed with her interview of her grandparents, Pares and Seto, looked through her books on Armenian culture and history, and other causes of social justice such as justice for the native Americans and African Americans.  I read some of her recent journal writing on restorative justice.
            I found the sense that the world is big enough for many different stories, and I finally felt ready to start exploring the meaning of our stories, mine and Hana’s with their points of commonality and their divergences, that of the Jews and the Armenians, American stories of immigration, settling in a new world, and being given the permission and encouragement to dream of a new world.  Sadly, though I am now ready to share again on this adventure with Hana, she is no longer here.
            I am grateful to Hana for the years we spent dreaming together.  And now that she is gone, I can only attempt to respect and love her spirit and her dreams and use that inspiration to help work for the creation of a more just world.
            I was talking with an old friend of mine, Josh Chang recently about his mom’s death, and he said that its sometimes appropriate to don rose-colored glasses in remembering loved ones who have died.  His mom, Jancy, was also an amazing creative soul, who descended into dementia at the end of her life.  I can understand this sentiment, but I’ve never been one for rose-colored glasses.  I’m a firm believer in looking into the depths, with its beauty together with its ugliness and challenges.  This is a slow process that takes energy and patience- finding a balanced view within a complex, fraught situation.
            Finding this balance in perspective and emotion with respect to Hana, who played such a large role in my life, will be an ongoing task for the rest of my life.  For today, I am grateful to gather together with family and friends from Petrolia to start this process together, as sad and confusing as it may be for all of us.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Textual analysis

I've been going to Saturday morning Shabbat services, and one of the many aspects I appreciate is the respect given to text- particularly the Torah and the Siddur (prayer service). There was a long time when I thought that the bible was not very interesting and problematic in many ways, and the focus on this particular text is a bit arbitrary. But the traditions and interpretations that build up around texts are valuable and represent important loci of knowledge of how communities can stick together and support each other. 

On a somewhat related point, I recently read about this incident where law professor Josh Blackman was invited to give a talk on the legal side of free speech at CUNY law school. A protest was organized and he was heckled and called a racist and oppressor and students attempted to intimidate him and prevent him from speaking. In the end, he stayed and engaged with the few students who wanted to hear him speak. He maintains an "originalist" interpretation of the US constitution, and is a member of the federalist society.

Now, both the Torah and US constitution have material that one may object to, but I'm getting more sympathetic to the view that one should take the original documents very seriously, and then work with how they have been interpreted over the years. Its too easy to just throw the whole thing away and think you can do a better job. Is this viewpoint making me a conservative? Perhaps. I like to think this is the basic perspective of an intellectual- someone who takes texts and ideas seriously and has some respect for traditions of interpretation.

Of course, some of the most repressive regimes arise out of taking texts to be immutable and implementing a rigid interpretation of their strictures. The important point to not lose is that there are different traditions of interpretation, and this is where one can push towards different outcomes. Tying these discussions to texts and referencing past interpretations gives one the wisdom of time to see how different textual interpretations have coexisted within communities or societies and what kinds of outcomes resulted.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Kaddish, poem by Dorothy Nash 1977

Kaddish

David is dead.
David my brother is dead.
    Yis gadal, v’yis kadash…
I was my brother’s keeper.
For a few short years
I was my brother’s keeper.
But time did change the roles
And he became my strength, my rock.
Now he is dead.
——-
From inherited memories of Russian pogroms,
From the sweatshops of New York,
From the hills of Massachussetts
To the cities of the world,
An urban and an urbane man
Whose clarion voice was ever heard
Against hypocrisy and cant;
He wandered
And stopped awhile
And traveled on again
Until he came to Susqeuhanna country.
Standing at his window,
Looking at the broad lawn sloping to the river:
Susquehanna and Chenango
And, from his childhood,
The Housatonic, too.
What wonderful river names
The old, sweet-sounding Indian names.
What wonderful country
The green and rolling hills,
The wild flowers of this land,
Goldenrod in golden waves,
And Queen Anne’s Lace
And purple mallow.
Now here at last he found his home,
His work, his friends, his people.
Susquehanna country.

——-
Can I say
That he is gone?
And must I cry forever?
For this I know
Beyond the tears,
Beyond the thrusting pain:
     All that he was
    Remains as long as memory remains.
—Dorothy Nash, (197?)

Friday, February 09, 2018

Portion of letter from Tel Aviv by my father

October 28, 1959
    
     Life on a kubbutz is a wondrous thing.  I could gladly spend my life here.  The people... every single one of them an idealist.  They are strong, they are smiling, they are beautiful.  There is much laughter and song here.  There is much togetherness:  as a community we eat and work, sing and play.  But often we can be alone to read, to listen to music, to wander along the beach.  There is complete freedom here.  One works with, not under.  There is no director, no boss.  Each person is an equal individual.

     Today as I was standing, pitch fork in hand, on a huge pile of green silage, I was exultant.  I was exultant looking first upon the many bales of golden hay, the neat houses with well-trimmed lawns, the barns, the cattle, the white waving wheat, the dark citrus groves, the deep blue sea, and then, all around us, grinning in defeat, the dry waterless desert.  There are still jackals on the sands, howling at night.  Here is something one can truly feel for.

     From nothing was this land conceived.  It is one of the driest, most sterile, rockiest places I have ever seen.  But Israel blooms.  There are green fields and cool orchards, gleaming white cities, immense irrigation projects.  And there are people!  People who have been persecuted for five thousand years.  Jews from Iraq and Morocco, Jews from Germany and Yemen.  And on their faces is not only the dream of a hundred generations, but the spirit of Israel today.  I have never felt so alive and aware as I am now.  I have never been so proud as I am now.  And I have never believed in anything so strongly as I believe in Israel.

Thursday, February 08, 2018

Letter from Pine Bluff, Arkansas, 1963

Dear Mom and Dad,
     There are two fights here, and not one: the negro insisting upon his rights often takes second place to the internecine strife between the "Uncle Toms" who want to go slowly and take things easy, and the liberals who push and push-- sometimes so hard that they push themselves out of any Negro backing.  There are resignations and counter charges: the Pine Bluff Youth Movement becomes the Pine Bluff Progressive Movement and a new faction takes over.
     Seven months ago the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee sent a white field representative to Pine Bluff.  Bill Hansen is 24, dedicated, lives and dreams civil liberties.  He has had a very difficult time getting accepted by the Negro community(46% of the total population of Pine Bluff), but now is accepted wholeheartedly by the liberal faction and has been complained about to SNCC headquarters by the conservative Negro faction.  They want him out since one of his ideas is to fill up the jails.  His idea--which I subscribe to entirely-- is that once a kid gets sent to jail for freedom he is more than ever committed to the movement.
     I am living at Freedom House, the headquarters of the Pine Bluff movement.  There is another white boy from California.  What I do is difficult to say.  They won't allow us to picket or demonstrate or sit-in.  White agitators-- "nigger lovers"-- are the quickest means of starting violence.  Therefore, anything that we do must be circumspect.
     This afternoon, Governor Faubus spoke at the dedication of a new building at the Negro College.  Since yesterday, when I got here, I have been making posters for the kids to carry, such as
                                            Governer Faubus--
                                              Would you send Your children
                                                       HERE?
                                       ----------------------------------

                                        New Buildings Don't Teach--
                                        They only salve consciences.
                                       ----------------------------------

     Who carries these signs?  Who has sat in or lain in or stopped buying at certain stores?  Who has gone to jail repeatedly?  A bunch of negro kids whose average age is 15!  Many 13 and 14 year old girls.  There are a few older boys of 17 or 18.
     There is a terrific spirit here in the 15-year-olds.  Unfortunately, this age group is the only communication with SNCC though they have tried the high school and "college" ages with little success.
     Yesterday we arrived an hour or so before 25 kids were released after 3 days in jail for sitting in the public library and demanding that they be issued library cards.  It was amazing to see how sophisticated in the ways of non-violence they were and also how backwards they were in most of their education.  Adamant about civil rights and ambitions no higher than the army or being a bootlegger.  But to hear them talk!  How they walked into the paddy wagon with their heads up and singing freedom songs; how they insisted that their names be spelled correctly when booked-- that their parent's name have a Mrs. or a Mr. in front of it.  How they sang for 3 days in jail with only 1 meal all that time, with very little water in cells that were 120-130 Fahrenheit.  (It is 2 in the morning now and the temperature in this cool house with a big fan is about 85 degrees.)  How they had no mattresses and slept on the stinking, filthy floors, eaten by roaches and fleas.  How they sang until they were hoarse.  Many of these were kids who had just finished taking part in a sit-in where they were locked in a part of a restaurant, hundreds of whites were jeering outside and the owner threw in large Dixie cups of ammonia and acid after thoughtfully turning the heat up full blast in the middle of the day.  When some of the kids got sick and passed out, the other sit-inners panicked and tried to get out.  After someone was knocked through a plate glass window the rest got out and by some miracle only a few were hurt by the white mob outside.
     So these were many of the same kids who just got out of jail and yet they all picketed Faubus.  We couldn't go because we would be white agitators.  Therefore we strolled up to the college which was swarming with police and troopers.  We passed the first cordon of them-- just going to hear Faubus and nowhere in sight of a picket line--when a policeman stopped us and motioned us into his car because we "looked funny".  After all, not too many whites ever step on the premises of a negro college.  Then we were driven downtown and locked safely up in the city jail.  A short time later we were released.
     This evening we went to a mass meeting where there were spirituals sung, and the preachers exhorted the negroes to stand up, to fight, to register, to vote.

     All this in two days.  How much I can do is doubtful.  But we are working on some sort of education plan that perhaps can be of some service in.

     Do not worry.  We do not want to get into any violence or go to jail since we are told this only hurts the civil rights movement.
                                                       Love,
                                                       Peter

My dad travels to Iceland

August 1, 1965
Reykjavik, Iceland

Dear Dad,
     It is cold here in Iceland and the wind blows at almost all times, but always in the back of the wind.  Surrounding one wherever one goes is the silence of an island somehow removed from the rest of the world in time and space.  I walk along deserted roads that lead nowhere, through meadows filled with flowers blowing furiously in the wind and shining in the clear northern light that only goes out for about one hour every 24.
     After the South, with its hot, humid violent days, Iceland is just the place to be.  Nothing to do, few people to talk to and a chance to get to know myself as well as nature.  I walk a great deal: 7,8,9,10 hours a day along the great, deep fjords, from one tiny village to another, through the streets of Reykjavik.  My body feels hard and healthy.  I can respond well to the quiet beauty of Iceland.  It is eerie here the wild ponies running through the green meadows, the forbidding clouds, the ruins of a 1000 year old civilization, the days that never end, the nights that never come, the boiling springs, the glaciers.  Iceland is a place that exists in dreams, in old books.  I feel that I have stepped into another age.
     This is all vague -- no facts, just musings, just wanderings.  But for this month I shall continue to lead a vague wandering life that has no relation to my life at home or in school but maybe closer to me that my usual life.
     In the evenings, I read French poetry -- by day I walk.  Now-- this is all that I desire.
                                               Love,
                                               Peter

Letter from my father to his parents during the civil rights movement in 1965


                        Tuesday morning, July 12  (1965, Bogalusa, Louisiana)
Dear Mom and Dad,
            As usual, no one in the Civil Rights movement knows what will happen in advance.  You may have heard that the Voter’s League rejected the 30 day moratorium on marches and demonstrations suggested by the Governor.  Therefore we will probably march this afternoon without a permit, probably cross the river to the court house and there may be mass arrests.  I will march at the end as usual in my white coat but I will not get arrested if I can help it.  I’m more useful now out of jail.
            Marching is an amazing experience; one is reminded of the Roman prisoners being paraded back in Rome.  Shouts and curses by the onlookers, there are confederate flags waving everywhere and gangs of teen age boys walk along taunting us.  As a white and as an obviously medical personnel I am often singled out: white trash, they jeer and their favorite epithet: Nigger Ben Casey!
            Along side of us and separating us from the white Bogalusa populace are long lines of blue shirted state troopers carrying pistols, rifles, machine guns, billy clubs.  We are followed by a bevy of police cars, some canine corps filled with barking German shepherds and a school bus (to pick up the demonstrators and take them to jail) flying a confederate flag.  With all the police we are presumably safe.  So far, only one shooting incident has occurred.
            The Medical Committee is housed with a Negro family- the Smiths.  He works in the Crown-Zellerback corporation, is a deacon and carries a gun wherever he goes.  His wife is a deaconess.  When the Klan rides at night, all lights go out in the Negro community and men and women sit up on their rocking chairs talking and cradling their shot guns.
            The spirit here in Bogalusa among the Negros is very high.  Mass meetings are well attended.  Last night I heard Lomax speak: poetry, as well as a gift of $15,000 for the Bogalusa Voter’s league.
            It seems like a very long time that I have been down here in the South!  I suppose this is partly because each moment is made important by the fact that one cannot take anything for granted.  At night we are not supposed to drive except with an armed armed deacon.  Like the front lines of a war, there are things we can do, things we cannot.  We do not know what to expect.  Therefore the present becomes of much greater import.
            Dad—I am looking forward to your description of your trip, especially when you were in Hungary.  Mother, you should be leaving soon and therefore Bon Voyage.  Don’t worry—things are fine.  I’m looking forward to my trip to Iceland.
                                                            Love,
                                                            Peter

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Stereotypes


     I was shopping at Trader Joe's this evening and as I finished putting my purchases on the counter, the cashier asked me in an oh so casual way how my day was going.   It took me aback.  I didn’t know how to answer.  He was approaching me like an old friend with good understanding of me, as if asking me how the whole scenario of US relocation was going.  But he had only known me for 30 seconds.
     As I sit at my computer, reflecting on this, the first frame that comes to mind is reverse culture shock.  I start to write from this perspective.  I start to contrast this experience in Trader Joe's to how I felt shopping in France, following a familiar storyline based around a simple binary between public warmth in the US and public coldness in France.
     On reflection, two thoughts emerge that complicate this story.  The first is that if I think back in more detail to my French shopping interactions, it is not a sense of rudeness that comes to mind (at least not in the majority of cases).  I actually remember how sweet the employees at Franprix were that I shopped at weekly in Grenoble.  No, they didn't ask me a lot of questions and get to know me personally, but they were certainly warm and welcoming to me.   It strikes me that they would not deign to intrude on my private life.  They would not assume familiarity with someone they have spent such a small time getting to know.  While it is certainly a more formal approach, it also leaves a lot of room for mutual respect, and a sense that one can navigate substantial personal difference within the frame of this respect. How do we deal with real difference if we start with this assumption that everyone is just like us?
     The second thought that occurs to me is that the way I felt taken aback by the employee at Trader Joes and other businesses in America is similar to the feeling I experienced with respect to the homeless people on the street in Grenoble.  They were sharp and impeccably friendly and polite and invasive of personal space.  These encounters actually really disturbed me because I felt like this person shouldn’t be on the street if they have the psychological accuity to peg me and my mood in 10 seconds and try to draw me in to a friendly conversation.  Why don’t they use these reserves of mental health and psychological strength to earn money in a more productive fashion? In contrast to many American beggars who often strike me as truly destitute and on the edge of health and sanity, I was not motivated to give money to many of the French beggars.
     In any case, I’m not sure what conclusion to draw from these reflections on public formality versus familiarity and similarities between customer service in the US and homeless beggars in France.  But it does remind me to pause and think for a moment before spouting off stereotypes.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Roots

As I prepare to leave Grenoble and start up a new life in Boulder, Colorado, I think about the moving process and also about what it means to have roots.

We often think of having roots in a country or in a region as meaning that we have a history there.  Our parents and grandparents and perhaps even many generations further back may have lived in this region.  This is an important definition of roots, and a powerful basis for a sense of belonging and embeddedness in one's life.

I want to consider a different definition of roots which is more directly related to the biological notion of plant roots.  Roots are a network that allows the plant to be nourished.  From this perspective, we can think of creating new roots in a more directed fashion.  In some ways, this is what I have attempted during my time in France.  For example, learning French is part of developing roots because it leads to such an array of connectedness and ability to communicate for practical needs, emotional connection, and general cultural belonging.  Knowing which grocery stores to go to, how to apply for a carte de sejour, and reading train and bus schedules is also a form of roots.

This line of thought also allows us to think about which kinds of environments may be suitable for us to live.  Some city or region may have many resources available to those who live there, but without the appropriately developed roots, one won't be able to take advantage of them and be nourished by them.

Of course, people aren't plants, but we all need nourishment, in so many different ways.  I think it is a valuable pursuit to start to make our roots in the world more visible!