Monday, August 13, 2007

Individuals and community

A friend commented that she has moved toward more individualism—that “the focus on groups makes me suspicious and moves me towards the individual.” When I first read this, I thought I understood it, but now I’m not so sure. What is it about groups that is suspicious? What are the advantages and disadvantages of pulling away from a group? On this trip, I’ve been thinking a lot about the relationship between individual and community. Don’t know whether what I’ve been thinking about relates to the original comment, but that comment provides the catalyst to think about the issue in a couple of different ways. One has been the majority-minority aspect of being part of a society—this is, I think, what cielledee is referring to. Another is what happens to the individual who is rooted in community as opposed to one who is not. There is probably some relationship between the two aspects, but I don’t feel like connecting them.

I think I am very used to thinking of Jews as minority groups in different societies. As I’ve written before, there’s Jewish time and Jewish practice, but it adjusts to the majority culture. That isn’t easy and I grouse about it, particularly at holiday times, but I’m used to it. I’ve never experienced a society which runs on Jewish time. Time is something that varies from culture to culture and, like language, matters only to groups. I’m distinguishing cultural time here—how we keep track of the passage of the day, the year, and what we do to mark that—from natural time—when we plant, harvest, and so on. An individual hunter/gatherer or farmer (as if there every were such a thing) would only need natural time; groups, however small, need some kind of common, cultural time and this inevitably becomes invested with meaning. When a group is an integrated minority, time is fractured.

To return to the Shoah as loss of individuals and loss of community:

My first understanding of the Holocaust was through a book called I Never Saw Another Butterfly. It was poems and drawings by the children of Terezin, which was the Nazis show camp. Music, art, poetry, and drama came out of that camp, but ultimately most of the prisoners were killed. The book gave their stories and, as a ten year old, I connected to the child my age who had written a poem I would have liked to have written and who had then been murdered. It could have been me. That connection and others (the litany of books that tell individual stories) were all about individual experiences. And it makes sense that it is the individual stories that would stick—how can you tell the story of a village that is gone? How do you show how it feels to live in a Jewish village or in a city where you can live on Jewish time in a Jewish community? It’s a much harder task. I began to understand it as I walked through the streets of Berlin and when I watched some of the home movies taken from that period. Suddenly I understood the Shoah not as six million individual Jews, but as the loss of a whole Jewish world and culture. This isn’t new to me in the abstract, but when I walked the streets or saw the videos, I could feel it in my bones.

That culture, to me, is most represented by Jewish time, although not exclusively time, also history and culture—and, of course, religion. Jewish time—that Thursday night is the end of the week and the week begins on Sunday morning. That on my walk to synagogue on Friday, the street names were all tribes (Dan Naftali, etc.). The names were bestowed with the casualness of any other housing development, but the choices were particular to Jewish culture. The language—there is no other place in the world where Hebrew is spoken. The thing about all of the above is that these are things that are almost invisible and don’t seem to matter. They aren’t about affiliating with one group or another because your group is better, more deserving, or what have you. They are simply about the underlying rhythm of life. Every one of us lives with that rhythm. But for me, in the US, the rhythm of Jewish life is continually set against the rhythm of US civil society. In Israel, that is not the case. This is the sense of completeness that I felt when I first came and it is what I will miss when I return.

So many people, of all religions, come to Israel to feel the history of the place. Ultimately, that has not been what moves me. I think I wouldn’t care where the state were located (not quite true—I do feel a connection to this land, but it is not my primary connection), so long as it were a place truly given to Jews to make a Jewish land. There is, of course, no such place. (During the various immigrations to Israel over the past century, other places were considered and even tried, but ultimately failed.) The message of Yad Vashem should be clearly that, while one Jewish civilization—not only people, but a whole way of life (in Vilna, in Berlin, in Warsaw)—was destroyed, another has risen from its ashes and that the people still live. I think that is a powerful and legitimate connection and one I didn’t really get at a visceral level until I came here. Israeli Jewish culture is not like the one that was destroyed in Europe—in is a peculiar blend of Jews from around the Mediterranean, from the US, from Europe, and more. The religious spectrum is as diverse as in the US, although with a very different state-religion relationship.

The other area of individual and community that I have been contemplating was brought home by a book I read in Jerusalem. Something like “Tales of a Female Nomad.” It’s written by a children’s book author, who lived an upscale life in LA, but was never very happy with it. She moves slowly from settled wife and author to travel in Mexico, to divorce and then travel to wherever she felt like it. She lived on very little, and had fairly amazing adventures. But as I read the book, I found myself questioning a great deal about the whole idea of traveling in that way. She takes herself to one community and then another, sometimes staying one month, and in the case of Indonesia eight years. But she isn’t part of the community—or she is and she isn’t. She has the freedom to come and to go. She is listened to and confided in precisely because she is different. This is the experience I remember from going to high school in Scotland. I was the “brazen American,” meaning I could question things, get answers, and learn the system, but always knowing I’d be going back home. So with this woman.

I think what annoyed me about the book was that she was so into telling her story of being a nomad that the reality of the community lives—of the lives of people who could not and would not leave community never came through. She did care deeply about the people she stayed with, but that isn’t the same as having a stake in the community.

The most telling and disturbing examples are from Israel and from Indonesia. In Israel, she spent some time—not much—with a Hassidic family to find spirituality (she is Jewish and was looking for her roots). She helped the women in the kitchen, but recognized quickly that they are not equal to the men and comments that she just doesn’t like being treated as second-class. Well, fine—see my response to the Wall. But as an anthropologist, you would think she’d try to understand the society in which she found herself.

Then she goes off to Indonesia, through happenstance, finds herself living in the palace of a prince, learning spirituality from him. Now she notes that Indonesia is both sexist and composed of rigid castes. Yet somehow this doesn’t bother her for EIGHT years. Why not? Because she is not part of the society. She is a stranger and strangers have a unique place in societies. People can tell her secrets, she can observe or participate without any real obligation to the society. If things don’t work out, she can move on. What pissed her off about the Hassids was precisely that she did not have a special place in that society—she was just another unimportant woman.

Now it should be clear that I wasn’t terribly fond of the author, just didn’t think she was very insightful, but I think the questions the book raises about being a nomad or being settled and what each implies about relation to a society are very interesting. She is at the opposite pole from Ilka’s in-laws, whose family is so deeply rooted—same town for upwards of 400 years—that they almost cannot move—how do you turn your back on that much history? I’m somewhere in the middle. I have no desire to become a nomad—at this point, I miss my community, my friends, my home, my kids, and did I mention DAVE. However, it is clear that I have learned a great deal on this trip—stuff that I can, I think, use to enrich myself and my community. So what’s the balance? For each individual? For minority communities, which can act like strangers/nomads in a settled community?

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