Baltimore, Judaism

Challah at your boy

A is walking, very quickly, up Charles Street to One World to get some work done, for once. It may or may not be Sukkot. Suddenly, A is approached by a group of decked-out Baltimore Jews, spearheaded by a small boy of about 5.

Kid: Are you Jewish?
A: Uh…yes.
Kid: Do you want to say the blessing with us?
A: Okay.

At which point, the kid recites the blessing with A, one word at a time.

This happened to me, as it did to many unsuspecting Hopkinsians. We had a nice conversation afterwards about Poland – I was carrying the bag from the festival, and they saw the Polish and wondered. These particular Jews were from Belgium, originally, although they’d all been born in the US. They tried to recruit me for their Chabad. Although I’m not going to get recruited on any kind of serious basis, I will probably go check it out at some point. I visited a Chicago Chabad two Yom Kippurs ago and it was very interesting to observe.

It was pretty awesome the first time, but the kid, and various other kids from the Chabad, staked out Charles all that day and the next day, accosting students and having them do the blessing. I eventually started telling them “You guys already got me.”

Judaism, Poland


I have new posts up on the US Artists Initiative weblog including one about the experience at the synagogue.

This afternoon after our session ended, I got to wander a little bit in the alleys behind the Square. I am starting to feel like I know my way around here a bit, after one week. It’s nice. I am not so lost. I wonder if it’s really because I know the geography better now, or if going to the services this morning helped me be comfortable with being here. I felt like my head was screwed on straight for the first time since arriving.

More theater tonight.

Judaism, Poland

I just want to say

that T and I went to services at the Wroclaw synagogue this morning. It was amazing. More soon on that. And my roommate, who is wonderful, just gave me money, coffee, and advice, all of which are good. And tonight I get to see three plays in one night, again.


Judaism, Poland

in which I don’t see a play, for a change

My parents told me, when I spoke to them on the phone, that I don’t need to spend this entire trip thinking about WWII, and that I am, in effect, “continuing something that never should have been disrupted” – that is, the presence of Jews in Poland.

Even their names now appearing in the database of the Polish police system is somehow part of that return. We have not been eliminated from history, from Europe, or from Poland. I found this very uplifting and shared it with some of my friends here at the conference, and they agreed that it was a good way to look back and forward.

But today, my policy of “I’m not going to read anything about what these plays are beforehand so that I am a completely surprised audience member” backfired when I learned, two minutes before curtain, that this evening’s play was by Sarah Kane, and all about concentration camps. I turned in my ticket at the door and walked back to my housing.

I saw no reason to go into that theater when the reality of that story is all around me. I didn’t come to Poland to see someone else’s representation of my family’s history. I came to make my own.

So I’m at home tonight. Maybe it’s good to have one evening without a play.

Judaism, Poland

all the way back

My friend T, who I spent the whole bus ride to Michalowice with yesterday, has been to Poland with her father before, specifically to visit the camps. I told her I had no intention of doing that.

“Well,” she said, “I did it so you don’t have to.”

But as we doubled back to Legnica, she told me that we passed a sign pointing to one, anyway.

“You can’t avoid them,” she said. “They’re everywhere.”

T and I have been talking lots about what it feels like to be an American Jew on this trip. I’m glad she’s here, because I really needed someone to share all this with. In the course of the conversation, I learned that she’s also a Los Angeles Valley Girl, went to high school just a few years apart from me, and in many other ways has a parallel background to mine. We’ve worked together for a year without knowing this.

I guess it takes coming all the way back to Poland to figure out who your countrymen really are.

California, can you hear me now? I know that over half of your residents don’t believe in gay marriage, and I know that probably the same over-half would like to deport undocumented immigrants and their children. I know. But compared to the world I see here, which is, I know, a world of the past, but still a world I and T cannot avoid seeing – you look, Home State, like the paradise you always make yourself out to be.

Judaism, location

to remind us of days long ago

Sitting in a Wroclaw cafe with Rachel, writing on laptops, it’s easy to forget where I am. The room is dark, full of couples, lit only by a few lamps and a taper on each table. I fall into the rhythm of thinking about theater and ignore history for a moment. I let my gaze narrow to my screen.

But then a woman comes to our table and lights her tea light off of our taper. She holds the wick in the flame until there are two flames. And I can’t speak. I think of the myth of Hanukkah and the Maccabees. I try to tell Rachel the story. “The oil,” I say, “the oil lasted, they lit all the lights from just the one light. The light in the Temple didn’t go out.”

I can’t tell the story. She knows what I mean, though. About survival.

Judaism, location

this is what it looks like:

Poland. I feel like I’ve seen it before. The buildings are weary but the business signs are shiny and new. The reds and yellows and blues of commercial signs sparkle over an exhausted history of one occupation after another. Alleys that seem like they must have known death, which lead to cafes full of candlelit windows. Graffiti is delicately scrawled on the stones. There is rain in the air. People are laughing. The trees are so bright. I feel like I can see all of the different histories around me, centuries of war reflected in the glass tram windows. Kings and constitutions and bishops. I stare hopelessly at everyone who walks past me, wondering.

The train runs alongside the river, greened over with trees, and I can’t stop looking at all of these faces. The Lithuanians, Belorussians, Poles, Czechs, Jews, Catholics, Protestants. The Russians and the Ukrainians. I just want to watch them and be silent. I want them not to know who I am.

It is enough to be here and look.

Judaism, location

The past present

Since I left O’Hare last evening at 5 pm, people have been speaking to me in Polish all day, as if they expect me to understand.

I spent the entire plane flight reading the Cambridge Concise History of Poland, and learning more about the contested boundaries and ethnic divisions of this region of the world. I knew the country had been divided many times, but not this many. My head is multiplying with ten-year-old queens and Hapsburg alliances and tripartite divisions, the liberum veto and the Warsaw Pact.

I have spent most of my life thinking of Poland primarily as the site of the second World War. Poland was like a dreidel of history. A Great Disaster Happened Here. Three brothers came to the United States in the thirties, escaping the war and continuing my family. One spin, and everyone they left behind was lost.

But now that war, that trauma, is contextualized in a history of wars before and wars after, scramblings between dukes and kings and countries. The country was divided so many times it looks like a pie chart.


There’s religion upstairs.

A small bookstore in a major city in Illinois.

A: Do you have a Passover Haggadah?
B: A what?
A: A Passover Haggadah.
B: I’m not familiar…?
A: (realizing she is still in the Midwest) It’s, uh, a Jewish thing. Do you have a Jewish, I mean, do you have a Judaica section?
B: There’s religion upstairs. You can’t miss it.

books, chicago, Judaism

don’t call it a tuesday


Riding home today on the Division bus with a grocery bag full of five boxes of matzah, I felt like Golda Meir, shopping for her sister’s Denver Seder for all the tubercular Zionists, and meeting Morris, perhaps. I have no idea if that’s what she did or not, but it made me think of her.

The pigeons and I both rejoiced today at the removal of the Winter Snow Covers from the fountain in the concrete public-triangle-square at the Ashland/Milwaukee/Division intersection. Soon, pigeons, soon, the fountain will run freely again.

If, for the sake of argument, you waited until you were 27 to read THE TURN OF THE SCREW because you were creeped out by the hype, you’re going to be kind of underwhelmed. You might also decide that you have read your last novel about governesses. Nonetheless, I am still trying to plow through aaaaall of Henry James. One of the advantages of aging is that I am able to take him in, and I want to take it all in before it’s too late. I feel like I have a limited James window. Next: THE BOSTONIANS.

My pink phone is dead. Maybe it was too pink.

My roommate has TWILIGHT on Netflix.