Yom HaShoah–Holocaust Remembrance Day–was last week.

One of my professors is traveling to Germany and asked me about my own trip there in 2001.  I wrote him the following and thought I’d share it here:

I went to Russia and Germany in high school on a choir tour, which tells you a lot about public school in Princeton!  We performed Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, a masterful work that added another layer of pathos to the trip–singing about the Jews’ betrayal of Jesus in Germany.  I always remember the line “Eli, Eli, lama sabachtani?”  Jesus asking God, “Why have you forsaken me?”

It was February.  Freezing, with snow on the ground.  Bleak.  Gray.  In Berlin, we went to the Neue Synagogue.  I hope you get a chance to visit it.  It’s a majestic building in the Moorish style.  Part of it is still a burned out husk.  And of course the congregation is a mere fraction of what its once was.  Most of the building is a museum–that in and of itself turns my stomach–too close to Hitler’s dream realized.  Among the exhibits is a set of red curtains that hung in front of the ark.  They are now lying in a glass case and you can still see the boot prints crushed into the velvet.  The Rabbi at the Neue Synagogue in the 1930s was Yoachim Prinz.  His activism made him a gestapo target.  He escaped Germany and went on to open for Dr. King at the rally where he gave his “I Have a Dream Speech.”  He was also my mother’s rabbi growing up.

When we had finished touring the synagogue/museum, my choir director said that we should sing a song because of the great acoustics in the old dome.  The choir sang “Oh Shenandoah,” and I stood off to the side, crying with frustration, because what the hell did “Oh Shenandoah” and the acoustics have to do with anything?

If I had a band, it would be called Courage.
If I had a band, it would be called Shut Up and Drive.
If I had a band, it would be called Cumquat.
If I had a band, it would be called What Took You So Long I’ve Been Waiting for Hours in the Rain.
If I had a band, it would be called Don’t Teach the Kids How to Boogy.
If I had a band, it would be called Pleasant Pheasant.
If I had a band, it would be called Death before Surrender.
If I had a band, it would be called Void.
If I had a band, it would be called Fleeced.
If I had a band, it would be called Money.
If I had a band, it would be called The Weather on Mars.
If I had a band, it would be called Stand on the X.
If I had a band, it would be called Parsnipany.
If I had a band, it would be called Chin Up Pin Up.
If I had a band, it would be called Feral.
If I had a band, it would be called We Prefer the Term Mice.
If I had a band, it would be called Class Act.
If I had a band, it would be called Acting Class.
If I had a band, it would be called Jews.
If I had a band, it would be called Kill Jane Austen.
If I had a band, it would be called Razors Make No Sense.
If I had a band, it would be called Capitalist Toast.
If I had a band, it would be called Bring Back the Dinosaurs.
If I had a band, it would be called Wait Is That Already a Band?
If I had a band, it would be called Plausible Deniability.
If I had a band, it would be called Grandma’s Pants.
If I had a band, it would be called Stop Calling This Number.
If I had a band, it would be called Pedestrian U-Turn.
If I had a band, it would be called Sparrow’s Eyelid.
If I had a band, it would be called Isn’t This Fun?
If I had a band, it would be called Martyr Milkshake.
If I had a band, it would be called Brandname Soda.
If I had a band, it would be called Go Shit in Your Hat.
If I had a band, it would be called The Brotherland.
If I had a band, it would be called Border Patrol.
If I had a band, it would be called Turn Down the Radio.
If I had a band, it would be called Skeeball.
If I had a band, it would be called Runcible Spoon.
If I had a band, it would be called Porkchop Basketball.
If I had a band, it would be called Bicycle Freeway.
If I had a band, it would be called How to Succeed as a Psychopath.
If I had a band, it would be called Kittenbomb.
If I had a band, it would be called Ridicule.
If I had a band, it would be called Mary.

I sat on a warm flat stone and addressed my maker.
I’m no angel, I said.
But I have a plan for peace.
Make us skinless.  And maybe fatless too.
Make us the same dimensions.
Smooth out our cadences so we all speak alike.
But leave us our spirits in tact, so we can still sing and sail and invent new spices.
Perhaps we could leave behind corporeality entirely and just retain the best parts of ourselves. The parts that don’t discriminate.

OK, God said. But I’m going to do it one person at a time.
OK, I said. I can live with that.
God laughed.
What? I asked. Rather peevishly, I admit.
What do you think I’ve been doing all this time, transforming you one by one?
And then I laughed too. No longer quite so aggrieved or afraid to die.

It’s a singular joy and privilege to meet someone who teaches you something in every conversation.

On my last day in Rwanda, over martinis and brochettes, my friend told me about his study of Buddhism.  “Before, I had a lot of anger in me,” he said.  “Anger and ambition.  I couldn’t accept anything as it was.  Then I learned about Buddhism.  That one should balance compassion and reverence.  And when I started to look at the world that way, the anger left me and I became a changed man.”

I think I spend a lot of time trying to deepen, enrich and renew my compassion.  But reverence.  I don’t have a lot of that.  I tend to see the worst side of things, perhaps to drive myself onward, to work harder, sacrifice more.  But what about appreciating the buoying, awe-striking, miraculous aspects of life?

I’m trying to write down one thing every day that astounds me, that makes me feel buoyant and exhilarated.  So far they are all small, simple things.  But I think these may be the stuff of happiness if we learn to recognize it.

A watery orange sun
Rain on the roof
Friendly dogs
Riding through the countryside on the back of a motorcycle
Cooking for the holidays with my Mom
Car rides and long conversations with my Dad
Bloody Marys with my brothers
Clean sheets
Purple jacaranda
The smell of lilacs and honeysuckle
Hugs from small children who can only reach your knees
A cold drink
A hot shower
The delicious middle of a novel
A long letter from a friend

During my stay in Rwanda, I sat down with more than 30 kids to explain the process of applying to university in the U.S.: SAT, ACT, TOEFL, transcripts, recommendations, financial aid, the common application…

In going through online college applications, there are some hard-edged moments.  The first time, it’s sad.  By the 30th time, it becomes expected, awkward, and yet still excruciating as we slowly move through the screens toward the raw questions.

Parents’ Marital Status

Parent 1: Last/Family/Sur Name

First/Given Name

Education:

Occupation:

Employer:

Is Parent 1 Living?

Date Deceased:

The hardest ones, I think, are the “I don’t knows.”  “I don’t know how much education my father had.”  “I’m not sure if my mother worked.”  “I don’t know when she died, maybe September?”  Watching their faces as they try to calculate from the stories, the fragments.  And then there’s, “I’m not sure if they were ever married.  My aunt says they weren’t, but sometimes I think she says that just to hurt me.  Sometimes she says my father wasn’t my father, but I don’t know.”  And perhaps the worst, “I don’t know what their names were, where they lived, anything about them.  I don’t know what my name would have been…”

And yet we’re looking toward the future, with excitement.  Which I guess says pretty much everything there is to say about human resilience.

Mama Jean

My house mother to me, upon my leaving the Village for the last time:

“We will miss you so much when you go Lily, but if you could do me one favor: when you get back to U.S., can you please find for me…”

At this point I’m thinking it’s going to be a beauty product or a French romance novel.

“…someone called…”

OK, now I think it’s going to be a relative or friend she hasn’t had contact with in a while.

“…50 Cent and please tell him that I love him.  Tell him there’s an old Rwandan Mom who loves him.  That’s all I want.”

Maybe this is why Twitter was invented?

50 Cent

I haven’t written much about my time in the Village.  I was able to visit ASYV six times in nine weeks.  I also made nearly 20 visits to alumni and former colleagues, including a friend’s wedding.

Some things are the same and some are different.  The trees, the boys have grown taller.  The flowers, the girls are in bloom.  We had an engagement party for one.  I worry how soon she will be married, but then I realize she is already more than 20 years old.

The tokens I will carry away with me.  A bolt of cloth.  A pair of earrings.  The newly acquired knowledge of how to fry peanuts when you buy them from the market raw.  A bunch of bananas.  A thank you note written on graph paper pulled out of a notebook.

One of my former students gave me a picture of himself with a message on the back.  He brought it  from home in his pocket, so it was slightly crumpled.  I was touched because I knew he wanted to give me something tangible and this picture of himself was what he had to give.

It’s gratifying that the connections have been maintained this long.  Yet as always, there are so many things we can’t communicate.  So the most important thing is the just being together.  While doing laundry, while watching a movie.  Of course that’s the one thing you can’t do from afar.  And the being together loses its power when you try to capture it and shrink it down to fit into small, flat words.  Like fireflies you catch and keep in a jar.  They stop glowing and suffocate one by one.

http://www.girleffect.org/about/girl-hub

http://www.guidedproducts.com 

 

Rubanda Remix by Knowless, Dream Boyz, Tom Close and Christopher: (not that Tom Close) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-AmGdqgcT0Y

Amayobera by Meddy has been stuck in my head for weeks: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tiq-B6wCC7g

Also, forgot about Inkoramutima for a while, but here it is: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3XKZnYpupk0

In honor of the end of Ramadan, I’d like to write a little bit about Rwanda’s Muslim community.  Rwanda is approximately 5 percent Muslim, 57 percent Catholic, 26 percent Protestant and 12 percent Adventist.  Muslims are generally extremely well-respected here because they resisted participation in the genocide.  Unlike churches where some of the most horrific massacres were carried out with the complicity of clergy, mosques sheltered Muslims and non-Muslims alike.  The film Kinyarwanda (ironically in English) depicts the heroism of the Rwandan Muslim community during the genocide, as intertwined with several other narratives.  I highly recommend it.  Eid Mubarak all!

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