Tag Archives: Synagogue

Day by day by day … je suis humaine

Day by day by day … je suis humaine

Summer 2014, Harrison, Maine. Photo: Malissa Smith

I’ve been attempting to work through the recent terrorist attack at Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical newsweekly—and thereby attempt, in some small way to write about it.

For the French, the three days of carnage beginning with the horrific murder of 12 staff members, including four renowned cartoonists at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, by Said and Cherif Kouachi, has been an agonizing period of anxiety and pain. In all, 17 people were horribly murdered including a young policewoman, a jogger and four shoppers in a Kosher supermarket who were all apparently gunned down by another in the Kouachi brother’s “terrorist cell,” Amedy Coulibaly.

For those of us in New York who lived through the experience of the World Trade Center terror attack on September 11, 2001, there is an acute understanding of the almost out-of-body dissociation one can feel living through the moment-by-moment experiences of that sort of horror. We are, after all, merely ordinary, perhaps showing courage in our daily lives, and perhaps not, but certainly not prepared for the kind of terror that a Kalashnikov wielding “crazy” brings.

New York City street sceneIf I am being disingenuous at all, it is in the sense that we people who live in cities do come to understand that there are those intangibles: Cars that suddenly veer off and cause havoc and death in a restaurant storefront, or the running gun play of teens that may careen in through a window, putting a small child in harms way. Not to mention, the daily violence in families that spill out into “social services” pretty much unnoticed except for the truly horrific ones that end up on the covers of the tabloids. Still, those truly terrifying experiences do not seem to equate with the other kind of sudden violence in the cocoon of our western democracies—and go against our sense of decency, right and wrong, and collectively at least, if not individually, our sense that such things as cartoons that satirize religion and politics, are just this side of “okay” in the scheme of things, even if they tend to be on the edge or even over the line of distasteful. What they are not, are killing offenses by self-proclaimed executioners in the name of one ideological or religious belief or another.

What I keep asking myself is this. Are our beliefs really that tenuous? Are they that uncertain, that a cartoon, really, a cartoon can be so offensive as to warrant the murder of 12 people?

I write that having figured that if what I believe is strong and certain, I, me, the individual, can well afford to be magnanimous in accepting that others may not agree or share my point of view. Thus I would never consider that the words of another would so shake me to the core of my being that I would jump at the chance to “right” the perceived “wrong” by choosing to kill as many nonbelievers as I could as I made my way to whatever Valhalla I figured I was entitled to for my “acts.”

The giant, “ugh” aside—at any given moment on our beautiful earth, just such things occur day by day by day in both religious and sectarian struggles all the in the name of a greater something or other. Or, to bring down to the ground, even to the level of a power struggle between two partners where one feels the right to bash the other senseless in the name of being “right.”

Paris march, January 11, 2015, Credit: Time MagazineAnd while it was heartening to know that 3.7 million persons marched in Paris yesterday in solidarity to reaffirm the principles of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité (Liberty, Freedom and Fraternity), I am fearful of the backlash to terrorism that can just as easily sweep through to give us yet more examples of the ugliness of revenge on the ordinary, the “us” that is not quite us that devolves into further violence and extremism.

It is the misadventure of well-intentioned reactions that scares me just as much as the acts of terrorism themselves. And having lived through the daily miasma of misery inflicted on ordinary citizens caught in the cross fire of acts for and against terrorism, I remain fearful—and perhaps the tiniest bit cynical about what the future will bring.

My best self, however, knows that just such ideals as freedom and peace and love live on anyway.

After all, in the midst of acts of terror the world over, two-alarm fires, police slowdowns, and the kind of cold that almost demands that one turn over after the alarm goes off to burrow that much deeper under the covers, by 10:30 AM this past Saturday morning, Gleason’s Gym was full of men and women in varying stages of their workouts. A quick glance showed the Give A Kid A Dream youngsters shadowboxing alongside boxing professionals in front of the mirror, amateur fighters putting in rounds ahead of the Golden Gloves, and fighters sparring in all of Gleason’s four boxing rings.

For me, sweaty from five great rounds sparring with my trainer Lennox Blackmoore, the scary fever dreams of terror were suitably buried in one recess of my mind or another. And while I have shed tears for the victims, and will likely go to Synagogue this Friday in solidarity with the French victims at the kosher supermarket in Paris, I will try hard to push forward with a smile, with little thought given to the crazies with Kalashnikovs. They are, despite their seeming out-sized appearances, a really, really tiny portion of the world, which is mostly occupied by persons going about their day in the struggles that define us.

Leastways, that is what I hope for, even if the blue meanies hit me square in the nose sometimes with darker thoughts. Oh well. Je suis humaine.


Boxing, Daf Yomi and my Mom.

Boxing, Daf Yomi and my Mom.

Something about extreme events from hurricanes to political upheavals to the strange and extraordinary in one’s life brings me to the point where I want to call my mother.  Lord knows we had our issues and I admit to a genuine cringe factor as I listened to the refrain of the opening gambit on her voicemails that always went “hi, this is your mother.”

What, I wouldn’t recognize her voice? (Said out loud with all of the inflection that implies.)  Let’s face it, I’d been hearing her since I was in utero which was a very long time ago. So, yes, I did know that it was my mother calling without the need to prompt my auditory memory.

When we did finally speak, and after establishing who was who, there was the rhetorical mom-is-presenting-me-with-a-huge-seemingly-insurmountable-but-ultimately-resolvable-problem-if-she-only-listened part of the conversation, followed by her multitude of what-are-you doing questions, the here’s-what-I’m-doing part of the call (what she bought that Saturday on her rounds through the tag sales, what happend at the pancake breakfast in Red Rock, NY, the latest deer tick count in Columbia County, recycled news about my brother followed by assorted complaints …), and finally the how’s-my-granddaughter finale where we found our common ground and lots of kvelling.  Sounding familiar anyone? (And no comments allowed from the prodigal who will eventually read this.)

Oy is all I can say, though I must recant a bit of that “oy” to say that I have my mother to thank for being the Jewish mother I’ve become and for allowing me the joys of her mother sans editorial comment considering Grandma was as classic a hysterical Jewish mother as ever lived.  And that is the space I most miss my mother in. The indefinable space of cultural shtick that we shared as true friends and allies, and not in the traditional sense either because in our tiny island of a family we were not exactly observant or even identifiable Jews.

We never went to Synagogue (except the few times my Grandmother grabbed me to go), never talked about it (except the time when I was nine years old and started sneak-reading her copy of William L. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich) and never went to High Holiday services.  Even Hanukkah was an afterthought as I was well into my teens before we ever acknowledged it.  Our only discernible “duty” if you will was to Passover which included the trek from Manhattan to Queens and back in the early days via a combination of subways and buses and as I got older, hitching a ride in the back of my Uncle’s car.

In Mom’s case Passover meant (a) helping her mother, (b) Grandma bonding for me (and getting a red ribbon tied to me at some point to ward off the evil eye), (c) Mom sneaking milk for her coffee in my grandmother’s otherwise kosher home and (d) lots of snickering with me as the panoply of remote Long Island cousins dropped in (hence the red ribbon to ward off the jealousy my Grandmother knew they harbored for us).

Fast forwarding a million years, my mother wrested with the effects of terminal lung cancer.  In the last few days of her life, Mom would sit upright in her hospital bed and with a mixture of calm and cheerful wonder would eye the two large gold embossed leather-bound books on her bedside table, one neatly covered in plastic with an embroidered bookmark peering out from the back pages and the other a pristine copy lying in wait for the completion of its sister volume.

The books were part of the Daf Yomi series, a seven and a half year cycle of daily readings of the Babylonian Talmud*.  Given the irreligious life my mother had lived, and given her genuine lack of interest in formal worship and the accompanying rigamarole, the contradiction of the embrace of such disciplined daily religious study may have seemed out of character, but even though she had eschewed the outward trappings of worship, her deeper search for meaning had led her to embrace the rigors of an intellectual life deposited into one sheet of paper per day.

I bring this up as a long way around the idea of boxing and boxing study as a temple of experience.  One works and works and works at one thing such that the practice in its purest sense is down-right monkish.

Jab, Jab, Jab.  Jab, Jab, Jab.  Jab, Jab, Jab.  Jab, Jab, Jab.  Jab, Jab, Jab.

Straight right, straight right, straight right.  Straight right, straight right, straight right.  Straight right, straight right, straight right.

Left hook, left hook, left hook.  Left hook, left hook, left hook.  Left hook, left hook, left hook.

Slip left, slip left, slip left. Slip left, slip left, slip left. Slip left, slip left, slip left.

Just how many ways are there to throw a punch or to slip a punch?  Talk to a trainer about the art of the left hook and Trainer A will insist on a twist of the fist at the end while Trainer B will scream out “what are you doing, why are you turning over your hand?”

As is true for a lot of deep things about life (and not to sound too Hegalian,) it’s often in the argument itself that we find the essence.  Much as my mother found the essence of Judaism in the cross currents of Rabbinic argument over the meaning of whether one cow or two is appropriate for reneging on a small contract, a boxer will find the essence of the jab through repeated argument with the mirror.

One day, it just sinks in … Jab.

As with most moments of that sort, they pass quietly, much as my mother passed her simple daily reading on to me the morning of her death.  By then, she was in a coma, breathing easily and steadily, the edges of her mouth relaxed.  Looking at her books, I picked up the volume she had been reading and read her the day’s passage aloud. The book, though well-read, still had a new book feel and though I passed a few difficult moments, found in the reading a connection to her I’ve only just begun to discern.

It showed me that beneath the many battles my mother and I fought over the years, at our essence, we were in fact, two willing partners in the engagement that was our relationship, and as with the moment a hook stings the heavy bag with an extra something that says “hook,” Mom and I were a pair after all:  mother and daughter with some stories to share.

*The Daf Yomi is a seven and one half year cycle of readings from the Babylonian Talmud, a collection of religious commentaries on Jewish oral law, known as the Mishnah, and discussion of the Mishnah known as the Gemara.  The Gemara also incorporates a broad overview of topics from the Tanaka (Jewish books of the bible), as well as particular (and avid) discussions of the meaning of varying biblical passages. The Babylonian Talmud dates from 500 AD (CE).