For those who don't, an explanation is useless."
I don't have the patience to dig through history's bins to catch a glimpse of myself in time's mirror. Thanks to a few family archivists like my sister Hillary and my cousin Howard, I stumbled across some writing by my dad's father -- my grandfather Manuel -- that startled me, as it seemed to reach me through the dark tunnels of history to cast some light on today's madness.
My grandfather Manuel E. Lichtenstein was a revered surgeon with an illustrious career in medicine but I barely remember him. He died when I was three. My dad, who is now in his early 80's, told my sisters and I when we were growing up that when he sent his father letters overseas, where he was serving as a military doctor during World War II, they were returned to Chicago with red ink, his spelling corrected. I get the impression he was a loving but distant father who wrote, taught, trained, lived and breathed a medical mission that often took him far away from his family in Humboldt Park.
Some time after WWII, Manuel penned a brief essay called "Divine Purpose" -- a manifesto on being human. He writes, "much is said about our moral and ethical deterioration, each day the press, radio and TV provide their quotas of evidence to substantiate our flight from dignity, kindly consideration for others, and a common belief in the sanctity of the human being." He watched the unraveling of humanity on the front lines, and as a Jewish-American surgeon, was known to stitch up the bellies of German soldiers with as much care and attention as our 'allies.'
My father went on to become a jazz musician, pounding and tapping on piano keys late into the night as his three girls slept upstairs in our Skokie home throughout the 70's and 80's. Skokie, where Holocaust survivors resettled to start over again. Skokie, where the KKK attempted to march and a Jewish ACLU lawyer defended their right to do so. Skokie, where my sisters and I attended a high school where over 90 languages were spoken by the families of our classmates, coming from all over the world as first and second generation Americans. Skokie, where I took Hebrew classes taught by Holocaust survivors. Skokie, where I was bat-mitzvahed to the beats of MC Hammer and Queen. Skokie, where the 24-hour bagel and bialy shop is packed at 2 a.m. on Christmas eve.
The other night I was home visiting my dad in Skokie and as I was leaving I asked my dad to tell me how he was doing -- really. It'd been hard to talk to him one-to-one with all the joyful distractions of my older sister's three rambunctious children. As I was leaving, I told him I noticed he was a bit tempermental these days -- on edge -- and asked if everything was okay. He looked at me with a twinkle in his eye and told me that he couldn't be better. Standing there in his slacks with his hands crossed over his swirls of silver chest hair (his signature look at home), he looked me in the eye and told me he could literally feel the physical manifestion of god when he plays music. That the mathematics of music is god, that when he locked into the matrix of 1, 2, 3, 2, 2, 3, 3, 2, 3 he feels like god is right there with him, as if the all the stars in the sky are lit up in his being.
Dad then pointed to our dog, Xanthe Reese, and told me that he sees god everywhere, but especially in her -- when she hops up on the couch to snuggle or look out the window. He sees god in leaves that fall from the tree. He found one the other day that had two glorious dots in a pattern that reminded him of the twins across the street who'd recently turned two. He presented this leaf to the twin's mom and later received a plate of cookies as thanks from her for noticing and thinking of her children.
A few nights ago, while celebrating the first night of Hannukah, one of my oldest friends Jamie introduced me and my sister Nina to an old Russian Jewish ritual I'd never heard of before. We turned off all the lights and after several attempts, we managed to light a ladle of sugared brandy on fire before pouring it into cups of hot tea. We drank and sang Hebrew songs, stumbling over words we'd forgotten or never knew but felt our way through melody's contours. We were drinking the fire and became the fire. We were lit up and laughed. We wrapped presents and fried latkes and dished about sex, love & the future.
I'm preparing to travel tomorrow and I'm thinking about "divine purpose," -- about my grandfather Manuel's "common belief in the sanctity of human beings. " Being on the lookout for god when you don't believe in god, or being the light when we're so clearly steeped in the dark feels ridiculous, disturbing, unhinged. I've been gripped with fear while home in the USA these last few weeks -- waking up from nightmares and ruminations of a single woman in Trump's world.
Digging into my history, though, lit a match within me. Fire is older than fear. We gather around it to stare into the eye of its divine light.