DO WE NEED THE TEMPLE?
October, 2007

It has been a very long time since we Jews had a communion with God, with stars over our heads and sand under our feet. In those days, we had not found a land to settle in; we had not found, yet, ourselves. We were wandering in the desert from one campsite to another, probably zigzagging the land, waiting for a new breed of born-free people to settle finally in the Promised Land. Nowadays we live in such a noise-polluted environment that it is difficult to imagine the silent immensity of a desert night. But thousands of years ago, we did experience some incredible nights under starry skies. We lived under tents, rich and poor, and day after day after month after month, after year after year, every so often we folded those tents and moved, sometimes forward, towards our destiny. I am sure it was not a romantic period in our history: hygienic conditions were far from desirable –body odor must have been intolerable to our modern noses—and death from disease and malnutrition probably would match any starving modern African society. There was one remarkable thing though: we were in constant communion with God. Even more, God dwelled under a tent, among us. Yes, it can be said that in those days, a mutual relationship, a closeness, between God and the Hebrews was more important than a solid temple made of solid rocks. A tent, albeit, a magnificent tent, served as God's dwelling, and we felt awe and love and fear and astonishment to and for its regal occupant.

In latter years, when we finally reached the Promised Land, we did built a Temple, a house for the Lord. And it was, indeed, a magnificent house. But even then, those feelings of immediacy, of being close to God, of being in God's presence, of awe and fear and wellbeing, and love and respect, were very intense.

Israel's enemies destroyed the Temple, not once but twice, five hundred years apart. I am not going to embark on the theological and philosophical reasons of why God permitted the destruction of his home. Suffice to say that after the Roman destruction of the Temple during the first century of the Common Era, no new Temple was built. Since then, Jews have prayed in synagogues.

Synagogues can be understood as assemblies of Jews gathered for prayers, or as actual physical places where Jews pray. This has been the case ever since the destruction of the Temple, it has been so for two-thousand years. History and time have a way to give solemnity to common events, more so if those events have to do with praying and studying ancient texts. It is not difficult to feel reverence for an ancient rabbi and its commentaries on biblical content. I am sure that we would even feel reverence for the very place where a wise rabbi of yesteryear prayed with his disciples, say a thousand, even a few hundred years ago. Perhaps it is the reverse of the saying that familiarity breeds contempt: aloofness spawns reverence. Be it as it may be, we tend to revere places that are historically remote from where we stand, which brings me to current times and to a realization that has been creeping into me for quite some time.

When I was a child, every year, my parents took me to synagogue for the high holidays. I remember entering the synagogue and being invaded by a sense of respect, of being surrounded by a silence (even if the room was full of noisy people), and feeling a certain sense of awe. The prayers were in Hebrew and I did not understand a word being said and yet, when the doors of the armoire containing the Torah scrolls were opened, it was as if God himself was there, right next to the sacred manuscripts. This must have been a feeling not too far from the feelings expressed by ancient Israelites.

Then, I grew up and moved to the United States. For a long while I lost track of going to religious services, I was too busy studying other subject matters. Then, on one particular season, we made the decision to go to temple for the holidays, my wife and I. It was a magnificent building in the section of Chicago close to its namesake university. Inside, we were astonished by the décor. Then the service began and even though it was delivered with the precision of a well-rehearsed Broadway show, it did not impress us, certainly it did not touch me. Perhaps it was the fact that it was the eve of Yom-Kippur and that the fellow seated next to me was eating sweets, or that it had been the first time I had heard "Kol-nidre" sung by a woman. But in retrospect, I think it was more. Again, after this experience, a period of several years followed in which I did not go back to services and when we finally did go back, I had lost the feelings I had had as a child. Through the years, I have been in several synagogues of various denominations, mostly reform. Some were dedicated buildings, others were Christian churches whose congregants had been kind enough to let us pray on Friday nights and certain holidays. Hours before services a group of dedicated volunteers would come and cover any signs of Christianity and hang a couple of tapestries with Hebrew contents and of course, bring in a small armoire with a Torah or two inside, our Aron Kodesh. Still other times, we would congregate in a converted space, usually a high school theater. What called my attention is the fact that we were not in a sacred place, that we were in a converted space. I began to realize the true intent and consequence of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, i.e., I was not praying in the Temple, rather, I was inside a convenience store, conveniently rearranged to serve as a temple, a Jewish temple. I began noticing that the people, on entering the space, did not change their topic of conversation, that they were not distracted by a holy presence, that they were there, just the same as if they were elsewhere. I realized that the rabbi was being asked a truly gargantuan task, i.e., with his performance he had to bring holiness into such a space and to his/her congregants. And now, a new variable entered the equation, that is, the personality of the rabbi. How he behaved, what he said, how he said it, all became relevant. If he was a cold person, then there was no connection to me, if he was a warm person, then, there was a possibility of connecting. And of course, he or she had to be wise. Wise not only on religious matters, but also wise in choosing the topic of the "sermon". There is always a sermon during services. And if the sermon, as is in these days of relevancy, has to do with current world events, then, politics can become quite annoying, like braking an illusory bubble in mid air.

What became clear to me, and perhaps this is just a phenomenon that only I experience, my own defect, is that on being in the synagogue, I was not experiencing sanctity, holiness, and that in part, I was also picking up the vibes from those around me. Somehow, I was malcontented, and judging by those around me –and those that did not show up– we were all malcontent.

I do envy people that can experience the sanctity of ancient times in our times. But I am not a fervent Jew, I am not religious, let alone a Hasidic Jew. It is possible that they do feel what I am lacking. But the multitudes that surrounded the Temple in ancient times did not have to be fanatics to feel the energy emanating from it. The energy came from the very site, from the Temple itself.

The one time when I visited the "wall", our Western Wall of ancient times in Jerusalem, I felt completely embedded in a feeling of reverence and infinite sadness, so I know I am capable of those feelings. What I am asking is why I cannot experience something like that when I am inside a synagogue?

I don't know that I can come with an explanation, one that would satisfy me. But perhaps I can come with some sort of rational concept. Is it not time for Jews to again build a house for God? It was at the very core of our religious history, it was one of the first requests God made of us. We have re-occupied our homeland. Jerusalem is the center of the new State of Israel. It has been longer than 40 years since Israel was re-formed, longer than the time ancient Hebrews spent in the desert. Is it not time to build a Temple? Do we not have the desire and responsibility to do so? Perhaps it need not be built from stones, perhaps a tent would be more fitting. Before God asked us for a permanent residence, while we were meandering in the desert, he asked for a tent. Until we can build a solid Temple at the right site, should we not build a Tent as we once were instructed to do? Then, the site on which the tent was build changed practically on a weekly basis, so clearly, the site was not important to God. We could take solace in this concept and build a Tent for God in a place that, albeit temporary, would at least fulfill his commandment. I cannot stop thinking that never was it so true, the adage, that, if we build it He will come.

EXPOSING ANTI-ISRAELISM
August, 2006

For a few years now there has been an apparent change of goal by the world community, displacing their anti-Semitic rhetoric for anti-Israel diatribe. The best minds in Europe, the minds of those that believe themselves to be the torch bearers for that great European tradition of enlightened thought, have made a great effort to establish that in fact European anti-Semitism was dead and that now they could move to freely criticize Israel without fear of being taken for run of the mill, common, low-life anti-Semites. Of course, I ceased to have respect for European thinkers one morning when I woke up and had the simple realization that Europe had brought to the world murderous religious invasions, the destruction of centuries of accumulation of Greek and Roman thought, the repetitive slaughter of innocent Jews blamed for bringing about the various plagues that afflicted Europeans during the ages, the darkness of the dark age and middle periods, the torture, murder and expulsion of Jews from various countries of which Spain has been such a vanguard, the establishment of colonies throughout the world with the subsequent abuses of human rights, oppression, force conversions to whatever religion prevailed at the time, the arbitrary partition of the geopolitical world that eventually became the very cause of the current wars in the middle East, the First World War to end all wars, the Second World War, and of course, the Holocaust. At that point, I decided that perhaps this movement claiming that being anti-Israel was not being anti-Semitic was another ruse, one more in their long tradition of preparing the grounds for genocide. I have begun to think of the Europeans as master agronomists, capable of turning any ground into fertile ground for hate, hostility and mass murder.

Of course, it is possible to criticize the state of Israel without being an anti-Semite. The problem then, becomes one of not being so consistently so and so irrationally so, and finally being so capable of absolute bias to the point of denying reality and hence, dangerously walking the line of societal psychosis.

I have known now for decades that the Europeans were also adding their crown jewel to the long list of accomplishments throughout history. That is, the self destruction of their own nations. But the fact remains that many European nations are now ticking bombs awaiting some, as of yet, unknown signal to explode into large revolutions where civilizations of unassimilated immigrants with philosophies incompatible with those of their host countries will clash with a weakened and cowardly remnant of the European nations as we once knew them. It would be pure semantics to try to diffuse my argument by countering that nations need evolve, for I am not talking of evolution, but revolution. I am not talking of cleaning the façade of the Louvre Museum, but of burning its contents for they represent a corruptive force in light of more enlightened and ancient philosophies that managed to dynamite thousand year old Buda statues that were corrupting the environment. I know it will be easier to deal with artworks done on canvas.

So, what, pray you, has brought the final straw to this equation that now may clearly break the camel’s back? What is the proof that this entire harangue conveys, in fact, the seed of reality?

On July 29 of 2006 in Seattle, Washington of all places, a hate crime against Jews was committed. It did not come from nowhere as is often said in these cases and as I am sure, we will be asked to believe in this particular instance. They usually say the perpetrator was deranged, or was under great stress, or no one knew what he was up to, or that there were no connections to the outside world or to other persons. But in this particular case, a Muslim, a foreigner from Pakistan that had become an American citizen, that had been living in our country amidst all the freedoms that it offers, whose father had been central in building a Muslim center in the city, had simply become fed up with Israel. So, what does a person that becomes fed up with Israel do? Well, of course, it goes and shoots down a bunch of Jews. So Naveed Afzal Haq, broke into the building of the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle and began shooting at some women that were inside the building at the time. He killed one and wounded severely another five.

The point that I am making is that when a person is “fed up with Israel”, that person proceeds to attack some Jews in Seattle. The point that I am trying to make, the issue I am trying to shed light onto is that when the enlightened Europeans say that they are not anti-Semitic, just anti-Israel, they are as clearly off the track as is our Seattle criminal, Mr. Haq: He simply was more honest. And clearly, he operated in a more accelerated time table and in an apparent reverse fashion, i.e., he did not attack Israel but the Jews. We are to presume that the Europeans are not attacking Jews, only Israel with their policies and diatribe. We are to believe that those that consistently attack Israel do it out of pure political conviction and that their utterances are not guided by an inner anti-Semitic streak.

But what does it take to be so consistently anti-Israel. If we analyze the particulars we shall come to the conclusion that such enlightened thinkers have very few choices to make. Israel is the only democracy in the region, the only nation where people are truly free to express their philosophical and political ideas without fear of repression, amputation or decapitation. Of all the nations in that region, Israel is the one that treats the best both its citizens and its legal and illegal inhabitants. Israel is the most creative both artistically and scientifically of all those nations. So when other nations and individuals protest against Israel, they must shut their minds to all the horrible acts being committed by the surrounding nations, they must be able to consider Israel in vacuum. This can only be accomplished by denying reality and this is closely connected with psychotic thought processes. But if they are aware of the atrocities perpetrated in the neighboring countries and the bulk of their criticism is not directed at those nations but at Israel, then, they are highly hypocritical and biased in their thought processes. These are the only two choices available for the enlightened Europeans that so consistently criticize Israel.

As to the rest of the world, those that are eager to accept as fact that Israel must be guilty because they are sanctioned by the United Nations, I am assuming that they suffer from a case of gangrenous naiveté. For if one is to analyze the nations that are represented in such an illustrious institution that so consistently votes against Israel’s interests, one becomes aware that most of those nations practice the constant abuse, torture, maiming, murder and subjugation of their citizens. To believe that the one thing they do right is to be able to assess and judge Israel can only be explained by their eagerness to have others, in this case the United Nations, talk and walk the anti-Semitic rhythms that they are too coward to demonstrate.

One final note. It has been said, mostly by the Muslim-Arab world, that there would be no problems in the Middle East if it were not for the existence of the State of Israel. Without such state, the Jews of the region would be living under Muslim domination and would be allowed to thrive at the discretion of their masters. But we should know better. There was a period of almost two thousand years when there was no Israel, when Jews lived as part of, but in isolation within other nations throughout the world, certainly in the Middle East and in Europe. When those Jews had no army and were not aggressive, and in spite of it, they were considered third class citizens everywhere; they were persecuted everywhere. Even during the times when Jews were permitted to live in relative peace and even when some of them were chosen as advisors to various courts, they still lived by the grace of their “benefactors”. So it is clear that the State of Israel is not the reason for anti-Semitism, it is quite clear that Jews are the reason for anti-Semitism and, by extension, anti-Israelism. Logic is too much on the side of my arguments to be denied. Denial of logical thought is currently considered in medical textbooks as significant mental derangements, mostly treatable with modern medications. The problem is how to get people with deranged minds to take their medications on time.

HOLOCAUST CINDERS
April, 2005

For most people, and that includes historians as well, the Holocaust ended with the termination of World War II. This has been accepted as dogma, even Holocaust institutions believe so. It is easy to see why one would agree with this contention. After all, all the official killings of Jews directed by the German government ceased with the liberation of the camps and the termination of the Third Reich regime.

It is my contention that the Holocaust did not end with the termination of WWII. In fact, I am proposing that the Holocaust continues to this very day. It would be an error to think that the Holocaust can be defined by the number of kills. Murdering Jews was only a part of the Holocaust. There is another component of it that did not involve killing: I am talking about suffering, about altering on a permanent basis the mentality of those that were not killed, of affecting the thought process and behavior of the living.

Some time ago I was asked to write an essay on contemporary Jewish Art. As can be gathered by even a superficial review of the topic, Jewish Art is not homogeneous, does not have a signature, and would not stand as such under scrutiny. Nonetheless, I began to think about Jewish Art, what or how could I come to some conclusion on the subject, and it was not until I came to the conclusion that Jewish Art could not be defined by a Jewish measurement that I was able to dig further. Jewish Art does not result from the fact that one is Jewish, it can not be related to Bar-Mitzvah ceremonies, it does not depend upon the observance of dietary laws, it does not come from observing the Sabbath, it is not genetically determined.

As I was defoliating, methodically, what constituted Jewish Art, I was afraid that at the end there would be nothing left. Simply to say that a painting is "Jewish Art" because it depicts a menorah or the star of David is so simplistic and reductionistic that it aches to idiocy. It was then, when I was at the trough of my analysis, that I found what defines Jewishness in Art. Any artistic creation based on experiences, intellectual or emotional, derived from the Holocaust as a result of being Jewish, constituted Jewish Art. Superficially this would leave out any art produced by a Jew who has not been affected by the Holocaust. But my contention is that if there is such a Jew walking around, he is for all practical purposes a very insensitive individual, which makes for a very poor artist, one I would not want to include in "Jewish Art". As to pre-Holocaust Jewish Art, I am afraid to say that pogroms and persecutions influenced artists then.

In a similar manner, I am inclined to accept that there are very few Jews that have not been affected by the Holocaust perpetrated during the classic period of 1933-1945. What can we say of those that survived but where left dispossessed of the belongings they had prior to 1933? And what of those whose education was cut prematurely by the policies of that horrible period. Or what can we say of those who survived after watching their families taken to the slaughter. Even if these Jews did not spend a day in a concentration camp, their lives were altered forever. Similarly, there are millions of Jews that grew up under the gloom of the Holocaust, whose outlook on life was affected by the darkened skies that persisted even after the ovens and the burning trenches filled with the carrion of hundreds of thousands of Jews were finally extinguished. Even those that appeared to have been spared all the gloom were affected. My parents saw to leave Europe in the early 1930's. They were not threatened by the Germans and their French and Polish and Hungarian and Latvian allies, rather, they were permitted to flourish in Colombia. I was born in that environment. At best, it could be said that my being raised in Colombia amidst relative luxury and peace, spared me of much of what my cousins were experiencing in Europe, was in itself a byproduct of the Holocaust. At worst, even I, surrounded by almost infinite love, by comfort, and by skies that never lacked blue or butterflies, was continually touched by the Holocaust when I saw newly emigrated faces, when I saw in my parents‚ faces the angst derived from memories of the old country, or the disappearance of their old friends and when eventually as I grew up and began to read about what had happened in Europe began to incorporate the universal pain that floated in the air around the globe.

I can say without fear of being wrong, even under the protest of some purists that the Holocaust continues. It continues inside those that survived it, in their solitude and the utmost despair of having lost their childhood. It continues in the children of survivors that were denied a fully open relationship with their parents, separated by an invisible wall of terrible memories. It continues in a single tear shed when someone, confronted for a moment with a photograph or a story about a person that suffered or perished at the hands of the Nazis and their accomplices, experiences if only for an instant, pain. It survives even if only a single artist allows himself or herself to become a vessel and channels this emotional history into his or her work. And it survives if there are museums that allow people to view either the relics of that time or the artistic creations inspired by those horrible days.

Our society has arbitrarily decided that a crime ends at the moment that it ends. This is nothing but a decision of convenience. When someone kills a person, the crime ends at that very moment. Then, the courts convene to judge and punish the perpetrator and all go home satisfied: judge, jury, reporters — all, but the victim and those that loved him. The victim is deprived for ever and ever of experiencing life, a true measure of infinity. Those that are left behind, who loved the victim, are not only missing him, but are deprived forever of sharing with their loved one anything at all. Thus, to say that the crime ended and the case is closed appears somewhat insensitive under this particular light. And so it is with the Holocaust. The perpetrators may be long gone, the countries involved might have signed peace treaties, but the ground where so many victims were buried or burned lost its chemical similarity with the adjacent, virginal ground. The world has been deprived for eternity any and all events and creations that the murdered would have produced otherwise. Not one but an infinite number of generations will not happen, ever. And those that survived, in proximity or distanced from the victims, will never be the same.

I can even venture to say that it is this perpetuity of the Holocaust, this lingering effect, the very factor that may prevent another Holocaust. Fire does not destroy the forest that already is on fire. Time must be allowed for grasses to grow, for trees and forest to develop, before a new fire can burn them down. It is this simple principle the one that should encourage us to keep the sacred flames, for it is as if the brazes of the Holocaust, its emotional memories, are the very fire that keeps it alive and at the same time keeps it from re-occurring.

 

WHAT I AM NOT
December 2004

Not long ago, carried by some crazy emotion, I suddenly became aware that I was not whole, that I was missing something. During some sleepless nights that followed, sensing every bed sheet wrinkle under my body while awaiting for the morning sun to insinuate itself over the distant mountains, I began to introspect about what I was missing.

Of course, I am missing my parents. The death of parents is not to be underestimated as to the impact it has over children. I am not talking about becoming parentless at age ten. I am talking about losing for ever the capacity to turn around with pride and show your parents what you have accomplished, or simply turn around knowing that they will be right there, with those reassuring smiles, telling you that no matter what, you are a winner, and that they trust you will overcome any obstacles, as it was when I was ten. But I am not talking about missing parents. It is something more complex than that.

I remember that when I was a kid, I already was missing something. I became aware of it when the MacDonald brothers called me that first time "perro Judío" (loosely translated as dirty Jew). And there were many other occasions during my childhood and adolescence when I was reminded that I was a dirty Jew. In any other respect I was a Colombian, or so I thought. Except that my skin was somewhat lighter than many of my friends and classmates and that I was Jewish and they were Catholic. So I guess, that at that time, somewhere deep in me, it was established that I was not a Colombian. Oh sure, I was a Colombian by definition. I had been born there and that is that. But it had not been me the one to draw boundaries on the sand, it was them that were telling me what I was not. Of course, one adapts to this kind of things. The mind of a young lad is plastic enough.

As I grew older and became a teenager I entered Medical School. I felt good about it. I remember to being scared. It was because of the awesome responsibility that rested upon my shoulders. I was the youngest in the class and for that matter, the university. My sister had already walked those same corridors and she had been the best student. Everybody expected me to do well. I did well, although not as well as my sister had and yet, I still was reminded once in a while that I was not one with the nature that surrounded me. Those occasions were few, but meaningful. Whenever I was arguing with someone any sociopolitical topic, at some point during the argument I would be reminded that I could not possible be argued with because I was a Jew. This was an interesting intellectual experience. I am a very good argumentalist (and I am making this word up if it does not exist already). So, when I entered a conversation on politics, or religion, or something as pedestrian as arguing about potholes and why the municipality did not fix them, somewhere along the argument, after failing to convince me and fearing I would convince them, they would say that I thought differently because I was Jewish. Mind you that Jewish here was not meant as an insult or even as a religion, but as a culture and way of thinking - A bigoted assumption in addition of being wrong. Again, I was reminded that I was not one of them, I was not a Colombian.

But if I was not a Colombian, what was I? I was Jewish. But being Jewish was not equivalent to being a Colombian and should have not been incompatible with it. I was missing something. What?

When I finished medical school, I immigrated to the United States to pursue graduate studies at Princeton. I already knew that I was not returning to Colombia. My sister had attempted to return to Colombia to teach and do research at the university. She had encountered every imaginable opposition. Not that the university did not want her, or that her colleagues did not like her, on the contrary. Rather, the government placed obstacles to importing the scientific equipment she needed. They even tried to prevent the acquisition of air conditioning for her laboratory. After three years she quit and immigrated to America to teach at Cornell, her alma matter. So I was basing my decision on learned experience, I also knew that I would always be looked upon as "different". So I self-imposed my own exile from the land of mañana.

Princeton was a great experience. It not only was my first point of contact with my new nation, but it also offered me a great postgraduate education. Nonetheless, I also had a minor rub with my Jewishness. One of the most famous professors in the Psychology Department, the man that autographed for me his book, The Human Senses: "To Saul who makes good sense of his senses", could not bring himself to refer to Israel as Israel, he called it Palestine, and this during the 1967 war! So I realized that my new country, at least in this respect, was probably not different to my old country.

The following years offered to me possibilities that were unimaginable. After all, this indeed was the country of opportunities. But once in a while I got a whiff at the old anti-Semitism. In fact, I lost my job as a Neurosurgeon at a famous clinic because I was a Jew. They had hired me probably as a token Latino or Hispanic, making the mistake to assume that people from South America were Catholic, and not realizing that a small fraction, less than half a per cent, were Jewish.

Looking back at things and events, it is not even the cloaked anti-Semitism that has bothered me through all these years. It was something deeper. Standing in the present I would look at the past. But not at my past, but my parents past. The landscapes I saw were not the landscapes of my youth but of their youth. It was not me in my city that I saw, but them in their village. I was not even looking, but rather sensing. It was not a sensory memory but rather, a sensual memory, an emotional memory. My Jewish feet were walking on the mud of the stetl streets in Besarabia. I was smelling the garlic and onions as their mother and then my mother used to cook with. What touched me, was not the present in my new country but my past in a country I never lived in, a country that my parents despised. Kletzmer music rings in my ears and yet I never heard the groups my parents told me about. Yiddish theater was deep in my veins and I don't speak Yiddish. And that, if you can imagine, is really an experience.

During my youth I went to Temple, often on Friday nights, but definitely on High Holidays. Then, for years my wife and I did not go to Temple. When we finally decided to go, we did not feel comfortable. The service was mostly in English with some Hebrew interspersed. We do not know Hebrew and yet we felt somewhat betrayed that the service was in English. The melodies that I listened to in my childhood resonated in my head and were dissonant with the melodies sung in my adoptive country. Gone was that minor key and ancient cry to God. The translations of the Hebrew text were so politically correct that they lost part of the original message. So I, who hardly understand Hebrew, am missing a more conservative approach to religion. Not to say that I would be satisfied with an all Hebrew religious service -an apparent contradiction.

Well, here I am, a Jew, living amidst the second largest Jewish population in the world. And yet, my fears are not the same than the fears of most American born Jews. My longings are different. Israel is not the same, does not mean the same for me and for them. American Jews tend to be pragmatic and incapable to comprehend the real geographical size of Israel. To add salt to the wound, American Jews tend to think that peoples in other parts of the world and of other cultures, think and can be reasoned with like if they were Americans. This creates a deep gap between me and those that surround me. Americans see Israel as another country. I see Israel like a magical kingdom. In general American Jews see Israeli earth as the substrate to grow fruit trees or build tenements, I see that same earth as a silent witness to all my history.

America has been a great country to live in these last few decades of my life and I anticipate that it will remain my home for the last years of my life as well. But I am not perceived by others as an equal. There is always a distinction between me and them, be it Jew or not. Unlike any kid growing up in this magnificent country of almost infinite opportunities, I can not even aspire to be President.

So, in the final analysis, I can say that I am not a religious Jew, I am not fully accepted by Colombians as a Colombian, I am not perceived fully as an American, I am not a Holocaust survivor so I can not be a witness to the horrors of anti-Semitism. When I feel deeply the pain of Holocaust victims I am perceived as some kind of weirdo. Because I see the differences between me and others so well defined, I feel like a plant grown in water. And like a tomato grown in water I have extensive roots, but no ground to grow them into. I am not an Israeli. In the eyes of some orthodox Jew I am probably not even a Jew, given all the sins and transgressions I have committed against the commandments of our Torah. I am also not discontent with my position. I would not know how to live otherwise. I just feel a little bit sad. Now, for what I am, that is an altogether other matter.

 

THE HOLOCAUST: INSIGHTS OR MADNESS 
February 2003

This morning I asked myself what possible qualifications do I have to dare write about the Holocaust. I was born thousands of miles away from the European Theater in a land that some may describe as paradisiacal. My early memories involve feeling lukewarm gentle breezes upon my face. I had parents that loved me until the very moment of their deaths when I was already an adult and years after they had molded me. Neither them nor I had ever been political prisoners.

If I were a survivor from a death camp in Poland no one would question my qualifications, even if I had been a toddler at the time. But here I am, writing these first words on a topic as horrible and sad as can be.

My parents had the foresight or the good fortune to realize that Romania, in the early nineteen-thirties was not a country propitious for Jews. From stetls in northeastern Romania they moved until they arrived to Colombia. When I asked why Colombia? They replied, because uncle Manuel (Meier) was there. But there never was any good answer as to why uncle Manuel ended up in Colombia. In any event, the earliest migration of any member of my family to any South American country had occurred within five years of that of my parents. So they were spared the Holocaust. In reviewing historical events, I found that nothing was left of their little villages, only the names carved in stone at Yad-Vashem in Jerusalem.

My first memories are of me and my father’s father walking a few blocks to the outskirts of town and standing under the shade of a tree while my grandfather pulled out an onion wrapped in newspaper from his coat pocket, carefully salted it and then proceeded to eat it with delicious crunching bites. He looked identical to all those Jews I later saw in photographs from the Holocaust period, being trucked away from their homes to never again be seen alive.

I knew nothing about the Holocaust. Although I distinctly remember that my parents could not refer to anything German without following it with some derogatory insult, I did not know why. Then, perhaps when I was 3 or four years old, I found out. I had a friend who had a swing and fruit trees in his front yard. There I spent many an afternoon playing along with one of his cousins. She had a deformed body that required her to wear a chest-neck brace. I can not associate any negative memories to those afternoons that I would spend with her. Then, one day, she died. This time, my questions could not go unanswered. She had survived a concentration camp and after the war the family had immigrated to Colombia. She suffered of tuberculosis of the spine or of some developmental-nutritional deformity of the spine. Her rib cage was so constrictive that she could not breathe well. She probably died from pneumonia.

In close proximity to her death, perhaps a year or two later, Menachem Begin visited our home. The British had a price on his head I was told, proudly, by my father who at the time was the president of the Jewish community in Cali. He was collecting money for the defense of Israel. I remember Begin as a small man, with a dark, bushy moustache, savage black hair partially combed back, and an intense aura. I became aware of my Jewish identity.

As I grew up, I was permitted to go out alone on my own. My universe consisted of a two hundred-meter radius within which all my friends lived. All were Jews like I was, except for two brothers who were Catholic. I went to a Jewish grammar school were all my eight classmates were Jewish. I remember being called a "Jew Dog [Perro Judio]" by my two Catholic friends when we had children’s disagreements. It never went further than that. Before I was ten years old I was aware that Jews were not welcomed in certain social clubs. During the first five years of my live I lived one block away from the "Club Colombia". At that age I was not aware that my parents were not welcomed into its hallowed halls.

My parents considered my education above all politically correct social rules, so when it came time to enter high school they pulled me out of the Hebrew School and they matriculated me in the best high school in Cali: Colegio Santa Librada. I was now one of five Jews among a thousand students. I was never discriminated against by my professors, but I was excused from taking a class on religion; my arguments were too controversial. During those years I remember that whenever I got involved in an intellectual discussion of socio-politico-religious nature, I would be cut short or dismissed by the sentence; "oh, but you are Jewish". This continued into medical school.

When I was about fourteen years old, I had established a solid friendship with two Catholic girls who lived on my way home as I returned from high school, two blocks from the bus stop. They were beautiful, rich and exotic. We chatted for about an hour every school day for several years. One day, one of them, Gloria, called me to the side and began looking at me suspiciously. Finally, she asked me to show her my forehead. That week, the nuns at her high school, had taught them that Jews have deep seated eyes (so that they can look out without being seen), and horns, which they shave and cover, cleverly, with their hair, and tails that they managed to hide under the pants. I did not need to take my pants off, it surprised her to find no trace of horns on my forehead.

During my years in medical school, I served hundreds of pediatric patients suffering from diarrhea and malnutrition. Their mothers would bring them to the emergency room when the babies refused to eat anymore. I saw the prominent heads and dried up bodies with the bones pulling on the dried skin, and the eyes, always large, open and dried, looking without seeing, crusted with dry mucus and the white dust residue of tears. I realized then that these children looked identical to the children and adults that populated concentration camps in Europe during the Holocaust. Suddenly, what I had seen only in pictures, became a vivid image. Even more, I could touch them, I could smell them and hear their weak complains and shallow breathing.

In later years, as a practicing neurosurgeon, I had the privilege of helping many people, but I also had the awesome responsibility of seeing death face to face. I had to tell patients and their families that they were very ill and that they were going to die. I saw their eyes reacting to my news, I saw the hope, the desperation, the anger, the despair and finally the acceptance, all within seconds. I realized that if I had been there, in Poland and Germany and Lithuania and France and in all those European countries at the time Jews were confronted with their final destiny, I would have seen those same eyes.

Yes, I have studied the Holocaust. I have seen hundreds of photographs of the perpetrators and of their victims. I have read books and documents and stories. I have heard survivors recollecting their memories. All these, make me an informed person vis-à vis the Holocaust. As an artist and a poet I have also dared to go back in time, to transport myself as an invisible, impotent witness and feel horrible pain and sadness for hundreds of hours as I explore the Holocaust in search of an impossible, unfathomable event. There is not a day that I do not think of the Holocaust.

During the opening nights of exhibitions of my paintings and poems inspired by the Holocaust at Holocaust Museums throughout the nation, I am asked to speak for about an hour. I read my poems. At the end of my reading, often people asked me if I believe in God and how do I explain the Holocaust within that framework. I have always answered with a side brush, or by admitting that I do believe in a God even if he did permit the Holocaust to happen. This kind of answer has never left me satisfied.

I decided to sit quietly in my studio and ask myself that question: is there a God and how did he permit the Holocaust?

It is curious the way God may confirm his presence to us. No major miracles for me. I was never given the benefit of watching the sea part for me, nor I can say that my life and any of its achievements, if one can call them that, came easy. Even though I was given a Jewish education that should have imparted on me a religious foothold, I was always a doubter and a thinker. Sure, whenever I was in need I prayed to God for a favor, but this hardly qualifies for experiencing God’s presence. Sitting quietly, I am free to introspect. When, if ever, have I experienced God’s presence? Curious how the mind works. When I asked this question, I am bombarded by several memories that can be catalogued into distinctive headings: nature, old people and dogs.

Nature surrounds each and every one of us. But in a few occasions, its awesome beauty can bring God close to us. For me, certain landscapes, mostly of rolling hills with a brook and a certain illumination can be of such intensity, of such soft power, that I feel I am not alone. I have been only once a witness of something out of the ordinary as it concerns natural phenomena. One night, in my Tesuque home, my wife and I were getting ready to retire. As always, we took the dogs out for their last evening nature call. It was a cloudy autumn night, chilly and without stars. As we walked up the long driveway, the mountain was half truncated by the clouds. All was silent. Then, slowly, a finger of cloud descended from the sky. It was conical in shape, about ten feet across in its narrowest point. It kept reaching farther and farther down and it finally settled in the inner patio of our home. There was no wind, no sound, just a long finger of cloud nebula connecting our home to the sky. It remained there for as long as we stood there contemplating it. As I was looking at it, it occurred to me that a cloud just like the one I was watching could have guided Moses and his tribe. I also felt I was not alone.

Some of the most exasperating moments in my life have been spent as a victim of some old person. I am rushing somewhere and right in front of me, driving at twenty miles per hour I see a pair of knuckles holding the wheel of a car. There is nothing I can do but swallow my own acid and suffer. Jet, there also have been times, when old people have given me an unexpected present. I am pushing a shopping cart in a supermarket in the fresh produce section, when out of the corner of my eye something catches my interest. I turn my head and I see an old couple, with their oversized clothing and their wrinkled necks jutting out of their collars. He is holding onto the cart, and at that very moment I see her straitening his jacket collar while she looks at him with eyes that express pure love and tenderness. I felt there was a saintly halo surrounding such a simple act. I felt touched by some pure entity and I felt God’s presence. Our culture has relegated old people to the category of inconveniences, of Medicare loads. But ancient cultures, even as far as recent as our parents and their parents, thought that old people were to be respected. Why?

We adopted two dogs. Our own dog, the one we had raised since a puppy, had been murdered by a driver with enough gas but not enough brains. For six months we felt sad and empty. Then, we decided to adopt two Rottweilers. The male weighing one hundred and sixty five pounds and the female ninety-five. We flew to Michigan with tickets paid by friends of the Rottweiler’s Rescue. We brought the dogs home in a one-way rented car. The two dogs live with us in our mountain retreat and partake of most of our activities. What they mostly do though, is follow us from room to room as we go about our daily living. The male sits or lies down by my side, the female by my wife’s side. Periodically, they call us to caress them. Periodically they come to us to caress us. Their lives are completely and totally dedicated to being tender. Their large brown eyes reflect softness and love. There is not an ounce of evil in them. Being surrounded by them makes me feel that there is an essence of pure goodness, and I can not help but to think of God.

As I was thinking about the Holocaust, I was reminded that before I tackle such a big issue, I better look first into smaller events. The Talmud says that he who saves a live is like if he had saved a world. There is great wisdom in this dictum. But if it is so, then the converse must also be so: he who kills a man is like if he had killed a world. Even though one of the Ten Commandments speaks of not killing our fellow men, Society by in large, has delegated the act of killing to a minor, self-limiting crime, often with extenuating circumstances. It has gotten so bad, we have gotten so desensitized to murder, that we have created a series of adjectives to better describe a murder so that the criminal may be punished accordingly. We talk of a heinous crime. For a while this did the trick. But lately, we have been toiling with the concept of a "hate crime". This latter category encompasses the really bad crimes, as opposed to those other murders. But if we stop and think for a moment, a kill, the taking of a human’s life, constitutes a terminal act. The victim will never be able to express his or hers passions, emotions, wants. Never will be able to produce or create anything. And if this was not enough, think that the last moments of the victim’s life, that should have been the sweetest, are engulfed in pain, anxiety, fear.

Our reaction to a single murder should be one of a sense of total devastation, of total incredulity that such an act could have been committed. How could it be possible that it did happen? Isn’t there a God? But you see, save for the surviving loved ones of the murdered victim, no one else is questioning God. It is this lack of outrage that contains the answer to the question that I am asked about the Holocaust. It is us that permitted the Holocaust. It is us that permit any and every genocide on the face of this earth. And it is us, and only us that can stop it from ever occurring again.

 

HONEST ART
May, 2002
Here is a question that I have been asking lately. When is Art dishonest? Perhaps it was the Zeitgeist that compelled me to ask such a question, for lately I have been bombarded with many art shows, both in galleries and museums that share in common an archetypal title such as "From the far to the near: Blind visions of paregoric pragmatism". My initial impulse has been to disregard the entire exhibit, but, not wanting to appear troglodyte, biting my tongue, I have tried to decipher these titles. I figured that somewhere, hidden in those words, there is an important message that the artists or the curators of such shows want me, the viewer, to comprehend. That is why they came up with these kind of titles in the first place. After many such instances, I have learned that often, with dictionary at hand, one can derive some meaning from those artsy titles. But then, with meaning in hand, I have visited the exhibit and to my surprise, there is nothing hanging on the wall, or crawling on the ground that relates in any way to the hidden message that I so diligently searched for in my New Collegiate. In fact, though feeling betrayed, I often decide to just look at the art contained within the exhibition space --thinking that given my intellectual flaws I am not capable of making the connection between exhibition title and it's contents that an obviously highly intelligent form has created -- and again find myself at a loss. For very often, there is no connection that I can gather, among the various pieces hung. So I leave the gallery/museum with some feeling that somewhere along, when cells were actively dividing inside my mother's womb, serious divisional errors occurred during the formation of my telencephalon, resulting in my inability to appreciate the show I leave behind. The situation is further aggravated when I meet, later on, some acquaintances that have enjoyed thoroughly the show. Their faces are swollen with divine grace, no doubt achieved at the exhibit. This really makes me mad, so I begin questioning them. At first, unaccustomed to being questioned, they looked at me beatifically, proceeding to imply that I had not "comprehended" the artists' or curators' motives. But when I pursue, relentlessly, questioning them often found that they are people seriously ill. They have been infected with that, practically fatal, neurotropic virus that makes people see clothing where there is none, especially the emperor's. Will we see again during our lifetime exhibitions that promise us that inside those walls will be oranges, and that indeed we'll find oranges hanging from the walls? Who knows? Perhaps a topic for another occasion.

-Saul Balagura-