Jena Schwartz: Things I have not said

Mohamed Hassan/via Pixabay—

Published: 04-11-2024 6:26 PM

I continue to be consumed by the Israel-Hamas war. I read, watch, write, pray, dream, agonize, and do my best to engage in intentional and nuanced conversations about it. And yet there remain things I have not said.

Or things I have said by omission.

Or things my silence has spoken. Or things I have swallowed like poisonous seeds, razor blades, punishments.

Or things I have feared naming, for to name something is to give it form and affirm its existence. Or things I have preferred to deny, making myself wrong instead. Or things too painful to look at, and a God who will not let me close my eyes for even a second.

Or things that once seen cannot be unseen and once spoken cannot be unspoken.

Better to waver, better to hover, than to land in language. Or things that may disappoint. Or things that may shatter a story of who they thought you were or who you thought you were or who you tried to be or who you never were to begin with.

Or things that are your story and the story of your people that you have distanced yourself from and danced with for decades, for centuries, for millennia.

Seen on Instagram: “If your love is not actively engaged in [the] freeing of all oppressed peoples, it is not the love for me” (Joél Limon). In my head: “Intention vs. impact — except for Jews.”

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Heard on TikTok: “Freedom by any means necessary.” In my head: “Hamas isn’t wrong.”

Queen Esther hid her identity, as my grandmother hid hers. The thing is, Grammy, I need to say the things. For you, it may be too Jewish. For those who love(d) me as an ally, I risk being the wrong kind of Jew.

I wanted nothing more than to repair the chain and repair the world. I wanted nothing more than to be a Jew in solidarity with oppressed peoples throughout the world. I wanted nothing more than to be out and proud.

I wanted nothing more than to align myself with those who have been scapegoated, subjugated, persecuted, and reviled and to subvert the dominant paradigms of a violent, patriarchal world. I wanted nothing more than to raise kids who would light Shabbos candles and take to the streets for justice.

I wanted nothing more.

And here I am, arms empty, mouth dry, standing in the stark reality that maybe none of this works, the alliances I claimed as my own do not claim me back unless I turn my back on Israel as a Jewish homeland, which I am unwilling to do.

This is not only epigenetic trauma, that is, cellular memory. This is present-day trauma.

I dream of the trauma of my cousins, the ones I have never met, the ones who are buried under rubble, the ones who cry out in anguish that could be, is, my own. My Jewish identity means I feel this pain, too. You don’t have to believe me.

My Jewish identity means I cannot hear calls for so-called liberation without shuddering if liberation means lies and resistance means rape and “from the river to the sea” means … what exactly?

And so I face a choice. Do I close up and hide? Do I speak from this place of all of the unspoken things? Do I risk being ostracized? Do I admit that it’s already happening and there is no point in standing in the doorway when I could just step outside and say, “Hineni — here I am”?

Do I dare tell my kids that if love must pass a purity test, it is not love at all, or do they need to find their way, as I did, as we each must, through this wilderness?

Hold fast, I want to call to them, to the tree of life, the sacred texts, the ancient teachings of our people. We are small and mighty, always trying to fit in, and yet we never quite do unless we’re the right kind of Jew. And even then, at the end of the day, will it matter?

But I don’t call.

I grapple quietly. I grapple out loud. I trust that those who can be with me here will stay, and those who can’t, won’t. And in this way, I will know who my people are, Jewish and not Jewish alike.

Jena Schwartz lives in Amherst.