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to those who endure

by Judy
October 25, 2015

My first thought was, “OMG, how did that man survive?”

I had been reading about a deeply spiritual man called Hillel Zeitlin, a Jewish mystic, Yiddish and Hebrew writer, who attempted to ‘rejuvenate” Hasidism between the two world wars. He had a vision of a new Hasidic community that would be a crossroad between Hasidic mysticism and modernity. He lived from 1871-1942 mostly in Poland and died in the Warsaw ghetto. In the course of reading about him, I came upon the fact that his oldest son, Aaron Zeitlin, a Yiddish and Hebrew poet, journalist and playwright had gone to New York City on an invitation to help with a Yiddish theatre production right before the 1939 invasion of Poland and the beginning of World War II. He could not get back to Poland once the war started and his wife, two children, father and mother all perished in the holocaust and he, inadvertently, survived.

He ended up living in New York City, continued to write poetry in Yiddish and Hebrew, wrote for the Yiddish theatre and taught Hebrew literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

Immediately I felt such an empathy for this man whose loss was so tremendous. How did he survive? In a sense I will never know totally the answer but I did read that Aaron was haunted all his life by guilt by not having shared the fate of his people. The man who translated his poetry into English, Maurice Schwartz, said he spoke of himself “as a specter, a walking ghost, for whom life is only illusion. He was amazed that others could see him and relate to himself as a living person since he was certain that he was only a spectral presence.” Wow, I could imagine that happening when your whole family and extended family is killed and your whole way of life is destroyed. What an irreconcilable loss. I could imagine he must have felt like he was living in two realities – almost a schizophrenic existence, and at the same time he continued to write such moving, heart wrenching poetry and apparently did not lose his faith. At one point Schwartz says “Underlying all of his literary endeavors was Zeitlin’s strong sense of spiritual quest. He spoke of writing as a religious act.”

Of course his loss illuminated my own loss. Having recently lost the last member of my immediate family, my mom, and being so aware that now my mom, dad and dear brother were no more, I am distinctly cognizant how much they were/are a part of me. I am a fourth component of this family circle/ square which makes up part of who I am. Although I could be critical at times when young, more and more I am aware that it was a wholesome family - basically good and caring. And now I am alone and not alone.

It doesn’t diminish that loss, but the comparison with Aaron Zeitlin whose whole “life” was wiped out, stood in contrast. And that is only one man among so many who have had and have that experience to this day. It does give one a perspective for sure.

I also have no doubt that Aaron’s writing was a saving grace for him, a religious act. His poetry in particular all related to the Holocaust and to his faith. I’m sure the act of writing was important for “mending” his own soul as best he could but also as a testament to all those who perished.

Lately I have been thinking of my own writing as a spiritual practice and so again I feel a connection with this man. Writing is like a conversation between me and me and has a way of activating consciousness and putting me in a state of on-going communion with myself, with life, with a reaching for a higher way of seeing and in the end being. And it brings me in touch with a larger community – the greater human family – who all share in this life-death process.

For that I am grateful, so grateful to have this blog where I have committed myself, come “rain or shine” to write every two weeks. In a small way I also am paying homage in this essay to all those who endure and have endured such large dramatic losses, like Aaron Zeitlen, and like so many peoples past and present. And many of them did endure and in their own way give testament to the human spirit.

Poem by Aaron Zeitlin

Praise me, says God, and I will know that you love me.
Curse me, says God, and I will know that you love me.
Praise me or curse me
And I will know that you love me.

Sing out my graces, says God,
Raise your fist against me and revile, says God.
Sing out graces or revile,
Reviling is also a kind of praise,
says God.

But if you sit fenced off in your apathy,
says God,
If you sit entrenched in: "I don't give a hang," says God,
If you look at the stars and yawn,
If you see suffering and don't cry out,
If you don't praise and you don't revile,
Then I created you in vain, says God.


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