Welcome home, Mom and Dad

Hey, welcome back. It’s been – what – almost 70 years! My God, the time flies. You’d think after all that time you’d hardly know the place. I guess that’s true, in a way. I mean, the big shopping centers in the Old Town, and on Dzirnava Street; nothing like that in your day. I know, I know, the city market; it’s still there, still huge and bustling, but in an organic way, like mushrooms and dandelions. These other places, well, you know them from America. Conceived and built from scratch by speculators long before anyone guessed they wanted them, and yet wildly successful, fulfilling God knows what lack. How could they be here, of all places?

I tried to find your old place on Ernestine Street – ridiculous, I know, since I don’t know the number. I did find a lovely little park, filled with trees and hillocks and children’s swings. I imagined you lived in one of the houses facing it, and watched your boys playing there.

What’s that? Oh, the graffiti. Ugly, isn’t it? Another import from outside. Partly copied from those Americans you never quite figured out, partly welled up from within during those cold grey years under the Dogma. I know, the people making it were never alive in that time, but cultures have a way of making hurt live on long after real grievances have gone extinct. My God, look at the Israelis and Palestinians, after 3000 years!

Still, there’s a lot you’d find familiar, I’ll bet. Just today, I was strolling in the Forest Park. You know the place, at the end of the trolley line, past all the cemeteries filled with the dead from wars and ordinary life. I’ll bet you’d find a few old friends in those places! A bit overgrown these days, at least in parts, and amidst a few soviet apartment buildings I guess would break your heart, covered with, yes, graffiti. I should have warned you. But at least the graves are well tended.

Near the canal by the Old Town, boys and girls still lay out their blankets on the grass, and give each other such joy as they can under the circumstances. Their soft laughter blends so well with sparrow’s songs, I can hardly tell the difference sometimes. I know you sat together here often; if I only knew the spot. You’d be shocked, though, to see how little they wear these warm summer days, not like the elegant suits and dresses of your day! Still, there might be a twinkle in your eyes. It is nearly midsummer – full breeding season here.

They still have those wooden boats, you know, to cruise out to the river in. I bought a straw hat just for the purpose. I wonder if you ever did.

Russian voices are everywhere. I doubt that would bother you. I still remember warm evenings of food, drink and fellowship with the Russians and Jews who came to share dinner with you when I was growing up. I never understood what you talked about, but it was grand, judging from the atmosphere.

There’s music everywhere, of course. I think you would have been shocked to find otherwise. I’m glad it took me this long to show you around. A few years ago, when I first came here, there were sour faces everywhere. Not so long before that ordinary people died in the streets for independence. The long gray shadow of the Soviet Union still cast its spell. Now, people seem to have forgotten how to be cynical, in spite of hard times lately. I mean, here’s a people who, despite centuries of conquest and exploitation kept their own language and culture, and sweet, cheerful demeanor. Okay, so maybe it’s because no one bothered to eradicate it. Still, it was there all along, invisible but strong. The last century was not the longest or worst period they’ve survived.

Did I tell you, there’s been a renaissance of tradition? That music I mentioned: yes,there’s the ubiquitous hip-hop, metal, and pop drivel, but rather a lot of traditional stuff as well. I doubt you’re surprised; music is music, as any Latvian will tell you. Today in Forest Park I passed an old man (Old! He was probably my age!) playing songs on the accordian I’ll bet you could sing along with. And in the Old Town, I saw a little girl, maybe 10 years old, playing a lap dulcimer and singing, with a beautiful clear voice, songs I heard from you, I believe even before I was born. The old religion is everywhere, much to the chagrin, I’m sure, of Christian sourpusses. But wasn’t it always like that? The old oaks and elms, the thunder and fortune, could always accommodate a god or two in excess.

Dad, don’t listen for awhile, I’m talking to Mom now. I know you were afraid you were going to hell. Personally, I doubt you’re anywhere other than in my heart. But if you are, it’s not hell. You knew the value of the old ways, you felt the pulse of gypsies beating in your heart. There is no god worthy of the name who couldn’t stand that, who couldn’t see the beauty and righteousness of it.

Dad, I have no way of knowing what horrors you passed through. I know you were a good man, and I know you never wavered in doing what you thought was best for us. I took me a long time to forgive you, longer still to forgive myself. At last, it’s done.

I can’t quite grasp what it was to see it all crumbling, to watch the poison seeping into such a rich well, to leave it all so utterly behind. Did you really think you’d ever come back?

Anyway, I’m so glad I could show you around the old place. I hope you enjoyed it.

Le Juif Errant

For the end of a week in remembrance of the Holocaust, I am offering up this post of mine from a couple of years ago.



Le Juif Errant, Chagall, 1925

When I was a boy, I developed an aversion to the art of Marc Chagall.  Why?  Because some of his work was used to illustrate a catechism we were tortured with in St. Philip Neri School.  I had no way of knowing at the time that St. Philip himself, a notorious iconoclast, would probably have flung the damned book out the window if we found it distracting.  After all, when one of his monks came rushing to him all aglow with the news that the Virgin Mary had visited with him while he prayed, he advised him to spit in her face the next time she disturbed his meditation.  Had I known, I might still be among the faithful, but there it is.

But I digress, as usual.  It’s what I do, isn’t it?  At any rate, as time went by, and the pain of extracting the religion from the boy, or vice versa (I’ll never know which), matured into a dull tingling sensation, I came to appreciate artistic trinkets like the Cathedral of Notre Dame and the Pietá without revisiting the centuries of pilloried self-worth it took to create them.  I came also to love Chagall, whose work I had so unreasonably imprisoned in the ghetto of my anti-religiousness.

I particularly came to love his 1925 painting Le Juif Errant, The Wandering Jew.  I saw myself in that character, his home bundled on his back, passing window lit houses with their cozy fires, on his way to his appointment with the Second Coming.  If you’re not familiar with the legend, it involves a Jew who berated Jesus on the way to the crucifixion for stopping to rest.  As punishment, he was condemned to wander homeless, and deathless, until the Jesus returned triumphantly.  Considering that early Christians thought that event was just around the corner, it must have seemed to them a curiously lenient punishment at the time!

Actually, the legend only came into full flower in the European Middle Ages, long after the alleged fact, so I suppose that’s irrelevant.  It dovetailed nicely with the social realities of Judaism in that time and place, Jews often being in commerce and other trades involving traveling, and culturally separate from the largely agrarian Christians.  Of course, these elements played a crucial role in antisemitism as well.  In a time when both the Catholic Church and Islam forbade money lending, and when capitalism was just being born, Jews were the only group religiously allowed to do the necessary midwifery.  Awkward, to say the least.

Anyway, it was this essential otherness that appealed to me.  I was born in a Displaced Persons (refugee) camp following WW II.  The land that would otherwise have been my homeland, Latvia, had been requisitioned in the name of the people by Stalin and his cronies, without much consultation with said people.  I had nowhere to call home.  My family eventually settled in the US, and now I’m as American as apple pie and, er,  sour cream, but I still harbor a feeling of not quite belonging, anywhere, really.  I’m not complaining.  The casual presumptuousness and giddy brutality with which social membership is often enforced more than offset the cozy warmth of it, in my view.  There’s a feeling of freedom, as well, in not holding yourself responsible for the original foundational sin of the prevailing system, whatever that may be.  The price, of course, is total responsibility for your own choices, but that’s a fair bargain.

Latvia, the sweet, imaginary homeland of my youthful dreams, never existed, of course.  In its brief experiment with independence between the World Wars, there was a tendency to authoritarianism, especially toward the end.  We’ll never know how that would have ended, thanks to Uncle Joe. Then there was the shameful massacre of the Jews at Salaspils and other places while the country was in the grip of  German Nazis.  Some, perhaps even many, Latvians, like the Vichy French, enthusiastically participated.

But things were not always thus.  A couple of years ago, I was wandering through what used to be the Jewish ghetto in Riga, now a sort of Russian quarter near the city market.  The ghetto was “cleaned out” toward the end of 1941, all the occupants trundled off to a nearby forest, and exterminated like so many cockroaches.  Turning a corner, I came upon a construction fence, and, sitting at a makeshift booth at the entrance, a young man with a bushy beard and a yarmulke.  It was the site of a new Latvian Holocaust Museum.  There were the expected photographs of Nazi atrocities, of course, but also the less expected evidence of mistreatment under the hands of the Soviets, who so often seem curiously off limits when discussing such things.  But what moved me the most were the stories and photographs of Latvia before the Nazis, before the Soviets, a country where Jews fleeing the progroms of czarist Russia could find a home.  Every major city in the country had a strong, proud Jewish heritage; Riga had one of the great yeshivas of Eastern Europe.  There was antisemitism, yes, but not as strong and not as institutionalized as elsewhere.  The nostalgic pictures of Jews during the inter-war independence years were especially moving, considering how all that came so cruelly to an end.

The Jewish population of Latvia was all but wiped out.  Even now, all these years later, it is still struggling to regain a footing.  As I see it, it’s a big chunk of my own cultural heritage, Jew or gentile, that’s been torn savagely off.  It’s genuinely heartbreaking.

Well, I’m not a Jew, so I guess I can’t be a Wandering Jew, my romantic imagery notwithstanding.  But we can travel together for a while and keep each other company.


No one understands the peasant.  Not the lords in their manor houses, not the bloody saviors of the masses, not all the bishops in hell.  Whether they think we need saving, scourging, stamping out, breeding, baptizing, arming, disarming, manipulating, controlling, or just crushing underfoot, none of them understands one simple truth: after they’ve burned and pillaged each others’ castles and cathedrals to the walls of Armageddon, we’ll still be here, not much the worse for the wear.  It’s what Jesus meant about the meek inheriting the Earth.  He wasn’t pontificating, just stating a simple fact.

Peasants belong to the Earth.  She is our mother, not in some New Age, crystal gawking way, but as an ordinary truth.  We’re more feral than not.  We sprang from the soil like autochthons; in the great divine arc of history, our job was to provide pillage.

We tend to be naive, and easily duped.  It’s not something that can be educated out of us.  It’s a genetic propensity to take others at face value, and we’re stuck with it.  You might argue that this is a fatal flaw, yet here we are, aren’t we, while all the bloody Ulyanovs, Romanovs, and Cromwells have long since mouldered away clutching their cleverness to their poisonous hearts.  We hate and fear, but never despise.  We love too easily.  It’s our greatest weakness.  It kills us every time.  It’s what saves us every time.

Religion tends to fall lightly on our shoulders; we’re not built for worship when  reverence will do.  We have churches, but woodlands and moors are more sacred to us than pews.  On those rare occasions when religion settles into a peasant’s heart, it is an ugly thing.  Rasputin, sure, but Stalin and Mao had the disease just as surely, albeit behind a mask of social theory.  Peasants tend to overdo power in general.  It’s just like us, isn’t it?  Rubes, at heart, in loud suits.

My homeland, Latvia, is as pure a peasantry as you’ll find anywhere.  The culture, the very language, exists only because the lords and saviors who plagued us over the centuries didn’t think it worth extinguishing.  Typically, when Latvia gets praise, as it recently did from the IMF for being a model of the kind of austerity Europe needs to pull out of the recession, it’s for taking its flogging well, without causing trouble.  All the more disheartening, then, to learn that the flogging was not only unnecessary, but only made things worse after all: the theory behind all the demands for economic austerity has just been shown to be based on flawed data.

Suckered again.