Be the Light
With the furlough day, I had some sorely needed time to myself. I started my day at the National Museum of Mexican Art, partly because I hadn’t been in over 7 years, and partially as a form of protest against America’s wall-building inclinations. Next up was the Ukrainian National Museum in West Town with a local artist gallery, memorial to the Holodomor (the Stalin induced famine which killed upwards of 10 million), and famous Chicagoans of Ukrainian descent. I finished off my museum spree with a visit to the National Cambodian Heritage Museum. I listened to the horrors of Pol Pot and the unspeakable national trauma endured between 1975 and 1979, in which it lost a quarter of its population. Each of the museums spoke to the massive amount of collective pain and suffering embedded within the national psyche through conquest, famine, war, servitude, and forced relocation. Although decided purely on a whim, on paper I could have not chosen a worse group of museums for cheering up my battered spirit.
And yet, their story wasn’t of defeat. Mexican art has a wholly unique way of reimagining death. Death wears costumes, dances, and emboldens the living. Ukraine has never lost its sense of identity or patriotism despite centuries of Russian and Soviet domination and subordination. In Chicago, they have created a vibrant community with some of the most beautiful churches to be found anywhere. And the Cambodians have likewise carved out an identity far from the tropical Mekong Delta. Through museums, these stories are saved. We record the historical memory to honor those who’ve died and those who’ve rebuilt a society fractured almost beyond repair.
At the Cambodian Museum, my guide was a young woman from Cambodia who came to Iowa for college, and relocated to Chicago post graduation. Her life’s work is keeping traditional Cambodian music alive, having begun her training from a Phnom Penh master at age 12. Every Saturday she teaches youth to play multiple instruments and learn traditional melodies. Each Wednesday, she teaches ESL and frequently uses music in her instruction. She recounted that the Khmer Rouge would play music to hide shrieks from tortured victims and mask gunshots from killing squads. Music itself became synonymous with the depravity of an insane, homicidal regime. At first she could not get her elderly ESL students to sing. The music itself was too painful. Eventually though, the music morphed into happy memories of the pre-KR past and of their secure present in Chicago. As she summarized, “the same music that was used to kill, is now used to heal. The music is our legacy and our birth-right. No one can take our soul, if we don’t let them.”
I went to Shabbat service that night and was struck by the Torah portion. In the week’s text, the 9th Plague (darkness) has begun, and Moses is communicating the 10th Plague (death of the first born) to Pharaoh. The Midrash (commentary on the Torah) relays that the true plague was not darkness, but the inability of Egyptians to see each other. It was not physical darkness, but emotional and societal vacuity that left the Egyptians unable to recognize injustice and act upon it. Moreover, the 10th Plague is remarkable for its specificity, saying exactly when the wave of death will begin. With 9 plagues in the book, Pharaoh would have no reason to doubt Moses, and yet this detail is telling. The accuracy of language matters. Holocaust Remembrance that erases the lives of six million Jews and one million plus Roma matters. Calling something Anti-Semitic when we really mean Anti-Jewish, matters. Saying it isn’t a Muslim ban, when nearly every person coming from those seven countries is Muslim, matters.
Saturday morning, hatred literally smashed into the Jewish community of Chicago. The Chicago Loop Synagogue, where I’ve occasionally attended service was struck by a cowardly racist. The door glass was smashed, and swastika’s were affixed to the walls. I am hopeful this pathetic individual will be caught and brought to justice, forced to attone for his actions. However, I am more interested in how Chicago responds to an attack on an often vulnerable community. Will our Christian brothers and sisters offer to keep our Synagogues safe? Will our Muslim brothers and sisters share their solidarity as visibly seen in Victoria, Texas? Will our humanist cousins condemn the acts of toxic ideology? Are we like the Ukranians and Cambodians, willing to put in the hard and essential work to rebuild a fractured and divided society? Are we willing to be accurate and honest with our language, calling out wrongs when we see them? And are we willing to not be like Egyptians, blind to suffering and to each other’s humanity?