Jewish students at the State Gymnasium in Chelm, Poland, 1934. (Portrait of four Jewish girls posing with a Polish friend, on the far left. Left to right: Ewa Baliat, Henia Pojazd, Marysia Wilenka, and Kasia Harczuk),
A young scholar of Chelm, innocent in the ways of earthly matters, was
stunned one morning when his wife gave birth. Pell mell he ran to the
“Rabbi,” he blurted out, “an extraordinary thing has happened!
Please explain it to me. My wife has just given birth although we have
been married only three months! How can this be? Everyone knows it takes
nine months for a baby to be born!”
The rabbi, a world-renowned sage, put on his silver-rimmed
spectacles and furrowed his brow reflectively.
“My son,” he said, “I can see you haven’t the slightest idea about
such matters, nor can make the simplest calculation. Let me ask you:
Have you lived with your wife three months?”
“She has lived with you three months?”
“Together–have you lived three months?”
“What’s the total then–three months plus three plus three?”
Here’s a Chelm story I always think of when I drop a piece of toast:
“A young housewife living in the town of Chełm had a very strange occurence. One morning, after buttering a piece of bread she accidentally dropped it on the floor. To her amazement, it fell buttered side up. As everyone knows, whenever a buttered piece of bread is dropped on the floor, it always falls buttered side down; this is like a law of physics. But on this occasion it had fallen buttered side up, and this was a great mystery which had to be solved. So all the Rabbis and elders and wise men of Chełm were summoned together and they spent three days in the synagogue fasting and praying and debating this marvelous event among themselves. After those three days they returned to the young housewife with this answer:
‘Madam, the problem is that you have buttered the wrong side of the bread.’”
In Chełm, the shammes used to go around waking everyone up for minyan (communal prayer) in the morning. Every time it snowed, the people would complain that, although the snow was beautiful, they could not see it in its pristine state because by the time they got up in the morning, the shammes had already trekked through the snow. The townspeople decided that they had to find a way to be woken up for minyan without having the shammes making tracks in the snow.
The people of Chełm hit on a solution: they got four volunteers to carry the shammes around on a table when there was fresh snow in the morning. That way, the shammes could make his wake up calls, but he would not leave tracks in the snow.
The people of Chelm were worriers. So they called a meeting to do something about the problem of worry. A motion was duly made and seconded to the effect that Yossel, the cobbler, be retained by the community as a whole to do its worrying, and that his fee be one ruble per week.
The motion was about to carry, all speeches having been for the affirmative, when one sage propounded the fatal question: “If Yossel earned a ruble a week, what would he have to worry about?
Originally published on social media on January 26, 2013, in apropos of David Mamet’s essay “Gun Laws and the Fools of Chelm” in that week’s issue of Newsweek.
Republished whenever there is another gun massacre.
My death is not only inevitable, it is also imminent.
No, I have neither been diagnosed with a lethal ailment and given minutes to live, nor am I contemplating suicide once I am done putting this down. I merely mean that my life is a mere flash in the two million or so years in which humanity has walked the earth.
Seen in the perspective of that time frame, the end of my life is, in fact, coming very soon – whenever in my life it may choose to arrive. I might as well accept it.
I think about that whenever the topic of gun control comes up… especially when a Czar of American Letters™ like David Mamet picks up the quill to write a barn-burning opinion piece (like that on the cover of this week’s Newsweek) in which he insists that the right to bear arms is an essential component to society; both in that it insures protection against the corrupt depredations of an increasingly intrusive government, as well as in that it is an essential prophylactic against incivility. In Mamet’s philosophy, no one dares to be an aggressor in a society in which every man, woman, and child is given the inalienable right to carry guns.
In short: mutually assured destruction is the best insurance of our right to life. In the macro: should the government overstep, an armed populace will rise to pull it down. In the micro: if you kill, you will be killed.
Mamet’s argument is lucid, consistent, and takes its cues from his – and many other intelligent people’s – interpretation of the frame of reference and aims of the Founding Fathers. It does not surprise me that many whom I consider to be level-headed intellects feel as Mamet does: that an individual is the best and only person to decide how to defend themselves, and that, in this world, an individual can only properly accomplish that goal in possession of a firearm.
Still…reading Mamet’s piece, I could not help but be struck by the preening, hypermasculine worship of conflict implicit in his every sentence. The bedrock conviction that the natural state of humanity is ideological crisis which will erupt into violence at any moment is implicit in his thesis, as well as his beliefs about the role of government, and the individual, in society.
I suppose this should not come as a surprise from Mamet. His work, from the sacred, Glengarry Glen Ross, to the profane – his martial arts film Redbelt and his television series The Unit – range from what is essentially a Valentine to the poetry of emotional abuse to sustained explorations of the ability to enforce one’s mark in combat against aggressors in a world that is viciously opposed to mutual understanding.
To live in the world expressed by Mamet – and, to some degree, to live in the world of most who believe in the socially sanctioned ability to take a life when necessary – is to live in (to borrow and recontextualize a phrase from Carl Sagan) a “demon-haunted world.” It is a prison: a maze in which predators lurk behind every corner and meanness of the soul is either prime motivator or inevitable outcome.
The Founding Fathers must have believed in this world, being as they flagged the right to bear arms in a language as carefully considered as the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness… and, again, it makes situational sense: they had been oppressed by a totalitarian monarchy and were surrounded by natives who were – understandably – hostile to their genocidal designs on their ancestral homeland.
All of which raises the more important question: when does humanity evolve from the right to bear arms to the right not to?
The study of violence in television – a topic concomitant with issues relating to guns – has yielded a phrase which has bounced in my head since I first encountered it: “mean world syndrome.” The concept is simple: the depiction of violence in popular culture may or may not incite actual violence, but it almost certainly creates the indelible – and vastly exaggerated – impression in viewers that the world is a nasty, brutish place in which violence is not only an acceptable means by which to resolve conflict, but also a complete inevitability.
The belief in a mean world may be profitable for gun manufacturers, but I believe it is a cancer of the soul and an impediment to evolution.
Evolution is a difficult proposition, just as “Thou shalt not kill” is a difficult admonition to follow – especially when others want what you have and have no moral barriers to its acquisition. It is harder to reason than to kill, it is harder to compromise than to kill, it is harder to exercise empathy than to kill, it is harder to persuade, to forgive, to make a fearless moral inventory of our own wrongs, and to leave others to do the same and see the error of their own ways, than to kill.
It is – admittedly – harder to accomplish pretty much anything without the threat of a reckoning than it is to swing a big stick; and yet, over and over, since the evolution of consciousness, the prohibition of murder continues to be the central tenet of human spiritual and ethical growth. I believe this to be an evolutionary adaptation – a call across the eons telling us that the next step in our development as a species is collaboration and nonviolence.
In spiritual terms, the hard simplicity of the statement “Thou shalt not kill” makes its challenge frighteningly clear. It does not say, “Thou shalt not kill save for cases of home invasion” or “Thou shalt not kill except for when your way of life is being threatened by a formerly democratic government that has really gotten way too autocratic for its britches” and it sure as shekels doesn’t say, “Thou shalt not kill save for in the case of an organized state militia.”
For all the embellishments that human beings put in their spiritual traditions – usually designed to tell others how to live their lives in stultifying, homogeneous obedience and keep out undesirables – it is surprising how often the prohibition of murder shows up. The seeds of virtue are programmed to survive the death of the individual: “Thou shalt not kill” – in all of its forms, across secular and spiritual thought – keeps outliving people, democracies and dictatorships.
That is evolution at work.
Evolution is difficult and inconvenient to expediency. However, as I have been blessed with the luxury of living in what is – arguably – a democracy in which my participation is still allowed, of the opportunity to make a living in my chosen field, of a surfeit of creature comforts and technological expediency, of a preponderance of like-minded individuals who share my faith in God and my reliance on a number of societal systems designed to further my way of life – usually at the expense of others – I believe that I have a duty to make my life difficult in, at the very least, some minuscule but relevant way.
Chris Hedges famously titled one of his books “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning.” His argument is that both the perception and reality of never-ending battle instills in human beings a sense of purpose. As long as there is someone or something to oppose, the soul is filled with the comforting tonic of simplicity: don’t worry about empathy, reason, the truth that all humans are genetically identical, or the underlying unity of world religion and ethics, shoot to kill. Indulge your need for violent conquest and all the fuss and muss of worldly life becomes a distant memory. There’s an addictive satisfaction and perverse joy in that clarity.
The bearing of arms, and the perception of it as a right is – to me – a vestige of a primal addiction to violence, and the anodyne ease of a life led in Manichean opposition: an expression of the spirit-destroying contradiction that to be alive and free is to be on constant alert for coming war. To be armed is to never lose sight of the possibility that at any time we may be called upon to reassert our triumphant masculinity through the application of lethal force.
I believe that finding a way of life that does not automatically see in strangers the threat of extinction – that takes kindness, tolerance and collaboration as the first assumption of human coexistence – is both a Christian and Darwinian ideal: a natural continuation of the rise of consciousness. I refuse to be a walking deterrent – just as I refuse to be a talking inciter – of violence.
I believe that there is an evolutionary imperative – expressed across a majority of spiritual and secular traditions – for the prohibition of murder under any circumstance. I aspire to live in a society where fear of the other is not understood as the baseline, and feel duty-bound to that aspiration because the accident of my birth in the wealthiest and freest nation on the planet affords me the privilege to strive for that ideal.
I believe that the responsibility that accompanies the largely unearned rewards of my privilege – and that of almost every other American – is the exploration of a way of life in which that bounty is no longer earned through violence or exploitation.
I have made peace with the inevitability of my own death. Statistically, the greatest likelihood is that the end of my life will come as a result of heart disease brought about by the excessive consumption of processed foods.
Even in our gun-loving, violence-obsessed, perpetually-in-Defcon-1 United States of America, the possibility of my dying as a result of a violent incident involving firearms – even one involving terrorists carrying firearms – is lower than an automobile accident, plane crash, or lightning strike. So I will not carry a gun in expectation of the one-man war that my very way of life has already conspired to prevent.
I will use my freedom to employ words, actions, and ideas to convince others that to strap on a cold reminder of the ability to take life is not a freeing act, but a bondage to a way of life that must be stopped…
And if I’m shot by a terrorist, or a jackbooted foot-soldier of a totalitarian regime – or even a common criminal?
Or don’t. I won’t care. I’ll be dead… and the life of my killers, and whatever they stood for that was so important that it required my extinction, will end just as quickly, cosmically speaking, as mine.
I refuse my right to bear arms because I prefer to advocate for my right not to.
I refuse my right to bear arms because I believe that to be the truest expression of the privilege for which so many have killed and died.
I refuse my right to bear arms because I believe that Gandhi, Einstein, Sagan, Jesus, Buddha – and even Ayn Rand, whose words I’ll quote as a credibility-destroying concession to a young adulthood misspent re-reading Atlas Shrugged – agreed on one thing:
“Force and mind are opposites; morality ends where a gun begins.”
November 22 1918, Lviv–In late October and early November, Austria-Hungary completely broke apart, as each of her subject nationalities declared independence (and/or sought union with nearby countries). In many cases, however, the borders between the new countries were far from obvious. On November 1, Ukrainian troops seized control of Lviv, declaring a West Ukrainian People’s Republic. Lviv itself, however, was a predominantly Polish city (which they called Lwów), though surrounded by mostly-Ukrainian countryside. Tensions between the Ukrainians and the Poles were already running high after the (smaller) Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Ukraine in February, which had given Chelm to Ukraine.
Fighting soon broke out between the Ukrainian troops and the local Polish population. The Poles soon received support from the rest of newly-independent Poland (now under Piłsudski’s leadership), and by November 22 they had forced the Ukrainians out of Lviv. Reprisals quickly began against not only any remaining Ukrainians, but also against the Jewish population as well, as had so often happened before. They had attempted to remain strictly neutral during the fighting, defending their own quarter with their own militias, but this only incurred the ire of the victorious Poles. Over the course of three days, the Poles plundered and ransacked the Jewish quarter, killing at least 73 Jews and raping, wounding, or leaving homeless many others.
The news of the pogrom was widely publicized in the West, in large part due to German efforts–they hoped for a potential backlash against the Poles that would help their cause at the peace conference to come. An American visiting the city the next year was told:
You see those little holes? We call them here “Wilson’s Points.” They have been made with machine guns; the big gaps have been made with hand grenades. We are now engaged in self-determination, and God knows what and when the end will be.
Further east, the rest of Ukraine was still nominally under the control of Hetman Skoropadskyi, though his position had become extremely insecure once the German occupying forces began their evacuation on November 16. Fighting had already broken out between left-wing groups seeking a restoration of the Rada and the few forces still loyal to Skoropadskyi.
A young scholar of Chelm, innocent in the ways of earthly matters, was stunned one morning when his wife gave birth. Pell mell he ran to the rabbi.
“Rabbi,” he blurted out, “an extraordinary thing has happened! Please explain it to me. My wife has just given birth although we have been married only three months! How can this be? Everyone knows it takes nine months for a baby to be born!”
The rabbi, a world-renowned sage, put on his silver-rimmed spectacles and furrowed his brow reflectively.
“My son,” he said, “I can see you haven’t the slightest idea about such matters, nor can make the simplest calculation. Let me ask you: Have you lived with your wife three months?”
“She has lived with you three months?”
“Together–have you lived three months?”
“What’s the total then–three months plus three plus three?”
Today is the beginning of May, the Jewish American Heritage Month, and it’s also May Day, which in some countries is a celebration of workers and labor activism. In honor of these two days, I’m going to introduce you to some of my favorite Jewish American women activists.
(L-R: Clara Lemlich, Rose Schneiderman, and Pauline Newman; bottom: The Uprising of 20,000, a strike organized by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, which all three women were involved in)
Clara Lemlich (1886-1982) Lemlich was born in the Ukraine. As a child, she secretly ran errands and wrote letters for her neighbors in order to earn money for Russian books, against her parents’ wishes. She became a Socialist while in the Ukraine, and moved to the United States with her family following a 1903 pogram in Kishinev. In New York, she worked in the garment industry and was elected to the ILGWU executive board at the age of 22.
Lemlich was known for her bravery. Famously, in 1909 gangsters attacked picketers and broke three of her ribs. She remained on the picket line. Later that same year, when (male) leaders of the socialist movement spent most of a meeting speaking about general actions that should be taken, Lemlich was lifted onto the stage by her fellow female workers, where she pledged herself to the movement and rallied the crowd into immediately approving a motion to strike. This strike became the Uprising of the 20,000.
Because of her union activities, Lemlich was blacklisted from the garment industry. She worked for suffrage, although she frequently clashed with upper-class suffragettes and preferred to work with other working-class women. She married in 1913 and was a mother of three, and frequently organized housewives to her various causes. She worked for the Communist Party, the United Council of Working Class Women, the Emma Lazarus Federation of Jewish Women’s Clubs, the Unemployed Councils, and allied with Sojourners for Truth. Her final social campaign was waged from the Jewish Home for the Aged, in LA, where she persuaded the management of the Home to join the United Farm Workers’ boycott and assisted farmers in their organizing. She was then in her mid-eighties, and she died at the age of 96.
Rose Schneiderman (1882-1972) Schneiderman was born in Russian Poland, just north of the city of Chelm. Her parents sent her to cheder, against tradition, when she was a child. When she was eight years old her family immigrated to the United States, and she was forced to drop out of school at age thirteen in order to support her family. She was a capmaker, and she quickly became involved in the union movement.
Standing at 4 feet, 9 inches tall, with flaming red hair, Schneiderman was famous for her passionate speeches, which she delivered across the country, daily, on street corners and in lecture halls, in English as well as Yiddish. Two of her most famous speeches were her August 2, 1911 address in which, following the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, she lambasted middle and upper class feminists for failing to prioritize labor activism, and a 1912 speech in which she declared that “What the woman who labors wants is the right to live, not simply exist–the right to life as the rich woman has the right to life, and the sun and music and art. You have nothing that the humblest worker has not a right to have also. The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.” This last line became a popular slogan and protest song.
Schneiderman was president of the Women’s Trade Union League, worked with the ILGUW, helped found the American Civil Liberties Union, and in 1920 launched an unsuccessful campaign for the Senate on the Labor Party ticket. She became close with the Roosevelts and helped to shape New Deal labor legislation, and in the 30s and 40s she also worked tirelessly in an attempt to bring Jewish refugees from Europe to the United States. Albert Einsteen wrote in praise of her, saying “It must be a source of deep gratification to you to be making so important a contribution to rescuing our persecuted fellow Jews from their calamitous peril…We have no other means of self-defense than our solidarity.”
Schneiderman was in a long-term relationship with fellow WTUL activist Maud Swartz for over twenty years, until Swartz’s death in 1937. Schneiderman herself continued to live in New York City her entire life, until her own death in 1972 at the age of 90.
Pauline Newman (1887-1986) Newman was born in Lithuania. As a child she persuaded her father, a teacher at a cheder, to sit in on her classes, which was the only way she could learn to read and write. She learned Hebrew and Yiddish. At the age of nine, following her father’s death, the family moved to New York and Newman began working in the factory. She worked at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, where she became a socialist at the age of fifteen. She was twenty when she lead her first rent strike in 1908, and a year later she organized 40,000 in a labor strike, which at the time was the largest strike ever organized by American women.
Newman worked with the ILGWU, the WTUL, and the Factory Investigation Commission, and although she never lost her skill for street-level organizing, she was also a skilled lobbyist. She also became the director of the ILGWU’s Union Health Center, the first of its kind, and served in that position for sixty years. Like Schneiderman, she worked for women’s suffrage and with the Roosevelts concerning labor legislation.
Newman was famous for wearing her hair short and often wearing men’s clothes, unlike her more reserved colleagues. She met Frieda Miller, an instructor at Bryn Mawr, in 1918, and wrote a letter to Schneiderman expressing her admiration but ambivalence about whether she should pursue the relationships; Schneiderman, who confessed that she herself was often uncertain about her own romantic life, urged Newman to “grasp at the possibility of joy.” Newman and Miller lived together publicly from 1923 to Miller’s death in 1974. Newman herself passed away in 1986 at the age of 98.
June 19 1916, Nancy–While the Germans had targeted Paris and London multiple times from the air, Berlin, far removed from the front lines, had so far been isolated from any Allied air activity. This changed on the night of June 19, when Lt. Anselme Marchal took off in a specially modified Nieuport monoplane from Nancy in Lorraine. Given the distances involved, an attack on Berlin was impossible, but he brought with him 5000 leaflets, excoriating the Hohenzollerns and the Habsburgs for their role in starting the war, which he dropped onto the surprised population of Berlin in the early hours of June 20. They read, in part:
We could bomb the open city of Berlin and kill women and children, but we will simply make the following proclamation to the people: From the French airmen to the people of Berlin; you are fighting for your bloodthirsty kings, and for your Junkers…We fight for the freedom of all people, against the tyranny of a military caste; we want a massacre like the one we are witnessing to become impossible forever.
Returning back to France was impossible given the winds and limited fuel, but Marchal hoped to make it to the Russian lines, before returning to France via another raid on Vienna. However, a spark plug failure forced him to land near Chelm, in Austrian-occupied Poland, where he was captured by the Austrians. Given Russia’s recent advances in the Brusilov offensive, this was under 100 miles from the Russian lines near Lutsk, after a flight of more than 800 miles. He would remain a prisoner in Austria and Germany until 1918.
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Dear reader, I write to you now from the Indian Visa Processing center.
Not any more, because I actually wasn’t allowed to use my laptop in the Processing Center. Now I am in my bed two days later and still not done applying for a visa to go to India, and maybe going to cry about it. Tonight marks the fifth time I have filled out this application form. I have been into the office twice. I don’t know how anyone of only average intelligence, figures this out. I don’t know how I have managed to mess this up so many times. I think I am being gas-lit by the Indian High Commissioner.
On the first day that I tried to apply for a visa, the consulate’s website crashed, and I could not. Applications must be filled out through an online form and then brought to the processing center in hard copy.
On the second day that I tried to apply for a visa I filled out the form and printed it and went to the Processing Center with Sanje and Miyuru, who work at the Solidarity Center and are also going on this trip to India and Nepal to follow up with participants in the Domestic Workers Workshop and meeting with USAID in each country. Their applications went just fine, but because I’m a US citizen, the agent helping us told me I had to fill out another “fax form” for a fee, so, fine, I did. After I filled that out I was informed that I needed to apply for a six-month visa if I wanted double entry (I had asked for one month, given this was a ten day trip,) and I didn’t put ALL PORTS down as my port of exit, so my application was no good. Note at this point that, although this form was filled out electronically, the office deals with the hard copy, so you cannot take advantage of the electronic format to correct things like that on the spot. Neither can you just write over the hard copy, although that’s apparently what they use. No, you must start over. I also ask of the universe, why this online form does not block applicants from requesting apparently impossible things, like a one month visa with double entry (which is obviously impossible, right?)
The office stops taking applications at 2:00pm, and it was about 1:00pm, so Sanje and Miyuru and I raced around Colombo looking for an internet café, which we found in the corner of the basement of a mall. I filled out the form again and then, as I was trying to print it, Adobe reader froze and I couldn’t recover the document. It was 1:45, no time to start again and submit before 2:00.
On the third day that I tried to apply for a visa I went back to the Processing Center with a fresh application, which was turned away by the woman doing preliminary scans in front because my “present address” was not my Sri Lankan address. No one had said anything about that the last time. But, okay, I was directed to a little shop across the street where two women sit at computers and fill out the online form for people who have been turned away all day. One of them filled out my form and it didn’t take too long, and I was glad because I thought that this lady does this all day and the group before me had also had US passports, so my form must be done right this time. Alas.
Anyway, I turned in the form and it seemed fine and I was told to call the High Commissioner to ask if my application could be expedited. Tuesday was Eid, so the Indian Embassy was off work, leaving only three working days between Monday and Friday, when I need the visa (that bird has flown, by the way, now I’m just hoping to get one at all and catch up with everyone else two days later.) When I got back to the Solidarity Center I called. The person who answered said,
“No we cannot do anything! They just keep telling people to call us because they don’t want to deal with them!” At which point Charito tried to coach me in being assertive, and then called herself, but to no avail.
There are intervening steps, but they all lead to tonight, when I called the office that processes applications for the Indian Consulate in San Francisco, which is apparently the place that needs to approve my application (the first time I called them they told me to talk to the Processing Center here. Hah.) But my application is nowhere to be found online. Why? Because when I filled out my application, at the very top of the form, there was a dropdown menu that said “Select a Mission,” and I chose the Indian mission in Colombo, because that is where I am and the Visa Processing Center, according to my understanding, is kind of an extension of their office. Makes sense, right? I thought so, and you know who else did? First, the online form itself, which allowed every mission in the world as options although you must pick one in the country where you are a citizen, I’ve learned. Why were the options not filtered? The website that I read application instructions off of also did not mention this part of the application, apparently finding it self-evident. The two separate guys and two separate reception women who looked at my application also did not take issue with this selection. And lastly, the last time I made this selection, I didn’t even do it, the woman who literally completes these for a living did. But apparently I should have listed the consulate closest to where I live in the US. So now my application starts with LK instead of USA, which apparently makes it defunct. Did I get any kind of notification about this? Nah.
So I have emailed a copy of the new application I just filled out to the address that the person on the phone told me to send it to, and I have no idea what happens next. I’m hoping for the best, I really want to go on this trip. I’m also mentally preparing to just kill time in Colombo for 10 days, though.
Just minutes ago, I was talking to Jasmine on facebook and she was complaining about a problem at her internship where she ended up on the phone with half of Chicago just trying to find out if and when a certain online article made it into the print version of a local paper. I said that sounded like a Chelm experience (no, Jasmine did not know what that meant, though she sometimes considers herself an honorary Jew by association, so it was time she learned.) Chelm is an appropriate analogy for a lot of situations in life, so that’s a reference I use shockingly often. However, I think of Chelm as sort of silly and benevolent, and I’m not sure this situation really deserves the comparison. But as I then took my turn complaining to Jasmine about my visa strife she said, “that’s like Chelm on steroids.” I think I’ve read that steroids can make people angry and hostile, so, yeah. That works. This is definitely a longer post than my frustration over getting a visa (which, hopefully, I will at some point get) deserves, but it also seems appropriate, like a long meandering mass of text kind of performs the spirit of this venture. All the world is Chelm, they say, and this is Chelm on steroids.