Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Lilith, the Uncanny

When I was asked to contribute an essay to the SFMOMA blog, Open Space, in conjunction with the exhibition Beyond Belief (which is being shown at the Contemporary Jewish Museum through October 27), they told me I could focus on any single artwork of my choosing. The exhibition includes iconic works by Mark Rothko, Wassily Kandinsky, Alberto Giacometti, and many other celebrated modern and contemporary artists, any of which would be compelling to linger on in detail. But for me, the choice was immediate. Around the corner of the very first gallery, you encounter a startling presence: you come eye to eye with a woman hanging upside-down. The uncanny presence of Lilith.

Uncanny is the right word for her: from the German unheimliche, uncanny means the opposite of what is familiar, the flipside of home. We use the term to describe something that is supernatural or eerie, but the root of it contains a duality--it connotes an object or experience that is both foreign and intimately recognizable at the same time. Dej√† vu can be an uncanny experience; we think "I've never been here before" but "somehow, I've been here before."

Lilith is like that, since she is not named in the biblical text of Genesis, but haunts our tradition nonetheless. Absent more than present, she is a great instance of how what is not said in the text can generate as many meanings as what is said.

She is also intrinsically Jewish--a combined product of scholarly exegesis and folkloric superstition. As Aviva Cantor Zuckoff put it in a seminal 1976 article reclaiming Lilith: "No non-Jewish source tells of a female struggle for equality or gives it as a reason for the vengeful behavior of a female demon. This is especially important to us in exploring how the Lilith myth connects with our unique history."

This coming Shabbat, the day after Simhat Torah, when we roll the Torah scroll back to the beginning, to begin the beginning again, we'll read Genesis 1, from which Lilith derives. All through Genesis, we are presented with alternate branches of the family tree--Lot, Ishmael, Esau--the other side of the family that is related to us, but is not us. As Adam's co-creation, woman before Eve, Lilith is the first instance of this concept of the road not taken, the shadowy counterpart, the unspoken alternative. 

Reading "In the beginning..." and "Let there be..." and "it was good..." all for the umpteenth time, can we not be lulled by the familiarity of the passage, but rather look at it from the perspective of the uncanny? Where is the shock of the strange? How can it be a signpost of forgotten possibilities? 

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Shiva: Being Present With Loss


I was twenty-eight years old when I attended my first shiva. I pulled up outside the house, a typical suburban house in Encino, now transformed, as though a giant neon arrow were blazing forth “House of Mourning!” or as if the figure of Death, in full noir regalia and holding a sickle, were poised on the roof like a Halloween decoration. I sat in my car a long time, trying to work up the nerve to go in. I couldn’t do it alone. Wasn’t I intruding on the intimate life of a family in their most vulnerable moment of loss? How should I behave? What could I possibly say?

The house belonged to the parents of my friend, Joel. His brother, Jordan, a shy, funny, recent graduate of dental school, with whom Joel had waged the most intense Scrabble showdowns I have ever seen—replete with chess timer and multiple 7-letter words—was the person who had died. He had committed suicide.

While the home was indeed a scene of unimaginable grief—Joel’s mother crying “my baby! my baby!”—the experience of shiva, both that night and for the several following that I persisted in attending, was nothing less than life changing. The house was full to overflowing with people. Platters of food balanced precariously on every available surface. The family, their eyes hollowed out by pain, were not expected in any way to host or to do anything to receive their guests. Joel seemed buoyed by the crowd, but when I hugged him, he was shaking with tears inside. Friends sat together for hours, talking and remembering Jordan, regretting his suffering as he struggled with depression, and laughing through tears at funny memories. It was transformative because it taught me that being present with people in their pain is not some caricature of utter darkness, it opens you to extremes of tenderness, love, rage—an all-embracing panorama of emotions. The whole cosmos in a tear.