Somewhat late in our mostly agnostic parenting my wife and I started casting about northern New Jersey for a suitable lefty progressive Jewish temple. We joined one; we figured our young daughters should both eventually have bat mitzvahs. During the pandemic, we began receiving mass emails from the temple’s young rabbis (both rabbis younger than I am—who could have imagined this?) inviting our family to join Zoom services and virtual support groups: an effort at congregating. That June, the temple began sending information about how we could join in mourning for George Floyd, through various virtual events and physical gatherings. May his memory be a blessing. The mixture of social justice and faith-based ritual made me feel good about choosing this place to provide our children with some Jewish education. But while I valued all the temple’s emailed invitations, the truth was we weren’t very active in the temple community, so I felt guilty, too, whenever a new announcement popped up in my inbox.
That summer by the Jersey Shore, two different humpback whales came unusually close to the beaches, seeking oily-fleshed fish called menhaden, a favorite food source. Apparently one of these whales was young and slim enough to slip into a river inlet, allowing local shore dwellers to whale-watch from their waterfront homes. (An adult humpback might grow over 50 feet long; a newborn is closer to 12 feet; the young whale raiding the Shrewsbury River that summer was between these lengths.) I wanted some state marine biologist to announce how I, a soft-hearted weekend environmentalist, might make a difference by joining a civilian corps of whale-spotters and seal-seers. It was too sad to imagine a confused young whale stuck and starving near Atlantic City, visible to gamblers in the casinos. But it turned out our Jersey humpback was okay, not stuck, just hungry. Anyway, the river is miles from Atlantic City, and at the time gamblers could only dream about gambling: the casinos were all shuttered by the pandemic.
It was a relief to learn that the whale had made its way back into open water, able to eat, swim and breathe as it normally would.
In her essay “Bewilderment,” the poet Fanny Howe creates an alternative definition of imagination. “Weakness, fluidity, concealment, and solitude find their usual place in the dream world,” Howe writes, “where the sleeping witness finally feels safe enough to lie down in mystery.” For Howe, the imagination and the dream world are places where we unjoin, cast aside our conscious affiliations, embrace what we can’t understand. In dreams we can conceal ourselves, and in that concealment, we are shielded from the expectations of others. Howe’s meditation reminds me of what happened (so I was told) in my own house one night during that summer of 2020: I went to bed early, began snoring so loudly that my wife decided she would rather sleep on the couch than trouble me after a long day of virtual meetings with work colleagues. My wife didn’t want to wake our daughters, either, both of whom were dreaming their own dreams. The next morning I walked past the downstairs couch and couldn’t fathom why my wife was there under a blanket. When she shared her story, I told her she should’ve shaken me awake. But no: she wanted everyone in our family, all of us—so on top of each other every day during the pandemic—to have our own separate nights.
So many hours asleep, when a family is both together and apart. And in our waking hours we are more apart than we realize; we dream with our eyes open, too. Five years before George Floyd’s murder, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote about what he simply calls “the Dream” in his book Between the World and Me (our temple’s first Social Justice Book Club selection: a congregational activity I immediately felt comfortable joining.) The Dream, Coates insists, is an illusion of equality and justice within America’s borders. In his book, Coates writes that the Dream is “the lie of innocence,” an illusion of blameless peace most white Americans cling to because it’s the only way to believe we’ve earned our prosperity and safety. But African Americans, Coates reminds us, have not been allowed equal access to this Dream. Unlike the unconscious world Howe describes, where we can be freed from conventional roles and can wrestle with mystery, Coates’s capital-D Dream describes a state of blindness that reinforces unjust American beliefs about race, class, culture and law enforcement.
The Dream Coates defines in his book can be especially complicated for Jewish people in this country. I am not the first to make this claim—the scholar Marc Dollinger gets at something similar in his 2018 book Black Power, Jewish Politics—but American Jews are caught in a head-spinning paradox, having to check our community’s white privilege at the same time we are confronting rising 21st-century anti-Semitism. In most (though not all!) cases, Jewish Americans are white people. But we often don’t feel as white as we look. As Jews, we still feel the precarity of our grandparents or parents, many of whom barely outran centuries of virulent European anti-Semitism before arriving on American shores. During and after the devastation of the Holocaust, the Nazi genocide that caused the murder of six million Jews, the U.S. became our most trusted sanctuary, providing Jewish people a (mostly, relatively, usually) safe haven in American whiteness. That said, even now, when I drop my daughters off at our New Jersey temple for various religious classes and social events, there’s usually a police car in the parking lot. Jewish temples across America have increased their security budgets significantly in recent years.
In his story “The Library of Babel,” Jorge Luis Borges imagines an infinite archive which contains “Everything,” including, as the story wonderfully puts it, “the minute history of the future, the autobiographies of the archangels.” Borges’s endless storehouse of texts and materials reflects both the past and the future, the earthbound and the unearthly. I love the phrase “autobiographies of the archangels” because it implies that even divine beings might need time to painstakingly compose their memoirs—that angels can’t simply transmit their stories by dreaming. What if there were a library devoted to the hours we spend sleeping, unable to join with others? With his fictional library, Borges pictures this unacknowledged spillover of our conscious and unconscious histories. What could be more peaceful? And yet this Borges text is full of dread.
In recent years, a new kind of overstuffed American library has been constructed using footage from body cameras and shaky phone videos. As this library’s holdings grow, we can hear—even in the virtual space where we live so much of our lives now—we can all hear the shelves groaning. We hear the names of Black Americans who have been brutalized and killed by police: Breonna Taylor and Jacob Blake were just two of the victims whose names rose above the waves of noise during that first pandemic summer. As I write this, news about the racist mass killing at a Tops Supermarket in Buffalo—a hate crime perpetrated by a white kid who grew up 30 minutes from my hometown—is still making headlines. The story of George Floyd is perhaps the best-known item in this tragic collection, and for much of the summer of 2020, people around the world marched in the streets, grieving and raging at the way Floyd died—pleading for his dead mother while a white police officer kneeled on Floyd’s neck and ground his airway into oblivion. The video footage allows anyone to imagine Floyd’s desperate need to breathe. If they care to look, white Americans can now see that George Floyd’s name has joined an expanding archive almost too far-reaching to comprehend.
There is a well-known, centuries-old Jewish tale about a monstrous creature called the golem—a clay man, big as a whale, nothing like an angel but magically animated to come to the defense of a Jewish community under siege near the city of Prague. The clay man is fed a secret word, then the creature rises from the ground to scatter and pound anti-Semitic attackers he finds all around him. In the golem story, a just-born Frankenstein monster with dirt-covered eyes has no trouble determining who’s suffering injustice and who deserves punishment.
I am a Jewish writer trying to discuss whiteness; I am a white writer trying to think about the African American experience. Writing is school, the French literary critic Helene Cixous suggests, and perhaps she means that the words of others—the words we choose to read and listen to—will inform and influence our own compositions, and our words in turn might animate others. In my temple book club’s virtual discussion of Coates’s Between the World and Me, the young rabbi, troubled by Coates’s bleak description of “the Dream,” asked, “Is there anything hopeful about this book?” And, haltingly, I said to my fellow Jews on Zoom, “If there’s something hopeful here, maybe it’s the library Coates describes visiting as an undergrad at Howard—the way libraries can help us fill our minds and mouths with unfamiliar words that others have written.” How might this relate to the golem from the old folktale who needs someone else, a living other, to place a word in its mouth, a Hebrew word that animates its clay form? As legend has it, the golem was a body fashioned by panicked people in need of protection. The panic is over. Even as anti-Semitism persists, even if we still have reason to protect ourselves—and we surely do—as Jews we need to find ways to recognize our power and privilege, to join and defend a different community of vulnerable bodies.