Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Sounds of Silence

Dear Friends,

To all of you who were present at this week's Shabbat service at Dorshei-Emet, Saturday, April 18th, thank you for your warmth and support. It was fulfilling to give the D'var Torah this week, in honor of Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, which we are marking this Tuesday, April 21st, the 27th day of Nisan, the Memorial Day for the six million Jewish martyrs who perished in the Holocaust. Observed throughout the world, it is a day of heartrending significance, the same date as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

For readers who were not with us, here is my D'var Torah in honor of Yom Hashoah:

Today's Torah portion really speaks to me because it addresses the archetypal tragedy of unexplained, irredeemable loss. What is the response to that loss? And what does it mean?

First, let's look at what actually happens in this parashah. On the surface, it is deceptively simple. Yet, scholars have been discussing and debating the portion for centuries.

Aaron and his sons will be honored through ordination as priests, as kohanim. This should be a deeply fulfilling and joyful day for them. Instead, during the ceremony, Aaron's sons Nadam and Abihu bring "alien fire" to the ceremony and then God's fire consumes them. Aaron's response is silence.

Here, I will read the passage for you:

"Now Aaron's sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the Lord, alien fire, which He had not enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus, they died at the instance of the Lord. Then Moses said to Aaron, 'This is what the Lord meant when He said: Through those near to Me I show Myself holy. And gain glory before all people.

And Aaron was silent.

What does Aaron's silence mean?

Is his silence shock?

Is his silence acceptance of God's decree? The silence of respect?

Is his silence rage?

Is his silence an anguish too great for words? Is his silence speechlessness, that is a loss for words, because language cannot encompass the enormity of his loss?

I believe that the text is suggesting that there are more possibilities--and more power--in silence than in any words when faced with unspeakable loss.

There are many sounds of silence.

As we approach and honor Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, we need to reflect on our own response to unspeakable loss, as individuals, and as a community.

In my novel, The White Space Between, I address this very theme: the meaning of silence, the sounds of silence, in the face of unspeakable loss and tragedy, specifically, the Holocaust.

The German writer, Peter Handke, in his beautiful memoir, A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, about his mother's suicide, said, "I write out of speechlessness."

I certainly felt a bit of this sentiment when approaching the daunting task of writing a novel about a mother and daughter grappling with the impact of the Holocaust.

My title, The White Space Between, speaks directly to the themes of my book. What is the white space? Well, the white space is literally the space between the letters, the space between the words, the space between the sentences. This white space gives the letters, the words, the sentences, their meaning. Without this white space, there would only be blackness, no form, no shape. A black blank, if you will.

Just as pauses, silence, gives meaning to the notes in music, silence gives meaning to speech, white spaces give meaning to words. They are active, alive.

As the writer Andre Neher says in his fascinating book, The Exile of the Word: From the Silence of the Bible to the Silence of Auschwitz, "silence often appears in the Bible in the first person:it has a role, it is active, pregnant.

In my novel, the white space between is also, as Rabbi Avi Weiss says in the epigraph, "the story, the song, the silence."

How did I come to write my novel, The White Space Between? Well, my personal connection to the Holocaust is through my mother-in-law, Brana Hochova, who was a survivor of three concentration camps: Terezin, Mauthausen, and Buchenwald. Like many Holocaust survivors, she did not speak much about her experiences during the war. She wanted to protect her children from the pain and weight of the past. She wanted to go forward. But how can one go forward when effacing the past? Because every time you turn around, there it is.

Sadly, I never knew Brana personally. She died very young, at 52 years old, a legacy of what she went through in the camps. However, she left behind a cassette tape where she spoke about her childhood and her life. Listening to this tape, her voice is very powerful, deep and soft, with a strong Czech accent, the accent of her youth, her identity. Listening to this tape, it was as if Brana was right there in the room with me. This tape filled in some of the white spaces...for me.

In fact, listening to Brana speak, after her death, I was struck by the power of voices, of story, after a long silence, how voices possess enduring life beyond corporeal life: they live on. How voices can be a link, a bridge, between the past and the present, the dead and the living, the lost and the found.

In my novel, Jana Ivanova, a Holocaust survivor also does not speak of her past. She wants to protect her only child, Willow, a marionette-maker and puppeteer, whose puppets become a kind of surrogate family, since she knows so little of her own.

Willow has so many white spaces, so much silence, that she does not even know who her father is. Her mother's struggle to spare her the pain of the past has left her incomplete, longing to find her missing history.

My novel explores the shadow side of silence, of too much white space, which becomes a white-out, an effacement, a kind of hiding, a negation of truth and identity.

Sometimes, one fills in the white space, the silence, with a new history, as the mother, Jana, does in my novel by creating a father for Willow: a French-Canadian man who loved Willow and died before her birth.

My novel explores the consequences of filling white space, of filling silence, with a fabricated recreation of history.

Toward the end of my novel, Willow loses her mother Jana, to a natural death, after a full, complicated, heroic life. Jana goes to her grave with some--but not all--of her secrets and silence. Now that her mother is dead, there are no more chances for Willow to speak to Jana or for Jana to speak to Willow.

"Willow has so many things she wants to ask her mother, questions she has saved up for a lifetime. Part of her feels like she is waiting for her mother to come to her, to speak. The questions, she knows, will remain open-ended. They will be the way she will miss her mother, through what she does not know and can never understand.

1 comment:

Leo said...

It is very intriguing to see the passage about Aaron's silence and the discussion about what that silence means.

I had not considered silence in quite that way in reference to my own experience. As you now know, my father was on the other side of that Holocaust (although ignorant of the whole affair), dragged into it without his consent but powerless to do anything about it.

In the years growing up in our household, he read voraciously about the war. His library is filled to overflowing with different historical and fictional accounts of the war. As a small lad, I asked him why he was so interested in that period of history. His answer was silence. I turned to my older brothers for an explanation. They told me in furtive whispers that my father was in the war, but on the other side. That was why he didn't want to talk about it.

But what did his silence signify?

Was it rage?

Was it pain?

Was it shame?

Was it pride barely contained?

I couldn't know. So I started reading those same books, as if seeking some answers to my own father's silence.

I didn't find it in those books, but I did find a clue in his memoir which he wrote and made copies for his three sons. The prose is sparse, bare, without any emotional content whatsoever. But the events he had to live through were awful. I would close my eyes and imagine what it would be like to be in his boots, ducking under an earthen berm, Russian bullets and shells screaming overhead. And then I understood a little bit more what his silence was saying.