Sherman AsherSherman Asher


BookcoverInvisible Dreamer
Memory, Judaism and Human Rights

by Marjorie Agosín
Finalist, Book of the Year, 2002, ForeWord Magazine

A celebrated author, editor, critic and poet explores the intersections between the role of memory, the struggle for human rights, and the changing definition of Jewish identity.  How do the ethical perspectives of Judaism shape a commitment to human rights? What does it mean to be a Jew in Latin America?

ISBN 1-890932-19-1, Paper, 6x9, 240 pages, $15.95, Essays /Judaica

Prologue from Invisible Dreamer:

My great-grandmother Sofia used to welcome the season with a suitcase in her hand. She would pause, while sitting on the side of the street, and meditate, feeling the uncertainties of the impending season. Next to her suitcase would be a bag filled with rich earth and bulbs, and beside it would lie a bag of garlic. Uncertainty, frailty, and vulnerability were the parts that composed not only her stories, but those of the generations to follow.

Grandmother Sofia survived the pogroms‹when the Cossacks set fire to her home and her scarce belongings. She was left with only her courage, her tenacity, and seven silver candelabras to protect her from the darkness and to illuminate the path for her new life. My great-grandmother Helena, whom I always call The Angel of Memory, trusted the Gestapo with the keys to her home in Vienna. She believed she was going to return to her garden. She believed she would return to her street and neighborhood. She trusted, and she was betrayed. Neither Sofia nor Helena ever returned to Russia or Austria. They joined the frail family of refugees that defined so much of the twentieth century. Their story is an epic that will continue to define the present century.

All of these family histories serve to frame this conversation about immigration to America and the meaning of home. One interpretation of "home" can be extricated from the complex layers of History. Home, for many Jews, was their existence in the Diaspora, their perpetual state of homelessness. Home was that place where they sought refuge from persecution and discrimination. However, the Jews are not and have not been alone in their search for refuge. The Diaspora of the Jews join the ranks of other diasporic groups, such as the African diaspora whose members spent centuries as slaves, and later on forced the colonization and apartheid in the Americas, as well as South Africa. Home for many Palestinians has been the refugee camps in the West Bank; for the Bosnians it has been in the Balkans; for many Japanese-Americans it was the internment camps in the United States .

Home is too often a result of politics and privilege. Thus we ask: Who has a home? Who are those people who live at peace, rooted in a single place, and surrounded by the comforts conjured by this exquisite word?

The right to food and shelter, one of the essential decrees of the Human Rights Declaration, remains a privilege for a few, mostly for the inhabitants of the Western World. For many others, home is embedded amongst silence and debris. It is defined by that which has been lost and that which once was the world that they knew.

I shall tell you about my many homes, including my home in America. While I have strong ties to the United States‹I was born in Bethesda, Maryland, in 1955‹I come from somewhere else. I am the granddaughter of two remarkable women who survived the Russian pogroms and the Holocaust. My grandfather was trying to escape a passionate love affair with a dancer of ill reputation. He found a map and saw a tiny port in the Pacific, which seemed to him to be the last port on Earth. He arrived in Valparaiso, Chile, aboard a cargo ship. He found Chile because of love, and we remained there because of love. My grandfather married while in Chile and thus an entire generation of Halperns-Agosíns became part of an invisible minority of Jewish refugees. In Chile, we had a sense of permanence. We built a home, planted gardens, painted our house with the colors of Chile‹blue and red. We were defined by the languages we spoke‹ Spanish, Yiddish, German, Russian, and French. Thus, when asked about home my first inclination is to say that home is where you and your respective language or languages are at peace with one another. One belongs in the world of affection. May we understand each other¹s joys and despairs through the texture of words.

Home is belonging to a community and being a participant in the daily go-abouts. Home is strolling through the market, relishing the smells of fresh food and cilantro, walking under an open window with a loud transmitter playing folk music and the news. Home is where the women are gossiping and the children are dreaming.

I often wondered if belonging was really as easy as it seemed‹seeing without questioning. Yet, as I matured I began to understand that the relationship between home and belonging was much more intimate and complex. I do not doubt that we belong to the landscape of our childhood that nurtured us. I know that we belonged to the seasons that were harbors of refuge and continuity. Only while in nature¹s perfection‹where there is no difference between the outside world and myself ‹and at the same time, my own indifference, have I truly felt that I belonged. Thus we have the second definition of home: landscape and earth / seasons and beginnings.

Often we associate home with roots. Permanence is more often than not associated with grand pianos that defy impermanence rather than suitcases and bulky luggage. At an early age I came to understand that home was not necessarily permanence. Home can represent loss and displacement. Therefore, I went looking for permanence in the traces of the fugitive histories that formed the texture of who we were, and are, and will become. I went looking for home in the sacred language of poetry. I believed that home was more than belonging. Home is understanding and being understood.

Perhaps exile was too familiar of a condition. To be in exile is to join the millions of un-housed who are forced to wander across languages and borders. For me, exile became a home and it thrived in the world of books and poems while mapping borderless territories. Through imagery the dreams of the world, spanned by the familiar, was mapped.

The third definition of home is impermanence and the inability to rescue that which is left behind. My great-grandmother Helena never recovered the keys to her home. Her world was a lost world, a world of the dead, a world of memory, a space where ghosts reside‹forever adrift.

Home and uncertainty are intricately threaded with the permanence of memory. We are what we remember and we understand heritage and belonging through our own passion to remember. Home is a living scrap-book of memory that we carry as we move about, as we remember the vanquished and their respective passions and sorrows. Memory can never reside in abstraction. Memory must be cemented into concrete, must be worn like a dress, must be lived in like a home of differing levels, textures, and colors.

On Tuesday, September 11, 1973, I lost what I considered to be my home. The Chilean military, with the full support of the CIA, overthrew Salvador Allende and his freely elected socialist government. In shock and amazement, we witnessed our safe home and country crumble, the presidential palace in flames, and thousands upon thousands killed or missing. These stories, that come from the darkest of Chilean history, continue to haunt us in the similar fashion that the events of September 11, 2001 will haunt the world. That evil Tuesday we lost what we believed was home and we lost what we imagined the world to be‹ innocent, and full of wonder. However, few remember Chile. Sadly, the world will always remember New York.

During these moments of reflection I remember my great-grandmother with her ritual of the suitcases. We realized it was time to leave. What to pack and where to go are the dilemmas faced by all emigrants, all displaced people. Some people take spices, others take photographs, or small jewels, or earth from a soothing garden. We take the material objects that surround our world and we choose the symbolic objects that define us. Home is perhaps a few photographs, books, a bag of earth, candles to light the way, or a shawl to embrace us.

We left Chile for the other America. From the America that had sheltered my family, we traveled to the America of the north. As an adolescent I was ambivalent and conflicted. I did not want to lose my home, or walls, or school. But more than that, I desperately did not want to lose my language.

In 1974 we arrived in Georgia, the other south. I was enveloped in the experience of loss and homecoming. To this day I continue to struggle with the idea of home and the meaning of belonging. It seems that I have always worn misfit shoes and had to explain who I am and why I have not lost my focus.

In America I tried to preserve my home by not losing my language. I resisted the urge to assimilate into an alien way of life. I began to write poetry about my ephemeral world that had collapsed and about a people shattered to silence and complicity. While I was trying to recover the meaning of home I began to understand what it meant to be a foreigner‹ always relegated to the back room, always questioned, always put into questions, always asked, ³where are you from?² I experienced my solitude like a wound.

If America is a grandiose melting pot and multicultural society, then it is also a place that has not fully welcomed its emigrants, especially those of color. It is a place that used to prohibit the speaking of native tongues and it is a place that racially profiles those whose origin is from elsewhere. A friend recently asked me why I seem so critical of this society that has given me so much. I think that to be critical is to be American. Freedom, complete freedom, includes the right to a dissenting opinion, the right to question an election. However, considering that only 30% of the citizens of the United States vote, it is fair to call the political culture dormant.

In Georgia and Indiana home was the reconstruction of a world that was lost. My days were perpetually suspended in a daze of remembrance for the family and friends, for my home, my language, and my landscape, which were left behind. Thus, my fourth definition of home is longing.

In America there is a general longing for home, that place of our childhood or our imagination. In my longing and my search, I found home in America, a society that is greatly wanting comprehension and compassion. Home, for me, became a space of reflection and a space where I could conjure who we were and what we were to become.

America is constantly evolving into a more inclusive society. The achievements of the civil rights movement and feminism changed us forever. Home in America has become not only a place of inclusiveness, but also a place of possibility. In this country, a multitude of languages are spoken. I think that to be a foreigner is to be American. Over the years I have gradually learned to forgive America and to understand its great virtues and terrible mistakes. I learned that home is also a place of possible change and vulnerability. From my early years in Georgia until the beginning of the twenty-first century, home was not only America but was also the world that was, paradoxically, becoming a land without borders. We were becoming insular and building walls instead of bridges. We may strive for isolation, we may separate ourselves from our Mexican neighbors; however, we cannot help but be global.

I learned that home was found in human compassion and not adobe walls. I learned that the world was losing its borders but simultaneously losing its soul.

As a writer, I found home amongst other writers. I found peace among voices who were new, or even unknown in this country. Home was no longer a physical place but, instead, a state of being. My heart found solace amongst my books, other friends in exile, and the condition of impermanence that later defined us all.

And yet, this home was the home of the privileged few‹the staggering numbers of the homeless, the abused, the hungry. These numbers became part of an increasing abyss of despair to not only those who longed for home, but also those who had and have homes. In a space of privilege, home can be music, candles, a verse in a world of dispossession, or a loaf of bread.

The tensions of home and homelessness, of being excluded due to race, class, or gender, and the privilege of wealth gave our power of home to someone else to control and determine.

The events of September 11, 2001 shattered my world twice. Santiago and New York City - it is an eerie coincidence. Santiago is the city of my dreams and adolescence. New York City is the city of emigrants. We may witness the material world crumble, but what remains is not only rock and rubble. What remains is courage amid despair and home amid terror. More so, America became my home - a more real home than my beloved Chile. America was like the rest of the world: grief stricken, vulnerable, but not complacent, and not alone or without unity.

As we rethink this event and plan the future we must reevaluate the meaning of home in America. Shall we protect ourselves simply by excluding those who are not ³white²? Shall we continue to be a nation of dignity and tolerance or a nation that fears foreigners? Shall we be a nation with a death penalty, but not one that ratifies a human rights amendment? Shall we be a nation against land mines, but not one that makes a serious effort to stop child labor?

These are the issues we will face in this new America that is frail and vulnerable and ambivalent. Perhaps this country will be less arrogant and perhaps it will understand what it is to lose a home and to be dispossessed. I saw a few photographs of people in New York desperately searching for their relatives amid the rubble. It was an eerie resemblance of that which I witnessed in Santiago. I have found myself, again, among the dispossessed and among the suffering. Thus, home is a place that dwells in the heart.

I have lived here almost three decades. In Chile, I still remember my great-grandmother with her suitcase. Fortunately for her, she never left Santiago. She died in Chilean soil and I carried her seven candelabras with me as my own sacred possession. We are still here. We have planted gardens with our own hands because to garden is to have faith in the future. Home is to live in a culture that is not homogenous, one that will grow in diversity and will find meaning, and enlightenment, in the differences.

As I end this meditation, I would like to add a few recipes to understand home in America and the world. Home is to mend the world. Home is to remember to preserve the memory of the dead and the living. Home is to understand what our convoluted history has done. Home is to remember the tragedies and to strive for a deeper understanding of them. Home is a society that remembers and does not deny facts in order to hide prejudice.

Home is an encounter with our deepest self, as well as an encounter with others. All else is irrelevant. Homes may crumble and fall in our desperate struggle to remain human. But they will still be home. Jean Ryhs said that only magic and dreams are true. All the rest is a lie. Only then can we be free and restored. Only then can we live safely at home.

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