Judaism and Human Rights
Finalist, Book of the Year, 2002, ForeWord
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
from Invisible Dreamer:
My great-grandmother Sofia
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
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
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
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
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.
top of page