I met my friend Ben last May, when I started volunteering with a group that protests against mass incarceration and the American prison-industrial complex. We became friendly while working together to assist a formerly-incarcerated member of the group find employment and deal with his legal affairs (as best we could). I became less involved with the group as my doctoral exams drew near, but Ben and I continued to hang out. We now have a regular Sunday ritual of brunch followed by a few hours of binge-watching HBO dramas (first Ben showed me Game of Thrones, and now I'm showing him The Wire).
While I cannot overstate how much I enjoy watching TV with Ben, I most value the conversations we have before and after the show--while digesting the meal or the episode we just watched. Our discussions are far-ranging. We take turns as each other's therapist and catch up on the past week. Ben teaches me about home repair, sculpture, and lion dancing. I show him my knitting projects and tell him all of the funny things that my partner's students (first graders) have said lately. We also talk a lot about activism, advocacy, privilege, vulnerability, and the awkwardness of race and class and gender.
This past weekend, I expressed to Ben that I feel lost, self-absorbed, useless... I can't figure out how to insert myself into the important conversations nor how to participate in the hard work of making change. I just sit at the computer, avoiding interaction, completely absorbed in the academic bubble in which I live. My activities are circumscribed to two square miles of Pittsburgh's East End, where everyone has a Masters degree and a MacBook.
This conversation was spurred by an encounter my partner and I had in Baltimore over Thanksgiving. After a grueling drive through snowy conditions, we decided that it would be most convenient to eat dinner at the bar adjacent to our hotel. Understandably, the place was slow the night before the holiday. We struck up a conversation with the bartender, who was generally a lovely guy with an interesting life story. The discussion segued to college, specifically paying for an expensive education. Within this context, the bartender made a comment that took us by surprise. Alluding to his own name, Israel, he remarked that it wasn't surprising that he was as stingy as the Jewish State. I regret that I did not respond with a gentle rebuke, but by the time I processed what he said the moment had passed. I never managed to put the right words together... it was said without menace, to build a bridge with humor, and I did not want to jump straight to accusations of anti-Semitism. This guy was tactless, not a skinhead.
It was this element of the interaction that surprised me--why did he think it was something appropriate to say in unfamiliar company? I'm aware that anti-Semitism exists. It only takes quick review of any comments section in a major newspaper to find yourself inundated with this kind of deeply hateful speech. Even though it's pervasive on the internet it has been a long time since it affected me in my non-digital life, and I more commonly find myself in situations where I have to courteously refuse an appeal to convert to Christianity. The last incident I recall was from middle school, when my parents took me with them when they went to buy a new car. During the negotiation, the salesman told my father to "stop Jewing him down." Needless to say, we did not buy a car from him. Living in the South, though, anti-Semitism was not particularly shocking. There are four churches within a mile radius of my parents' house (and that's only along the longitudinal radius).
Over the past decade, I've lived in two cities with large Jewish communities and have predominantly orbited within academic circles. Without even trying, I somehow spent the two years between college and graduate school working for a Jewish university. I can't seem to escape! The result has been that no one I come into contact with would make this comment. Either they would find it offensive, or would recognize that inevitably someone within earshot would find it abhorrent.
The bartender's tactless remark made visible the boundaries of my social life, and it bothered me to discover that what I perceived as a welcome mat was actually a moat with the slimmest of drawbridges. I shared my dismay with Ben. I told him that although I regretted this predicament, I felt like it was also how I kept myself sane. I don't have the energy to write a dissertation and fight the good fight; I don't want to meet new people so that I can dispel them of their -isms. I felt--and still feel--like a big hypocrite. I judge but do not act.
Ben and I have had similar conversations in the past, about philosophies of activism and the tension between self-preservation and advocacy. Ben patiently listened while I unloaded all of these thoughts and feelings on him. I did not really expect any sort of resolution, just sympathy, but his response really resonated with me. He said that I should not discount the value of asking the questions, of seeking answers, of empathy and openness. Action happens on the foundation of learning, and Ben reminded me that it's not a cop-out to spend time thinking the big thoughts.
This insight reminded me of a quote I found recently in one of my documents. I noticed it because of how it was used to support an argument against Jewish Centers, but I read it very differently after reflecting on Ben's response to my nagging insecurity.
Heschel was the epitomal scholar-activist, and made this statement during a speech he gave in 1960 at a White House Conference on Children and Youth. It appears to be a simple argument, but there are a lot of ideas packed into this short paragraph. What exactly did Heschel mean by despair and why does he see it as the foil to education? And why is the future necessarily a burden? Couldn't it be an opportunity? And goodness, what to make of the meaning of existence?
I spent a lot of time trying to unpack the depth. I was most confused about the fourth sentence, "Termination of education is the beginning of despair." What exactly are these two states, and how do you distinguish the before and after? I usually associate despair with sadness and heartbreak. Did Heschel believe learning was a romance of the mind? Probably not, but that thought reminded me that despair evokes how you feel at the end of a relationship. If we understand education to be the practice of building connections and relating one idea to another, the end of learning would be despair; like the break up of a partnership, learning stops when there is no longer any effort made to forge a connection. Despair implies futility, a future that no longer warrants the work needed to build it.
For Heschel, then, an education was not an end-state. Education was the means to an end, specifically a future of possibilities and opportunities. Herschel argued that a meaningful human existence carried the responsibility of learning how the present came to be, so that decisions can be made about the future.
I find comfort in these words. Education is a commitment required of citizenship in a democracy, and knowledge is the glue that binds an individual to a community. I research the past so I can make informed choices in the present. I seek what I do not know so that I can better understand the people closest to me and those separated from me by color, class, gender, sexuality, or by the passage of time. I educate myself in order to be an educator, and it is my responsibility to share my knowledge in the classroom, in conversation, in my writing. Ben (and Heschel) helped me to see action and engagement in my solitary, sedentary pursuits. No effort is wasted, and when I am ready to help bear the burden of the future I will do it with the strength I built during this time of questioning and exploration.