This is part fifteen of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
Last night, thundering, lightning, rain. (Un)tourist weather, which I love. Since I am a native Floridian, I love the sun but even more the cloudy days. Winter is the best time of year here.
Haven’t told you about the peacocks that wander wild near the beach. Yes, peacocks. In the evening I walk by them, a dozen or so, with their offspring. They saunter about as if they belong here. I remember being shocked when I discovered them many years ago. Peacocks running wild at the Cape? Since I figured there was no way my children would believe me, I ran for my camera, took a picture and that was that.
How did they get here? It seems that during the space program’s heyday an entrepreneur had a brilliant idea for a tourist oriented theme park that included peacocks. When it went bust, he just upped and left, leaving who knows what behind, including several peacocks that the community adopted. That’s the story I heard. Now they flourish, run wild, have a home here.
Krishna is often pictured with peacock feathers adorning his head. I wonder if I will run into him one day. Peacocks appear in Christian symbolism as well, symbolizing eternal life. So may of Christianity’s victims have been dispatched there, I wonder if there are millions of peacocks in heaven waiting to greet each of them individually.
A peacock in the Ark of the Covenant? I know – it’s getting crowded in there. Parsing history, perhaps we can just have the helicopter gunships and peacocks in the Ark. The Apartheid Wall might frame the picture nicely as background or perhaps as a 3-D wrap-around. Color coordination is important, of course and the peacock’s colors would bring out the silver in the helicopter gunships and balance out the rather bland Wall. Though we don’t want the graffiti on the Wall blocked out by the peacocks, especially when they fan their tails. More thought is needed.
Yesterday, I made a dental appointment. This is at dentist’s office only a few blocks from here, the one where every one of his patients room has a mezuzah. I need to have a closer look but they seem almost identical with the Mezuzah on the Beach. The plot thickens!
I thought to myself – interesting – that in my attempt to escape the visible signs of Jewishness, I end up with a dentist that marks every door with almost exactly the same mezuzah that adorns the Rabbi’s house on the beach. An Orthodox Jew, no less. Lesson: No escape.
But then, harkening back to the Jews for Jesus storefront just a few blocks from the Dentist’s office, I thought – his office mezuzah adornment is overdone, perhaps we have a Jew for Jesus here. (un)Orthodox Jew. Another lesson for me?
So in a few days I shall find out by asking him. If I summon up the courage. Should I blow my anonymous Jew-cover by telling who I am? Doubt he would know who I am. Tell him what I believe? Or should I just say I am interested in those boxes on his office doorposts, leave it at that, pretend ignorance, hide my identity and views, and let him think I’m just curious? I’ll play it by ear. Probably best to stay anonymous.
Finishing the biography of the American painter, Andrew Wyeth. Quite a book and the artist, a different kind of man. Subtitle: A Secret Life. Actually, a double life of interacting with family and his art. For the most part he kept his art secret from everyone but his wife. Then for fifteen years he kept a portion of his art secret from her. These are the famous Helga sessions, a German immigrant who modeled for Wyeth, mostly in the nude, the paintings warm and cold, sensual in their frankness, sometimes invoking sexuality but mostly studies in light and mood.
The Helga paintings caused quite a fuss then, this so-American landscape/portrait artist getting naughty. And politically incorrect, especially some other of the nudes were of teenage girls, one in a sauna, towel draped around her thighs, young breasts exposed. Then the towel was disposed of. What is striking about her nudity and Helga’s as well, is what stands – their faces. Wyeth’s nudes are studies in a quiet ferocity. The women are all there.
The point of the biographer in relation to Wyeth is that, as an artist, he needed a secret life. Away from prying eyes. Our surveillance society was not for him. Is it for us?
The private eyes that rove through our lives – they certainly have been roving through mine. Looking through the hotel keyholes, voyeurs really, Christians to find sin, Jews to out dissidents. I picture the Christians peepers, eyes bulging, holding a Cross in one hand, watching for kicks. Voyeurs. Jews at their gotcha moment bury their own flings and divorces. For Jews, its blood not kicks. They come together, though, having found their mutual prey. There we have it: the Jewish-Christian dialogue of the Empire-enablers. Pimps with religious symbols around their necks during the daytime.
As I’ve said, all of that is for another day. Surveillance of that kind – voyeurs of sin and purpose – deserve their own surveillance, don’t you think? Exposure seems to be the solution, as if transparency ends corruption. In my experience, it’s just the opposite. Corruption is always on the move. Those who seek to root out corruption as they define it – yet another moving target – are often the most corrupt. Again, this is my experience. Yours?
So those who are watching me and other Jewish dissidents, don’t you have something better to do? That’s the first thing. But know we are watching you, too. Admittedly, the cycle of being watched and watching doesn’t get anyone very far. Doesn’t advance the justice ball down the field, does it?
Our secret life, it seems necessary for the artist and perhaps for everyone to imagine a life without surveillance. Like the child who needs to close his or her door. The parents naturally want to know and sometimes need to know what’s going on beyond closed doors. The evolving private life of children isn’t easy with so many prying eyes.
Secret life/double life. We find it in politics and in culture. This is also the world of religion, big time. Like the admonition to follow Jesus anywhere and everywhere, giving it all up, “camel and the eye of the needle” rhetoric, then finding out, through “transparency,” that the Presbyterians have a 7 billion dollar portfolio. I place quotes around transparency because the only transparent thing about the live streaming of their convention is the attempt to keep folks like me from thinking, then saying, then writing, are you kidding, the whole divestment debate is about taking roughly 20 million dollars in stocks out of some companies that are involved in the occupation of Palestinians?
Virtually all Israeli corporations are involved in the occupation in one way or another, not to mention an array of non-Israeli corporations, governments, militaries who are also involved in one way or another. So “are you kidding” has to be followed by “who do you think you’re kidding.”
So, please, hold the “transparency” front unless the exposure inadvertently calls attention to the truly scandalous.
On the secret/double life front, however, there’s a lot to think about. As in, the secret/double life of politics; what we don’t see is what we need to see. The same with religion. Especially behind closed doors. Or better, the Cross – symbol of redemption/oppression. Now the mezuzah – liberation/occupation. Being free to be who we are as Jews/violating Jews in the name of authenticity. Liberation/Colonial Mezuzah.
If a person/community/culture/nationality/religion is around long enough, there are all sorts of secrets/double lives to be explored. The point is to expose the ones that hurt others and leave the others be, lest they also rise up in the wrong direction. It is also important to realize that secret/double lives remain. They don’t disappear. There is no return before. At a certain point there is only after. What after becomes is everything.
So much corruption in life. Indeed the truly corrupt, the powerful, benefit rather than being brought low. If once in a while they are brought low, there are others to take their place. Corruption and silence, the fear factor comes into play. Institutional life isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.
Yet we can’t afford cynicism. That’s what I tell my children. Exile is a place where cynicism can rule the day. Where does that lead? We need an even keel, a way of balancing the abuse of power and the wholeness of life.
Exile is brokenness. No reason to deny that. Yet if the cost of wholeness is selling out, what kind of wholeness is that? So the broken will made whole or are whole in their brokenness, even when you feel that you can’t go on another day.
Exile is the place of brokenness made whole – if we can survive it all, right ourselves, ask what life is really about and plumb the depths of our Jewishness.
Let the powerful look at themselves in their own mirror. We have our own.