Saturday, 24 May 2008

Language and the garden of exile

This post has been in gestation for a while and is still not quite what I was intending but that's how it goes between what you think you want to write and what you actually manage. I began reflecting on the experience of exile due to a passing remark my colleague Manoj Kurian made in a sermon preached on Ezekiel 36 and the return from the Babylonian exile.
He said something about how those returning from exile didn't even know their own langauge anymore and this set me thinking about language and exile.
I can remember feeling a powerful sense of loss as the rabbi sang the burial liturgy at the Jewish funeral of a friend's husband. This was how generations of part of my family would have been buried yet it was not a language remaining members of the family understood anymore. All the deceased British relatives I remember have been cremated and their ashes scattered, the only surviving graves of anyone in my family are in the Jewish cemetry in Berlin. I wonder what was sung at those funerals or whether my very secular Jewish forbears simply held a non-religious ceremony?
The picture posted above is of the garden of exile at the Jewish museum in Berlin - it's also known as the E.T.A Hoffmann garden. It's made up of 49 pillars. Walking between them in the garden is a disturbing experience because the cobbled ground between the pillars rises and falls in a very uneven way. You have to look down and watch your step to avoid falling over but if you don't look forwards you can easily bump into the pillars. Light falls in a strange way between the pillars but if you look up you see not only the sky but also the evergreen leaves of the olive trees planted at the top of each column.
In exile you stumble and don't know the way forwards, in exile you have to look up for the light and for the evergreen signs of hope - but doing this may make it even more likely that you fall over flat on your face.
Today Palestinians are in exile from and in Israel. Olive trees are uprooted. Walls are built between homesteads and farmlands. Must justice for some always mean oppression for others?
Sometimes I think that exile is all about cognitive and incognitive dissonance. The German-Jewish phrase "to remember is to live" has had deep resonance for me throughout my adult life as I try to piece together what it means to me to be a second generation refugee in the country of my birth. Does my remembering have to oppress others?
The way we choose to piece together the past as individuals and as societies can have profound impact on the present. I've studied the history and religious politics of the Third Reich in depth yet until relatively recently I have tended to avoid studying the Middle East in the same way. I feel uneasy, as if my past ignorance was a way of avoiding integrity. Almost as if my own personal journey to find meaning in the garden of exile was more important than transformative justice now.
The post-modern journey in the garden of exile is one where even our mother tongue may seem to be a strange language. The paradigms of meaning and power shift quickly. Yet I nevertheless believe that it is possible to act for and speak up for justice, to take sides for what is right rather than what is easy. Finding words and deeds that do justice to the desperate situation in the Middle East leaves most of us tongue-tied.
Jews for Justice for Palestinians seeks to tread this path. I somehow seek to tread this path by posting here the liturgy for the International Church Action for Peace in Palestine and Israel.

So I walk in the garden of exile with my desire to want to integrate the personal, my personal history, with current international politcal concerns. And I experience deep dissonance, disconectedness and rage. And I long for hope, perfection, beauty and green shoots against a blue sky. Perhaps none of this is appropriate in the post modern age and I should just be happy at picking up bits of meaning and sense and patching them together as I am able to. I suppose that even in exile I want the story I'm telling to have grammar and syntax to be woven as a whole. But perhaps the tongue-tied language of exile is the only way to begin to patch life and history together.
So in case you were wondering the 49 pillars in Daniel Libeskind's exile garden could stand for seven times seven - a multiple of the number of perfection despite everything. That in any case is how I choose to tell the story but there are other interpretations, you'll just have to search for them and tell that story yourself.