Wednesday, April 8, 2009


Tonight brings the onset of Passover, the week-long Jewish holiday commemorating the release from slavery as documented in the book of Exodus. Passover has been celebrated each spring for thousands of years, and while the rituals have remained notably consistent, the interpretation of the holiday changes each generation as different historical events suggest ever changing symbolic meanings. African American slaves looked to the passover story for hope, and many of tonight's seder conversations will likely turn to Israel's oppression of Gaza.

When I was growing up, the relevant story of people seeking freedom concerned the Jews of the Soviet Union. Soviet Russia had declared Judaism an ideological enemy, and in order to escape imprisonment or worse many Jewish families hid their identities, changed their names, and invented new personal histories.

The poet Joseph Brodsky emerged from this milieu. Brodsky was born into a Jewish family in Leningrad in 1940, and devoted himself deeply to learning classical philosophy, religion, mythology, and to reading English and Polish poetry. He was publishing poetry and literary translations by the age of 17. In 1963 he was arrested and charged with "parasitism" by the Soviet authorities. He was sentenced to five years of internal exile with physical labor, and after protests by prominent cultural figures, including Dmitri Shostakovich and Jean-Paul Sartre, his sentenced was commuted. After years of official oppression, Brodsky was eventually expelled from the USSR and resettled in New York.

Brodsky always self identified as a Jew, and upon receiving the Nobel Prize for literature in 1987 was asked the question: "You are an American citizen who is receiving the Prize for Russian-language poetry. Who are you, an American or a Russian?" He famously responded "I am Jewish."

Brodsky championed many forms of freedom - political, personal, religious and artistic - over the course of his life. He forever emphasized the power of language to positively impact the culture in which it is situated, and promoted the idea of sharing poetry as a means of fighting totalitarianism. In the latter part of his career, Brodsky wrote exclusively in English, stating that "English grammar may prove to be a better escape route from the chimneys of the state crematorium than the Russian."

On the eve of an ancient holiday which celebrates freedom, I offer this poem by Joseph Brodsky.

Letter to an Archaeologist

Citizen, enemy, mama's boy, sucker, utter
garbage, panhandler, swine, refujew, verrucht;
a scalp so often scalded with boiling water
that the puny brain feels completely cooked.
Yes, we have dwelt here: in this concrete, brick, wooden
rubble which you now arrive to sift.
All our wires were crossed, barbed, tangled, or interwoven.
Also: we didn't love our women, but they conceived.
Sharp is the sound of pickax that hurts dead iron;
still, it's gentler than what we've been told or have said ourselves.
Stranger! move carefully through our carrion:
what seems carrion to you is freedom to our cells.
Leave our names alone. Don't reconstruct those vowels,
consonants, and so forth: they won't resemble larks
but a demented bloodhound whose maw devours
its own traces, feces, and barks, and barks.

1 comment:

Little Rudy said...

happy passach gurldoggie. thanks for keeping it current, even with the little bundle of distraction you are not permanently hosting in your home.