The thing about identity is, people are always trying to define who you are for you, to tell you what you mean. And we should be interrogating our positions in society, our privilege relative to our oppression, but we should also be skeptical of those who insist we are definitively one thing or another.
In 1974, the year Richard Nixon resigned to avoid impeachment, my father, a man with rabbinic aspirations, was deep in his own pickle, indicted for conspiracy and fraud in the federal summer school lunch program.
Bruno Schulz was one of two great Polish fiction writers of the two decades between the wars, and so luckless was he, so lucky are we by comparison, that we may read his complete works in one long, trash-blown, weedy, windy, starry, swirling, Lower Carpathian day. His complete surviving works, that is—and that is the legendary pity of it. Such a day need not even take up your time, for you may go there in time according to Schulz, a limb of freak time that sprouts seamlessly out of time as we think we know it.
Last week, I saw a film about the life of Julius Rosenwald, an early twentieth-century businessman and philanthropist who financed a series of rural black schools, built and run with the oversight of the Tuskegee Institute. Rosenwald otherwise had a life such as that from which the myth of the American dream is made. He started as a merchant on the streets of Chicago, worked his way up in the “rag trade” and eventually became chief of Sears and Roebuck. In the meantime, he made large matching donations to black YMCAs and attracted the attention of Booker T. Washington. Washington took him on a tour of Tuskegee, and soon the two formed a partnership, building what would be called the Rosenwald Schools, funded by Rosenwald and each school’s immediate community, staffed by Tuskegee-trained teachers, and erected by the black communities they served.
One Sunday at work, in the middle of a series of lectures and panels–a day-long affair with no planned bathroom or coffee breaks–a man stands up. He does so while I am moving a lectern across the stage, and I think recognize him, even before he begins speaking, as someone who lives under the weight of New York City’s constant renovation, someone whose patterns have long ago been papered over. At the institution I work for, a Jewish archive and library whose existence spans nearly a century and two continents, people like this come all the time, or call on the phone. They’ve woken up and started looking, desperately, for places they’ve lost.