Saturday, September 26, 2009

Yom Kippur

Sunset tomorrow starts the holiest day of the year for Jews: Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

I can only recall having gone to Yom Kippur services once or twice, but I fast every year and I try to be a good "Google Jew" and study the appropriate prayers and traditions on the internet the night before--tonight--in preparation.

Two parts of the Yom Kippur liturgy, in particular, mean a lot to me. One is Ashamnu, a prayer expressing collective confession for sins. The other is Kol Nidre, a renunciation of all the vows that we will make during the coming year.

Kol Nidre has been, and in certain circles still is, highly controversial. Some take it as evidence that Jews are inherently untrustworthy--why believe someone who has already publicly renounced all the year's vows?

To anyone who follows the rest of the liturgy, however, it is clear that Jews take honesty very seriously indeed. Kol Nidre, in fact, was developed specifically because Judaism advocates strict integrity--in classical Jewish thought, you are accountable for broken promises even if they were made thoughtlessly, or even if circumstances change such that keeping them becomes impossible. Kol Nidre is to remind us that we cannot always do what we hope to do, that we do not have the power to truly guarantee the fulfillment of even our most sincere promises. It was a comfort to medieval Jews forced to accept medieval Christianity or die. It is a comfort to parents who can't do everything they'd wanted for their children, and for children who can't be everything that hoped to be for their parents.

While writing a set of very short (300 word or less) stories last year, I decided that the idea of Kol Nidre speaks in a special way to many immigrants' experience. Below is the story I wrote based on this idea:

Kol Nidre

Abuela, whose grave I had promised to always visit—I'm sorry.
That garden plot, mother, I told you as a child I would tend when you got old and your joints turned hard—whisper my apologies to the weeds.
My wife, who can't go see her brother at his wedding, in case she somehow wouldn't be able to make it back past immigration—forgive me.
Mijo, I said you would have it better than me, but now—we'll see.

My father, who prepared me to live in a world he didn't know was disappearing—have I disappointed you?
Ernesto, who wanted to go through the best and worst with me—if you have a steady one, could you send me your address?
Everyone who is still somewhere, every sun that rises over my old home and does not see me, every drop of rain God sends to nourish crops I haven't sown—what happened to the life I'd thought I would lead?

All vows, all the vows I didn't dream I wouldn't be able to keep—please, please, release me.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Passports and Peach Trees (part one)

email from G.S. Gill to his eldest granddaughter on 11/23/05:

"I left India in June 1954 at age 19 with the intention of getting an education in U.S.A. My parents bought me a ticket to San Francisco with about five dollars left in my pocket. I took a bus to Stockton and was met by an elderly blind gentleman with an escort who brought me to Selma California to Labh Singh Gill's home. Labh Singh was in his sixties and had come to USA a long time before. He was from my home village. He helped me find farm work in the grape vineyards with local farmers and get admitted to Fresno State College. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays I attended college and worked on the farms the rest of the time. It was difficult to pick peaches with a turban because it was getting caught in the branches all the time. So, I got a haircut and took the turban off. This was the first loss of a tradition from my culture. On the whole I stayed within the Indian community both inside and outside the college."

Gurcharan Singh Gill's passport, age 19

email from G.S. Gill to his extended family on 9/8/09:

"These bewildered pictures shows how nervous I was after spending two years of crop money to come to USA and blow it all up on the PAN AM Airline ticket of US 350 dollars. It included two years of my helping Dad on the farm full time. At the San Francisco Airport I had $5 left. The consolation was that money grew on trees in USA and I could pick it off the trees during the Summer if I flew instead of taking the boat. Well, the money on trees was picking peaches on a Peach Farm in Yuba City California. I was not told about the heat, sweat, Peach Fuzz, and nightly leg cramps etc. But I made enough money to make up for the splurging on the Airline Ticket and paid for my tuition at Fresno State College which is now University of California at Fresno. I also knew that Dad had no money to send me for college. So, I had to swim or sink. I chose to swim. It reminded me of learning to swim, when my buffalo grazing buddies picked me up when I was sleeping under a shady tree at noon and threw me in the water canal because I was not swimming with them! If you feel like complaining because college is hard etc; just remember that I made a choice of education over farming and have not regretted it. However, it took me over forty years to get the farming out of my head. Enjoy your college days while you can because they end all too quickly!"

Gurcharan Singh Gill with his brother Bachittar Singh Gill on
their share of the family farm in Dhudike, March 2005.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Balbir Singh Sodhi

Eight years ago today, Balbir Singh Sodhi was shot five times in the chest while planting flowers in front of his Mesa, Arizona gas station. Frank Roque, the shooter, didn't know anything about Balbir except that he wore a turban. Balbir died while Frank drove away.

I was 18 at the time, and had just started college--9/11 was my first day of classes. I didn't wear a turban, but I had uncut hair and beard like my Sikh ancestors. People had told me well before 9/11 that I looked like Osama bin Laden. (Then again, other people said I looked like Jesus. Let me tell you--it's tough to be a human Rorschach test.)

In Columbus, Ohio, where I lived, gas prices shot way up the day of the attacks. Word spread all over campus--if you have a car, go get gas now! People didn't know how far the attack would go yet. An apparent accident had turned into an attack, planes were in the air, no one knew who had done this but most people suspected it was Arab terrorists...I was nervous to leave campus to go to a store, not knowing how people would react to people like me in their midst. I went anyway. Most people were busy watching the TVs there and didn't notice me at all.

I wonder if a few people tried to hoard gas in Mesa, too, on the 11th, though I don't think there was price gouging there. Wonder if Frank Roque went to Balbir's station that day and came back three days later, or if the reports in later newspapaers were right and he was just driving around looking to take vengeance on the "towelheads" he blamed for the attack.

On September 15, 2001 Balbir Singh Sodhi died. Some Sikh community websites posted a memorial sheet you could print out for him. I did, but was afraid to put it on the front of my dorm room door, where everyone could see. I emptied out my top dresser drawer and put it there instead for the first few weeks. (If I'd have been among the children of Israel in Moses' day, I would not have been passed over.) After a while, I got braver, or else--who am I kidding?--America turned out to be calm enough that I no longer needed to be terribly brave to put a poster up for the dead.

The poster I kept in my drawer for the first few weeks.

This is a good country. There have been times and there are places where an event like 9/11 could have sparked thousands of senseless killings and not just a few. There are places where suspicion and hateful speech pour over into violence far more easily. In America, the decency, sensitivity, and humility of the majority of citizens are stronger, in most cases, than the voices of anger and hate. Plenty of scary things happen. The most provocative talk show hosts rant and rage (may the blood of the innocent haunt them)--but most of us know not to listen or to let resentment run away with us as they do.

When Frank Roque was arrested, he shouted "I am a patriot!"

Thanks be to God for Americans who think that patriotism is more about loving our neighbors than finding something un-American to hate.

Thursday, September 10, 2009


Presented with Nicole today at the annual Jewish American and Holocaust Literature symposium on a Joann Sfar graphic novel called Klezmer.

We talked, among other things, about the different ways you can talk about family and cultural memories that have simply been lost. How do you approach the gaps and empty spaces in your family's past?

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Darfur and the Mexican Revolution of 1910-20

My grandmother's family lived in the state of Chihuahua during the 1910-20 Revolutionary period in Mexico, and it has become one of the wars most prominent in family tradition and memory.

Her grandfather used to say of the later phases of the revolution that there were three factions: the Carrazinstas, the Villistas, and the bandits--and it was often very difficult to tell the difference.

General Martin Agwai, departing commander of the UN's Darfur force, recently said the war in Darfur is over. "Over" may be difficult to define, however: as my great-great-grandfather's experience suggests, factionalization and banditry can be as difficult to live with as outright war.
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