In November 2013, I attended my first retreat with the Zen Peacemakers in Auschwitz-Birkenau. It wasn’t the piles of hair or the green stains inside the gas chamber that buckled my knees and wretched my innards. It wasn’t the barb wire, the watch towers or the broken china cup handle oozing up to the soil’s surface from the belly of the swamp on which this camp sits. It was on one late morning when the women in the group went to visit the women’s barracks, and I, accompanied by a group of several dozen men of different ages, cultures, languages and faiths, stepped into one of the elongated wood and rock barns that was the men’s.
It was dark and I remember the mass of men huddling in one mass on the cold stone floor. Rabbi Ohad Ezrahi asked us to sit in silence. In a soft voice, he asked us to acknowledge the other men in the room. I looked around and met other gazes, some embarrassed, some frightened, some loving. I imagined my teenage great-uncle, Miklosh on one of the bunks.
Ohad then said “imagine, feel, what it’s like to be separated from women.”
I remember Ohad’s guitar strings shimmering. He may have strummed a note. Whatever it was, something triggered a powerful force, a mix of grief, of love, of yearning, of anger and of confusion sounded a wail that rose from deep down in my gut and out of my mouth and echoed between the empty wooden beds. My body shivered with the ripples of energy released through my body. As the silence resumed (or was Ohad playing a soft melody then?) he asked me to say something. In the aftermath of that wail, I had a vision of a green wild and lush jungle; humans in nude foraging for fruit, tracking prey. I thought of us — men women and all those in between — wild creatures. I couldn’t convey the image before my mind’s eye. Instead, something within me said “We used to walk this earth, together.”
Three years later on November 8th 2016, my wail was answered.
I have just returned from a fourth trip to Auschwitz, this time back on election day. My suitcases didn’t make the tight connecting flight and were intended to be delivered after midnight. I was tired and jet-legged and grateful I voted early. Instead of watching the needles jitter on the New York Times Election website, I decided to go to bed and to wake up in a few hours to greet the airport delivery man.
When it was time to turn off the alarm, I paused and registered an eerie silence. Covering my sleep cloths with a coat and putting on shoes, I stepped outside to the porch. I saw not even one person out on this festive eve of democracy where plenty of ‘I’m with her’ signs were proudly displayed.
Then I heard it.
I couldn’t locate the voice’s origin, my building is surrounded by dorms of Smith College female graduate students. It was the panting voice of a young one, wailing. From a balcony? From a porch? From deep, deep down.
“Men and Women, we used to walk this earth, together.”
A station wagon pulled by and a balding middle-aged brown man schlepped out my large red and black suitcase.
My eyes still searching, “Sounds like Trump.” I said.
“Why? Did he win?” The man said, I couldn’t pinpoint his accent — Spanish? Pakistani? An immigrant, I concluded.
“Good! I voted for him.” he continued.
I slipped him a large tip and lingered, meeting my brother’s eyes, my ears with my sister’s.
Northampton, Massachusetts, USA, Home of Smith College for women, has an illustrious history of women’s empowerment. But it’s in the way packs of two or more females students walk confidently on the sidewalk, owning its width from the line of parking meters by the curb to the grass patches by the building. It’s where my unchecked male gaze glares at me straight in my face saying ‘dude that’s just ain’t cool.’ It’s where, when I take a walk at night and see a night owl student returning from library or a late class, or visiting the kosher kitchen in the dormitory up the road, it is I who cross the road or get off the curb to make way and let her walk on without needing to wonder if this guy is a creep or what not. It’s in the way they loiter on the steps of their dorm, how they sit power-posed and knees apart. And sometimes, on rare moon nights, amid the Corinthian columns of their institution they throw parties and feasts and their high pitch laughter call out like delirious amazons occupying their seat their throne their place in this mad incredible and beautiful jungle. It’s then that I yearn to walk this earth, together.