Rosh Hashanah in Afghanistan?

We have so many terrible collective failures. But we’re not totally fucked.

My father and his family, circa middle ages…

A few days ago, I woke up very early and noticeably uncomfortable and in a bad mood. I don’t know why exactly, because we never really know ourselves, but I was bothered. I just sat with it for a while and listened quietly to my mind; the world itself gets very quiet when I do that, and I can “see” thoughts moving around in my head, fragments of my spirit that are floating around my unconsciousness. I can hear my bad thoughts, my sad thoughts, my despair and my rage. And my confusion. That morning, I don’t know, it wasn’t too clear, but I wandered to thoughts about Afghanistan, the US pullout and all the fallout that came from that. The people, the fear and chaos.

The previous day I had talked to a friend about his experience growing up in Haiti, the dangers and hardships of that life, and I commented how his life experience gave him a unique perspective about Afghanistan, different from me, about the politics and the people and the environment, and I encouraged him to write about his thoughts of Afghanistan. That agitated morning I remembered: I have my own Afghanistan story.

In the 1940’s, as a child, my father emigrated from Southern Uzbekistan. I say emigrated, but probably escaped is a better word. Jews, they escaped the growing violence, threats and persecution. His documents indicated he was Afghani, and when I recently asked my mother why that was, she said simply, “he was born in Afghanistan.” I don’t know. I have a vague memory that the documents were faked to allow passage through the Soviet Uzbek border. Faked. Jews did that as much as they could once to escape persecution from seemingly everywhere. Or they sneaked out or sneaked in. They traveled legally when they could, and when they couldn’t, they traveled illegally or they stayed in dangerous conditions. Or they died, sometimes by the millions. And by now we’ve heard it again and again; it’s not just the Jews doing stuff like that to survive.

My father was a Central Asian Jew, and if he wasn’t born in Afghanistan, his father or father’s father was, and he grew up very near there. Today it seems completely impossible to imagine Jews living in Afghanistan, and that by itself says a lot.

Fast forward a bunch of decades: my father has already died, the Taliban have fallen and movies are being made in Afghanistan. My brother and I go see a movie,“Osama”, about a young girl in 1990’s Taliban-era Afghanistan whose family lost all the men to various conflicts. Women were barred from working (we all heard that,) and so her small family of women were in a hopeless position. For her family to survive, she ventures into the world impersonating a boy named Osama.

The story doesn’t end well, but really, there’s no joy at any moment in the film. It’s just scary and depressing and not just for her, for every person represented.

I left the movie feeling very upset, maybe the same feeling I had this past week. As we left the theater, I recall saying to my brother, “that could have been us.”

It wasn’t somebody else’s story or even a random connection from a distant ancestor. One choice to the left or the right, and rather than watching Osama on a movie screen, my scared, hopeless, younger gay self might have walked past her on any dusty dirt road, if I even survived that long.

Rosh Hashanah is tomorrow, the beginning of the new year for the Jews. Observant Jews will start reading the bible all over again, as they do every year. Story after story of Jews wandering, running from persecution and sometimes from god’s wrath. Why do we read those same stories year after year? We have so many contemporary stories that we can learn from, and if you squint, they start to sound similar enough to the ancient texts. We don’t have to just remember our ancestors to learn about humanity, and I’m grateful that modern Jews regularly connect those stories from the past to stories from today. I’m sure at this very moment, many Rabbis around the world are preparing their holiday sermons about the people of Afghanistan, reminding us that we’re all humans.

In my own job, I speak often about the human journey, how confusing it is. You know how the bible tells it: Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge which caused their exile from the Garden of Eden. My add: since that day, humans have been trying to find their way back.

Where has that journey taken us? Like all my ancestors, I’m wandering this planet trying to find my way back, but some mornings I wake up and it feels too impossible to keep trying. Like last week when I woke up and heard the deep cry of agony from an ancient injured lonely part of my soul lying on a cot in the basement of my spirit that looks at my puny self and all the terrible things we do to each other. It’s always inside my body somewhere, the accumulation of every selfish, cowardly, lazy,stupid bad choice. Some days, all I can think about is how much I suck and how much life sucks.

My job is to help people choose life, all of it; knowing this cry helps me hear other people’s confusion.This Is the actual world we live in, Afghanistan. It’s not a biblical realm of legend, it’s real. And everything it represents is in our neighborhoods and in our homes and in our bodies. It’s the complexity of the human spirit.

How do I choose life when I hear my spirit cry mournfully? It comes back to me from a place of great humility.

They return, the questions: What is life? What is existence? How did this universe come to be and what does it mean to be alive? Eventually my not knowing transforms into curiosity and my curiosity becomes wonder and soon enough, I’m charmed by our mere, magical existence, and then I’m back in motion, driven to seek answers to those questions.

The photo we have of my father from his childhood looks like it could have been taken 1000 years ago, and in fact my father traveled 1000 years during his 75 years of life, from a one room hut with his 2 parents and 7 siblings and farm animals and horse and carriage, to computers and robots and space travel and medicine and twerking and gay cruises. That I am here in America writing about this while my son is in the next room watching TV and my extended gay-friendly family prepares to celebrate Rosh Hashanah any way we want is nothing short of a miracle. It wasn’t this way once and it didn’t have to be.

We have a long way to go and we’re doing stuff wrong and badly, but we’re doing it, it’s happening. I hear the cry of mourning, I expect a little more from myself each day and I choose to celebrate the miracles of today, because we’re not living in Eden any more; we’re doing something else now.