The “Magnificent! Excellent! Unsurpassed!” Procession of the Emperor

So off went the Emperor in procession under his splendid canopy. Everyone in the streets and the windows said, “Oh, how fine are the Emperor’s new clothes! Don’t they fit him to perfection? And see his long train!” Nobody would confess that he couldn’t see anything, for that would prove him either unfit for his position, or a fool. No costume the Emperor had worn before was ever such a complete success.

“But he hasn’t got anything on,” a little child said.

“Did you ever hear such innocent prattle?” said its father. And one person whispered to another what the child had said, “He hasn’t anything on. A child says he hasn’t anything on.”

“But he hasn’t got anything on!” the whole town cried out at last.

The Emperor shivered, for he suspected they were right. But he thought, “This procession has got to go on.” So he walked more proudly than ever, as his noblemen held high the train that wasn’t there at all. (Hans Christian Andersen, The Emperor’s New Clothes)


 Breaking the Fourth Wall

 In theater the imaginary fourth wall serves to separate the world of the fictional characters on stage from the world of reality where the audience lives.

In the theater, “breaking the fourth wall” means having a character become aware of his/her own fictional nature and in so doing the audience becomes aware that they had temporarily suspended disbelief and been temporarily experiencing a fictional world “as if” it were real.

Maintaining the fourth wall requires the active collaboration of the actors and the audience to maintain its fragile existence. In these circumstances there is rarely any danger of harm – the actors and audience rarely lose touch to the point of completely forgetting the difference between what is real and imagined and participate temporarily for entertainment’s sake.

When a similar process happens outside of the theater, in “real life”, the process is sometimes referred to as folie à deux – a shared delusion. It can happen when an individual so believes something to be true that those close to him/her begin to believe it as well. The “secondary victim” is more vulnerable when s/he has limited contact with the outside world or relatively few healthy outside relationships where s/he may be exposed to information that would contradict, challenge or invalidate the veracity of the delusional idea(s). The “secondary victim” is also more likely to be in a passive or subservient status with respect to the person with the primary delusion.

In “The Emperor’s New Clothes” by Hans Christen Andersen, a couple of swindlers pretending to be weavers make a special suit for the emperor. They tell the emperor and his followers that the clothes are invisible to people who are too stupid for their jobs. None of his advisors or subjects can see the clothing, but no one wanted to admit this fact because they do not want to be identified as foolish.

When you read this story, who do you aspire to be?


I Believe

What happened – really happened
What happened – really happened
What happened – really happened
I believe with perfect faith
That I will have the strength to believe that
What happened – really happened

– Carmi, Anatomy of a War, 1977


“The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.”

— George Orwell, “1984”


“In a room where people unanimously maintain a conspiracy of silence, one word of truth sounds like a pistol shot.”

― Czesław Miłosz


 

No Reason

My husband and I have been having some version of the following conversation on average once a day for the last twenty years.

Husband: “Do you love me?”

Me: “Yes”

Husband: “But why?”

Me: “No reason.”

One day the conversation happened in front of a friend. Shocked, she chastised me for what she thought was a callous, uncaring remark.

I chuckled, and explained that it was not meant to be. This particular exchange goes back many years to when we were planning our wedding. At the time, same-sex marriages were still rather uncommon and there wasn’t a well-developed liturgy for a couple aspiring to have a traditional Jewish wedding. A close friend, a member of the clergy himself, encouraged me to write our own service.

Although a same sex union would be rather new, I wanted the service to be anchored in tradition and be rooted in historic texts. While searching for texts that seemed to fit our relationship and personalities I came across the following text from Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers):

“Any love that is dependent on something–when the thing ceases, the love also ceases.
But a love that is not dependent on anything never ceases.

What is an example of a love that is… not dependent on anything? The love of David and Jonathan.” (Pirkei Avot 5:16)

I loved the sentiment, the reference to a same-sex relationship from Jewish history (whether or not it was a romantic one) and from this verse our little inside joke was born. When my husband asks why I love him and I respond, “No reason” it is my shorthand way to say that my love does not depend on any one thing or reason and therefore is not subject to change, diminish or go away.

And to be honest, I still enjoy the shocked look on people’s faces when they hear me say it for the first time. Why? No reason…

 

Anchors and Sailboats

Anchors and Sailboats
by Carl Josehart

strong, virile winds
impregnate beautiful
billowy
white sails

grasping the
rudder
mother of endless possibilities
pointing out to sea

straining against a
hereditary anchor
imagining
motion, distance
new ports

anchor broken
catapulted forward
fear washers over excitement
desperately seeking
the spot
where the anchor lies hidden
below

straining against the
strong
virile winds
to stay
sentinel to mark
an anchor
well needed

shuddering at the
presence of endless possibilities
adrift
unable to reckon direction
motion without mission
distance without destination

pregnant moments
fill precious time
long labor
birth
a dream of the future

Alcatraz

On a visit to Alcatraz I was struck by the contrast between the view of the San Francisco coast and its unparalled beauty and the lives of the prisoners who were once held on this island. In addition to losing their freedom, it seemed a special kind of cruelty to face their internment with a view of such welath and beauty – close enough to almost touch but permanently out of reach.

As I reflected on this experience, it seemed to be a metaphor for many of our cities. Neighborhoods of immense wealth butting against neighborhoods of abject poverty. The view of those living with abundance an added humilation and burden to those living with sacrcity, hunger and fear.

If Mahatma Gandhi’s words are true that “The measure of a civilization is how it treats its weakest members.” then I fear for how we will be judged.

Perhaps it is time for us to imagine a time when we turn all of our prisons into parks, and neighborhoods of despair into communities of caring and hope.


ALCATRAZ
by Carl Josehart

Sailing on his parents
yacht
the little blond boy
with clear blue eyes and
bright future
glides effortlessly
freely
past
a rock fortress
jutting out from
the gently rolling
water

High above him
caged in a dark cell
a blond man/boy
presses his once
innocent
youthful face
against
unforgiving iron bars
he imagines a faint mist
of salt spray
brushing past his lips
and he dreams of open spaces

the little blond boy with
chestnut
sun kissed legs
climbs high atop the mast
leans out and looking toward the horizon
the boat vanishes
he is alone
flying above the
blue ocean
keeping pace with
a silvery seagull

straining
rust cutting into his skin
from bars on the window
man/boy squints one eye closed
and tries to imagine his
cage gone
just for a moment
to be outside the bars
sunlight warming his skin
gone pale from
dank
damp
darkness

one
atop another
they live
cramped
into
too small cells
too narrow almost
to stand
too small almost
to breathe
too drab almost
to live

one
aside another
they exist
mute
in enforced silence
tapping in tempo
to talk
whispering down
empty pipes
which carry their thoughts
hopes
and dreams
alongside
sewage
out so sea
washed away
like lives
too broken to fix
too heavy to float which
sink like stones
skipped on waves
by a little blond boy
with clear blue eyes
and chestnut
sin kissed legs
sailing
on his parents’
yacht


 

Scream

Scream

by Carl Josehart

We live in a time that it seems that free speech is under attack. The freedoms we enjoy today are the gift of previous generations that have spoken up against tyranny and oppression. In the coming weeks and months I am going to try to highlight and celebrate these brave individuals. One of these heroic voices is Nadezhda Madelstam. She famously said:

“I often wondered whether it is right to scream when you are being beaten and trampled underfoot. Isn’t it better to face one’s tormentors in a stance of satanic pride, answering them with contemptuous silence? I decided that it is better to scream. This pitiful sound, which sometimes, goodness knows how, reaches into the remotest prison cell, is a concentrated expression of the last vestige of human dignity. It is a human’s way of leaving a trace, of telling people how he lived and died. By this scream he asserts his right to live, sends a message to the outside world demanding help and calling for resistance. If nothing else is left, one must scream. Silence is the real crime against humanity.”

Nadezhda Yakovlevna Mandelstam (1899 – 29 1980) was a Russian writer and a wife of poet Osip Mandelstam. Born in Saratov into a middle-class Jewish family, she spent her early years in Kiev. After their marriage in 1921, Nadezhda and Osip Mandelstam lived in Ukraine, Petrograd, Moscow, and Georgia. Osip was arrested in 1934 for his Stalin Epigram and exiled with Nadezhda to Cherdyn, in the Perm region and later to Voronezh.

After Osip Mandelstam’s second arrest and his subsequent death at a transit camp “Vtoraya Rechka” near Vladivostok in 1938, Nadezhda Mandelstam led an almost nomadic way of life, dodging her expected arrest and frequently changing places of residence and temporary jobs. On at least one occasion, in Kalinin, the NKVD (The People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs a law enforcement agency of the Soviet Union that was closely associated with the Soviet secret police) came for her the next day after she fled.

As her mission in life, she set to preserve and publish her husband’s poetic heritage. She managed to keep most of it memorized because she did not trust paper. After the death of Stalin, Nadezhda Mandelstam completed her dissertation (1956) and some years after was allowed to return to Moscow (1964).

In her memoirs, Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned, first published in the West, she gives an epic analysis of her life and criticizes the moral and cultural degradation of the Soviet Union of the 1920s and later. The titles of her memoirs are puns, Nadezhda in Russian meaning “hope”.

 

Witch Hunt

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

― Edmund Burke

Witch Hunt

by Carl Josehart

The court was hushed as he walked in. It was a silence that came from a respect for the place in which the people sat. A court of law equipped with all of the symbols that had given the defendant a feeling of security, patriotism and pride in his country as he was growing up. He looked at the flag and thought of the years in school when he had pledged his allegiance to his flag and his country never once thinking to ask for the country’s pledge in return – thinking that the pledge was implicitly there.

Looking at the deeply lined face and graying hair of the judge in his black robe he saw the face of a solemn and serious man but grown hard from years of seeing and hearing what a judge sees and hears from the bench. The cold indifference belied that he had long since relinquished seeing the defendants who came before him as individuals. He had surrendered his struggle with the law, its intent, and his youthful yearning to play a role in creating a fair and just society. Now he presided over his court with a comfort that came with years of practice and an efficiency born of a verbatim knowledge of enough precedents to mete out sentences that always held to the letter of the law but rarely its spirit.

The prosecuting attorney by contrast looked nervous. Repeatedly wiping sweat off his young brow with a handkerchief in a courtroom that was not hot. The defendant thought to himself that this must be his first witch-hunt almost felt sorry for him. Then, remembering the seriousness of the consequences if he were found guilty, decided he had no reason to feel sorry for him. Still, there was something about the way he kept looking at the defendant. Something about the way he carried himself that almost suggested…no, it couldn’t be, surely a witch, even in disguise, would never be a part of a with-hunt.

Time seemed almost frozen in the courtroom as men in crisply pressed three piece suits, starched shirts and expensive silk ties argued with each other in a language and style that was unusual and almost incomprehensible to the defendant. One thing was clear, his life, career, and happiness somehow hung in the balance to be decided by this ritualistic ceremony.

When it was his turn to be questioned, he took the stand, placed his shaking hand on a well-worn bible and swore by a god that he did not believe in that he would tell the truth and was seated. The nervous prosecuting attorney approached him in an almost apologetic manner and began to ask questions. The prosecuting attorney had the practiced style and incisive mind of one who had gone to the finest schools and had had all the right jobs and certainly had made law review. The defendant answered the questions quickly and honestly. Because he did not believe that his “crime” was a crime, he could not conceive of a defense. As the prosecuting attorney piled evidence upon evidence, substantiated fact upon substantiated fact he simultaneously became more and more nervous needing to wipe sweat off his brow at an ever-increasing rate. Coughing and clearing his throat, his gaze returned again and again to the defendant’s eyes burning with a rage that seemed to cry out to him, “Don’t make this so easy…fight me…fight for yourself, why won’t you defend yourself?”

It was then that the defendant realized that he had been right; the prosecuting attorney was a witch in disguise – hiding in plane sight. His brother was burning him at the stake to buy a false sense of security that comes from “passing” – a ransom paid to live another day.

When the jury shuffled back into the court with their verdict it was no surprise that they found the defendant guilty. The prosecuting attorney had done a thorough job and with an insider’s knowledge had known all the right questions to ask. When the prisoner was escorted out of the courtroom there was no family or friends to weep for him; they had long since abandoned him in shame. Out of the corner of his eye though he saw the prosecuting attorney, his face pale, and with the expression of one that is seeing a ghost, look over to him with eyes that pleaded to know why he had not fought.

As the guards led the prisoner away he jerked himself to a halt in front of the prosecuting attorney, locked eyes and calmly addressed the unspoken question, “The question you should be asking yourself is not why I did not fight, but rather why you did not fight.”

With that, the guards hurried the prisoner away and the prosecuting attorney ran to the restroom to become violently ill. Retching over the toilet, the cold porcelain toilet bowl did nothing to stop the throbbing in his head as the prisoner’s words echoed over and over on an infinite loop.

Hope and Herring

Hope and Herring
Meditations on Spiritual Healing for the Gay Jew

Schmalz herring and
gefilte fish
clash with Soho
East Hamptons
and Fire Island
especially when Fire Island was Fire Island
before the
new age
screamed at the dawn
through ashes of hope and despair

Schmalz herring and
gefilte fish
still taste comfortable
and feel like home
so do pickled tomatoes
and lox
not smoked salmon
though that is more acceptable
when served in loft apartments
with expensive bottled water
and organic, recyclable lives
enhanced by homeopathic, herbal
oriental, Chinese healing
massage, Shakra medicines

Schmaltz herring and
gefilte fish
may not be healthy
but taste like grandmother
tradition, piety, family, love
and holidays when people
argue and bristle
hug and pinch
talk with mouths
full of stories
brisket and
sweet kugels

Hope and herring
intertwined
cosmic brothers
cavorting in the vast expanse of this universe
one feeding the other
chicken soup
“mit kreplach”
which just might be the cure to
isolation and despair
when served hot with commitment
ladled with love
into bowls faded from use
generous as the generations
who nourished their ailing
from their dime-store depths
crystal, china and sterling would
homogenize the taste
blanding the ethnic
with exotic herbs
the staple in up-and-coming
Cuisinart, cappuccino,
Corian kitchens
replete with water processed decaf
gladiolas and Italian ices

Hope and herring
cultures in collision
lifestyle with legacy
voices call to me from across the centuries
friends call to me from graves inhabited too soon
an eternal people
an eternal peace
shared dreams of a new world
free from persecution
prejudice and pain

Hope and herring
the tastes of my people
mix in my mouth with
the tastes of my lover

– Carl Josehart, November, 1994