Chapter 63: Ordering the Universe
Writerland is a newsletter from The Delacorte Review whose mission is to help writers tell the stories they need to tell.
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The best thing about being a writer is the promise the work offers: through your reporting and writing you can gain the knowledge that will allow you to impose order on the universe. And who wouldn’t want that? A solution to uncertainty, to chaos. You ask a question and set about finding the answer and then distilling what you have learned and sharing it with others.
But then again, as many wise people take credit for saying,“if this work was easy everyone would do it.”
I wake up most every day and after procrastinating for maybe an hour or two – must. read. all. news – return to the long, arduous, fascinating, vexing, and all-consuming work of trying to make sense of the universe. Okay, my universe. The world in which I grew up and to a large extent still inhabit, if not in the daily business of my life than certainly in what shapes me and how I see the world and my place in it: Jewish Brooklyn, circa 1960.
I’ve been at this work for the past couple of years – on and off, and now that the semester is over very much back on. Seldom does a week pass without my learning something new, or connecting an event in the distant past to what I experienced growing up. Just now I am knee deep in Czarist Russia’s relationship with the Jews who had the misfortune to live within its borders until the late 19th and early 20th centuries when over a million of them decided they’d had enough and embarked on a journey that would end on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, about eight miles from where I am now sitting.
And that’s just scratching the surface. Much as I love this work, I am reminded time and again of how difficult it is, how elusive the answers I seek are, and how challenging it will be when the time comes to tell this story. But also, how I urgently I need to continue on this path that I hope will allow me to arrive at a place where finally I can make sense of things – of the past, of people who were close to me and who are now gone – a friend, a grandfather – and all the people I am getting to know in New York, London, Russia, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Israel, too.
So it was in the course of my reporting that I wanted to reach out to Sonja Sharp. Sonja is a reporter at the Los Angeles Times and over the years we have published two remarkable stories by her. Both speak to what I am now exploring. One is set in a Jewish corner of Brooklyn, though 50 years after my growing up. The other takes place in Israel. Both are deeply personal. Both are, at their core, reporting journeys in search of order.
In “My Journey to the New Jerusalem,” Sonja wrote about a growing population of young, religious Jews like her and her husband who are trying to carve out their own places in the Jewish world. It begins with her recounting the annual fight between her and her husband about how, precisely, they will celebrate the Jewish New Year:
Every year, just before Rosh Hashanah, my Crown Heights apartment becomes a war zone.
I don’t mean that a few tears are shed during a volley of invective over dinner. When the Sholklappers fight, we go to the mattresses. Heads roll.
She continues: It’s been like this since he and I got married three and a half years ago. Most couples we know fight about sex or money or how to keep house—look, all right, it’s not like we’ve never argued over who should bleach the toilet, but those are street skirmishes compared to the wars we wage over God. Each year, we prepare for the High Holidays with military exercises and a test missile launch. We’ve yet to use lethal force, but the leaflets have been dropped.
But we’re not really fighting about the chairs, or the wine or the dutch oven or any of the other things we’ve already forgotten by Simchas Torah. Because it’s not about divine law. This is who we are in the world.
Her story about Israel, “Now You Can Leave: Israel and the Other,” was equally urgent, even as the story took Sonja far from her own life to reporting on the tens of thousands of Eritrean refugees who the Israeli government wanted to deport. The story was propelled by a different personal struggle –trying to make sense of a country to which she felt deeply connected, and to which she and her husband had considered moving, even as its actions ever more enraged her.
Of the fate of the migrants, she wrote: On some level, I must have been aware of it. I can remember crowds of women in Neve Sha’anan and men squatting in Levinsky Park, but in my memory their lives seemed apiece with African migrants in Europe, whose suffering was widely dismissed in the face of so many blue-eyed Syrian refugees. What I know for sure is that Tal and I came home from that trip convinced we would immigrate. We spoke about moving to Tel Aviv the same way we talked about relocating to Los Angeles, watching with envy as our cousins and classmates untangled their foreign affairs—jobs, apartments, schools—to start new lives on the Israeli beach.
In Tel Aviv, she continued, at least, we’d be more ourselves—traditional but not necessarily religious, average rather than short, normal instead of neurotic. For the same astronomical rent, we could raise our son in a Jewish state.
For five years, I repeated this fantasy. I was still repeating it in the terminal at JFK, parroting it back and forth with the gay dad from Westchester whose exhausted toddlers waited with mine for the overnight flight. Like him, I dreamed of a life there. And then I met Bhrame.
I wrote to Sonja to ask about those stories, but really about something more – about how being a reporter allows her to make sense of her world, even when she is writing about lives far removed from her own.
She replied, in classic Sonja way (let it be said that the writer you are in emails is often the best example of who you really are as a writer, before you try too hard to write): “I've spent most of my life telling the same story over and over. Usually, I'm telling it to strangers on the fly: kids I pass on the street, men who've pulled across three lanes of traffic to talk to me. The story I am always and forever telling is the story of what's wrong with me. In other words, the story of how I was paralyzed when I was eight. (Suddenly, by a rare auto-immune illness that led to a spinal cord injury.) I was literate before I got sick, but the pediatric ward of Kaiser San Francisco is where I learned to read fluently. The years that followed I spent in and out of hospitals, with little to occupy me besides books and the stories in my head. Eventually, I started writing. I haven't stopped since.
“This narrative, that my illness made me a writer, is part of what makes it bearable to me. Living in a disabled body is difficult in many ways, but one of them is that I know everyone can see my disability but I don't really know what it looks like, how it bends reality around me. I won't ever really know what happened, or why, or what it changed. I think that's what makes reporting so comforting: there's an answer, and you can find it. Not only that: you can explain it to other people in a way that makes them care and understand. It's thrilling and empowering and cathartic...except when it isn't. In that case, my other great comfort is my faith: unlike journalism, Judaism insists there may be many answers. It celebrates that some things are beyond our capacity to see or know, and part of life will always be a mystery.”
All well and good, at least in theory. But how hard is that struggle, I asked, once you embark on the journey?
“For me,” she replied, “reporting journeys are all very similar in that they're desperately, frantically hard and then suddenly very easy. Every reporting journey is hard until I find that one subject, or that one document, that I know right away is going to carry the piece. There's this electric bzzzzz, this frisson I'm chasing after like a lab rat all the time.
“I remember that shiver in the AM/PM on Allenby Street in Tel Aviv the moment I met Erimas Brhame, who became the main subject of And Now You Can Leave. It's almost like getting a shove from behind, while at the same time my eyes snap into focus and the path in front of me becomes clear. Even when there's lots more reporting to do, the adrenaline from that shove is what powers me along the rest of the way.”
The adrenaline, yes. But something more, perhaps. The answer, still out there but almost within reach.
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