Recently, something my father, z”l, said to me years ago came to mind. He and I were in his hometown of Wiedze, in what is now Belarus. This was in 1995. We were on a trip in honor of his seventieth birthday. We had come to Wiedze from Vilna, and before that from St. Petersburg. It was a noteworthy journey for many reasons, not only because my father had turned seventy a few months before, but because he agreed to go on such a trip with me, given that he hardly ever took a vacation that didn’t involve a long drive and lots of antiquing along the way. After all, that was how he made his living.
I couldn’t recall in all of my childhood my father taking that much time away from work. And to go overseas, no less. But there we were, standing on the dirt road in his hometown, the one I’d only ever heard stories about. We stood in front of his parents’ house which sat, as he’d always told us, across from the church in town. Until I stood there myself, I didn’t realize how close the two structures were to one another. The few locals we saw were a scraggly bunch. Most were lined up outside a building with a big sign reading “khleb” or bread. It looked like a food pantry of sorts. Further on was a block of ugly, squat, Soviet-era housing. That was, my father pointed out, where the ghetto had been.
As we walked and looked my father said, perhaps to the air, or to himself, but I heard it as being said to me, “Wiedze is no more.” I felt in that moment heartbroken for my father, but I also hoped somehow that he felt liberated, able to feel that what he remembered fondly, what he’d loved – and whom he’d loved – in that place, although forever lost, was not replaced by something shiny, new, and somehow better.
No, Wiedze was dead, and the best of what it had been was gone too. I hoped that my father’s pain was leavened by some kind of vindication, that he had returned, looking spry and well, while those remaining in Wiedze were the ugly residue of an even uglier history. Yes, they’d gotten rid of their Jewish neighbors, but they had poverty and breadlines instead. On my father’s behalf, I felt almost glad about that. Maybe not the nicest of sentiments, but at least it’s an honest one.
I’ve been thinking a great deal about “Wiedze is no more” in the context of present-day America. Whatever country it was that my father emigrated to in the late 1950s, that country is dead. It’s been replaced by something festering and cruel, something that is unraveling in real-time. Yes, I know that the 1950s weren’t some kind of paradise. I know that the myth of America is indeed a myth, wrapped inside even more myths. But at some point, at least, we pretended to believe in America’s possibilities as a nation. We believed in science, in education, and in some version or versions of human decency. Having lived through the America of recent decades – and especially the America of recent years – I’ve come to realize that America is dead. America is no more.
And while I suppose the natural reaction to that realization ought to be sadness or even despair, I find myself instead experiencing a weird kind of calm. I’m enough of a student of history and of my fellow Americans to appreciate the depth of ignorance, of radical self-centeredness, and of warped capitalism that truly defines us. So I am not especially surprised by the hideousness that has been emboldened here, that is gleefully showing its face across the land. Yes, I know that even in the midst of that ugliness, there is goodness. But still.
You cannot hold together a nation in which huge numbers of people embrace a kind of idiocy that ought to be embarrassing, but is instead proudly displayed. Science isn’t real. Facts are choices. Truth is like a feather, floating in a cauldron. Education need not have any bases in reality, in history, in analysis. The only thing that matters is what each of us individually wants, cares about, and chooses. Collective interest only matters if the collective I am in has been fully vetted for full agreement and fidelity to whatever the ideology of the group happens to be. And let’s not forget the pornographic attachment to guns and other weapons of violence that seem to be at the heart of America, always ready to displace anything that resembles truly life-affirming and dignity-endorsing choices, the things a sane, compassionate, worthy society and nation ought to care about above all.
So how is it, given my analysis of the problem(s), that I can be so calm about the fate – the death, even – of America? I think it’s because in wrestling with all that has been and will be lost, I’ve come to realize that I have what I think might actually be one good, viable option. And that is to retreat to a narrow place, to my mitzrayim. For me, that means that I no longer consider myself to be living in the United States of America (since there is nothing that even resembles a United States of anything here anymore).
Instead, I live in a sliver of America, from which I have no desire to experience anything of the rest of the country. Where I live, I can encounter diversity in terms of people, cuisine, art, even topography. And I can retreat even from that, to greater quietness and isolation. Yes, where I live is home to some of the idiocy that exists in surrounding places, but even so, I think I can tune out the noise, the hatefulness, the increasing spiraling into lunacy that defines that thing called America. I cannot avoid its impact fully, if only because things like climate change (among others) don’t respect state boundaries. But as much as possible, I can retreat into my narrow place, feel gratitude for what is part of it, recall with fondness when America felt like something worth cheering for, but know that in declaring “America is no more,” I am letting go of something that has become a nightmare I no longer want to wake up to.
History does, it seems, indeed repeat itself. I think my father, z’l, was calling to me when I heard his words again, all these years later. He was telling me that his loss has ricocheted decades later into my loss. And like him, I still have love, and memories, and experiences to treasure always, even as I bury something that seemed, as it did for my father, like it would last forever.