Anat Nili Levine

From Exodus to Conscientious Awareness

Image of rundown kindergarten entrance and section of play yard with steps that cause daily injuries to the three-year-olds that attend here.
Image of rundown kindergarten entrance and section of play yard with steps that cause daily injuries to the three-year-olds that attend here.

​​​Liberation. For eight days every year, Jews commemorate our collective freedom from slavery in Egypt. Whether your seder (and post-matzoh bowel movement) goes right until those last minutes pre-dawn, liberation becomes an even stranger concept when you are a disabled parent to small children at home.

Since early childhood, I’ve had chronic health issues. I’ve been, at times, recognized by both the Israeli National Insurance Institute (Bituach Leumi) and the American Social Security Administration as being fully disabled due to physical and emotional health issues. Falling through the cracks of our collective national, regional, and municipal systems seems to be a particular curse. However, as often as possible, I try to turn that to use for the benefit of others with similar experiences. I’m also an artist with a degree in biographical communications and conflict theory, and I won’t get into that here.

Now back to our regularly scheduled, collective Passover holiday. The symbols on our seder plate evoke universal experiences and emotions without the need to have experienced them individually. We tell the story of the exodus from Egypt. Our sitting posture changes as an act of defiance for all those centuries of enslavement and brutality our forebears experienced. But at what cost does “reliving our liberation” come when you cannot sit at the seder table reclining to your left side like everyone else when it hurts you because of your own up-close and personal history of suffering? Yes, there’s always the concept of pikuach nefesh (saving a life, for a gross oversimplification of the phrase). But it’s hard enough to recognize and be inclusive of differences in many places when there aren’t customs and ritual obligations to meet.

When you do something different from the community standard, no matter what authority accepts or decrees it (yourself, community, or rabbi), there are still sideward glances, little “benign” under the breath comments, or the assumption you grew up secular. The community will always have someone attempt to “correct” or “educate” so you will understand (and then conform). At what cost does the choice to disclose, or not disclose, your reasons for not performing the oft-accepted rulings of others in power come. Is it your discomfort or someone else’s? Will it come at a demotion of your perceived value and wisdom in the community? Will it change how others interact with you, and will that benefit your relationship(s) or bring a new smorgasbord of trials and tribulations (no matter how small)?

Communally and individually, unless we actively and enthusiastically pursue or confront the assumptions, beliefs, values, and actual versus perceived needs, can we work towards meeting those connective ideals of our religion and peoplehood. Judaism, religious or cultural, purports to focus colossal energies on caring about others, even when they can’t care for themselves. As in many aspects of modern Judaism, there is a constant confrontation opportunity to reevaluate our beliefs, choices, and values even when they directly conflict with our own, often deeply held convictions.

“Dayenu. It would have been enough….” How do we reconcile our past with our present and future? As a disabled person, today’s emotional and physical needs often conflict with the constant (often unconscious) attitudes rampant in our local and global society. What am I, or my children, supposed to do when they get an injury at school? No one in the few recognized positions of authority (who are legally allowed to talk to you) informed you of the damage, let alone how it occurred? What about when that huge step at their kindergarten injures dozens of kids (including your own) because it’s taller than their little legs (and even my own injured and chronically incapacitated legs) can manage every day?

Liberation is a funny concept. We relive this suffering at Passover to remember why we must always choose to do what is proper and necessary to care for those around us, whether we know them personally or not. Yet, every day, members of the education ministry, the municipality, and other relevant governing bodies choose that once they finally do “renew” part of the kindergarten, they have still done nothing about those steps. I shouldn’t need to ask for an “accessible facility” to protect my child from the sheer and enormous lack of consideration for what is age-appropriate, let alone my abilities (when I am not a full-time wheelchair or mobility aid user). I shouldn’t need to worry about my child’s trauma around toilet training because at her kindergarten, the municipality refused to send anyone for more than three days to unclog the childrens’ toilets. Now more than ever, she refuses to try to poop in the bathroom because she’s become afraid of it, afraid it’s unclean, afraid some monster will come out of the toilet to attack the user. The municipality finally heard the pleas of morning and afternoon staff and the many parents and sent a plumber. Now, my child spends so much time focusing on trying to “fix” problems at home because she finally saw someone fixing this enormous problem of the toilets at her kindergarten. This kindergarten has more than 25 tiny children, all of whom are in the midst of toilet training. I can’t ignore her signs of trauma around this when I have spent decades attempting to undo the damages caused by my own experiences of trauma.

Liberation, pikuach nefesh, gemilut hasadim (“bestowing kindnesses”), and tikkun olam (“repairing the world”) are all central aspects of not just Judaism as a religion but also culturally as a people. An old Jewish saying says: “Charity awaits the cry of distress, and benevolence anticipates the cry of distress.” Let’s actively facilitate small and large kindnesses and systemic changes starting this Passover. When we hear a cry for help, respond immediately rather than ignoring it or putting it “on the back burner.”

Let us actively pursue benevolence to the three-year-old afraid to play outside due to preventable injuries at their kindergarten and the parent who shows up within the last minutes of working hours to pick up their child. (If I pick her up earlier, it means I have even fewer “spoons” (energy/capability/capacity/etc.) to go around when I don’t disclose the entirety of my disability (or at all) to those who most likely don’t understand those kinds of choices. Perhaps choose not to judge that housewife who is “home all day with the baby” for keeping you from going home early as an inconvenience to you, and instead focus on the higher quality attention she can give her child once she does pick her up from school. (She probably isn’t home all day doing “nothing,” and even if she is, you have no idea what she’s up against.))

We talk about macro- and micro-aggressions, but let’s apply that to collective and individual liberation and turn this into a community-wide discussion (that doesn’t just have your token “vocal cripple” as the sole well-informed advocate). What can we do better? How can we apply force and change to the monoliths in our community, whether they are physical, social, or other spaces? Can we create a community of enthusiastic education and apply these principles to even the tiny creatures and things under our care?

About the Author
I am an American-Israeli artist and biographical communications specialist with a deep interest in alternative dispute resolution and nonviolent communication. I am parenting small children while disabled and generally coping with or helping others cope with bureaucracy and the intricacies of Israeli life.
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