I spent Passover of 2001 in Dharamsala, India, the exile
capital of Tibet. I have shared Seders with Tibetan sages andthe Dalai Lama, but a young Tibetan kitchen
worker asked a question I’m still thinking about.Peeling potatoes with my friend Donna
Mussarra, he wanted to know what the seder was about.She said, "We tell the story of the
Exodus from Egypt."
"Do you do that every year?"
"Don’t you know it by now?"
Donna laughed and said, "Well, we do it to teach the children."
The young man looked out to the main hall. "I don’t see any children
here."It was true. Most
participants were young adults, Jewish and Israeli travelers. So Donna
explained, "We do it to remember."
"Remember what? To hate the Egyptians?"
"No we don’t hate the Egyptians."
"Well I hate the Chinese." As
we davened maariv, the full moon rose over snowy mountains to
the east. That young Tibetan, and over 125,000 others, had crossed those
mountains from Chinese-controlled Tibet to freedom—and exile. Their modern
story made our ancient Exodus vivid in my mind. The Seder offers a universal
message of hope: Slavery does not last forever, freedom will overcome
Still, the young man’s question was a challenge. Why have a Seder every year? Don’t
we know it by now?
And how could I tell the young Tibetan, who had lost his home and family, that
he shouldn’t hate the Chinese? Especially when many American Jews hate and fear
Egyptians, Palestinians, or more generally, Arabs. In recent years, through our
emotional connection to Israel, we have suffered violence and the bruising of
our hopes. And we have hardened our hearts—haven’t we?—and sometimes put our
faith in violence. Yet on Passover we tell how God, not military might,
delivered us from slavery. Do we believe it? Don’t we know it by now?
We have to experience the Seder at a deeper level. The Haggadahinsists that the liberation from Egypt
occurred not just for my ancestors but for me. Pesach is not a history lesson,
but a recurring dream. It is personal. It speaks to the many times I find
myself in the same dumb tight spot—emotionally constricted, enslaved by my
stubbornness, insensitivity, arrogance, greed. I understand why our great
teachers made the connection between Mitzrayim (Egypt) and metzarim, narrowness. I feel trapped in a narrow spirit, with a hard heart and a
In this big dream of Passover, I’ve played every part. I’ve been a frustrated
slave trying to make bricks without straw. I’ve been the taskmaster whipping
the slave on. And most of all, I’ve been Pharaoh, coldly logical. As Pharaoh
said to Moses, I’ve said to my heart, "I am not aware of this God you are
If only at the moment of crisis-- the Red Sea before
me, Pharoah's chariots at my back --- I could hear a voice of strength and
wisdom, Moses responding, "Be not afraid. Stand and witness the salvation
of the Lord." Then the sea would
part before me and I would have nothing to fear.
Don’t I know the story by now?
No, not really, not deeply enough. That is why this year, I will tell it once
-Note: this piece was
written ten years ago. I was out of town when Katrina hit, and residing in
Brooklyn when Beliefnet asked me to write a piece about the disaster. At that
point I did not know what had happened, and everything I wrote was based on my
imagination and news reports. I returned to New Orleans on September 15, 2005.
I am a homeless man.
Last week I had a two-story home in a city called New
Orleans. My wife and I left that home with our toothbrushes and a few shirts on
a Thursday, expecting to return in two days. When I left, I did not know of a
major hurricane heading for my city. Now it seems I won't be able to see my
house again for three or four months.
This is what happened in my city today:
An old man in a chaise lounge lay dead in a grassy median as
hungry babies wailed around him. Around the corner, an elderly woman lay dead
in her wheelchair, covered with a blanket, and another body lay beside her
wrapped in a sheet.
"I don't treat my dog like that," 47-year-old
Daniel Edwards said as he pointed at the woman in the wheelchair. "I
buried my dog."
In my house on Pine Street, there are some poems I'd like to
have back. There are some pictures of my wife and my children I would like to
see again. Looters, you are welcome to the tuna, to the television, to the jewelry,
even. You are welcome certainly to the peanut butter. There are bottles of
water in the laundry room. Please drink. You may find it more comfortable to
sleep on the couch downstairs than upstairs in my bed, where surely it is very,
very hot. There's been no power for days, no air-conditioning. Late August and
early September in New Orleans, after a big storm, is not a place to be.
In the backyard, the key limes are small, but they are ripe.
Please help yourself. Their juice is perfect. The Meyer lemons I don't think
are quite ready, fat as they are. It's funny what you miss. I miss my lemon
Two days ago, we learned our city was flooding. That night,
my wife suddenly woke and remembered that she had taken the old photos and
scrapbooks that were kept on the second floor downstairs. We don't know how far
above or below sea level our house is, or how many feet of water will come in.
After the levees broke, we were trying to understand how high the water would
go, but we kept getting confused. Would the water go to the ceiling of the
first floor? What happens to a hundred-year-old home that sits in water for
days or weeks? We could not do the calculations and kept subtracting when we
My wife and I have been waking up in the middle of the night
with thoughts that we've not thought all day. She remembered the piano that I
had not thought about. My mother had given it to me before she died, and my
brother had helped me move it to Louisiana. I felt a certain wave of sadness,
and then it crested and subsided and we let the piano go. We let the pictures
of our children go. We let the old books go, and we let the new kitchen go. We
let the water cover it all.
But the thought of all that water did not let me go. There
is an image I've seen on the television of the water from Lake Pontchartrain
floating over the broken levee into the city. It is very beautiful, that image.
Peaceful water going about its business, which is to flow and seek its own
level. It is powerful and terribly violent to be so peaceful.
Water is very heavy. That is something to think about.
Surprisingly dense and nothing stops it very well. For a whole day we'd felt
and seen the water flowing into the city, though the gentle word
"flowing" hardly does water justice because water is so basic and so
powerful and so necessary and we human beings are very arrogant but very weak
and frail. We can't stop a common thing like water. Not easily.
So I imagined the water rising on my street, up the steps
into the first floor, and lifting that old spinet my mother bought--it was for
her such an important investment in culture and a different way of living than
her poverty and depression--and then in my dream I saw this: my wife with a
pile of photographs, beautiful images, and under one, which seemed to show
water flowing in grey lines into the sky, I saw underneath this legend in black
print: An image is a pump.
Then the dream seemed to shift, and I saw my mother's piano
lifted up in the living room, turning delicately--water can do this, lift
whatever it gets underneath, an SUV, a tractor trailer--so why not a piano? It
lifted the piano as the first floor filled with black water, and the piano
turned daintily, like an elephant dancing under the big top.
But none of this happened. The piano is not wet, probably.
The living room is not full of dark water. It was just a dream about the house
I remember and imagine--part remember, part imagine--the house I cannot live
in, and won't for months and maybe not ever again.
Houses are fragile. Wind and water can take them down. And
fire. And indifference and neglect, and racism and separation, the separateness
we feel from others who don’t look like us, or live like us. The others for
whom we are an us.
Today I know my house is dry, and so it is now the looters I
fear. I fear them, but I don't condemn them. Some are criminals going about
their criminal business, but others, most of them, are just me. They are just
If I were there, I would be them. I would thirst as they
thirst, and hunger as they hunger, and I would break any door, I would enter
any store or home, I would steal, I would do whatever I needed to live and to
make sure those I love would live. My wife, my children: Yes, for sure, for
them, I would do what I needed to do.
And I feel the same way about my city. My beloved New
Orleans, which is submerged right now, and which I hope one day will rise
An image is a pump. An image has the power to move energy
from one realm to another, from the realm of reality to the realm of
imagination, from the realm of imagination to the realm of reality--from the
realm of dream to the realm of fact, and sometimes back again, recycling,
So we absorb televised images of people we don't know, of
people who are thirsty and sick and scared, people on rooftops who are lifted
in the air by rescue helicopters and dangle there, the children too afraid to
look up as their rescue basket ascends in the sky. Images of people who have
lost husbands and wives, children and grandmothers. Images of men and women and
children, abandoned by all of us--abandoned by "us" because they are
not us: They are poor and we are not; they are black and we are not; or they
are ill and we are well. They are old and we are young. Images of those
abandoned because of indifference bred of separation. But images break through
barriers, they flood us.
An image is a pump, from the realm of dream to the realm of
fact, and then back again, turning, turning like the piano floating in a
pirouette, then delicately spinning down to the ground.
That is how an image plays in the mind.
An image is a pump to turn fear into beauty, and maybe
beauty into terror. My fear of losing my house to water becomes a piano
spinning in the dark, and an elephant turning on its toes.
And then the water subsides and the piano settles down. But
all is not well. I have an image of my house, and that is the only house I have
right now, because I am a homeless man, but only one of many homeless men and
homeless women. In a city that is no longer a city. And though I know that no
home is permanent, it is something different when that is no longer a spiritual
metaphor you read in a book, but a felt reality, when the image pump turns an
abstraction into a stabbing pain in the heart.
Homelessness is something different and true, and it has
been felt before by many people, felt deeply by them every day. We live in a
world, and a nation, of far too many homeless people, and I have done too
little about it. So I am just one of many, and not the worse off either, but
still, it is my home and my image and I am entitled to it. It doesn't cost
anyone anything for me to be carrying my home with me in my heart.
It is one thing to miss a house. It is another thing to miss
a whole city.
There is so much room in the heart--enough room not just for
my home, but for a whole city that is going under, that is overwhelmed,
inundated. Right now, the city of New Orleans is an image in the hearts of
those of us who love it, because the reality of the city is too terrible to
bear with our eyes.
And the heart is a pump too.
I am homeless, but I am one of the lucky ones. I am not
abandoned on I-10 while politicians talk and generals dither. I am not lying in
the hot sun with children dying in my arms. I am not an old, sick woman. I am
not poor or black; I do not live in the part of town that is underwater. I live
in the high part of town. I am separated from them.
New Orleans is a town of levees and water. The levees are
man-made hills of clay, artificial banks. They are separation, and privilege,
and holding back, but water is the truth of our common humanity, water is our
common element. We all need water and we are water, and our separateness is an
illusion that thirst obliterates immediately.
The speaker of the House of Representatives (I do not even
want to write his name), said New Orleans was not worth saving. I do not know
what sort of person could say this at a time like this. For some people, I
suppose New Orleans is a black city, a poor city, even a sinful city. For all I
know, for some people New Orleans is images of Bourbon Street on Mardi Gras,
though the truth is, Bourbon Street is not New Orleans; it is much more the
shadow of conventioneers from Ohio and Illinois, its tawdriness reflects who they
are and what they desire.
To some who do not understand what New Orleans means--what
gift it has given the world, and given all of us in America--for those people
who don’t know any better, New Orleans is a shadow of this country, but to me
New Orleans is the heart.
And if we don’t save New Orleans, we have lost our heart
Cuban poet and freedom activist Luis Eligo D'Omni recently visited us here in New Orleans. I wrote a poem based on his account of beatings he's received from the police & conversation with his mother. Luis returned the favor making this video.