Jews always say that words create worlds.
I thought of this as I listened to Jewish-Guatemalan writer Eduardo Halfon speak at the Jewish American and Holocaust Literature Symposium in Miami last week.
Language is immensely important for Halfon. His grandfather — whose story Halfon tells in his novel “The Polish Boxer” — was taken to a concentration camp in 1939, and later to Block 11 to be shot. While there, he began to say Kaddish for his family and for himself, believing he would soon die. A man next to him recognized his Lodz accent. This man, a Polish boxer, was from the same town.
The boxer made it his business to train Halfon’s grandfather in the art of surviving the camp. But it wasn’t boxing that was the nature of this training. It was language. The boxer, whose skills made him a valuable entertainer in the camps — exempting him from being killed — trained him in what to say and what not to say. He trained with words, rather than fists.
Language, knowing when and when not to speak, saved Halfon’s grandfather’s life.
After the war, Halfon’s grandfather moved to Guatemala. And although Polish — his mother tongue and the language spoken between him and the boxer — essentially prevented his death, he stopped speaking it. “The Polish betrayed us,” he said.
He also said nothing about the camps until one day, when Halfon asked him about it. He spoke for six hours, his stories excavated and unearthed through language. There were “60 years of dust on his memories,” Halfon said.
For Halfon, an engineer, his grandfather’s story was a portal into Judaism, which he had pushed away. Halfon found that writing about his grandfather’s experience brought him unexpectedly closer to Judaism. It became the “entryway” to access his family story.
Halfon’s parents saw his resistance to Judaism as rebellion, but for Halfon it was about not wanting to claim what had been simply handed to him, passed down through generations, painted onto his genetic makeup. “If I wanted it back, it had to be by choice,” he said. “I had to find it on my own.”
“I’m working my way back through story, through my grandfathers. They are guiding me back slowly to that part of me I’ve been pushing away for so long. The only thing I’m interested in is story,” he said.
But story is all there is. That is what it means to be Jewish — to carry the stories of our mothers and fathers along with us, to protect and propel them into the future. Story and language are critical not just to our identity, but also to our survival.
“Still,” continued Halfon, “I’m resisting Judaism. … I push it away, but I look for it at the same time.”
To push and pull simultaneously — it’s an impulse passed down from biblical patriarchs and matriarchs who were pushed and pulled in different directions, whose internal struggles were no less intense than wars waged on battlefields.
As much as Halfon admits to being pushed away from Judaism, it is story that pulls him back and language that keeps him tethered to his identity. Story is always evolving. “My grandfather’s story keeps growing as I grow,” he said.
“My grandfathers are guiding me back slowly to that part of me I’ve been pushing away for so long. The only thing I’m interested in is story.” — Eduard Halfon
And isn’t this the way of Torah and the layers of commentary surrounding it? The Mishnah and later the Gemara prove our understanding that there’s more to every story. Halfon’s admission that each time he approaches his grandfather’s story he discovers more is the Jewish way of seeing story, of turning it and turning it to find everything within it.
Another scholar, David Patterson, recalled a midrash on Joseph, in which Pharaoh says: “I will see if you have wisdom, if you know the 70 languages of the nations.” It was knowing all these languages plus one more that saved Joseph’s life — while Pharaoh didn’t know Hebrew, Joseph did.
And it occurs to me: Maybe story is a language, and maybe Jews have known this all along. Yes, I think to myself, story will save us.
Monica Osborne is a writer and scholar of Jewish literature and culture. Her book, “The Midrashic Impulse and the Contemporary Literary Response to Trauma,” will be published in December.