Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Picture's Worth a Thousand Words.

You'll notice the title of this post, and then you'll notice that I'm writing words that really, to be honest, won't do much justice to a simple photograph. My face, in this photo, is swollen. I'm still recovering from my allergic reaction last weekend and the medication I'm on has caused my muscles to ache, my body to fatigue, and my face to swell. So that's me. But that guy next to me?

He is what I consider a celebrity. An academic, spiritual, Jewish, brainy celebrity. My heart beat fast when he was asked my question, among the four that were asked, during his talk this afternoon and when he was walking into the dining hall to eat a delicious kosher meal with about 50 of us, I got sweaty and nervous.

I walked up to him, "Thank you for answering my question, thank you so much for answering it." And he responded with "Well, thank you for asking it." (The question was irrelevant -- about Iran and the Holocaust and how we approach these people, what Elie Wiesel so aptly deemed those who are "morally ill.") I stood nervously. "Can I get a picture with you, please? If it's not too much trouble?" He answered that it wasn't, he put his hand around my back, leaned in, and this is the photo that I have.

A friend from Russia took the photo. I got the camera back from her and noted that in the photo he looked sad, tired. His eyes were saying something timeless, but something devastating. Even when he was smiling in the photos he took with countless benefactors and important persons this evening, he wasn't smiling. His expression always crawled back into a fatigue. He looked tired. I thought to myself, "If I were Elie Wiesel, I, too, would be tired."

But it's interesting how, while sitting and listening to this man -- this icon, this inspiration -- speak, I started to realize that I don't even remember what it feels like to not be Jewish. It was a funny thing to think upon while he was discussing what constitutes a moral society and whether we live in one today. He was discussing the Holocaust, surviving, his friendships and his experiences, how he lives his life and what it means to be moral. All the while, he was relating Hasidic legends, talking about the Talmud, and reciting popular quotes we find from the sages -- all to teach about morality. I realized, in those moments, that to be Jewish is so much of who I am, my efforts to relate to this aspect of Judaism and its history -- the Holocaust -- have stopped being difficult. Have I realized my fullness? I've finally crawled over that bump in the road where I found it so hard to relate to the Holocaust, to the survivors, to that period of Jewish history. In those moments, listening to this man inspire and emote, I felt as if I were listening to my grandfather, my father, my brother, my people.

So when I finally got to shake his hand, and feel his arm around my back, I felt as though I was finally realizing a part of me that was hidden. His hand, which surely had seen so much, felt so much -- both pain and simchas -- touched my back, and I felt so at home near those sad eyes.

Will I ever see Elie Wiesel again? Perhaps. But if I don't, I have the memory of asking him a question, him spending so many minutes answering it passionately, him shaking my hand, putting his arm around my back, taking a photo with me, and listening to me stammering nervously. What a man.