Tikkun Olam

Healing beyond Death

Posted Jun 22, 2015

In my last blog, ‘A Dream of Decapitation.’ I wrote about a very troubling dream. In the dream two decapitated figures appear before me and I attempt to sew their severed heads back onto their bodies. As hard as I try to save them, I fail. They are dead. I tell the dream to my Israeli friend, Avi Hadari, fellow art-maker and creative arts therapist. Avi responds with a story about the Golem of Prague who is created from mud by a magical rabbi and takes revenge upon the anti-Semites active in propagating the myth of blood libel, which brands the Jews with the crime of killing Christian children and using their blood for ritual purposes. In the end, after telling Avi my own fictional story about journeying out into the unknown, I realize that the dream is about an attempt to hold together my own splits of head and heart, of healer and patient, of journeyer and settler. When I sent the blog to my friend, Michael Posnick, a theatre artist, musician and teacher, he responded from a deep place. With Michael’s permission, here is his letter:

Robert,

While reading your nightmarish blog where you described trying to sew the severed heads onto your dreamself men – near desperate efforts to restore life to the dead – I recalled a vivid memory of a painting I saw perhaps a decade ago in the Kunsthistorishes Museum in Vienna.

I had traveled to Vienna to attend a Jewish Theatre Conference. I went with the mixed feelings and trepidations of a man who would not buy a Volkswagon or a Braun electric shaver. It’s irrational, I know, but given the history that shaped my early life, not without basis.

In fact, before the trip, when I was wavering with fears of what it would be like to visit a German speaking, German collaborating country, I went to see my friend and mentor, Judith Malina of the Living Theatre and laid out my ambivalence.  She looked me straight in the eye and asked: ‘You still hate the Nazis?’ The question brought a shudder of recognition and, yes, shame, and an opportunity to see the useless obsolescence of my ambivalence; so I bought my ticket and went to the conference.

We were lodged in a hotel where there was a sizeable group of elderly Jews who had come from overseas as invited guests of the City of Vienna.  All of them had been born there and had fled in the 30s.  Seven decades later, this was their first return to their birthplace. The tales they told in the lobby of the hotel and the tears they shed for lost lives indelibly marked my stay in the city – and beyond.

The conference brought together about 60+ theatre artists from all over Europe, Israel, Australia and the U.S.  There were papers and panels, late night discussions, and some memorable performances, including a Jewish puppet theatre from Norway run by a non-Jewish couple.  The coordinator of the conference was an American who had moved to Vienna some years back, founded the Jewish Theatre of Vienna in a tiny storefront and was embroiled in a very public battle with the city to reclaim a building, which had once housed a vibrant Jewish theatre, was transfigured under the Nazis, and was now a supermarket.

One afternoon I left the conference and went to the museum, which, along with other magnificent buildings, sits on the edge of a huge square – the same square where Hitler received a warm Viennese welcome.  It was raining and the slick stones reflected the surrounding buildings like ghosts, and the sound of the rain seemed like the long gone echoes of marching armies and the cheering crowd.

The museum holds treasures beyond belief – rooms full of Breugels and Rembrandts, medieval musical instruments, arms and armor and exquisite galleries of sculpture and objets d’art.  Walking through one of the galleries, I was suddenly stopped in my tracks, transfixed, unable to breathe or move or think. Silent tears flowed. This was a painting by Rubens that portrayed Mary and John kneeling on either side of the dead gray body of Jesus.  She was cradling him with her arm and, at the same time, removing a thorn from his lifeless forehead, a forehead that could no longer feel pain and anointed with compassion over which death had no hold. In the painting and in the profound insight of the painter, death was rendered mute and powerless by love; love that is stronger than death, as described in the Song of Songs.  This was the true work of the artist, to render healing beyond sense, beyond death, to redeem and restore life, just as in your dream.

The Lamentation of Christ, Peter Paul Rubens, 1614. Digital Image Copyright KHM-Museumsverband
Source: The Lamentation of Christ, Peter Paul Rubens, 1614. Digital Image Copyright KHM-Museumsverband

I began to see this entire journey as an effort to repair in some way what seems beyond repair, to heal what seems beyond healing, to put to rest the lifeless ghosts we carry within us.  For me it was an opportunity to overcome ancient attitudes inculcated in early life by the harsh teachings of history, to come out of the past and discover all that the present has to offer.  For the old Jews of Vienna, it was an opportunity to return to both the past and the present, to find a certain closure after decades of emptiness, to overcome loss and death by grieving together and sharing their stories in the presence of now. For the city itself, this was a moment to search deeply into a heart that had nearly been irretrievably disfigured and discover a space for reconciliation. And in the museum, a timeless moment to reveal the infinitude of unconditional love.

And there is more.

From the museum I attended a play in the storefront Jewish theatre written and performed by a woman whose father killed her mother. Her father, who spent years in jail, was long dead, but the ghosts of unforgiveness haunted and crippled her inner growth and creativity. By grace and years of hard work, she was moved to heal herself, a healing that culminated in this play of forgiveness. Watching the play, hearing her story, we all were moved to look within and mirror her hard won journey from bitterness to freedom. AND, as it turned out, she was also the sister of the man who organized the conference. The two were estranged and had not seen or spoken to each other in many years. He had invited her to come to Vienna and there, after the play, we witnessed their reconciliation. The pain released; the thorn removed.

On Friday night we walked to the only existent synagogue on sidewalks that had once been scrubbed clean by Jews with toothbrushes. Address: Judenplatz. The synagogue had been elegantly refurbished; women upstairs, men below, a cantor and male choir chanting the same melodies and harmonies that had for centuries touched those high ceilings and beyond, and that I learned as a boy singing in our synagogue choir. Melodies remembered and restored.

To accompany this healing journey where we sang our songs in a strange land, each night outside my hotel window, a nightingale sang late into the night, a sweet, mournful, welcome sound.

With Michael’s letter, the circles keep expanding outward from the splits of the dark dream world, outward from the mythical world of golems and gods and magical rabbis, outward from the wounds of the historical world of blood libel and holocaust, out into the light of the present. The bad news is that deep chasms exist in the universe, splitting apart all that seeks to be whole. And history repeats itself in racist philosophies, political atrocities and personal nightmares. The good news is that there are dreamers, storytellers, artists and ordinary journeyers of the soul to restore and re-story the twisted narratives. They go by such big names as Mary, Joseph, Jesus, Rabbi Loeb, Peter Paul Rubens, Judith Malina, and such simple names as Robert, Avi and Michael.  Their destinations, large and small, are the same: Tikkun Olam, repairing the world.