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The People Who Weren't There

People weren t there

Sitting at the seder table alongside three women: a movie star, a small business owner, and a landscape architect, I eavesdropped on their conversation as I ate my matzoh ball soup. And the businesswoman mentioned that some of her workers took time off when they had their periods. She could understand it in the case of one of them who had a medical condition that caused her immense pain and discomfort, but the practice had become habitual among workers she wasn’t sure required it.


All three women began chiming in about the virtues of pushing oneself past one’s perceived limitations when feeling unable or reluctant to expend the effort to accomplish something, particularly something athletic like waking up for a dance class at six ay em or dragging oneself to the bathroom after an insufficient night’s sleep or exercising past the point of pain or exhaustion.


They lost the thread of the workers wanting time for themselves, but implicit behind all this self-congratulation for being such tough, rigorous women was that millennials these days didn’t want to do that pushing-through-limitations thing. I was thinking, “How do you know that they’re not pushing themselves in some other arena of activity unrelated to their jobs?” Because being a waiter or bartender or member of a kitchen staff might not necessarily be their passion. That might lie elsewhere. And when they’re taking time for themselves, they may not just be groaning with cramp pain, but might be using the time for a purpose of which you are entirely unaware.


I didn’t say that, of course, because all three women were, by common standards, far more accomplished than I have ever been or ever will be. And it is well known that my political doctrine of non-excellence, non-participation, and non-achievement has put me in the precarious economic position where I now find myself. I did take the opportunity to praise napping, though. But it brought home how misunderstood my calls for a universal work stoppage was destined to remain.


It also brought to mind Gayatri Spivak, the Indian feminist literary critic, and the concept from Gramsci of the subaltern, about which I understand very little. The subaltern, as the notion has developed from Gramsci through Spivak and now through my misbegotten filter, is anyone or anything who is left out of the assumptions of a given discourse by virtue of their power inferiority. So much less are they than the selves discussing themselves that they don’t exist enough to speak or even to have what they might say, if they could, considered. Discussions of ethics and morals in dominant circles tend to be carried on as if the dominant circle were the only group that matters. Left out are the lesser people whose voices can be ignored simply because they don’t appear in the territory under consideration as its map has been constructed. The subaltern is an unacknowledged part of the landscape.


The workers under discussion, for example, are not thought to be doing something else valuable in the time they aren’t at work. They’re simply not at work, which means they don’t have a material existence on the map the boss is looking at. The map the three women were looking at was a geography of where they felt these people who weren’t living up to what they considered the noble or correct or fulfilling goal should unquestionably be. The goal in life is to be happy. One does what one needs to do with passion, and what needs to be done is what these three women had decided were the activities necessary to achieve fulfillment.

Spivak is a fan of Jacques Derrida, or has at least made expressions favorable to him and deconstruction, because he interrogated texts to understand how they undermined their own assumptions. The deconstruction of a text reveals what the makers of the text are hiding from themselves. That’s what I was doing to the discourse of these unwitting women conversing next to me. But I wasn’t just the deconstructor. By feeling it necessary to keep my discovery to myself, I was also the subaltern, the lesser, the not included being: invisible and unheard.


The thing about people is that they conjure the invisible into existence by ignoring it. There’s an empty space where a questioning voice should be. Nature abhors a vacuum. Nature abhors me, inasmuch as a I am a vacuum. Therefore I am the voice that the void in a three-way self-congratulatory conversation is doomed to conjure. Whether I speak or not is irrelevant. Just the fact that my questions exist to fill the void in conversational awareness is enough. The questions take shape in the void whether the questions are spoken or left silent.


I don’t know how much you listeners know about Passover. Nested in the Passover expression of breaking the chains of slavery is an eschatological wish, expressed at the end of the seder. לשנה הבאה בירושלים L'shana haba'ah v'Yerushalayim: “Next year in Jerusalem” was what they used to say, back before Jerusalem became the capital of Israel, subject to ethnic cleansing to evict its Palestinian inhabitants. The Messiah, Mashiach, will come one day, announced by the prophet Elijah, so the rumor had it. The seder table used to have an empty chair with a place setting and a kiddish cup, a prayer cup, full of wine, designated for Elijah, should the time of Mashiach come during the seder and the prophet come stumbling in and need a nosh of chopped liver or gefilte fish, or even something more Sephardic like spicy lentils or whatever they eat.


It was the movie star’s first seder ever. Everyone else at the table was Jewish. At one point in the meal the movie star mentioned that her ex-boyfriend, very much ex, had texted her that day. It was a text asking a favor. She said, “I’m just going to ignore it.” We all agreed that such a response was appropriate. I had met the fellow a few times and was not particularly partial to him.


I said to her, “You know we have a seat reserved at the table for Elijah,” which bewildered her, because Elijah happened to be this ex-boyfriend’s name. We Jews at her end of the table laughed and immediately let her in on the humorous coincidence.


I don’t think I’ve ever been to a seder that’s left a full-size place setting and an adult chair reserved for Elijah. Here it didn’t even come up except as a joke. Not only was Elijah absent, he didn’t even have a place ready if he decided to show up, although I’m sure we could have hastily arranged to accommodate him if he did.


Also absent, at a ritual meal to commemorate the Israelites rising up from slavery and Exodusing from Egypt, were the Palestinians, who had been the victims of settler violence, vandalism, and theft back in the territories in recent weeks, as well as mosque desecration, beatings, shootings, and gassing from the Magavnikim, the Israeli border police or more accurately the cruelty police, who didn’t police cruelty but used cruelty to police. This had been reported only the day before that first night of Passover.


Although they were acknowledged fleetingly during a blessing that night, their suffering and the injustice of their mistreatment was far from adequately described, conjured, let alone understood. They were the true subalterns, and I would like to say I was holding a place for them, that I at least made a gesture of doing so, but of course it was as if I had done nothing at all. After all, who am I to tell their story? I can only point in the direction of the breeze that whispers of the storm churning so far away, with breath almost depleted of force by the time we celebrants feel it on our well-fed cheeks.


The well-off went on congratulating themselves, I among them, ever confident in their self-definition as authors of their own destinies, while the voices of the subalterns, at least on a conscious level, blew past unheard.


This has been the Moment of Truth. Good day!

Gramsci Passover Subaltern Messiah Moment of Truth


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