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Here We Are

Lev Rubinstein in Moscow. photo © Kartochki



...here I am! I will not tire you, my reader, by describing the hardships I encountered on my journey…


-Lev Rubinstein,  from one of  his  "Catalog Poems"


-Translated by Philip Metres and Tatiana Tulchinsky



I read a touching essay by Masha Gessen on the New Yorker feed about Lev Rubinstein's life and unexpected death, age 76, as I was headed to bed on Saturday night. Rubinstein was hit by a drunken driver on a Moscow street, which seems implausible, if not suspicious. The incident is "under investigation." By whom?


Gessen and Rubinstein were friends, colleagues and survivors of the Soviet and Putin regimes. Both were outspoken opponents of Putin's repression and the war in Ukraine. Masha lives in the US now, but Rubinstein, unlike other endangered artists and dissidents, did not leave Moscow. He was a supporter of Navalny and  eloquent in his antagonism to the "internal imperialism," of the Putin regime. Now he is dead. Masha is in New York. And so on and so on, as Kurt Vonnegut might have said.


Rubinstein  began his writing life working in a library in Moscow. Using discarded catalog cards, he wrote a sentence on each one and numbered them in an order that made narrative sense, such as #82 in the quotation above. Later he "performed" these prose poems to live audiences. His courage is a lesson for silenced writers in "free" societies, such as ours, silenced for fear of dunning, shunning, death threats, or cancellation. We corrode our moral center by remaining silent when we hear about censorship, or self-censorship, and do not object.


Authoritarian constraint creeps slowly in unyielding increments. Let us call it the "creeping disease." First a book banning, then the cancellation of a lecture at a university, police everywhere, arrests. Friendships ended, or compromised by "disagreements," about what "side" we are on, or not, as if atrocity, seen and acknowledged, had a "side."


Some of us are so profoundly implicated in the war in the Middle East, for example, either by ancestry or direct connection, that we do not have the luxury of not paying attention, of not discussing, of not being concerned about our loved ones and the future of Palestine and Israel.


Lev Rubinstein drew solace from history and all he had endured. For many years he was certain that Soviet "slime" would never dissipate, and then it did.  Glasnost, an opening into heart and light as a vigorous opposition surfaced in Russia, the Berlin Wall came down, and the arts and artists burst open. And then the clamp down, another round of trouble: Putin's repression and war mongering in Chechnya and Ukraine.


Though most of us are protected from its effects, America is not immune to slime. It is in our face and on our screens every day. We may live in privileged enclaves blind to troubles that impact others far away, or those near and dear, but the slime will eventually swallow us all if we do not resist. Indeed, we cannot take anything for granted this election year, including our very American sense of entitlement to a sense of safety, and prosperity.



Lev Rubinstein, Moscow, 1947-2024, RIP

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An Interesting Encounter in a Public Space

An old graveyard, dating back to the 17th century, on Historic Huguenot Street.

photo © Carol Bergman



I think the thing that is so special about folk music is that it is a reaffirmation of the celebration of the human spirit and human life.


-Mary Travers, in a 1983 NPR Interview



I was sitting in a public space reading The New York Times, my once-a-week paper paper treat. I read slowly, contemplatively, sometimes with a pen and paper to hand. I choose a different day each week to buy the paper paper and read electronically the rest of the time. I don't like to be interrupted. Slow reads, the hum of conversation around me, are my meditation. But the man sitting next to me turned and said, "Any good news today?" White haired, his glasses slipping off his nose, I was surprised by the friendly greeting.


An interlude here to explain that extended conversation between strangers in the small upstate NY town where I live are rare. The mores here are different: people cherish their privacy and seem more wary of strangers. Urban for most of my life, I have never not had conversations in public spaces, so I welcome them. Indeed, I cherish them. Who was this friendly guy? "Good news. Not so much these days," I said, answering his initial question. Then I showed him a digital photo of a tree from the bottom up. The botanists are studying the survival mechanisms of trees, I told him. "The trees need this, and so do we."


"That's a Republican newspaper," he said.


I took a breath. "You must be very left of center to say that," I said. But his statement made me smile.  I wasn't sure if he was joking, or not.


"Are you wearing patchouli?" he asked, without missing a beat. "That scent brings me back to the 60s. We all wore patchouli."


This comment was a bit too personal, but I rolled with it. In fact, I was relieved. I wasn't up for defending the newspaper of record or its 1700 dedicated reporters all over the world, or its editorial stance, or anything else. The origins of patchouli were a diversion and I launched into them. I sounded like a wiki entry.


"I only read the paper electronically," he interrupted. "And the news is hard to take. These wars."


"Heartbreaking," I said, relieved that we had quickly found common ground.


"I'm 88-years-old, I remember WW II, I remember when there was no Thruway and it took three hours to get to the city. My family has been living here since 1638."


Just imagine. 1638. "What did you say your name was?" I asked, knowing that I was in the presence of a descendant of one of the colonial settler families, all of them slave owners.  But I didn't want to get into that, not right away.  


"Dewitt Jansen," he said. "There's a road named after us here."


"Dutch," I said, and that was enough for the moment.


Dewitt got up out of his seat, maybe to stretch, and I could see that he was very thin, almost emaciated. He looked like he'd surfaced from one of the old graves in town, a ghostly presence. The town is haunted with them. Then he sat down again and we talked some more.


"What did you do when you were working?" I asked.


"I was a pick-up jazz pianist, traveled all over the world, played with many bands. I once dated Mary Travers, remember her? Peter, Paul and Mary. She's dead now."


"She sang jazz before her folk music career?"


"She was an artist."


More than an artist, she devoted her musical career to social justice, I remembered. The group had 12 hit singles. One of them, If I Had A Hammer, became an anthem for the Civil Rights Movement. She died of leukemia in 1989.


"Do you still play?"


"Look at these fingers. All curled up," he said.


"But you've been blessed with an interesting life," I said. "I think the gods have smiled upon you."


"Not entirely," he said, facing me straight on now. "My youngest daughter is dying of cancer. They can't seem to stop the spread."


I thought he would burst into tears. I wanted to hug him. Instead, I gave him my card and said, "You're talking to a journalist. If you ever want to write or tell your story, give me a call."


"A lot on my plate right now," he said, disconsolately.


"I understand."


Retreating into my journalist's persona, I had needed distance to recover from his revelation, not about Mary Travers, but about his daughter.



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photo © copyright Carol Bergman 2024



Every past has a future.




The best way to resolve any problem in the human world is for all sides to sit down and talk.


-The Dalai Lama



A humanitarian aid worker friend wrote to say he's looking forward to "moving through" 2024 with me. I knew what he meant, of course, as the challenges of the year we are entering are manifold and obvious, both nationally and internationally. Unspoken in the text is a worry about his colleagues still in the field. However well trained they are, the work they do is more dangerous than ever before, and hundreds will not return home, or return home in body bags, or as wounded as soldiers and innocent civilians in body and spirit.


The wars on Planet Earth will not quit, natural disasters abound, more so with climate change. A quake in Japan this morning, as I write. And I write about all of it for this blog, for the local paper when they have revenue to pay me, and in essays for various journals. Every writer has a subject, or more than one subject, and as a child of war myself, these are mine—war and social justice, mainly. My attempts to write more "light-heartedly," as one or two well-meaning friends have suggested, have failed. Even if an item in the paper makes me smile, that smile is Brechtian in its absurdity; it's a smile with clouds hovering. The other day, for example, I read that an opera singer lost her voice while she was pregnant. I don't know why I thought that was funny, because it really isn't, but I laughed anyway. Even more hilarious was the news that a drone has been invented to capture pathogens in the plumes of Orcas, diagnose their ailments, and treat them underwater. PS There are only about 75 Orcas left in the hemisphere where I reside. Or, the news that a man on death row who refused to die by lethal injection will now be executed by nitrogen gas and has asked his pastor to keep him company in the death chamber. His pastor has agreed to sacrifice his life, if necessary.


No writer can make any of this up.  Or maybe they can.


Today, the first day of 2024, I am back at my desk working. One of the three books I wrote during Covid is in galley and I have had to make corrections, which I do not enjoy. The process is pernickety as the Brits would say, though not a cause for complaint, or even a minor lamentation. And I'm waiting for a text from a friend. We're walking up into the Minnewaska Ridge to celebrate the New Year in a wintry sunshine.


This blog is dedicated to the Hand-in-Hand Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel, a utopian experiment now 2000 Arab and Jewish children strong.   This is their website:  https://www.handinhandk12.org/



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