December 23 (or thereabouts) is my favorite day of the year. That is the day after the shortest day of the year (and the longest night), the day when light begins to grow again. It happens every year, dependably, and even though in modern times it marks the beginning of winter, that’s a subjective, even arbitrary, marking, one we ourselves choose, assigning a name to which nature, inexorable, is itself indifferent.
Let nature be our guide, with this first hint of the spring that is bound to come. Daylight has been fading for months now, but fear not, the warmth and the light will be — not merely can be, but will be — restored. Hold on.
Holding on is not so easily accomplished. Time within moves at a different pace from external time, affected but not determined by the grand movements of the planets. For us, there’s Shakespeare on aging (Sonnet 73): “That time of year when mayst in me behold / When yellow leaves, or few, or none do hang / Upon these boughs which shake against the cold / Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang.”
What calls all this to mind just now is an off-Broadway play I saw the other night, a play called “Masked,” by the Israeli playwright Ilan Hatsor. Its three characters are brothers, Palestinians at the time of the first intifada. One has taken to the hills, become a terrorist; a second, we learn as the play unfolds, has become an active collaborator with the Israelis; the third, the youngest, is the innocent who urges resolution of the differences between his siblings.
It is a sad drama, sad to the point of haunting. The sympathies of the audience sway one way and then another, as choices are narrowed, as eloquent rationales are put forward, as it dawns on us that we are beholding three ruined lives.
Some people will leave the theater believing that the brothers are victims of the play’s obvious villain, the Israelis. Unseen, Israel’s presence is felt throughout; it is author of the ruin.
Others, less given to categorical definitions and boundaries, will know that a mirror-play could be written that shows how Israeli lives, too, have been ruined, and not just the lives of terrorism’s immediate victims but the lives of all who are complicit in the occupation. Or they will repair to existential categories, understand that blame is not at all the issue, that it has been so long and so unrelieved a night, that this ugly thing has a dynamic of its own, that the characters both seen and unseen are scripted and conscripted, “merely players.” All that matters is the context, and to the context in this instance there is a stained steel name: the occupation.
It is not so simple as end the occupation and then the sweet birds will sing again. In these precincts, the birds have not paused to sing since long before these players came to the stage. A wise and lovely Israeli lawyer, in the talkback that followed the performance, told of how she first saw this play in 1993, in Israel, after the Oslo Accords were signed, and thought then she was watching a piece of history. And so she and her friends could sing about how, next year, they would sit on their porches and count migrating birds, “you’ll yet see how good it will be next year.”
But there have been 14 “next years” since then, another and bloodier intifada, more houses demolished, more bare ruined choirs, less hope. There’s another song, the very song Yitzhak Rabin was singing moments before he was assassinated, “Shir Lashalom” it’s called, “allow the sun to penetrate,” but hardly anyone sings that song any longer; it hurts too much.
The hardest and harshest stories of the Holocaust are of the choices that confronted members of the Judenrat, the councils the Nazis appointed to “manage” Jewish affairs in the ghettos they’d established, where Sophie’s choice was the daily burden — give us the names or you will die, or you and your family, or a thousand randomly chosen. Where does principle point in so twisted a world? What does resistance mean there, in the cursed Kingdom of Night?
Holding on is a form of resistance. Of itself, it is entirely inadequate. Holding on changes nothing external. But it creates a space, narrow though it be. It makes room for the possibility of sunlight, of singing birds and repaired choirs. It is a way of saying there is always a partner for peace: you are that partner, I am that partner, the challenge is only to find each other and then to hold each other, to hold on to each other, to move the calendar so that today, this very day, there will be more minutes of daylight, and tomorrow still more.
Though we may shake against the cold, near spent, we need not freeze. There’s the warming embrace of the old friend nearly forgotten, of that stranger never approached, of all the others who yearn, who sing, who pray, who resist, who are our sunshine, who make us hopeful when nights are long, too long. Even in the diverse kingdoms of night such things can happen; they refute the regal night.
That doesn’t happen in “Masked,” and would have been an altogether deceptive ending had the playwright been less honest than he was. But in the end, “Masked” is only a play, its truth not the only truth. Another truth: “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life, that you and your seed may live.”