By the Waters of Babylon


Imagine you lived in a city surrounded by walls. You trod solid ground because of great earthworks that kept in a roiling, seething, muddy mass bearing both life and death. The city was there because of all that the water carried, but the city could only stand where the water was not. You walked safe streets because of chain-link fences between you and the members of humanity who lived a little closer to the muck. When the walls weren’t there, you drew the line with your gaze. You met them only on certain days, at the barricades, when parades of kings and queens rolled by. Every Man a King was the cry on those holidays, but there were plenty of police to keep the peace.

Then, one day, the barriers broke down, and the careful compartments were all washed away. The muck engulfed the people living lowest to the ground. Death was everywhere, like the stench of the corpse of an old man left on a lawn chair in the summer sun. Life, too, was closer than before, a fragile, breathing web of love.

This city is New Orleans, before and after Hurricane Katrina.

My friend Rebecca’s father is a doctor. He spoke with her while waiting in line for hours to get out of the hospital in a helicopter three days after the storm. Looters were shooting around the building. Her relief, hearing he had made it out, was the best part of my day today.

“The LORD has purposed to destroy the wall of the daughter of Zion; He has stretched out the line, He hath not withdrawn His hand from destroying; but He has made the rampart and wall to mourn, they languish together.”

I don’t want to gild the enormity of this disaster with unnecessary metaphor. It’s just that at times like these the physical collides and becomes one with the psychic. We built those walls so we could build a city. We build these walls so we can live our lives without them. “We are out here like pure animals,” said the 68-year-old Reverend Isaac Clark, as he waited outside in the street surrounded by the dying. August 31.

“The tongue of the sucking child cleaves to his mouth for thirst; the young children ask for bread and none breaks it unto them.”

“We haven’t had no food, we haven’t had no water, we haven’t had nothing. They just brought us here and dropped us.” Helen Cheek, quoted outside the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, September 1.

But you also live in a walled city. Every city in this country holds at least a thousand homeless refugees, mothers and children too. Right now a man is trudging down a street near yours with all of his things in a shopping cart. Do you see him?

I remember when I was nine years old and had seen a Holocaust memorial [exhibit]. I woke in the night, sobbing. I had just realized that death was real and was waiting for every one of us. For the first time in my life, my mother couldn’t protect me. She told me instead to push my knowledge back behind a wall of sleep. That’s how we live. But it is a partial life.

I grew up Jewish, taught a liturgy of exile and loss. It’s a vocabulary that now comes to hand. Just two weeks ago, Jews sat on our floors to read the Book of Lamentations by candlelight, mourning once again the destruction of our own walled city, Jerusalem. The book in Hebrew is called Eicha, chanted in two drawn-out notes, meaning How. How can this be? Wherefore this destruction?

The rabbis of the Talmud have an answer: The Temple was destroyed the last time, and the city sacked, because of causeless hatred. Brother for brother.

“As for us, our eyes do yet fail for our vain help; in our watching we have watched for a nation that could not save.”

The Speaker of the House of Representatives has just stated to an Illinois newspaper that it’s no use trying to rebuild the city where 100,000 people are still waiting to be rescued. My friend Jackie and I are ranting at each other. “I just realized it’s because they don’t give a shit about these people,” she says. “They look like slaves. . . .” Black people walking along the railroad tracks, headed out of New Orleans. A woman with a kerchief on her head holds her child and a man carries a bundle with all he owns.

We need nothing short of a Lincoln to lead us the hell out of this hell, to become one country again. We need a secular saint, not a king looking out his airplane window, too far away to see the people waving white flags below. “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Neither can a house caked with mud, violated by looters, with a hole chopped through the roof and a corpse buried in the rubble. The house that I live in has become that house. And your house has too. If we are going to live there again, some walls must be built higher. And others must be broken down forever.