This is the story we tell:
We were a small tribe, extended family, really, in a small part of a small land. Drought came. We followed the rumors of food and water, immigrated to where a family member had set already a footprint.
We stayed there, had children, intermarried, took on parts of the culture we lived in. Some of us spoke only our own language – Ivrit – some were bilingual, some lost our language completely. We didn’t look so different, especially after generations there, but neither language nor look mattered when The Troubles came, when warring and monument building ate the extra money of the rulers and they turned to forced labor so their lives could go on unchanged. One generation we were all but inseparable from our neighbors, the next generation most of us were no longer being paid, no longer trading, no longer running our small shops, the next generation we were by law and custom slaves outright. The next generation we no longer looked the same – the work, the bad food when we had food, the clothing worn until there was nothing left to wear, the sun – we were turned into the Dark Strangers they now feared. Forbidden from speaking any language but our own, we stopped being able to communicate, grew utterly separate.
Except for the secrets of the new moon nights, when those who remembered they had been family would gather far from the palaces and brick pits, when everyone spoke every language, even if harsh and slow and thick of tongue. But what odd families – never any children, for a single story, a single word spoken to a friend, would put all of our lives in danger. Imagine, then, the day a child became an adult, the day he learned that the Dark Strangers he’d been taught to rule were his very own family, the day she learned the truth of how the well fed and well-dressed came to rule over every part of her life.
And in those days from among us a warrior arose. And was killed and flayed in front of us. And then another. Each generation, a new rebel leader, a new mystic, a new prophet, and some came close, so very close, that our rulers would tear into our community, slaughtering, raping, terrorizing.
And then from among THEM a warrior arose, much to his own surprise. Maybe he was fully Hebrew. Maybe he was half-breed, half-blood, child of forbidden love, child of rape – the legends are many and the facts are few. But from the boundary where he dwelled a revolution could arise, we could all discover our own fearlessness, slaves who hauled water found they could drain it, slaves who tended flocks found they could spread disease, slaves who grew cops found they could fail, slaves who delivered babies found they could lie, slaves kept in houses, regarded as nearly one of the family, found they could, all on one bloody night, kill the firstborns in their soft warm beds.
And we all found that, fearless now, we could simply lay down our slavery and walk away. That we could run to our New Moon families and that they would lay down their privilege and walk away with this. That we could pack wagonloads of reparation-goods and take these with us. That every way they had not seen us until we took action meant they could not understand the calm logic of our actions so believed us to be holders of a dangerous magic.
This is the story we tell, how, no longer an extended family, a single tribe, a single language, a single culture, the fact of leaving together could not unite us. Every second or fifth or sixth week of hunger, every bitter cold night sleeping exposed on rock, every fear of water running out, every disagreement about a sheep, every moment other than the glory of the leaving, tore into us, tore us apart, scabs that could never heal before being split and split again. How some of us had still the family story of the small area in the small land that an ancestor had purchased. How some of us were never part of that family and couldn’t see how any small land could be a home to this crowd. How some us wanted only the home we had just left, dreamt every night that somehow the idea of Ruling Over could be destroyed and we could go back. How some of us lashed out in violence at anyone who used the word “back.”
This is the story we tell, of forty years of following weather and seasons and rain and rumor. Of disease and disturbance and disagreement leaving dead by the dozens or dozens of dozens. Of how the generation who dreamed of “back” fell into the silence of their final dreaming and spoke no more of that home. Of how the cult of The Land of Our Father Abraham waxed and waned. Of how a class of Priests arose from that cult, claiming a magic rod, two magic stones, a god who could not be seen but could and did demand endless wealth and sacrifice and could and did punish brutally. Of how that cult and its priests swayed and cowed enough of the crowd to push all of us over the river and into a campaign of slaughter and appropriation, justified by forged documents of a sale of land so many generations back the world was all but new. Of how our god slayed the troops before us with his mighty right hand and we settled peacefully into what was rightfully ours and created a community where all were priests and holy.
And then there is the story we tell about the story we tell, or rather the thousands of stories we have told about the story we tell. For sometimes the story is triumphalist, sometimes a warning, sometimes a yearning, sometimes a myth told only for the comfort of the telling. In every land, in every time, the story we tell is told in different tongues and with the new words come new foods, new rituals, new ways for the details to shift and sift and come out so samely different. Or differently same.
In every land, in every time, every generation was inexorably shaped by the world we lived in, making it impossible to know how the story had meant before. After the destruction of Jerusalem none could comprehend what it had meant to tell our story when the city still stood. After the Expulsion from Spain none of us who told the story could tell it without the shudder of knowing that in each generation a Pharaoh will arise. After immigrations, exiles, mass conversions, decades upon decades of good and peaceful years, after ghettos, after blood-libel slaughters, after messiahs failed and communities disintegrated, after after after – the story we tell is always the same story and can never ever be the same story.
The story we tell, here, tonight, is an after, after, after story. After the Holocaust. After the nation state. After a global rebellion of women. After a despair too huge to have any words to describe it other than itself. After a violent triumphalism that saw the story’s ancient real-estate deal again put forward by the cult of the Land of Our Father. After a generation that noticed there were no women in our story as we told it and went looking for whoever they could find. After a generation who, still not satisfied by the limits of text and memory, began to invent, to add more after what little was there had won, grudgingly, a few words in the story we tell as it was then told.
The story we tell is always the story told after the generation before us and always this will be true. The story we tell is always more complicated, more complex, more contradictory, more cantankerous, than the story we tell about the story we tell. The story we tell has no one people, no one god, no one agreed upon set of rules, no one agreed upon text. The story we tell about the story we tell may have that false unity, but the story itself is a story of resistance that resists being made clear, made simple, made clear for the simple.
The story we tell is that we tell the story. The story we tell is that we tell the story, and that the we that tells it is large, is vast, contains multitudes. The story we tell is more accurate than history and more mythic than myth. The story we tell arose before the concepts of myth and history were invented. The story we tell will go on being told, and we who tell it this year, in this place, have no idea what our story will mean in ten years, in a hundred, in a hundred hundred.
The story we tell is our story, and we are its storytellers.