After guilt, atonement

“My life in art has redeemed me from a thousand deaths. Through my painting, which I have practiced diligently, I have atoned for a guilt I do not know the origin of.”— Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, 1938

Friedl Dicker-Brandeis was a Jewish artist, political activist and intellectual in Vienna before World War II — demanding occupations, even notwithstanding Nazi Germany. The playwright Bertolt Brecht and the painter Wassily Kandinsky were just two of the bold winds that blew in and out of that modern city. The year Friedl confessed her atonement strategy — atoned for it, maybe? — was the year Sigmund Freud left Vienna for England after a visit from the Gestapo. Friedl was not so lucky and, shortly after, was transported to Terezin, the concentration camp for privileged Jews, famous for its rich cultural life — an oxymoron we are right to raise our eyebrows at. Obligatory chamber groups and jazz ensembles set the score for slave laborers splitting mica from the mines. Plays, operas, magazines and 16,000 dead in 1942 alone. Friedl was one of the many who did not survive the war. She was murdered in Auschwitz, but during her years in Terezin taught drawing classes for the children there. Four thousand of the drawings survived, hidden from the Nazis in two enormous suitcases just before Friedl was ferried off to Auschwitz. I do not know the origin of her guilt any better than she does — all I can be sure of is the majesty of her atonement.

A different register: “White guilt,” really? Someone scrawled those words across the wall of Dwight Hall, Yale’s community service center, early Tuesday morning. Would that they designated a real feeling! Insofar as guilt inspires the “diligent practice” of atonement, it is a productive feeling, or rather, one I do not begrudge as the private motivation for one’s service. And my guess is, if you are serving somebody — anybody — guilt is not the feeling on your heart’s front burner. What “white guilt” really describes is a sort of cowardly indignation at the implication of guilt, an annoyed wave of the hands, an awkward expiation offered up: “My great-grandmother suffered through the Russian pogroms. How could we be racist? We’re Jews. I’m voting Obama.” Scurry off, then, to lives of guiltless privilege and invent another form of loneliness. Ask me if I think there should be more or less white guilt, and my answer will be emphatic: more. If you ask me what I mean by guilt, I mean only its exalted corollary: atonement.

Last night and today, secular Jews will double or triple normal Temple attendance. In one sense, this fact rankles me. I resent it in the same way my more barbarous self resents the Christian notion that should a lifelong sinner accept the grace of God in his final breath, he, too, shall be saved. The careless, the lazy, the mean-spirited, the selfish, the accidental atheists — everyone gobbles two orders of pork dumplings at Ivy Noodle at 4 p.m., fasts for a day and waits on that magic feeling of atonement for a vague guilt we “know not the origin of,” since we only name it once a year before it’s up in smoke. And yet, I cannot let this fact really rankle me without hardening my heart beyond its natural state of gentle cynicism.

I do not have painting, and so I diligently practice my art of looking up words in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The etymology of the English word “atonement” is almost laughably simple. The dictionary defines it first as the “condition of being at one with others; unity of feeling, harmony, concord, agreement.” Theologically, it is first defined as “Reconciliation or restoration of friendly relations between God and sinners.” Friendly relations. Being at one with others. And so that is what the secular Jew means when she hunkers down with the others for her few — so few! — hours of fasting. She is among the others. No hand-wringing there, no hand-wringing in Dwight Hall: walk in, sit down, commune. The sin is loneliness. Atone.

Carina del Valle Schorske is a senior in Ezra Stiles College. Her column runs on alternate Thursdays.

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