All the world is a very narrow bridge; thoughts on this moment, from UWM scholar Rachel Baum | Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle

All the world is a very narrow bridge; thoughts on this moment, from UWM scholar Rachel Baum

While I was writing my dissertation on Holocaust literature and film, my husband would often come home to find me sobbing over my research. I’ve been teaching the Holocaust at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee for almost 30 years, and I still cry regularly while preparing for class. Sometimes I think, what an odd career I have chosen, to carry this knowledge, this grief.  

It is an honor.  

I carry other peoples’ stories, and they have changed me. When I write, when I speak, I imagine the people of those stories surrounding me. I send out a silent prayer that my efforts in the world might in some small way honor their memory.  

I’ve been thinking about this since Oct. 7. The grief feels unbearable. The stories are shattering. Families, communities, identities, security  – so much, shattered.  

Sometimes I want to close myself off. It is a vulnerable thing to let ourselves be changed by the stories of others.  

Even as I write this, I hear the voices – whose stories, whose pain must we carry? Israelis? Palestinians? There is enough grief right now to overwhelm us.  

In my classes, I tell my students there are important questions that we can’t yet answer. I wave my hand around and say that we will let the questions travel with us. Some questions will be answered by the end of the semester, but many we carry with us, some of them forever. The questions we carry shape us, like our grief.  

I want my students to hold more questions than answers. I know the truth of Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai’s words: From the place where we are right / Flowers will never grow / In the spring. I know that part of my work right now is to keep the questions alive for my students, so they can figure out whose stories they will choose to carry and the people they will be. Answers lead them to simplify and limit the stories they carry; questions expand complexity and allow them to hold more stories.  

The questions I carry now include, How can I remain open to the pain of Palestinians even while I stand with the Jewish people? How can I speak in ways that bring light, without turning away from what is difficult? How can I show up as a force of good in non-Jewish spaces, when showing up right now is often so painful?  

The arts help us to hold questions like these and are central to how I teach the Holocaust. My students study history, and also the Holocaust artwork of Felix Nussbaum, murdered at Auschwitz. Yiddish poets such as Jacob Glatstein introduce them to Jewish anger in ways I never could. Paintings and poetry remind my students that even in desperate times, people need to know themselves as human beings. Especially in desperate times.  Now I find myself thirsty for poetry, paintings, theater and music. I live in this world and carry its grief and its stories but nurture my soul with art that reminds me there is more.  

When I wrote my dissertation on the Holocaust, I had a Post-it note on my desk with the words of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov: All the world is a very narrow bridge; the important thing is not to be afraid. It comforted me when stories of destruction threatened to overwhelm me. I find myself turning to these words again now, as I practice turning away from fear and towards connection, beauty and empathy.  

After Oct. 7, Rabbi Joshua Herman, executive director of Hillel Milwaukee, said, “We have lost so many humans; let us not lose our humanity.” These words have guided me over the last month. Let us grieve, comfort the frightened, and donate our resources to support our community. And let us also intentionally engage in activities such as poetry, music and theater that broaden our sense of the world and that connect us, deeply, to our shared humanity.  

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Writer Rachel Baum is Deputy Director of The Sam and Helen Stahl Center for Jewish Studies at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, faculty advisor of Hillel Milwaukee, and a certified life coach. Opinions expressed are her own.