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Writing Eyes, Stones

 The Making of Eyes, Stones

I often introduce the poems in Eyes, Stones with the question “How do two narratives live in one body?” When I ask this question I am referring to the experience of carrying the story of two peoples inside of me, an experience that has been excruciating and tremendously rewarding.

The poems in this collection began as a love letter to my grandmother.

Until the day she died, my grandmother claimed that the only thing that kept her alive through the horrors of the Holocaust was her burning hope for a Jewish homeland, for Israel, the place she imagined would be safe for Jews, unlike Poland where she was born and raised and suffered tremendously for being a Jew. I was both awed and deeply curious how this place where she had never been was able to sustain her through such horrific conditions.

I didn’t make it to Israel as an adult until I went on a Birthright trip in my twenties. The moment I set foot on that soil, stood in the old city, in front of the wailing wall, I knew this place belonged to me and I belonged to it.

I fell in love.

But when I returned to New York City, to my left leaning poetry and political activist community, I couldn’t share my love of Israel. All I heard was disgust. “Jews…get out of Palestine…” I was devastated. How could these people who I loved and respected not recognize or understand what my family and millions of others had gone through to birth the state of Israel, a place where Jews could finally be safe? 

I remember one night at a poetry reading featuring a Palestinian American poet, Suheir Hammad.  Her words burned a hole in me. Was it possible that what she was saying, her poems of rage about the oppression of the Palestinian people, her people, be true? This was the beginning of a deep inner schism. I knew there was something I was not understanding, something I was not seeing. I knew I had to go back.

I began to travel into the parts of Israel and Palestine I had not experienced on my Birthright trip—I visited settlements and kibbutzim and Arab villages, both in and outside of the West Bank.  

I got to know many Palestinians. I stayed in their homes, developed relationships with them, heard their stories, and saw how they struggled. I wasn’t looking for a particular person or story. Most people were eager to talk to me and share the passion they have for their homeland.

The more I heard, the more I recognized so many similarities in the stories of joys and loss that both peoples had experienced by being a part of this country  and its history. I knew I could not remain silent. I knew these narratives needed to be heard side by side.  

The making of this book gave me a way to continue exploring these narratives and the tension they created inside of me. Of course as a Jew and the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, this was frightening. I was afraid that by making space for another narrative, the narrative of the people I had been taught to believe were my enemies, I was somehow going to be erasing my own people’s narrative, their history and their struggles.

 Eyes, Stones is first and foremost a book of poems, but because the subject matter is so politically charged, I am often asked “Whose side are you on?” This is dangerous territory for a poet. And in a way, the more deeply I have gone into the making of this work, the more humbled I am about voicing a political opinion.

I have never lost a son to war or a suicide attack. I have never had my house bulldozed or watched my child be shot by a soldier. As far as which side I am on, I believe that there is only one side—that what is good for Israel and the Israelis, in the long term, is what is good for Palestine and Palestinians.

This idea is messy and, I’ve been told, idealistic. But when I see the bravery of the people who live there, people who are working toward a just peace under increasingly difficult conditions, I am full of hope.

I am on the side of human beings. I am on the side of the builders.

For me, writing these poems has been a way to examine the deep and sometimes troubling questions I have about this place that I love so much, what it means to live in a place as complex as Israel/Palestine. They offer a different way of looking at our own stories, and at the stories of those we might have only seen as our enemy, a way to explore what it means to live with two narratives in one body, two peoples in one shared land.