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Leben Oder Theater

After college, I spent a year living in Germany, working with the Jewish immigrants from the Former Soviet Union who were flocking to cities across Germany in such numbers that, to this day, render Germany the fastest-growing Jewish community in the world. My friend and I worked as Lauder Fellows in Frankfurt am Main. Twice a month, we would drive three hours to Trier, Marx’s birthplace. We would park ourselves in Trier’s synagogue and lead programs all day long, first for pre-schoolers, then for high-schoolers, and finally for adults. Neither of us knew how to drive a stick-shift, so we couldn’t be picky about the cars we rented; we often ended up in mini-vans, and laughed at how one day we would actually own these types of cars, shuttling our children from soccer practice to piano lessons, and that we would always associate them with this strange, free time of our youth, driving across this beautiful, scarred country, with no speed limit.

Once, we got pulled over on the Autobahn for driving too slowly. When the cop approached the car, I blasted Garth Brooks, rolled down the window with a smile, and put on my best fake “Howdy, Officer, How Ya Doin’, Ah don’t speak German” Southern accent, just to get my friend to laugh, which she did, convulsing in nervous shakes in the passenger seat. At the end of the year, before we returned back to real life, grad school and courtship and jobs and marriage and children, she got me a poster by Charlotte Salomon. It depicts a woman, close to the foreground, sitting on her knees, back to the viewer, the profile of her face gazing down at some unidentifiable object in her hands (the skeleton of a kite, perhaps?), and blue horizon all about her. On her back, the words “Leben Oder Theater” are written – Life? or Theater? The dichotomy used to resonate; which to choose? Life, the trodden path, in which you look out at the world as you engage in it, or theater, the path less traveled, in which the world looks in at you?

After my daughters were born, the notion of the dichotomy disintegrated, and the illusion that one could choose between them. Life happens in between the choices. And theater is thick in its midst. I felt this most strongly when I first became a mother, and realized that all of the people closest to me now had new “titles.” My mother was a grandmother, my grandmother a great-grandmother, my sister an aunt, my aunt a great-aunt, and on and on. It was as if we were all part of the theater of the absurd, a show in which we had been acting forever, and the director, on a whim, had decided everyone should switch parts. The show is the same – but you’ll be reading the part of “mother” from now on. Just pass your scripts on over, one person to the left please.

Sometimes, I catch my daughters gazing at me. When I nurse my baby, and she looks at me and reaches for my face, I see myself sitting there, a woman, feeding her child. Or, when I put my three year old to bed, and her eyes are wide as saucers, wondering how she’ll get from here, by my side, to the other side, alone in sleep, I wonder how I have gotten to this side, by her side, the mother side. It’s breathtaking. The gaze of this new generation, and of generations past, on me, a-twirl in the theater of mothering. It stops me in my tracks; for a moment, I sink to my knees on the stage, my back to them, gazing into the blue.

–Maya Bernstein