How Judaism is Helping Me

A Haitian-American Begins To Shape Her Grief

It’s been three months since the earthquake ravaged wide sections of Port-au-Prince as well as damaging Léogane and Jacmel, two important towns southwest of the capital. That’s just enough time for the emotional aftershocks to begin settling for those in the Haitian dyaspowa [diaspora], like me. I remain shaken, yet so grateful that both my immediate family on my mother’s side and my stepmother’s are alive.

I have read U.S. news articles that repeated in startling harmony the things I’ve heard about Haiti my entire life — the abject poverty, the cyclical dictatorships and coups d’état — and the refrain does not now frustrate and anger me as it has in the past. Instead, I remember climbing the trees in the backyard of Maman Nelly and Papa Y’s house in Musseau, now uninhabitable because of damage from the earthquake. I remember riding a donkey behind Mère Ta’s house in Vieux-Bourg d’Aquin, playing with my brother Jean- Philippe in the yard, and watching small lizards with a mixture of palpable fear and fascination.

I am hearing things differently — realpolitik analyses about the strategic importance of the U.S. doing good in Haiti, President Obama’s earnest call to action — because of having recently taken a non-credit course. Over 16 weeks, I was introduced to Judaism — the history, culture, language, religion, and philosophy of a civilization over 4,000 years old. Right after the earthquake struck, when I wasn’t watching news or reading my cousin Jean-Paul’s Haiti updates on Facebook, I was catching up on the required reading and completing additional chapters of Aleph Isn’t Tough. I spent hours thinking about tikkun olam and the Jewish rituals for living and dying, and trying to recognize as many Hebrew letters as I could, from memory.

This class brought back my connections to Judaism and the Jewish community. I spent several years living in Brooklyn as a child, and I recall seeing Hasidim walking — women, men, and children — like a black, moving mass speaking another tongue. The Haitian immigrants who raised me didn’t speak English, which made Haitian Creole and French our vernacular in the house and on the streets. I related to the Hasidim’s difference by linking it to my own. The ‘Introduction to Judaism’ class also brought back my two trips to Israel after the first Intifada. While it was a tumultuous time, I made a personal connection to this country so far away from the ones I knew — Haiti, France and the United States. Though my family had religion — namely Catholicism and Seventh Day Adventism — I grew up uninterested in it. Yet in Jerusalem, something stirred in me.

I realize now that after my mother died when I was nine, my mourning did not end—because the adults in my family were devastated and were not able to help us grieve as children. Instead of engaging in rituals to actively grieve my mother, I pleaded with God to let me die and join her. When my death did not come that year or the next, I felt that God had broken my heart.

My Judaism class enabled me to imagine the possibility of nourishing an active spiritual life. This had little to do with connecting to the Hasidim in our neighborhood, or understanding the complexity of an ex-girlfriend with dual French-Israeli citizenship or even my husband’s relationship to his Jewish-Eastern European heritage. I’ve learned how to live through this recent tragedy by mourning — Judaism has shown me how to move from passive mourning to active mourning, knowing that there is an end.

remember the more than 200,000 people who have just died in Haiti. I remember listening to the litany of Catholic prayers, the wafting incense, and the piercing wails of my despairing tante Emilie during my mother’s funeral. On Shabbat, Mark and I light a candle for Haiti and remember together.

Why does Haiti really matter? Not because President Obama says so, not because the U.S. wants to discourage Haitian refugees from coming to Florida, and certainly not because the U.S. needs to improve its image in the world. Haiti matters because our humanity is Haiti. Our lives are inextricably bound up with Haiti and Haitians. Haiti matters because Judaism teaches us that to be alive is to be engaged with the world, to repair the world. The initial period of mourning, of shloshim, has past, with concerted action to follow in Haiti

Marjorie Attignol Salvodon lives in Roxbury, MA and teaches at Suffolk University. She is writing a memoir in French on motherloss, Haitian identity and language, entitled Nuits Blanches.