Curated By Alison M. Gingeras
Before I met Zoya, I saw her drawing “Black Chuppah” on my Instagram feed one slow morning while lolling in bed. My kids had already been home from school for a week (my daughter’s teacher was among one of the first cases in New York City), so not getting up at the crack of dawn to send them off to school has been a major windfall in this new normal. This type of found time is a gift of the pandemic. These gothic nuptials in a cemetery immediately summoned forth Edward Gorey—his delightfully morbid imaginary mashed up with a Jewish wedding. Heaven, I thought somewhat off-handedly…the image simply appealed to my love of all things funerary. That morning must have been the day before the governor gave the orders to effectively shut down New York. Walking the dog later that day, I saw the “Corona tent” that popped up on the corner of the park in front of Brooklyn Hospital. That tent made this ominous morbid moment all the more real. Both structures, chuppah and tent, now instantly fused in my imaginary.
The practice of “black weddings” (or “shvartze khasene” in Yiddish) held in Jewish cemeteries emerged in the 19th century across Eastern Europe in response to the Cholera epidemics that decimated entire populations in regular waves. These rituals were believed to ward off such epidemics. Plague Weddings often involved the forced union of orphans or beggars. As Laura Spinney describes in her book Pale Riders about the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, “Bride and groom must be chosen from among the most unfortunate in society…a black wedding was conducted in the belief that the knot tied amidst the graves of the parish dead, the contagion would at last stop.” Spinney’s book even documents such plague wedding at Mount Hebron cemetery in New York in 1918, where despite all the modern sanitary practices and public health policies that were already in place then, two strangers were wed as a divine plea for protection.
Plague weddings continue today: Zoya sends me a surprising YouTube video that was uploaded only two weeks ago. Filmed from above by a drone, it shows a black chuppah that was erected in Bnei Brak cemetery outside Tel Aviv. The bride is barely visible under the dark fabric canopy, Haredi men surround the chuppah and are chanting and standing amid the tombs surrounding the couple. A simple caption explains that this wedding was held to stave off COVID-19 infections in the community. It’s uncanny how this clip echoes a work by self-taught artist Mayer Kirshenblatt, who took up painting at age 73. Another painter of lost time, Kirshenblatt based all of his works on his youthful memories of Poland before World War II. His shvartze khasene scene in Opatów was inspired by the oral histories he heard as a boy. Zoya writes to me that she only recently learned of this practice.
Magical thinking and superstitious appeasements aside, these black chuppahs are allegories of hope and human continuity. The last time I went to an opening before the great social distancing measures, I met a dear friend in her seventies. She was nervous about being out and about, but she left me with a powerful image before leaving the festivities. “Just think! All of those Corona babies over the horizon…” Under a simple black canopy, Eros and Thanatos are ritually fused—two individuals’ sex and death drives are conscripted into the service of the collective.
The mere mention of the name “Anne Frank” became a most effective shaming device growing up. How could my meekest gripe or self-pitying adolescent whine compare to the suffering, anxiety and isolation that Anne chronicled in her diary? Like so many Boomers, my mother was part of the first generation to grow up reading Anne Frank’s diary which was first published in English in 1952. Frank’s journal quickly became compulsory testimony of the Holocaust for postwar American children. In our house, Anne was beatified. Irish Catholics can’t help their cultural appropriations—especially given that Anne’s tragic fate could be made to mirror the narratives of suffering and martyrdom of so many saints. For years, this associative chain made me cringe—our domestic use and abuse of Anne Frank had all but steamrollered the psychological and literary complexities of her original text.
Can the incomprehensible cruelty of a virus be compared with the evil of the Nazi’s genocide? How can we compare the indiscriminate nature of a virulent biological phenomenon to the deliberate, fully intentional inhumanity of the Third Reich? Zoya answers. “It’s true of course. But fear is fear.” She continues, “While we are complaining about being locked in our houses, I think about Anne and her family hiding for years in that tiny place. In her diary, she describes how she was looking out the window carefully, afraid to be seen from outside.”
When I first saw Zoya’s drawing of the confined girl peering out the window, reflecting on the deep pooling of black ink engulfed me in dark thoughts. I too had been guilty of deploying “Anne Frank” guilt when talking to my own teenage daughter just last week—she could not help but explode at me with a torrent of adolescent emotion. Misia was tormented by missing her friends. She bemoaned the deprivation of so many rites of passage at the end of her eighth-grade year that were surely canceled. Zoya’s drawing became a catalyst for my own mother/daughter shame spiral—was I becoming my own guilt-inducing mother? Oh, the clichéd Freudian horror of this quarantine! I re-read Anne Frank last winter. How could I not at least give credence to my own daughter’s growing pains heightened by sudden deprivations (at least, without again misusing the memory of Anne Frank)?
I ask Zoya about her own daughter. Vera is four and a half—she actually likes these days of confinement at home. “I think if I was alone I wouldn’t give a shit about the Corona virus.” Zoya says. “When I was alone I was not afraid to die.” We ping back and forth about the emotional complexities of the mother/daughter bond. The pain that undergirds this bond is so palpable in Zoya’s drawing of the mother and daughter, each wearing a yellow star. Zoya texts me a photo taken at Babiy Yar—the site of a Nazi massacre of Jews in Kiev in 1941. Of the over 33,000 innocents that were slaughtered in a ravine, a camera captured this heart-wrenching image of naked woman clinging to the body of her child. Her limp body is desperately cradled in the mother’s arms, her out of focus face still telegraphs unspeakable loss. Zoya explains, “This image triggers a mother’s paranoia in me! I wanted to draw something like this but I just couldn’t…I couldn’t experience this situation even through drawing. So, I made that drawing of mother and daughter. They have the yellow badge on their clothes. The rest I leave to the viewer’s imagination.”
In a provocative essay published in the New Yorker in 1997, writer Cynthia Ozick asks, “Who Owns Anne Frank?” Pushing back against the marketing of her diary as an uplifting work—“a poignant delight in the infinite human spirit” —Ozick dissects how Frank’s story “has been bowdlerized, distorted, transmuted, traduced, reduced; it has been infantilized, Americanized, homogenized, sentimentalized; falsified, kitschified, and, in fact, blatantly and arrogantly denied.” Ozick concludes her detailed chronicle of the “shameless appropriations” of Frank by pondering a more salvational outcome for Frank. Would it not have been better for the diary to be destroyed?
Guilty as charged, yet we the appropriationists, beg to disagree.
A radiant blonde boy stands in the foreground. He is wearing a Vyshyvanka—a typical embroidered Ukrainian folk shirt. He stands in front of a roaring hearth with long handled peel in hand; the composition implies that he is baking bread or cooking for the elderly Jewish couple who are sitting passively nearby. “Shabbos Goy”: a quick Google search offers a pantheon of famous gentile helpers from Elvis Presley who assisted his downstairs neighbors in Memphis to a young Barack Obama who shared an office in Chicago with a fellow senator who was Orthodox. I think of my grandfather, Charley Fitzpatrick, whose tales of his heyday in the Bronx during the Depression came to life in my mind as a gritty Jewish-Catholic remake of the Little Rascals. “On Saturday, I would go to Temple on the Grand Concourse with my buddy Saul. And come Sunday, he’d come to Our Lady of the Assumption for Mass. What was the difference?!” But there is a dissonance between these cheerful American anecdotes and Zoya’s disquieting scene. I inquire whether this drawing is a veiled self-portrait. Her answers come in a rapid of bubbles:
“It’s like the other side of anti-Semitism — the way Jews see a “goy.”
“It’s a little beat offensive to be a goy.”
“Personally, I’ve been both—a Jew in Ukraine and a goy in Israel.”
“I must say being a Jew was easier.”
“Nobody ever asked me how come I’m a Jew and live in Ukraine…I have a floating identity.”
The Slavic boy’s pink face and asinine grin comes from the archetype “Ivan Durak”—Ivan the Stupid. Zoya says the reference for the drawings come from Natalia Goncharova and Tatiana Mavrina—avantgarde Russian painters who mined the Slavic folk imaginary for their work. Have you ever looked at other women artists of the interwar period who were excavating their Slavic roots—as an aesthetic response to the end of Hapsburgian rule after WWI? Like the Polish artist Zofia Stryjeńska who fused those ethnic tropes with Art Deco? “No,” Zoya rebuts. “There are anti-Semitic cartoons and this is an anti- Slavic cartoon as I see it…even in a dehumanizing way.”
Why make this drawing now? Zoya doesn’t offer an answer straight away. “Maybe it’s something that prevents me from identifying myself as a Jew.” With this rupture of normalcy, are we all floating in our identities? As we sit at home passively doing our part to “flatten the curve,” are we really helping? When in fact are we—that is those of us who are not on the front lines in the hospitals, grocery stores, and delivery trucks—all rather helpless? Many of us pass these introspective hours at home, wrestling with ourselves. Zoya concludes, “I feel better being a minority.”
Chad Gadya: Songs of Sacrifice
I bite my tongue while talking with my mother over the phone. She has this need to conclude our nightly check-ins with some variant of “We are all going to be better people after this is over…” Why? Why us particularly? I cry out in my head. What are we even doing right now besides sitting at home passively? Her compulsion to moralize this moment drives me nuts—just more Catholic PTSD. Why do we need to project some kind of moral meaning onto this pandemic? I understand the compulsion of positive thinking, but can we really make meaning out of the havoc wreaked upon the human populous by this undiscriminating pathogen? The end of "normal" life has everyone reflective, but is there another reflection that can emerge that is not a simplified redemption or celebration of personal sacrifice?
I call my best friend to vent. Jamieson is a psychoanalyst. We rant about our mothers, Trump, socialism. Our own struggles to make sense of this time intellectually, and personally. The usual litany but with more intensity. “We are high functioning depressive hysterics,” she once pronounced of our friendship—her diagnosis holds up more than ever in this new time of crisis. Jamieson just wrote this scathing letter to the community of analysts. Decrying all the self-congratulation that mental health professions are lavishing upon themselves as they respond to the heighted anxieties, Jamieson bristles at the redemptive tone of so many of her colleagues. She sends me her articulate screed, “What does it mean to do psychoanalysis in a situation like this? Why is it immediately assumed to be a good, or even a necessity? Can we dare ask if our services were best utilized otherwise? And if we want people to question themselves so thoroughly, should we not also, especially in times as desperate as this, seriously do so ourselves rather than engage in immediate self-celebration?” She seems to be saying that despite our need to talk and hash out, maybe this just doesn’t make sense. The “crown” inside coronavirus is our collective crown of thorns. We are living an Ecce Homo moment—instead what we behold in this moment is immense human sacrifice without a savoir.
Spring is a season of sacrificial celebrations—the virus’ canny timing is hard to ignore. With their ritualized acts of memory, Passover and Easter loom with crushing symbolic weight. Yet most Seders will be smaller this year. Hard to imagine a multigenerational table like the one Zoya conjures in her Seder drawing. A majority of churches will be shuttered for Good Friday enactments of the Stations of the Cross. Our sacrificial goats and lambs are also subject to forced isolation. To this day, I am haunted by the image of Jan van Eyck’s anthropomorphized lamb who stands on an altar in the central panel of the Ghent altarpiece. His sacrificial blood streams mystically like an endless font, flowing for centuries, from his chest into a golden chalice. I made countless pilgrimages to see this Agnus Dei as a young art history student in Belgium—his melancholy rules my visual and moral unconscious.
Zoya sends me a group of drawings captioned with lyrics of Chad Gadya that are sung from the Haggadah at the conclusion of the Passover feast.
“One little goat, one little goat
which my father bought for two zuzim”
She inscribes these versus in Hebrew on her storybook-worthy renderings of the symbolic animal. Chad Gaya is commonly interpreted as an allegory of the plight of the Jewish people. It is song that commemorates suffering and tenacity as a central feature of our shared humanity.
Her illustrations for the last two verses turn sinister. The ninth verse, “And then came the Angel of Death” is inscribed on the scythe of the Grim Reaper wearing an SS uniform, the village burning in the backdrop. The final verse, “And then came God and killed the Angel of Death” is written on the walls of the Kremlin, with Stalin’s ominous face looking down on fallen Nazi paraphernalia. Picturing Stalin as God, seems like a cruel relic of Zoya’s Soviet childhood. History is not so morally tidy. A Stalinist shadow continues to be cast in this crisis with authoritarian and anti-democratic governments taking advantage of citizens crippled abilities to gather and protest during the pandemic. In the end, the greatest pathogen remains these malignant wills to power.