Writing Inward: The Transformative Power of Critical Self-Reflection

I recently published an academic book chapter titled “Critical Ethnography and Dialogic Reflection in Student-Led Language Research” on using critical approaches and self-reflection in language studies (see References below). I also presented a report about the study featured in the chapter at the 19th World Congress of Applied Linguistics (AILA 2021) as “North-South Dialogues: Critical Ethnography of Brazilian EFL Education.”

While the book itself (see left) is in the field of sociolinguistics, the concepts of contemplative writing and dialogism are relevant to many other areas. In this post, I am summarizing and re-interpreting some of the study findings from my book chapter to explain critical self-reflection in a broader context.

Background

In 2017, teaching an Introduction to Linguistics course at Los Angeles City College, I assigned my students a special term project: based on the data they would collect from live interviews as well as theories studied in the course, they were expected to describe and explain language use and attitudes of university students enrolled in an upper-level English course at the Federal University of Mato Grosso (UFMT) in Cuiabá, Brazil.

The secondary goal of the project was to ‘turn the lamp inwards’, so to speak, and engage the students in the critical evaluation of what they learned about themselves from participating in the project.

Because my class had a lot more students than those in the English course in Brazil, I split my students into groups of 2-3 to interview a single Brazilian student live via FaceTime, Whatsapp, and other social media tools. In the end, we had 7 working research groups.

I had previously adjusted the content of the course to make it more relevant to the project, for example, a lecture on historical linguistics would focus on the historical development of Portuguese; regional dialectology would would use Portuguese dialects, including Brazilian Portuguese, as case studies; a special lecture was added on the university education system in Brazil, and the Mato Grosso region, and so on.

Leaving aside the first part of the project, which was to conduct the interviews and produce group research papers and class presentations, I’d like to focus on its final step, in which my students wrote free-structured essays evaluating their experiences. I provided them with the following questionnaire to stimulate their self-reflection.

  • What have you gained from participation in this project, for example, setting up and conducting the interviews, writing the research paper, and/or the PowerPoint presentation? Was it a new experience?
  • Can you relate your interviewee’s language learning experience to your own?
  • What have you learned about your own research skills, language learning, and language use?
  • What difficulties did you meet along the way?
  • Did the project highlight any areas you need to improve in?
  • What have you learned from being a part of a research team?
  • Where can you apply the knowledge gained from this project?

The resulting individual essays were surprisingly diverse, even in the same group. In other words, 2-3 students in the same group would see the same interviewee differently, and learn completely different lessons from the experience. Why? What happens when one contemplates an experience?

Meaning perspectives

Educational psychology emphasizes that to learn something, we have to make meaning of it. But it doesn’t occur in a vacuum: “the way learners interpret and reinterpret their sense experience is central to making meaning and hence learning” (Jack Mezirow, 1991).

These meaning perspectives are central to Mezirow’s transformative learning theory. A person’s beliefs, cultural influences, discourses, feelings, ideas, and judgments shape the interpretation of an experience, and are embedded in beliefs and behaviors. From the psychological standpoint, the individual interprets new information based on his/her stages of moral, ethical, and ego development, as well as capacity for reflective judgement (Mezirow 1990: 2). Applying meaning perspective prospective analysis to language studies, for instance, can reveal, behaviorist, cultural relativist, Freudian, Marxist, positivist, or others biases influencing how the studies are conducted, how the conclusions are interpreted, but also how one is transformed through engagement in research experience.

Symbolic interaction in communication

Another critical framework useful to analyze reflection and self-reflection is dialogism, a theory put forward by the Russian linguist and philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin. Dialogism argues that the speaker is not an isolated entity participating in communication with other isolated entities, but an active representative of a culture, who produces speech in relation to and tension with other speakers. In other words, speech only exists in addressivity, that is when addressed to someone else (Bakhtin via Holquist 1990: 48).

To study communication and thought process, one needs to study both the speaker (or writer), the addressee of his or her speech, and the relationship between the two. Even when the addressee does not speak, he or she continues to actively participate in the co-construction of meaning. The presence of the addressee thus is critical to the production of speech and, in a broader sense, to the production of language. More often than not, the speaker is engaged in dialogic relationships with multiple addressees, as for example, when participating in a conversation with several people or writing the same piece for multiple audiences.

Just like Mezirow several decades later, Bakhtin was interested in how the speaker makes meaning within a culture, and acts based on those meanings. Meaning of speech, writing, and language at large – and here Bakhtin connects to critical sociolinguists like Jan Blommaert and Dell Hymes – possesses an inherent social value, that is it arises from within the individual, and in shared social experience through the medium of the sign, and “understanding comes about as a response to sign with signs” (49).

The transformative power of critical reflection

Meaning perspectives develop through reflection. Mezirow explains that “reflection involves a critique of assumptions to determine whether the belief, often acquired through cultural assimilation in childhood, remains functional for us as adults” (Mezirow, 1991). Through reflection, we are able to understand ourselves better.

Various forms of language expression, including speech and writing, allow the researchers to learn communicatively about and from their subjects. Mezirow suggests that in this process, the researcher focuses less on testing hypotheses, and more on “searching, often intuitively, for themes and metaphors by which to fit the unfamiliar into a meaning perspective” (3). Critical reflection evaluates the new information, but also re-examines it vis-à-vis existing ideas, judgements, and biases.

Learning, therefore, has the potential to change the way we engage with the world. It can become a transformative experience for the adult, making his or her frames of reference more inclusive, discriminating, open, and reflective. What mediates this re-assessment of beliefs, feelings, and values is internal dialogue, similar to Bakhtin, in which the learner/researchers/writer draws on the information received from the speaker to make meaning of both the speaker and oneself.

Case Study: Carlos and Christopher (US) vs. Celso (Brazil) | Multiple dialogues, different meaning perspectives

Due to the publishing limitations, I could only profile 2 out of 7 research groups in my book chapter as case studies to illustrate the process of reflexive and self-reflexive critical inquiry in research writing. I am sharing one of them below.

Self-reflexive essays provided my students with a critical space to engage in multiple dialogic relationships, such as:

  • U.S. student ethnographer vs. the respondent: a Brazilian peer learning English
  • U.S. student ethnographer vs. his/her peers in the U.S. research group
  • U.S. student ethnographer vs. the professor
  • U.S. student ethnographer vs. his/her own prior experience

All these strands are present in Christopher’s essay. Early on, Christopher identifies the problems collaborating with his group project partner: “Carlos was extremely sweet and easy to work with, and he pulled his weight in terms of time and effort. However, the task of combining and communicating two people’s completely different thoughts, ideas, voices, vocabularies [was] very difficult. . . I felt I had a more firm understanding of the concepts in class and how to apply them to the prompt than my partner, as well as a more developed writing style. . . I struggled to find a possibility to enmesh both our voices and our knowledge in a way that did not seem inconsistent and scattered. . . I definitely learned that I can be more involved in a group or partner effort at every stage.”

Christopher’s conclusion exemplifies the transformative nature of his research experience. By reflecting on his group interaction, Christopher exhibits Mezirow’s final stage of reflective judgment – a perspective about his own perspective, and it is not surprising that Christopher’s critical experience takes place in an educational setting because “age and education are major factors in critical judgment. College graduates consistently earn higher scores on tests of reflective judgment” (Mezirow 2003: 61).

Sometimes, dialogic strands merge, as in another passage where Christopher, is speaking both to himself and, likely, to me, his professor, the only other reader of his paper: “This project brought a personal connection to the subjects and concepts that are central to the study of linguistics. . . Conversely, the lessons learned in class added an abundance of interest and understanding – not only to the research project, but also to the self-reflexive discussions about the English language and linguistics that I had with Celso.”

Carlos and Christopher had anticipated Celso’s difficulties in speaking English as they are “common in L2 learning at his age, at which it becomes virtually impossible to eventually sound like a native speaker” (Christopher A. and Carlos S., 2017). Thus, it was the fluent aspects of Celso’s English writing, which contrasted the phonological and lexical challenges in his speech, that surprised them.

Both US students were further impressed with Celso’s confidence and lack of embarrassment in speaking English with them. To Christopher, in particular, “the most fulfilling part of the project was the inspiration I gained from Celso. He was so fearless to speak to native speakers in a language he was not totally secure in, and so resolved in his goals at such a young age. To enhance and validate my own academic experience by engaging with an inspiring stranger about his academic experience . . . was an incredible, rare opportunity” (Christopher A., 2017). Here we also witness transformative discoveries, but of a different kind. Speaking with Celso makes Christopher re-evaluate his stereotyped attitudes about non-native language abilities (Celso’s pre-supposed second language proficiency) and non-native speaker behavior (Celso’s surprising comfort with using his imperfect command of English), but also consider his own academic experience

The only dialogic strand in which Carlos’s reflections on this project echo Christopher’s is his recognition of the value of the class and the project itself, which is the one addressed to the professor. The lessons learned, however, are vastly different.

Carlos’s essay is permeated by acute awareness of the class and economic aspects of language learning. Writing about “the challenges and difficulties foreign students face while learning a new language,” English in Celso’s case, French in Carlos’s, Carlos wonders if countries that are not “first world countries such as our United States” offer the same quality of language education because “the amount of resources in a foreign country is much less. . . Identifying these challenges . . . felt like an experience in real life to me” (Carlos S.). It is important to Carlos because contrasting Celso’s experience with his own, he notes that “the differences and challenges I have faced compared to my interviewee, [. . . ] have been overwhelming at times. For instance, I have had a few financial problems in order to pay for school in consecutive semesters,”

What complicates the situation further is that Celso, an anticipated representative of a developing country, is not what Carlos had expected.

For many years, the higher education system in Brazil has been the training ground for the country’s white, upper-class elite. To gain access to highly selective public universities, like UFMT (on the left), applicants have to pass rigorous entrance exams called vestibular, to prepare for which, they, in most cases, have to have graduated from a private college prep school (Stanek 2013, 4).

It hardly came as a surprise that in a random federal university English class, which provided the setting for this study, there were 5 white students and only 2 students of Afro-Brazilian descent.

Celso, as Carlos and Chris report in their research paper, is an example of how the system works. According to the information they collected, Celso, a white student, comes from a family of college graduates, who guide and support him in his higher education. Prior to admission to UFMT, he “received great schooling, relative to the rest of Brazil” (Christopher A. and Carlos S.).

Carlos, in contrast, represents the Los Angeles City College student. LACC is an urban community college, with a student body that is 68% African American, Hispanic, or ‘multi-ethnic’ (LACC Institutional Self Evaluation Report 12). 12 out of 17 students in the linguistics course itself, i.e., 71%, were Hispanic, 4 white, and one Asian American. Carlos’s “a few financial problems in order to pay for school” are also hardly surprising: 63% of LACC students receive financial aid.

No such references appear in Christopher’s paper, most likely due to the class difference between the meaning perspectives of Carlos, a working-class Hispanic, and Christopher, a middle-class white youth. This difference in their socioeconomic frame of reference affects what they recall as meaningful from their research experience.

Conclusions

Critical self-reflection can be a transformative experience for the researcher/writer. Embedded in research or writing, critical perspectives may activate reflection and re-evaluation of one’s own knowledge and identity and lead to belief correction and/or a shift in the researcher’s frame of reference such as stereotyped attitudes (Carlos), or habits of mind (Christopher). Critically-guided research and writing thus encourages the researcher, even a student researcher in an introductory linguistics course, to move from knowledge-telling to knowledge-transforming.

Researchers and writers engage in multiple dialogic relationships with their subjects and themselves. Those dialogic strands may converge and diverge in post-research self-reflexive writing.

Lastly, the reflective judgment of the same research experience may vary dramatically depending on the researcher’s sociocultural and psychological meaning perspectives, for example, in a focus on the economic implications of language learning (Carlos) vs. the emotive, motivational aspect (Christopher).


References

A., Christopher. (2017). Self-Reflexive Essay. Unpublished essay. Los Angeles City College, Los Angeles.

A., Christopher, and Carlos S. (2017). Second Language Acquisition by a Brazilian Portuguese Student. Unpublished research paper. Los Angeles City College, Los Angeles.

Cook-Gumperz, Jenny (ed.) 1988. The Social Construction of Literacy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Holquist, Michael. (1990). Dialogism: Bakhtin and His World. London and New York: Routledge.

Igoudin, A. Lane. (2021).Critical Ethnography and Dialogic Reflection in Student-Led Language Research.” In Barros, Solange Maria, and Danie De Jesus (eds.) What Is Critical in Language Studies? Disclosing Social Inequalities and Injustice, Ch. 5., pp. 59-70. London: Routledge.

LACC Institutional Self Evaluation Report in Support of Reaffirmation of Accreditation. (2016). Los Angeles City College.

Mezirow, Jack. (1990). “How Critical Reflection Triggers Transformative Learning.” Fostering Critical Reflection in Adulthood, 1-6.

Mezirow, J. (1991). Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass

Mezirow, Jack. (2003). “Transformative Learning as Discourse.” Journal of Transformative Education1(1), 58-63.

S., Carlos. (2017). Self-Reflexive Essay. Unpublished essay. Los Angeles City College, Los Angeles.

Stanek, C. (2013). The Educational System of Brazil. IEM Spotlight, 10(1), 1-6.

“Raising Them to Be Strong” | Father’s Day Post on Family Equality.org

Happy Father’s Day 2021! It’s been a deeply fulfilling, spiritually transformative journey for my husband and me. Our story, featured today on FamilyEquality.org, the nationwide LGBTQ family advocacy organization, recounts the joys and challenges of two men raising daughters since babyhood. So how do we do it?

Reading a New Story Live at AWP21

Read “The Grass Eater,” my new personal essay as part of a live virtual reading organized by the AWP Creative Writing Caucus at the virtual AWP 2021 on March 4. At the center of the story is a devilish 7-year-old who wrecks his mother’s seaside honeymoon. The setting is the Republic of Georgia; the time is the disco era. The story was developed in a workshop led by Marion Winik. As of yet unpublished.

“The iPad Wars” in City Tales 2020, a YouTube storytelling show

This was a new performance format for me to learn – I’d taped myself reading the essay “The iPad Wars” for City Tales, the annual storytelling reading by LACC students and faculty, and sent it to the organizers for post-production. The show went live on YouTube June 4. Previously published in The Citadel, “The iPad Wars” is about 7 minutes long, and comes first in the show. It’s about a parent confronting his budding 11-year-old tech wiz about her flourishing, yet potentially dangerous social life online.

From a Failed Burglary to Hanukkah History

A man named Simon, captain of the Temple, had a disagreement with the high priest . . . , and when he could not prevail, he went to Apollonius, governor of [the region]. He reported to him that the treasury in Jerusalem was full of untold sums of money, so that the amount of the funds could not be reckoned, and that they did not belong to the account of the sacrifices, but that it was possible for them to fall under the control of the king.
When Apollonius met the king, he told him of the money [at the Temple]. The king chose Heliodorus, who was in charge of his affairs, and sent him with commands to effect the removal of the aforesaid money. Heliodorus at once set out on his journey . . . to carry out the king’s purpos
e.

The Book of Maccabees II, Ch. 3

In early 2007, a large stele with sections missing at its base was provided on loan to the Israel Museum by Birthright Israel co-founder Michael Steinhardt and his wife.

This 178 BCE stele – cut 11 years before the Maccabean Revolt – contains 28 lines of Greek text with the instructions from Syrian-Greek King Seleucus IV, who ruled Judea from Antioch, to his chief minister Heliodorus appointing one Olympiodorus to begin collecting money from all of the temples in the region.

The king’s order marked a significant shift in the Seleucid policy on Jewish autonomy. Until that point, the Seleucid Empire had not taxed the Jews of the region. The Jews of Jerusalem had welcomed Seleucus’s father, Antiochus III, by opening the city gates to his army in 200 BCE, in return for which he had given them a charter that allowed them to live according to their ancestral ways, exempted the priests from taxes and even made royal contributions to the Temple upkeep and sacrifices. The Book of Maccabees concurs: “the kings themselves honored the place and glorified the temple with the finest presents” (Mac. 2, Ch. 3)

That policy change recorded on the stele culminated in a vicious Seleucid crackdown on the Jews of Judea and the looting of the Temple ten years later in 168-167 BCE, which prompted the Maccabean Revolt as memorialized in the Hanukkah story.

The Beit Guvrin Volunteer Digs

Southwest of Jerusalem, in Judean hills, lies Tel Maresha – the site of a once prosperous large town. In 2019, I visited this area, part of the Beit Guvrin National Park, dotted with caves and underground passages, as well as with the columbaria to raise pigeons and doves for, most likely, sacrifices at the Temple in Jerusalem.

The Israeli Antiquities Authority has been offering visitors participation in “Dig for a Day,” helping the archeologists excavating the caves. In December 2005, a lucky “Dig for a Day” participant found there a broken stone piece which bore a Greek inscription of 13 lines. “The find was distinctive because it was written not on local kirton stone, but on higher-quality Hebron limestone,” the “Dig for a Day” head, Dr. Ian Stern of Hebrew Union College, told The Jerusalem Post.

The following summer, two more stone fragments with Greek text were found at the same Maresha site, and excitement about the potential significance of the finds mounted.

Studying the three pieces found at Beit Guvrin digs, Dr. Dov Gera, a Ben-Gurion University researcher of Jewish history and Greek writing, recalled seeing a similar inscription on a stele exhibited at the Israel Museum.

When the stele was placed together for the first time with the three fragments found by volunteer diggers, they matched perfectly. Furthermore, based on its patina and the soil remnants still attached, the stele itself must have come from the same chalky cave area where the other three pieces were found.

The stele’s full text, presumably meant to be seen by the residents of Maresha – informs local citizens of the Olympiodorus’s appointment to oversee the collection of taxes from all of the major sanctuaries within the region, including – explicitly – the Temple in Jerusalem.

Heliodorus, the Mysterious Rider, and the “Gloriously Beautiful” Young Men

Seleucids were Hellenistic kings, who ultimately sought to Hellenize the Jews, to deprive them of their religious autonomy. Moreover, the royal treasure had essentially run out of money and was deep in debt, in particular, to Rome.

As stated above in the Book of Maccabees, King Seleucus IV received the information about “untold sums of money” stored in the Jerusalem Temple, and sent Heliodorus to raid the treasure. Meeting Heliodorus in Jerusalem, Maccabees II continues, High Priest tried to dissuade Heliodorus, but he wouldn’t listen.

He then headed to the Temple treasury, but couldn’t enter.

For there appeared to [him] a magnificently caparisoned horse, with a rider of frightening mien, and it rushed furiously at Heliodorus and struck at him with its front hoofs. Its rider was seen to have armor and weapons of gold. Two young men also appeared to him, remarkably strong, gloriously beautiful and splendidly dressed, who stood on each side of him and scourged him continuously, inflicting many blows on him. When he suddenly fell to the ground and deep darkness came over him, his men took him up and put him on a stretcher and carried him away.
(Maccabees II, Ch. 3: 25-28)

It is much more likely that it wasn’t Heliodorus, but Olympiodorus, who attempted to enter the Temple and was rebuffed, but most people never heard of a minor figure like Olympiodorus, while Heliodorus was the widely known and hated ruler of the area. Thus, when the word got out about an aborted attempt by the Seleucids to raid the temple treasure, the population assumed it was Heliodorus himself who went in.

From the Failed Burglary to the Lights of Hanukkah

The temple was not raided this time, and Heliodorus’s quest failed. Three years later, in 175 BCE, Heliodorus murdered Seleucus IV and took power, only to be quickly overthrown by the king’s brother Antiochus IV. In 169/168 BCE, Antiochus turned the Temple into a shrine to the Greek god Zeus, the Temple treasury was robbed, the Holy of Holies was desecrated, and all Jewish religious customs were outlawed.

Around 167 BCE, revolt broke out in Judea. Hearing of the uprising, the king marched his army into Judea in an attempt to suppress it. As described in Maccabees II, “raging like a wild animal, [Antiochus] took Jerusalem by storm. He ordered his soldiers to cut down without mercy those whom they met and to slay those who took refuge in their houses. There was a massacre of young and old, a killing of women and children, a slaughter of virgins and infants. In the space of three days, 80,000 were lost, 40,000 meeting a violent death, and the same number being sold into slavery.”

Ongoing violence culminated in the Maccabean Revolt against the empire, led by Mattathias and his five sons, Judah, Eleazar, Simeon, Yohanan and Jonathon. By 164 BCE, the revolt had ended in success, and the desecrated Temple was liberated and cleansed on the 25th of Kislev – the first day of Hanukkah to this day.

You can now view the reconstituted Heliodorus stele, including the three new pieces, at the Israel Museum. With these new additions, the stele places of the beginning of the Hanukkah story in its historical context.


Based in part on the excerpts from:

Book of Maccabees II. Bible: Revised Standard Version.

Blondy, Brian. “Pieces of Hanukkah brought together.” The Jerusalem Post, Dec. 11, 2009.

Rosenberg, Steven. “The robbery & murder behind the story of Hanukkah.” The Jerusalem Post, Dec. 28, 2008.

Bird Sacrifices in Ancient Israel

In July 2019, touring the caves of Tel Maresha in Beit Guvrin National Park (Israel), we came upon a columbarium.

What is commonly known as a columbarium is a cemetery structure for the storage of funerary urns, holding cremated remains of the deceased, usually rows upon rows of mailbox-like openings in the wall. So it was here, except, the mailbox openings were strangely small.

This was an example of the columbarium’s second meaning – from the Latin ‘columba‘ (‘pigeon’) – nesting boxes or perches for pigeons and doves. Thousands of them were neatly carved in the soft, chalky limestone of the Maresha caves.

So far more than 60 columbaria have been found in the Maresha region. Why so many?

As the article in The Jerusalem Post explains:

Pigeons and doves often appear in the Bible as animals fit to be offered to God. For example, as described in Leviticus, they were one of the options for an atoning sacrifice for those who committed several types of sin or who had become impure. Moreover, a mother was required to bring a turtledove after completing her purification period following childbirth.

The article focuses on the research in the bird remains around the Temple Mount from the pre-Babylonian exile period.

Pigeons could also be used for food as well as for communication, carrying messages, even as recently as during the 1948 War for Independence.

In 2,000+ years, these birds never actually left the caves of Tel Maresha. Walking the site, I saw some of the perches full of these cooing creatures, nesting peacefully on their eggs.

PS. The caves of Tel Maresha recently yielded some stunning archaeological discoveries related to Hanukkah history.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 20190621_1214563-1.jpg
The author standing up to the light in a Maresha cave.

All photos on this page are © Lane Igoudin, 2019.

“Christmas Dreidels” in The Citadel 2020

The Citadel, a juried literary journal published at Los Angeles City College since the 1960s, includes my narrative essay “Christmas Dreidels.” In it, I explore my partner Jonathan’s and my experience of building an adoptive family built on the richness of African American and Jewish heritages, one in which widely diverse cultural, racial, and religious backgrounds add up to a new, organic whole.

Personal memories, interviews with my mother-in-law Tommie-Lee Taylor as well as the research into the images of the Elaine Race Riot in Arkansas, the 1920s’ maps of the Southern Pacific Railroad Co., and the 1963 Los Angeles Times editorials helped me write the essay, but more importantly, gave me an opportunity to juxtapose legacies of the Holocaust and WWII with those of racial violence in the US South and more covert racism in California’s Central Valley.

Below are a couple of excerpts. To read the whole essay, please contact me for a copy. You can also get the full The Citadel 2020 issue on Amazon as a paperback. I can’t recommend it enough – it’s full of compelling stories, poetry, and artwork.

The high school was far from the outskirts of Fresno where Tommie-Lee and her sister were waiting at dawn for the school bus. Seeing them for the first time, a new bus driver told the light-skinned Tommie-Lee to get on, but “you,” he pointed at her darker-complexioned sister, “gonna have to walk.” Tommie-Lee refused to get on the bus without her sister. That ended her high school.

The war was on, WWII, which would also become part of the family lore: Jon’s future father Louis fighting in Europe, his soon-to-be wife washing soldiers’ uniforms at the army base in Fresno.

“Hard work in this heat,” Tommie-Lee told me, “but there wasn’t any other for a young girl like me.”

She married Louis, a WWII veteran, in 1946. She kept order and stability in Jon’s childhood home, and yet retained a distinct sense of curiosity about the neighbors and their cultures. Enchiladas con salsa verde¸ which Tommie-Lee learned to cook in El Centro, were as much of a dinner staple as the traditional Southern mac’n’cheese, potato salad, and the unparalleled, in Jon’s memory, upside-down pineapple cake. [ . . . ]

I grew up with my grandparents, so the main point of reference in my childhood home were the years of their youth – the tumultuous 1920-40s, the era of the Bolshevik Revolution, the full emancipation of women and Jews, and WWII the years of great hopes and enormous suffering. [. . .]

Scores of their relatives in Poland and Ukraine perished in the Holocaust. My grandfather’s teenage cousins, the only two members of his family to survive the Nazi occupation of his shtetl, swam across the wide Dniester River fleeing the oncoming German troops. When the soldiers overran them, the two girls continued their perilous journey eastward by night. During the day, the younger one with olive skin and dark hair would hide in the forest, while her fair-complexioned older sister, able to pass for a Slav, would beg for food in the villages. Eventually, they made it to the Soviet side, and this is how I know their story.

My grandfather Yosif, like Jon’s father Louis, fought in that war. Wounded in the Battle of Kursk, he came home with a medal – and with a clock, a palm-size carriage clock he picked up somewhere along the front.

It stands as tranquilly on our dining room buffet as it did in my grandparents’. It still runs.

From “Christmas Dreidels” by Lane Igoudin, The Citadel, 2020.

PS. For more information about the Elaine Race Riot and the Arkansas Delta Massacres of 1910s-1930s, a tragic and overlooked piece of the American history, read The Smithsonian article, or visit the University of Arkansas online exhibit.

Mujerista Theology, or Finding Sacredness amidst Poverty and Oppression

This post is part of Blessing the Sea 4.

Is search for the sacred a class privilege?

Or to put it differently, are the opportunities to touch the divine – beyond the formal religious settings open to the masses, like synagogues, churches, or mosques – luxuries afforded only to those who can afford them, and conversely, inaccessible to those who lack such resources?

These questions came up for me while I was listening to the prominent Chicana novelist, activist, and academic Helena Maria Viramontes deliver a talk at a writing convention this spring. In it, Viramontes turned the spotlight onto the acts of holiness in the communities engulfed in poverty and state-sponsored oppression. Violence and brutality can take us over, she surmised, whip us into a cycle of reactivity, make us forget our own uniqueness and worth. But we can still transcend them by noticing the sacredness of our surroundings, no matter what they are.

I remember how important it is to raise our eyes from instruments of distractions before it’s too late, before our rage ravages, and we dare not find the fortitude to name faces of flowers; once we hear the hoarse voices of the treetops. then describe them, once we see the way the ecosystem allows permission for us to exist, then be grateful, once it asks us to let go our ego, then do it. . . We become divine in the presence of holiness.” [i]

La vida es la lucha” | To struggle is to live

In her speech, Viramontes traced her ideas to the mujerista theology of Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, a Latina theological anthropologist who studied everyday forms of resistance in impoverished communities. [ii]

Before joining the academe, Isasi-Diaz, who had come to the US as a Cuban refugee, was a Catholic missionary in Peru. A missionary ethnographer? Why not?

To Isasi-Diaz, daily lives (lo cotidiano) are the central expression of “the most oppressed women in our communities who struggle to survive and flourish constantly.”

“Lo cotidiano constitutes the immediate space of our lives . . . where we meet and relate to the material world that is made up not only of physical realities but also of how we relate to that reality (culture), and how we understand and evaluate [it]. . . Lo cotidiano is what we face everyday and how we face it. . . It extends to our experience with authority, and our central religious beliefs and celebrations…

“Lo cotidiano refers to a simple world. It is a world where one has to take of what is scattered along the surface minute by minute: . . . how to feed the family today, how to pay for the oil or gas they need to heat their homes today, how to get money to buy the medicine their children need today. . . The urgency of lo cotidiano often makes it necessary for one to leave the causes or reasons for later, a ‘later’ that often does not come because the urgency of the present never diminishes.” [iii]

Mujerista theology also sees this daily life as intertwined with the Divine, in part because it is a space inhabited by popular religion, a mixture of pre-Colombian and Catholic practices: images of saints and of La Virgen, rosaries, blessings, retablos, home altars, and so on. This sacred space empowers poor and oppressed Latinas women to transform their reality, and “they transform it when they manage to survive by somehow providing shelter, food, clothing, medicines for themselves and their families.”

Everyday spaces, sacred spaces

The sacred is found in all of the practices we deem necessary to resist invisibility, degradation, and invalidation,” Viramontes suggests. “Everything we do can be considered acts against erasure, and hence sacred, a sacredness that heightens our state of being and answers to our instinctive urge to transcend. . . Our kitchens, gardens, special oak trees, porches or patios, workshops, and sidewalk views become. . .  sacred space where we recognize our existences, own our ways of being.

Examples of such sacred acts against erasure in the Jewish culture are the writings during, or as I prefer, despite or fighting back the Holocaust – Elie Wiesel, Anne Frank, Primo Levi, the Piaseczno Rebbe.

But it can also come from connecting to the places where you are, not just existing in, or passing through, but noticing them, contemplating their relationship to you and your life, and engaging to transform them.

Similarly, Viramontes proposed several mujerista-based practices to enhance the spirit of synergy and creativity, including: “Commit to finding the sacred in everyday life. Build around those moments of grace. Believe in writing [or any other creative activity] as Scripture in its power to complicate, to create empathy, to direct us towards meaning.”

What I learned from Isasi-Diaz and Viramontes is that the response to moment-to-moment hardships and oppression – cultural, religious, economic, and so on – the response itself is a fulfilling, sacred act.


[i] Viramontes, H. M. (2020). “My Insurgent Heart: AWP 2020 Annual Conference Keynote Address.” The Writer’s Chronicle, 53(1), 21-27. September 2020.


[ii] Isasi-Díaz, A. M. (1996). Mujerista theology: A Theology for the Twenty-First Century. Maryknoll, N.Y: Orbis Books.


[iii] Isasi-Díaz, A. M., “Lo Cotidiano: A Key Element of Mujerista Theology,” Journal of Hispanic / Latino Theology, 10:1 (Aug. 2002) 5-17, excerpted from pp. 5, 8-10, 14.

Spirit and Spunk of a Merchant’s Wife

This book review is part of Blessing the Sea 4 newsletter.

Gluckel of Hameln’s memoir has many layers. Written in simple, vivid language for her children over 300 years ago, it makes a surprisingly fast and lively read.

There are anecdotes galore – funny, heartwarming, or bizarre, like when she and her mother give birth to their babies in the same room and then can’t figure out which one is which. Or traveling under the protection of a family friend, who turns out to be an alcoholic, drinking himself to the point of “falling under the hedge near a pool of water.” Yet, as “he was, after all, a human being and a Jew,” it is now up to Gluckel to oversee his safe delivery home through all the taverns and inns of Holland and Hanover.

There is awareness of political news familiar to us today – European wars, the rise of court Jews, Shabtai Zvi’s affair – but still a lot more than simply the recollections of a merchant’s wife from the era of Louis XIV and Isaac Newton.

For one, the reality that Gluckel (1646-1724) portrays is quite different from today.

One of Gluckel’s earliest memories is among the most telling. When she is 2, her family, along with the rest of the Jewish community of about forty families, are expelled from Hamburg by the city council order.

They flee to a nearby town of Altona, owned by the Danish crown. Despite expulsion, Jews are still allowed to do business in Hamburg, so they commute daily to Hamburg from Altona, but doing so meant that “our poor folks took their life in their hands because of the hatred for the Jews rife among the dockhands, soldiers, and others of the meaner classes. The good wife, sitting home, often thanked G-d when her husband turned up safe and sound.”

Adapting to this ever-changing realities of living in an archipelago of micro-states that comprised Germany was an essential skill. If you’ve mastered it, you will, with G-d’s help, do well. If not, you may pay for it dearly.

How do you make it in a land where tolerance for Jews is on a scale of lukewarm to zero?

Relying, as Gluckel shows, first and foremost, on your family networks. Marriage, like Gluckel’s at 12, becomes an important step to secure a foothold in a particular town, or a connection with a particular family.

Family networks provide the wealth needed to start a business, secure patronage of a local ruler, find a rabbi, obtain education (in Gluckel’s case for both boys and girls), or a place to flee to. Gluckel’s husband Chayim, mostly a dealer in precious stones, was not among the richest, but his and Gluckel’s networks expanded into France, Netherlands, Poland, East Germany, and south to Switzerland.

Gluckel, a merchant’s wife in what we now call the Early Modern period, is inspiring in her leadership. While Chayim travels to trade fairs throughout northern and central Europe, Gluckel is running the household and raising their 14, yes, 14 kids, and yet is ever-present in Chayim’s business dealings. “Not that I mean to boast,” she writes with somewhat false modesty, “but my husband took advice from no one else, and did nothing without our talking it over together.” In another scene, she drafts a contract for her husband’s business partnership with an unreliable partner. When Chayim dies, Gluckel takes over and expands the family business, and with eight of her children still living at home, travels to fairs herself.

Faith was also essential to survival. Judaism provided Gluckel a framework complete with language, literature, observancies, calendar, and social networks.

Religious texts offer the comfort and explanation of the volatile world Jews are set to inhabit. The educated and pious, though not meek, Gluckel often speaks to G-d and quotes from the Tanakh, Pirkei Avot, the siddur, and even from the Talmud trying to make sense of it all.

Say your prayers with awe and devotion,” she instructs her children. “During the time for prayers, do not stand about and talk of other things. While offering your prayers to the Creator of the world, [do not] engage in talk about an entirely different matter. Shall G-d Almighty be kept waiting until you have finished your business?”

The most crucial event of her life, the one that she keeps returning to is Chayim’s death. And here too, she contemplates it as a woman who keenly feels G-d’s presence in her life.

When his soul took wing, there flew with at all my glory, wealth, and honor. My dear mother and her children sought to comfort me, but it was as oil poured upon fire, and my grief grew only worse for it. . . The days that the dear friend of my heart lay dead before me were not as bad as those that followed. Then it was my grief deepened hourly. But in His mercy, G-d at length brought me patience, so I have taken care of my fatherless children as far as a weak woman can, bowed with affliction and woe.”

Quoting Talmud’s teaching that “man is bound to give thanks for the evil as for the good” (Berakot Mishna IX), Gluckel is trying to come to terms with her loss:

I know that this complaining and mourning is a weakness of mine and a grievous fault. Far better it would be if every day I fell upon my knees and thank the Lord for the tender mercies He has bestowed on my unworthy self. I sit to this day at my own table, eat what I relish, stretch myself at night in my own bed, and even have a shilling to waste, so long as the good G-d pleases. I have my beloved children, and while things do not always go well, now with one, or the other, as they should, still we are alive. . . How many people there are in this world, finer, better, juster than I, . . . who have no bread to put into their mouths! How then can I thank and praise my Creator enough for all the goodness He has lavished upon us?

Simple wisdom? What could be deeper?


More on Gluckel. And read the book!