The Complexity of History


Hello from the bus once again,

We have completed our two days in the Czech capital of Praha (the Czech spelling of Prague). Yesterday we were in various areas of Prague, the new area, the palace area, and we walked through some of the lesser area. Today we spent most of our time in the Jewish area (known as Josefov). While I thought I had some understanding and appreciation for Jewish culture, the humility and admiration I have for them now is exponentially increased. Their history is so complicated, so tortured, and simultaneously so consistent, so understandable, if one merely considers it and the repeating scenes with some sense of continuity and analysis. Because of my background with Hebrew and my study of Biblical scholarship, what I have come to realize is how narrowly I was seeing them. Even though I had a pretty strong sense of how their faith was (and is) connected to their identity, I have come to realize that there is so much more there. From their language to their study of scripture, from their ritual requirements throughout their daily lives from birth to beyond death, from the cultural stigma imposed upon them to their important contributions to any society where they might end up living, the giftedness the Jewish community offers to the whole is tremendous. That is merely the beginning of what both the classroom and the larger contextual classroom had taught me. I wish I would have been much better in my learning Hebrew in seminary than I was. If I had done even 50% as well as I did in Greek the trip would have been even more amazing than it has been.

Today I had the opportunity to visit another Jewish cemetery and these visits are once more something that humbles me, but connects me to the centuries of life that has preceded me. To know that some of this was from as year as the 14th or 15th centuries means that the continuity of Judaism cannot be discounted nor ignored. At the same time Luther was questioning the Catholic Church, this Jewish community was maintaining a life and tradition that began with Abraham, Issac and Jacob. As Christians, be they Roman, Orthodox, or Protestant, try to understand their two-millennium  history, the Jewish people with their promise to Abraham in Genesis 15:6 had already been faithful to their God for over a millennium. It is those sort of realizations that move me to want to study and understand even more about that faith upon which other monotheistic faiths must see as their religious parent or ancestor. If other monotheistic believers truly consider their foundations, the fact that the Jewish faith continues to be so maligned should be  ludicrous, at least to me. . . . By the time I got back to the room from our bus trip back to Krakow, I had no energy to finish this posting and today has been a bit hectic, It is now early morning on the 12th, but I want to get some more things written. Today, gratefully, we spent more time in the Eastern European Culture course examining the history of Judaism and, more specifically today, its expansion from what would now be referred to as orthodoxy to some of the changes that would become both part of the Hassidic movement as well as the reformed movements within the Jewish faith. Learning the differences as well as their subsequent points in a historical dating was quite helpful to me. I am thoroughly mesmerized by what I am learning about this faith of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Tonight was another night at dinner and that was yet another dining experience. I love listening to, and learning from, students. What makes the quartet of dining experimenters so enjoyable is a profound appreciation for good cuisine and being willing to step outside a comfort zone. It takes a mature and thoughtful person, especially when it comes to food, to take those chances. There are so many people who miss out on amazing options. Food, after language, is, for me, the most truthful and culturally appropriate way to learn about another person and their identity. Our choices about, and our preparation of, food say so much about what we value as well as where we see ourselves in the world. Paul Mabrey, a food blogger, writes, “Food is part of our identity performance. What you eat, how you eat it, where you eat it, where your food was produced; each aspect is part of your identity. Taste might a great example of the relationship between food and identity performance. Taste, like any of the characteristics of our identity, is not natural. Taste does not come from our genes or biology. Taste is taught, learned and performed. Tastes change” (You are what you eat). The name of the posting is certainly a bit cliché, but nonetheless, I believe that Mr. Mabrey is spot on in what he notes about our eating habits. Some of you know that I tried to eliminate processed sugar from my diet. I did quite well for about 14 or 15 months, but it is time to double-down and renew my efforts. I also need to get back on the regiment that I was one pretty carefully for more than a year. One thing that has been good is I have walked more in the last two and a half weeks than I probably did in the previous year. I think what amazes me is I am continuously bombarded by beauty at every turn. It is not that every sight I observe is gorgeous, but rather that the comprehensive experience of all the senses offers this sort of time-travel through more than a millennium. It is both realistically and virtually impossible to process all of it. This morning in the basilica (and this was my second visit) all I could think is I need to come back yet again to truly appreciate the overwhelming beauty of this place of worship. I have posted pictures on my FB page and will put together an album on Instagram yet today. All of this takes longer than anticipated, however, because the use of the internet is so different here than what we are used to in the United States. (It is actually Wednesday almost midnight here as I continue to write this and two sentences before, it was about 36 hours earlier.) Yesterday, we took a tour of a section of Krakow called Nowa Huta (please see This area of Krakow was a city actually planned out and designed by Stalin as the ultimate socialist experimental city. We spent a good part of the afternoon there and while some of us were on a sort of luxury mini-bus, others took turns being driving in Trabants, a little car built in the former East Germany. It was a little two-stroke pregnant roller-skate little thing that was loud and soot-bellowing in its exhaust. It was supposedly able to hold four adults and luggage, but you better pack lightly.  I think it would be a serious hoot to have one of these things. We did get a tour around the town, which was put together outside of a steel factory, which is still in operation. The town itself has about 200,000 inhabitants, but was built as the model socialist city. We went into a typical apartment and a restaurant. It was like stepping into a history book.

Today, Dr. P. and I had the opportunity to meet with the Director of Jagiellonian University. I spoke to him about my research and writing project and he was quite supportive in helping me see if I can get someone in the history department to work with me because it would take archival work. He also spoke really specifically about my working on learning Polish, which would be amazing. I think it would be an interesting spring and summer and beyond. This is so exciting for me. The world is both complex, but amazingly manageable if one will take the time to communicate and listen. I think that is the problem for many. There is noise being made, but little actual communication . . .  and that does not even begin to address the issue of listening. It is one thing to hear someone; it is something quite different to truly listen to them. This is something I essentially say when I note in the writing process that understanding audience is so much more than “saying or writing want you want.” It is much more important to realize what it is they need to hear or read. One of the things I am working on is to listen more and speak less. That is not an easy thing for me because sometimes (way too often) I let my mouth get in front of my brain. That is not the easiest thing for me to admit, but  it happens. I am reminded of a woman who did my Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) rotation with me and she (her name was Anna Clock-truly it was) wrote in her final evaluation of me that I needed to speak less and listen more. She was correct and probably still is. She was an amazingly wonderful colleague that summer of CPE, the summer of 1984. It is actually the first time I have thought of her in many years. There is another complexity of our lives. People come in and they move out. Sometimes it is merely geography; sometimes it is because of other things. However, each one leaves something for us, but all too often we fail to see those minute, but significant gifts their presence brings. At times, we are fortunate enough, blessed enough to reconnect. That has happened to me as of late. In fact, as I am writing this, I am also messaging a former classmate. She was a person for whom I had more admiration and interest than known at the time. It has been such a joy to merely write back and forth and share insights and reflections. I am reminded of my friends, Lee and Judy Swenson. Judy once told me that she had probably loved more than one person in her life with whom she could have been happily married to that one, but the timing was not right. She is such a wise lady. They are an example of two people who even now inspire me. They have taught me more and guided me more than they will ever realize. Little did I know that the summer of 1978 would bring two such amazing people into my life. We have so little idea of what will influence or change us. We have so little control of who comes and who goes. There is a complexity in that, but there is also a remarkable simplicity in that. All we need to do is take the time to observe, listen, and process.

There has been a lot of that for me in the past three weeks as I have traveled with 30 students and a wonderful colleague. While there have been moments of amazement for a plethora of reasons, there are so many remarkable and capable students on this trip. It has been inspiring and there have been wonderful moments of realization and joy. As the hours are ticking off and soon, the time that was Europe with be a memory for these students. It is also a life-changing event for me because I am better off by their collective experiences and sharing with me. I know that my life was changed 35 years ago during another January as I traveled to Europe. It is amazing that I am on the other side of that equation today, but I am just as amazed and excited as I was then. The initial picture is of a seriously-customized little Trabi . . .  not quite like the ones we were in yesterday, but I would love to have one.

Thanks for reading!

Dr. Martin

Published by thewritingprofessor55

As I move toward the end of a teaching career in the academy, I find myself questioning the value and worth of so many things in our changing world. My blog is the place I am able to ponder, question, and share my thoughts about a variety of topics. It is the place I make sense of our sometimes senseless world. I believe in a caring and compassionate creator, but struggle to know how to be faithful to the same. I hope you find what is shared here something that might resonate with you and give you hope.

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