09 June 2018

The problem of becoming doyiker

Enlisted men from Racine, Wisconsin, 1915

I’ve said before that whatever Jewishness I have is problematic and hopelessly Americanised. I have a biological grandmother on the ‘wrong’ (that is to say, spear) side of the family who was Jewish. She sadly didn’t live long enough to pass on much of her experiences or cultural awareness to her children, let alone to her grandchildren. Religious Jews would consider her ‘apostate’. Sæcular Jews would consider me (at best) bet Gershom. And yet, as I’ve also said before, having Jewish family is not nothing. Relatives of mine perished in the Shoah; I’ve learnt their names and (as far as my amateur genealogy would allow me) their stories. I’ve felt that that much was my solemn duty.

The results have been intriguing. History – even personal history – rhymes in strange ways. My great-grandfather, an immigrant from Moravia, settled in Racine, Wisconsin and became a machinist. I, a ‘peregrinator’ as one dear reader of my blog put it (fun factoid: my favourite bird growing up was the migratory duck hawk, of the sort which perched in the rafters of the MS&E building at UW-Madison), made a temporary home in China before moving back to the Upper Midwest – the Twin Cities, in my case – and became a machinist. To my knowledge, my Jewish family had not one Zionist bone among them (though of course, that could be a very different case now). And my great-grandfather may have had Bundist sympathies. Certainly he lived the ideal of ‘there, where we live, that is our country’, to the point where he picked up a gun and fought in a war opposing his own former homeland – and came home wrecked by the invisible brutality of chlorine warfare.

By contrast, doyikayt – that is to say, ‘here-hood’ – has been something truly difficult for me to learn, ‘peregrinator’ that I am. My political and cultural sympathies are with Yugoslavia, with Czechoslovakia, with that Russia that embodied the highest ideals of Tsarism and narodnichestvo both. In certain political quizzes (a time-wasting online weakness of mine), my values don’t match up that well to any American political party – and in fact match up far better with certain parties in Russia (of both right and left). Particularly given that I believe fervently in ‘here-hood’, my beliefs and my praxis (or at the very least, my expressions of that praxis) do not match very well. This is a problem. In fact, I don’t think it would be wrong to describe this suspicion that I would belong better somewhere else, as a form of acedia, an intellectualised and sæcularised sloth on my part.

As my priest here in the Twin Cities says, the retreat into such suspicions and dissociative fantasies of ‘belonging elsewhere’ is a form of mâyâ, of illusion – distracting me from the more important work closer at hand. At times, it seems to me that the world presented to us by television, radio, popular mass entertainment, social media: is all mâyâ. Such an illusory world is seductive. It feeds my ego. It makes me feel ‘in control’. And from an Orthodox perspective, there is little that is more dangerous than that.

Becoming doyiker, then – becoming here, starting to live where I live and not somewhere or somewhen else – needs to become a spiritual and practical struggle for me. Although I am not a monk and have no plans to become one, I could certainly learn a thing or two from the cœnobitic discipline of stability and the Patristic cautions against monks and novices feeling as though they could be better and would make better progress somewhere other than they are. Part of being doyiker is not seeking for some other homeland, except in the eschatological sense, and instead trusting to God that He wasn’t blindly or haphazardly placing me where I happen to be.

I don’t think it is an accident that these reflections have fallen on the eve of the synaxis feast of the Saints of North America. Even though doyikayt is an autonomist principle which comes from a radical-socialist sæcular Jewish philosophy, it has deep resonances within the Orthodox Christian tradition. These men and women had to be doyiker. In many cases, they simply had no choice but to do the work before them, as impoverished working-class minorities – even refugees – in a culture which ranged from indifferent to outright hostile. But they did it anyway and they did it gladly.

Holy Martyr Juvenal of Alaska, Holy Father Herman of Alaska, Metropolitan Saint Innocent of Moscow, Holy Father Jacob Netsvetov, Holy Hieromartyr Tikhon of Moscow, Holy Martyr Peter the Aleut, Holy Father Alexis of Wilkes-Barre, Holy Father Raphael of Brooklyn, Holy Father John, Archbishop of Shanghai and San Francisco, Holy Priestmartyr John Kochurov and Holy Priestmartyr Alexander Khotovitskiy, pray to God for me, the sinner, and for all of us struggling with our delusions.

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