A new novel blurb for Tilda is Visible by Jane Tara just arrived in my email inbox. I haven’t read it yet, but its premise is familiar. Publisher’s Lunch describes it as a book “about a successful woman who wakes up one day to discover her ear is gone, the next day her nose; she is diagnosed with a condition whispered about around the globe – as some women age, they start to disappear; she finds a renegade doctor, other diagnosed women, as well as a blind man who might see her more clearly than anyone ever has.”
The plot reminded me of an anecdote I heard. Since a person in a position of authority at work must be impartial, any outward expressions of her Judaism or feelings about the war remain mostly off-limits as a “boss.” An admin assistant proudly hangs a Ukrainian flag, but an Israeli flag is out of bounds. The boss feels that the current situation and increasing antisemitism make her feel smaller. Her recent solution? She put up a piece of tape on her door with a handwritten number. She does this to recognize how long Israeli hostages have been held in Gaza. This idea, started by hostage Hersh Goldberg-Polin’s mother, Rachel, helps people show a visible sign of concern about the hostages. It’s a small way to stay visible during a difficult time.
Older women often experience the feeling of becoming smaller. As women age, their earnings can decrease, despite job seniority or wisdom. If a woman doesn’t dye her hair or “keep up” appearances, others comment that she is “past her prime,” as if worth is only wrapped up in appearances or fertility. Despite recent legal or financial protections, many older women’s financial worth depends directly on a higher-earning male partner.
Many Jews describe a similar feeling of “becoming smaller” after Oct. 7. Politicians pair antisemitism and Islamophobia when discussing discrimination and hate, but the numbers aren’t equivalent. In Canada, the Jewish community is a minority and, in terms of population, substantially smaller than the Muslim community. Jewish community members describe choosing not to shop in areas where they used to feel safe or trying to avoid conflict in places where protests take place. Protesters may hold Jewish Canadians somehow responsible for the Gaza war.
There have always been security concerns, but now when a Jewish event happens, organizers include information about security provisions. We are a small group, forced by circumstance to become smaller to protect ourselves. Our worth and safety as citizens feels tied to the majority’s interest in keeping minorities from harm.
For some, it’s a new and restrictive feeling. However, social media clips of Israeli soldiers singing “Gesher Tzar Me’od” show that this isn’t new. These words, which come from Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, with music written by Ofra Haza, are “The whole world is a narrow bridge and the main thing is not to be at all afraid.”
Rabbi Nachman lived from 1772 to 1811 in Ukraine and founded the Breslov Hasids. He was the great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, who started Hasidism. During his lifetime, Rav Nachman traveled to Israel, moved within Ukraine, and struggled with tuberculosis. Although he died at age 38, his teachings remain vibrant. While this song is old, the message remains contemporary.
One way to understand the feeling of becoming smaller or narrower is to look at Jewish texts that embrace the concept. Psalm 118:5 says, “From the narrow place I called out to you [G-d], G-d answered me from a wide space.” Another translation ends, “the Lord answered me and brought me relief.” The word for Egypt, Mitzrayim, holds within it this idea of a “narrow space.” How eerie that soldiers, heading south into Gaza, towards Egypt, reminded themselves of this.
Continuing the metaphor, when leaving Egypt, Moses took the people into the wilderness, which is seen as a big, uncharted territory. Diving into the unknown is scary. New endeavours feel this way, whether it’s something dangerous like a war or something less worrying, like starting something new or entering an unfamiliar place.
We’re often encouraged that, if we dive in and move beyond our anxieties, we will have great opportunities ahead. Surely Rabbi Nachman’s efforts to help people seemed novel in his time. He taught through niggunim, wordless melodies. He encouraged his followers to embrace uninhibited prayer, personal conversations with the Divine, and to fulfil the mitzvah of always being joyful. To those who just go to services and follow along, or who don’t pray at all, it all might feel a little ecstatic and weird.
Yet, getting beyond a narrow place or being made to feel small can sometimes result in something bigger and better ahead. Whether you make yourself bigger through prayer, protest, quiet signals (like masking tape numbers), getting out into nature and the world or singing, you are finding a bigger space for yourself. When I simply take a walk with my dog and pause to see the prairie landscape, to greet neighbours and be greeted, I feel momentary narrow places dissipating. In contrast, when we think of the truly small spaces where Israeli hostages spend their time, our feelings of being diminished in the diaspora may not feel as pressing.
We choose to see others and be seen when we consider wider possibilities or the wilderness ahead. Being acknowledged and “seen” for our contributions helps everyone. It scares away our inhibitions to make it past the narrow spaces and into a better time. Right now, advocacy through law helps some fight hate and discrimination. Some, like the Israel Defence Forces, physically fight. Others might bide their time in scary, smaller spaces to get to a safer space, a place full of potential, ahead.
When we’re afraid, our breathing becomes shallow. We get less oxygen to our brain. We think less clearly. Rabbi Nachman and Ofra Haza may not have known the biology behind why singing would open up our souls. Surely, those deep singing breaths help us take on bigger, harder things. Those deep breaths, like experiencing the outdoors in nature, offer us more power to conquer our fears. When we sing out, we also become visible. Our voices, even as a minority in the diaspora, may be heard.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for the Winnipeg Free Press and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.