KINGSTON, R.I. — November 19, 2002 — Naomi Mandel, assistant professor of English at the University of Rhode Island, never walks by an unattended knapsack without wondering whether it might contain a bomb. She’d never consider living in the heartland of America. “I would feel trapped. I need to be near a port in case I had to escape,” confesses the educator who trained as a concert pianist, but studies and teaches the literature of atrocities and trauma, particularly the Holocaust, slavery, and Hiroshima.
Although terrorist threats since Sept. 11, 2001 have most Americans jittery, those threats seem mundane to Mandel. “I’m accustomed to living in high alert,” says the woman who grew up in Israel where terrorism can often be an everyday event. “I feel at home.”
Only those with enough money, time, and opportunity can sustain an illusion that terrorism doesn’t affect them, she says.
Mandel helped found the Journal for Mundane Behavior, a 2-year-old on-line journal (www.mundanebehavior.org) that ferrets out insights into what it is to be human by examining and commenting on common experiences that we generally ignore. As the name implies, the journal is not only a peer-review academic publication, it was created to appeal also to the non-academic crowd.
Although past issues have spotlighted bull sessions, the hidden meanings behind facial hair, and wall calendars, a piece on atrocities and the everyday was authored by Mandel, the guest editor of the Journal’s commemorative issue of the terror attacks of September 11.
Mandel’s impassioned essay was not a step away from the jocular, but rather a bridge that we can walk over gingerly to see that suffering continues on a day-to-day basis.
I am Israeli and I have lived with atrocity for most of my life. This means not only that atrocity has invaded my everyday life in the form of rocket attacks, suicide bombs, innocent objects laced with explosives, and a myriad of other manifestations, but because I am close, very very close, to atrocities inflicted on my neighbors the Palestinians.
Mandel acknowledges that it is difficult to talk about such subjects. There almost seems to be a taboo. “Sometimes there is so much suffering that it seems to exceed language,” she says, conceding that for her, even language can serve as an intellectual shield. She realized while talking on the phone to her mother in Israel recently that they had never discussed their shared experiences of SCUD missiles shrieking through the skies and landing nearby during the Gulf War.
Atrocities hit close to home. Mandel’s parents, both college professors and Jewish, left the U.S. to take jobs in Israel when she was 7. Her mother’s entire extended family and most of her father’s perished in concentration camps, “We lost an entire generation,” Mandel says. “Yet we don’t talk about it.”
Mandel finds it odd that Americans have a museum in Washington, D.C. dedicated to the Holocaust, which took place in Europe yet no museum that commemorates slavery in the U.S. in the nation’s capital.
Mandel plans to visit the Holocaust Museum. Is there, she wonders, anything in the museum that addresses America’s role in the Holocaust such as the immigration policies during World War II that denied many European Jews, including her family, the chance to escape from Hitler’s clutches?
Living with atrocity on such close terms, says Mandel, does not make her feel like a victim. Rather, it makes her feel responsible to other suffering.
When I say that atrocity has marked my life, then, it is not as a victim that I speak but as a perpetrator as well: while bits and pieces of Israelis have been collected from the smoking remnants of a building or a bus, thousands of Palestinians have been rounded up, arrested, interrogated and beaten. While Israelis now think twice before gathering at a restaurant or café, Palestinians are confined to their homes for weeks on end, deprived of food and medicine. These sad facts show, not that one side suffers more, but that both sides suffer and that our suffering is linked, as linked as our hopes and dreams for a future on the same godforsaken strip of sand and stone.
It is this community of suffering that keeps both sides coming back, however hesitantly, to the peace table, according to Mandel. This is a community in which the most mundane elements of everyday life—running out for milk, getting on a bus, getting to work or to school, meeting a friend—have become the site for our bloodiest battles, our most heartbreaking losses, our most unforgivable crimes.
But when atrocity becomes part of everyday life, Mandel feels that there is reason to hope. Like the women in Buchenwald who swapped recipes while they were starving, to claim the mundane is to cling to survival… And in the face of such misery, when faced with such suffering, to claim the mundane can be on occasion the strongest, most hopeful, most human thing to do.