By: Tova Harris
“And if I speak of Paradise,
then I’m speaking of my grandmother
who told me to carry it always
on my person, concealed, so
no one else would know but me.
That way they can’t steal it, she’d say.
And if life puts you under pressure,
trace its ridges in your pocket,
smell its piney scent on your handkerchief,
hum its anthem under your breath.
And if your stresses are sustained and daily,
get yourself to an empty room – be it hotel,
hostel or hovel – find a lamp
and empty your paradise onto a desk:
your white sands, green hills and fresh fish.
Shine the lamp on it like the fresh hope
of morning, and keep staring at it till you sleep.”
A Portable Paradise – Roger Robinson
I’ve always wondered how one passes on traditions, stories of old and new. What echoes from one life to another, what we carry. To be both Black and Jewish is to hear two stories of a Paradise both loved and lost. My paternal grandparents had suffered at the hands of the American slavery system, and only knew Paradise as a concept not yet practiced. Home was nothing less than freedom, and home was long ago and far away. Their right to pursue Paradise was not given to their family until they themselves were granted the right to be seen other than as a commodity. They lived as if the right to live would be taken away again, always protective of their new Paradise. I do not envy the path they walked to come home to themselves.
However, it was my maternal grandmother’s voice that rang through much of my childhood. When my parents moved from the city to the suburbs, it was she who ran the household while my parents worked for their version of Paradise.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, my grandmother learned to walk with purpose, to be strong with one’s words, to love fiercely, to cultivate home from anything and everything. For my grandmother too, Paradise was never promised, and so it was kept on her personhood at all times. I would often wonder where and how her Paradise had been threatened, perhaps in years before my time, and how she seemed to fashion it between her fingers with every meal cooked for me and my family. It was with these foods, kugels and briskets, that I learned how love was practiced. Not with words, but with a silent waltz around kitchen floors, whisking and baking history into every morsel offered. So too, my Paradise came to be the moments shared between tables, the humming of a blender, the flattening of the rolling pin.
In fashioning my world, my place in this world, my place in this life, how is it that I could not think Paradise was ever evolving? To be of so many things, all at once, is to see the world with many different sets of eyes. I have learned not to cling to the concept. My Paradise was never taken away from me. I have learned to embrace all that is—whether Paradise or not—with increasing grace. For me, Paradise is intentionally created; a product of all that is, and all that came before.