Gifts Freely Given, Part III: Inheritance

Gifts Freely Given, Part III: Inheritance

Over the last few weeks of the program, a self-selected group of BCL5 students invested time and energy into a shared project–a writers’ collective. Each student chose a piece of their writing, and engaged in multiple rounds of revision and editing with a variety of readers. The work is diverse, but each piece is a gift: a clear window into what the writer thinks, feels, and believes. 

The final two installments are written by Henry and Elle, each of whom explore what we inherit, and the parts of the past that we want – and don’t want – to hold onto.
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This poem is about an artist named Ben Zion Black who lived in the Burlington community from 1910 until his death in 1972. The title of this piece is the name of a store owned by Ben Zion Black where he made signs for businesses in the area. But Ben Zion Black didn’t just paint signs. He painted the Lost Shul Mural (which was painted in 1910 in a Burlington Synagogue and today may well be the last of its kind in the world). He also wrote many poems in Yiddish. He not only created art, but he collected it too. His collection, now at UVM, contains over 5,000 Yiddish books and phonograph records. 

I first learned about Ben Zion Black when the Lost Shul Mural was being prepared to be moved from the old Chai Adom synagogue (currently an apartment building) on Hyde Street. It had just been uncovered after being hidden by a wall for almost thirty years. I went back there many times, and even watched it as it was lifted out of the building on a crane. It was then moved to Ohavi Zedek Synagogue on Prospect St, where it is today. 

Over the next few years I would go on to perform music from his record collection with a neighborhood band led by Brian Perkins. These songs were fascinating and unlike anything I had ever played before. They had scales such as the E Freygish scale, and had been  written and performed by Yiddish singing artists such as Velvel Zbarjer, and Isa Kremer. This poem that I wrote is both an ode to the work of Ben Zion Black as well as a look back on my various interactions with his work. It is filled with lines of longing and belonging and takes on the past as if it were here.

B. Black – SIGNS OF THE BETTER KIND

Whose music was found on records, in a silent room and painting was taken through the wall
High up into the air, on a crane, on the street on an empty morning
Who sat beneath it, camera in hand, who would later find the same inspiration on music stands
In concert halls across the state, learning, mind flying

Who passed the waters of waiting and the hating of not being let in
Who defied the crying, dealt with the dying, and established stone to sing
Who slept without burden, met theatres with curtains and covered up expression with walls
Who uncovered said expression, lifted up the lesson, and carried it out of reach, over one long haul
Who returned the light to the name, the same thing year after year
The bright brick red, the blessings have been said, but I wasn’t there to hear
Whose buildings burned but that didn’t turn anybody away from the testament to strength
Who didn’t measure wit with numbers, didn’t measure life with length
Who sat up on the bleachers as blazing fastballs slipped by the batter’s eye
Who sat up on the rooftops and saw the city under a new rebirth and an old yet familiar demise

Who taught the sound of Yiddish when Yiddish was dying by the droves
Who stayed up late, back to the sinking moonlight, the bays, and the coves
Whose record collection I skipped but not cause of the needle
Whose photos and writings I looked at under a blanket of detail

Who opened B. Black – SIGNS OF THE BETTER KIND 

  • Henry Padnos

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Our history creates our future, and we owe it to ourselves to understand it. There is no escaping it, and we must learn it in order to create a more just and equitable world. The most powerful tool we have as a human race is education, which we must use to move us forward and advance the cultures, systems, and world in which we live. I believe that everyone has a responsibility to educate themselves on the complexities of race in our country. 

I grew up colorblind. I was surrounded by white people. My family, teachers, friends, mentors, and community I grew up in was predominately white. In my fifth grade class, there was only one female student of color. Race and the complexities around racism that filled our world were never discussed with me at a young age. But sometime between Obama’s presidency, the increasing wokeness of the nation, and seeing more diversity, inequities, and activism in my middle school, I began to understand that I came from privilege when it came to my race. 

I will never understand what it means to be Black in America, I will never understand the fear that BIPOC people face every day, but seeing countless videos of young Black men being killed struck something deep within me. As I got older, the issues of racism felt extremely far from myself and loved ones, and again had the privilege to think I was not a cog in the system of racism. But that is simply not true. We all participate in racism every day, and it’s inescapable to live within these systems as a white person without benefiting from white privilege. 

Once I realized that trying to understand the oppression of Black Americans, indigenous peoples, and other marginalized ethnic groups, required self-awareness, I was able to change my worldview. Every action, every moment, can be looked at through the lens of racism in this country. To try, even attempt, to understand our nation’s complex, jumbled up history of racism, is to be so high on the human hierarchy of needs, that one lives “without prejudice” and can “accept facts as they are” which many racists cannot do. And so, I try, every day, to understand our history, and try to make our future more equitable. And although being educated about our history won’t change the past, it sure makes you a hell of a lot less ignorant. 

  • Elle Mason

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