The End of Optimism

I always believed that America’s greatest export product was its optimism. No country in the world could rival our ability to dust ourselves off and start anew. Despotism hadn’t etched itself in to our national psyches yet. We could still afford our short term memories.

When I moved to Holland eight years ago, I ran from that optimism. I was embarrassed by our national naiveté. I longed to live in a place that understood that evil is something you live with, not something you defeat. As the child of a Holocaust survivor who grew up with war stories in lieu of fairy tales, I knew that joy was measured in moments, not decades, that bad things awaited you around every corner.  While my friends imagined how they would react when Prince Charming would climb through their windows, I practiced how I would outwit Hitler when he would climb through mine.

Mom never shared the details of her starvation in Auschwitz with me. Instead, I found other ways of extracting the truth.  I only needed to open the cupboard and find forty containers of powdered milk hiding behind the Cheerios or two freezers full of food to know that part of her story. Even joyous occasions had pain etched into them, like the tears that fell without cause at a Little League game or a family picnic, or the way she would frantically pull the shades down seconds after we placed the colorfully lit Chanukah menorah in the window, or her regular trips to antique stores in search of objects that looked like those lost in the war.

I learned how to read between the lines. Later, when I became a professional storyteller, I was surprised by how literal my audiences were. In fact, I can’t recall one performance in America where someone didn’t approach me after a show and ask, “Was that story true?”  This literalism wasn’t limited to performances either.  A fact checker from the New York Times actually asked me to verify the year Peter Stuyvesant’s ghost appeared on Second Avenue, before they could publish a playful Halloween piece I wrote for their City Section.

It wasn’t until I began to perform abroad that I began to see how different Europeans were as listeners. In the US, I learned, the onus was always on the teller of stories; In Europe, it was always on the listener. During my performances in Holland, where I mainly worked, audiences wanted to decide for themselves what was relevant. No one there ever asked me for reassurance that the information I was delivering was factually true. They seemed to have a different, more cynical relationship with words, one that was fueled by centuries of dark memories.

For a long time, I reveled in my new expat life. Aside from finally experiencing affordable health care, I felt like I was at the grown-up table.  I didn’t have to worry anymore that a teacher would interrupt my performance to ask me for my car keys because my vehicle was blocking the garbage dumpster, or have to tolerate an education director saying to me while booking me, “I’m glad you’re available. I’ll put you after the snake guy and before the magician.” Mainly, though, I no longer had to endure a Disney-ized version of war.

Before leaving the US, I wrote and performed a one woman show called “What Mother Told Me,” about my experiences growing up as the child of a Holocaust survivor. I wanted to explore how as Jews, could walk in to the future without using victimization as our seeing eye dog. Instead, I was dumfounded by the way my hosts seemed to devour the macabre.

I’ll never forget the time I arrived at a private school in Maryland on Holocaust Memorial Day to find painted black train tracks on the parking lot floor and the words Arbeit Macht Frei hanging over the entry door; or the afternoon a school principal in Omaha showed me the giant plastic water pistol he used while reenacting the role of an SS officer with his students as part of their World War II curricula. Or the festival director who woke me the night before my performance, concerned that my show wouldn’t make her audience cry.

The America I experienced as a storyteller was akin to a badly behaved child. Impatient, literal, and without historical memory.  In short, young.

With Trump’s ascendency, we just got a bit older. We finally have our first true martinet, a reality some of us planned for our whole lives and some of us are just waking up to.

And I suddenly find myself yearning for that same American naiveté I once ran from. Because I now know, for better or worse, our optimism depends on it.

Years from now, when we look back at this unthinkable period of history, and attempt to make sense of the damage done, we will no longer ask the question I once dreaded, “Is this story true?” Because the real legacy we will be left with is cynicism.

Lisa Lipkin

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