My Daughter, Batya
This article was originally published on davidnwaeze.com on October 23, 2021
Being is a complicated thing. To come into this world is to bridge a nexus between the future and the past. To be born is to tie one’s own being with the nearly infinite set of circumstances and decisions presented to and taken by those who have come before us. Thereafter, placed as we are under the tutelage of those who by chance events end up in our lives, we grow. Humans are social animals, and as such, we learn through communication with and mirroring those people in our lives. Every one of us must seek out our own way through this intricate web of mimicry to become who we are. History is no less complicated. We write our lives every day on a backdrop of the many trillions of decisions made by more than 100 billion people who precede us. To be a new being in this world is to carry the burdens of the weight of that history. However, it is also to stand on the shoulders of those we come after to see further, travel farther, and speak louder than they could have dreamed possible in their time.
My daughter, Batya came into this world one year ago, on October 23rd, 2020. She was born late at night in Portland, Oregon, in the USA. She did so after a long and challenging year. 2019 into 2020 witnessed the deaths of friends and family members. It saw a global pandemic that has taken the lives of nearly five million people worldwide by the time of this writing. The year also saw a wave of brutal government repression that rocked our city and a once in a hundred year blow-up of wildfires across the Western United States that blanketed our region in dense smoke for more than a week. Amid all of this tumult, it would be reasonable to believe, “the old is dying, and the new cannot be born,” as the political philosopher, Antonio Gramsci once put it. But as with every moment of compound crises that humans have suffered before, birth continues, and life blossoms anew.
I do not believe that the day that we are born is entirely coincidental. On the contrary, the dates of significant events of our lives are connected to us just as we are connected to the people who are placed in our lives. The events that have occurred in the past on such dates can serve us as guides and provide insight and clarity into the circumstances in which we find ourselves today. So, as my daughter turns one year old, I would like to take a moment to reflect on just five historical moments which landed on October 23rd. These events from world history have had inextricable impacts on her-story by creating the world she was born into. Each signifies a snapshot of the dance of time through which her world has been organized.
1. 1760: In the mid-eighteenth century, there weren’t many Jews in North America. A handful of Jews were just arriving in Canada. A few dozen families lived in Mexico. Hundreds were scattered throughout the Caribean. There were also somewhere around 2,000 in the territories that were soon to become the United States. North American Jews, at this time, were entirely dependent on the waves of trans-oceanic trade for their cultural and spiritual connections to the broader Jewish diaspora. Before 1760, most prayer books — or siddurim — were imported from the Netherlands. The printing of the first siddurim in North America marked a turning point for Jews on this continent. No longer disconnected by an ocean from their cultural inputs, North American Jews could begin to create their own cultural identities in their new home.
2. 1790: Vincent Ogé — a free Black man in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), inspired by the French Revolution — cited the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in his demand for the right to vote. When governor general Antoine de Thomassin de Peynier refused, a Black insurgency against the racial hierarchy ensued. In February of the following year, Ogé was captured, “broken on the wheel,” and beheaded. That August, when enslaved Black people across the island began to rise against their colonial masters in a rebellion that was to become the first successful slave revolution in world history, it was the example of Vincent Ogé that was on the minds and lips of revolutionaries.
3. 1813: the Pacific Fur Company turned over Astoria, Oregon — formed just two years earlier — to the British North West Company, cementing British control over fur trading in the Pacific Northwest for the next 30 years. The establishment of Fort Vancouver ten years later as part of British efforts to maintain their claim on the region during the Oregon border dispute would be instrumental in establishing settlements throughout the region.
4. 1850: The first National Women’s Rights Convention convened in Worcester, Massachusetts. Until the start of the Civil War, the National Women’s Rights Convention would be an annual series of meetings that increased the visibility of the early women’s rights movement in the United States. The Convention combined both female and male leadership and attracted a broad support base, including temperance advocates and abolitionists. Speeches were given on equal wages, expanded education and career opportunities, women’s property rights, marriage reform, and temperance. However, discussion at the Convention chiefly focused on passing laws that would give women the right to vote.
5. 1947: the United Nations convened its General Assembly at Flushing Meadows, New York, for the first time. One year later, in 1947, at the age of 79, W.E.B. DuBois presented the NAACP’s petition on racism in America to the United Nations. It was entitled “An Appeal to the World: A Statement of Denial of Human Rights to Minorities in the Case of Citizens of Negro Descent in the United States of America and an Appeal to the United Nations for Redress.” The Appeal warned that the threat presented by America’s brand of racism was “far more dangerous to mankind than the Atom bomb,” and declared that “No nation is so great that the world can afford to let it continue to be deliberately unjust, cruel and unfair toward its own citizens.” It would lay the foundation for a 1951 report presented to the UN by the Civil Rights Congress on the conditions of Black Americans in the United States entitled “We Charge Genocide” — to which DuBois was a signatory.
1. Vitya Vishnevsky was Born in the Soviet Union. His parents, Russian Jewish immigrants to America, met on a boat returning to Russia in late 1917. The events of the October Revolution inspired them to follow the call and help build the new Russia. They settled in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg), joining either the anarchists or the Left-SRs (it’s unclear). While the details of their political involvement are murky, Riva Jesmer gave birth to Vitya in the months following the July 6th uprising of the Left-SRs against the Bolsheviks, and his father, Gregory Vishnevksy, was executed by the Bolsheviks at some point around this time. Vitya’s mother walked with him from Petrograd to Istanbul, where they caught a boat to Canada and returned to the United States. They settled in Brooklyn, where Victor would grow up. After serving as an army medic in the Pacific during World War II, he enrolled in Medical School in Chicago, where he met his wife, Dolores. They would move around a lot over the years but would eventually settle in Portland, Oregon. Like many European Jews of their time, Riva and Vitya found community among the American Jewish diaspora. The foundations upon which this diaspora built its community can be traced back to the siddurim of 1760, over a century and a half before Batya’s great-grandfather Victor to North America.
2. Janie-Mae Brown was born in 1933 on a Lake City, South Carolina sharecrop. Unlike the generation of her great-great-grandparents, she was not born into slavery but into the Jim Crow South. In the 1950s, during the second wave of the African American Great Migration from the South to cities across the United States, she made her way to Philadelphia. There, she attended school and became a nurse as her family grew and she had many children and grandchildren. After a long retirement, Batya’s great-grandmother died on the morning of January 20, 2009, as America was swearing in its first African American president. Though her own moment in time was one of trials and tribulations, it was but one leg of the long relay march toward freedom started when African Americans proved that Black people could win freedom in the Americas. The events inspired by the death of Vincent Ogé in 1790 would ultimately serve to bring the institution of transatlantic slavery crashing to a halt. Subsequently, they would create the conditions by which Batya would not be born as chattel in these United States.
3. Batya’s mother was born in Portland, Oregon. By the time she went away to college, she wanted to be as far away from the town where she grew up as possible and enrolled at a private liberal arts college in Vermont. She began her engaging in political activism, attending large protests in the region. While taking a semester off from school, she moved to Pennsylvania for a short time. Upon graduating and realizing that her literary career prospects were limited, she decided to attend culinary school in New York City before moving back to Portland in 2005. I was born in central Pennsylvania. I spent much of my childhood and youth jumping around from school to school, with little consistency in my social life. I, too, began to engage with political activism, attending large summit protests up to and down the eastern seaboard. I eventually traveled out West for a few months in 2004 and discovered the Beauty of The Pacific Northwest and Northern California. A year later, I moved to Portland in 2005. The two of us met each other during the events following the encampment protest of Occupy Portland in 2011. We formed our relationship in the years to come, married in 2018, and even had a daughter together in 2020. There were many points and many places in our pasts when we could have potentially encountered one another. However, we met in Portland — a city built and settled as a result of the acquisition of Astoria to the North West Company in 1813 on the same day of the year on which our daughter Batya would be born.
4. Batya will likely grow into a woman in the United States of America. This carries with it a lot of baggage. One can view it through many lenses: of structures professional and emotional labor, of materiality vs. social construction, of social equality in the public sphere, or of intersectional positionality within society. But, regardless of how one looks at it, the picture is one of history yet to be completed. As her father, I intend to help her navigate this as best as possible, but I have a lot to learn myself. I recognize that the work of processing the trauma of generations of women wounded by patriarchy is nowhere near started, let alone complete. In her position as an American, however, I also recognize that Batya is likely to have access to prospects of power and social advancement denied to millions of women and girls around the world from Zambia to Afghanistan. But we wouldn’t be talking about any of this had it not been for a Convention in Worcester, Massachusetts, on October 23, 1850.
5. Throughout the summer of 2020, between 15 Million and 26 million Americans participated in some form of protest following the murder of George Floyd — a 46-year-old Black man — by a Minneapolis police officer. To date, these demonstrations were the largest and most broadly participated in protests in U.S. history. This broad recognition across the United States of America’s long-standing racist repression and inequality has been hard-won. The great strides in the long march toward human freedom have come alongside many great failures and disappointments. Yet, within those failures, there have often been the seeds of work that future generations would carry forward. The NAACP’s 1947 Appeal to the World is but one example of this phenomenon. Submitted to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights on October 23rd, 1947, and rejected by that same body on December 4th of that same year, it would live on. From “We Charge Genocide” to many newsletter articles in the decade and a half to come, its words would inspire the Civil Rights movement of the mid-20th century. This would, in turn, lay the groundwork for the struggle that future generations — including Batya’s parents — would take up in the name of human freedom.
III. Our Story unfolding
The future is unwritten. As far as I can write about it, I can only speak of my own speculation, hopes, and fears. I want what any parent wants for their child. I want to see Batya grow into a life rich in the success of the achievements and in joy at the events of her life and those with whom she leads it. This past year since her birth has been a roller-coaster of excitement, anxiety, and wonder. It has been wonderful seeing her grow from a newborn into a full-fledged toddling child. There are, however, many dark clouds on the horizon: From climate change to social and economic upheaval to such cyclical constants in the story of humankind as “sword, famine, wild beasts, and plague.” We live in dynamic times. I also hope that Batya learns to have the resilience to brave those storms that crash against her shores and the wisdom to know when to seek higher ground. Most of all, I am fascinated to see who this tiny human grows into and becomes and what mark she can make on the world, no matter who that is and what her journey looks like. I am grateful every day that she has come into being. It’s her world now, and her time to make history.