As we complete the book of Exodus with the construction of the Holy Sanctuary, I can’t help thinking of the following quote from 2021’s Academy Award’s winning film, “Nomadland.” “I may be houseless, but not homeless” was one of the opening phrases by the laconic but sensitive, Fern. This role was played both so delicately and determinedly by the consummate actress Frances McDormand.
In brief, “Nomadland” is about a recently widowed woman who finds herself forced out of her home in Empire Nevada, when the gypsum mine where her husband worked closed down, and with it the town itself. Fern crams her few necessities and memory tokens into an old van and hits the road. Along the way, she meets a variety of other nomads, who either by choice or necessity, find themselves displaced from what we think of as a regular home.
From the editor of Roger Ebert.com review: “The production is lyrical while somehow never losing the truth and grit of the moment either…It reminds us of how many people are out there with stories to tell and dreams going unfulfilled…It is also the story of so many Americans who feel lost nowadays, unsure of where to go next or what tomorrow will bring.”
Aside from the authentic performances and stellar photography, the film is very timely, not just for the turmoil and uncertainty of the ‘covid years.’ In Colorado in particular it speaks to the biggest fire in Colorado history, with a record number of loss and damage of homes.
Of course there is a big difference between those who choose to not live in a permanent home, and those who are forced to be migrants. As I tell folks during these difficult covid days, I spend lots of time by myself but I love to have options to go places, which is rather restricted for me right now. In an interview about the film, McDormand said she needed a break at some point from being on the road as an actress for six months. As she put it, acting the part of a nomad, is not the same as actually being one.
What is both touching and real about “Nomadland” is how we can all relate to a spectrum of experiences and emotions from both worry and survival concerns, to elation at unexpected moments of human care and sharing along the way. Fern seems to exhibit feelings along this entire spectrum. She expresses anxiety and appears visibly frustrated in many situations, like when she gets a flat tire on her otherwise dependable van, or something related to her daily needs, breaks down inside the van. But even during those break downs, she rarely breaks down herself. And even in stressful conditions, she is usually sensitive to anyone needing help materially and emotionally. In the film, everyone knows and likes Fern, and even in her grouchiest moods, she is there for others.
Jews in exile function with a similar polarity. When something in the physical world challenges their comfort level or even threatens their lives, they naturally react negatively. However if there is a need for them to act humanely, even in their turmoil, they will go beyond the call of duty, even for total strangers. Clearly, the Torah model for this is the story of Josef when he is falsely accused and thrown into prison, after a whole series of mishaps. Still, instead of sulking in his own preoccupations, he notices the distress of the chief butler and baker and asks them what’s wrong. From there on in, Josef literally and figuratively is not only liberated, but raised to the next to highest position in the land. It will be a while before the conditions of slavery set in.
Of course, Jews have been continually subject to attack on all levels, as we see in our times, when antisemitism is on the rise all over the world. In fact, some critics of “Nomadland” point out how surprising it is, that there is no encounter of violence in the film. The surprise, and if one could say so, miracle, in both the film and Jewish history, is the continual survival of the Jewish people.
Thus, though Fern’s experiences may be universal, the Jewish people in particular can relate to what she goes through. Jews have always been both wanderers and wonderers- wandering around the world, and wondering where their next adventure or challenge would take them. In fact, since the destruction of our most spiritual home, the holy temple in Jerusalem, we have been shuttled from one Galut- exile, to another. From this perspective, the film’s title, “Nomadland,” is appropriate to the Jews’ state of homelessness. Even the state of Israel, which has proven a haven for so many, is far from the ideal Prophetic vision of a home of peace, tranquility, and prosperity. One can have a place to live and still feel vulnerable and unsafe, and one can constantly be on the road and still feel secure.
When the Israelites wandered through the desert for forty years, they also had a mixture of felt experiences. Some reveled in the opportunity to be so immersed in Torah study since Sinai that they had no distractions in terms of their material needs. As the Torah says explicitly, they had food from heaven, water from Miriam’s well, and clouds of glory protecting them and even washing their clothes! We don’t necessarily have those experiences now, but the mitzvah of Sukkah gives us an annual taste of what it means to be a wandering Jew. As the sages put it, when the rest of the world (except Australia?) is getting ready to move inside for the winter, the Jews are leaving their comfort zones to go out into unpredictable weather.
What is the right outlook on exile, assuming we are stuck in it? Several Hassidic commentaries write about what seems to be the mutually exclusive attitudes of being comfortable in exile, as well as feeling discomfort. As Avraham suggested at the beginning of Jewish history when he tried to purchase the first piece of land in Israel, the burial plot for his wife Sarah in Hebron- “I am a stranger and a sojourner among you.” As the commentaries elaborate, this has been a perspective of Jewish life from that time on.
But as mentioned, we are not speaking just geographically. The Jewish soul is never fully at home in the world, but also never fully outside the world. Like Jacob’s dream of the ladder, we constantly climb up and down a ladder with feet on the ground and our heads in heaven- Restless because we know we can’t on our own find a permanent place on this earth, but at peace because we know that we can and we someday must, return to our highest roots, in an eternal plane of existence. Here too are similarities with the Nomadlanders- Those who choose to live that off the grid lifestyle, feel it exhilarating even in most challenging situations, much like someone hanging out or even sleeping in an open, unprotected Sukkah.
Yet, in the Torah’s record of desert wanderings, we also read about complaints, dissension, murmurings and even a longing to return to their former land of slavery! So too, the “Nomadland” consciousness was and is full of contradictory experiences and perceptions. And so it is in the exile of our lives and history. Our memories may span the spectrum from extreme pleasure and comfort to extreme pain and dissatisfaction. But we continue the journey somehow knowing, whether through promise or gut instinct that, as the kind and helpful man in “Nomadland” puts it, ‘I know I’ll see you again down the road.’
The way so many of these ordinary folk in “Nomadland” come together to sustain each other is rather extraordinary. So too, a positive and even holy outcome has emerged from the support and gifts to the homeless from the fires. In themselves, the material possessions are just stuff. But when those same items are gifted to those who lost their property, they are raised to the most sacred level. People who would visit the Lubavitcher Rebbe and often give him money to be used for tzedakah- charity. Sometimes the rebbe would spend time counting the money. When the visitor would protest, the Rebbe would reply (in Yiddish- ‘Dein Gashmiyus is Mein Ruchniyus,’ meaning that your materiality is my spirituality. You can feel that infusion of love into mere stuff, in the film. The sense of personal independence and yet deeply felt gratitude for the smallest gesture of help and kindness, is, I think, what made the otherwise very understated film, very powerful.
Regarding the side benefits of exile and displacement, there are some positive outcomes. When we no longer have recourse to a place ‘out there’, we are pushed to go inside. There is a Jewish law that when a person wants to recite the Amidah, the daily standing prayer, we should face east. But if a person does not know where east is, the law states, ‘one should direct one’s heart to the Holy of Holies’ (where the temple was.) But the great Vilna Gaon also read that law: ‘one should direct one’s heart to (become) the Holy of Holies.’
Still, we would prefer the internal devotions to come about without the challenges of exile. In Jewish thought, exile is compared to a dream state, both materially and spiritually. And sometimes it feels like a nightmare. In fact, as I write this, the Jewish community in the Ukraine is experiencing real danger and devastation right now, though the rest of the world is rallying to support them. Rabbi Freeman of chabad.org put it this way: “Exile and dispersion produced a miracle. It brought out an organic, irreducible oneness of our people that could not otherwise be imagined. This exile has done its job. It’s time now for it to end.”