I realized, when Yiddish words began to creep unconsciously onto our website, that the time has come to declare myself front and center. To answer the implicit (and often explicit) question: Why is a decidedly Jewish woman speaking on behalf of the Native Hawaiian people? Let me be very clear on this one. I met ‘Iokepa Hanalei ‘Īmaikalani on a vacation. I knew nothing about his aboriginal culture – I didn’t know that there was one. I went to Hawai’i, as many do, for a respite from the stresses of a modern life. I went to Hawai’i to lie on the beach, get a tan, swim, and do almost nothing else.
Two days later I met ‘Iokepa. Our souls met first. Our more human forms took a bit more time. I fell deeply in love with the man. I felt the clear call of that elusive word, destiny. But I could not fathom how his work could possibly include an observant Jewish woman, an ambitious career writer from Baltimore.
After a couple of very challenging years into our merged lives, I still asked, and continued to be asked, “Why me?”
We’ve been together more than fifteen years now. Our speaking tours and the participants in every single gathering have shed light on that question
‘Iokepa is the Hawaiian. Only he speaks of the spirit of his culture, of the ancestors who guide and inspire his every move. I am the Jewish woman – deeply connected to another ancient culture. And because I am steeped in another wisdom tradition, I am able to understand much of what the kanaka maoli know and value.
At the most primal level, we share (and treasure sharing) the similarities: the essential faith; the divine connection that lies in our breath; the inviolability and power of the vibrations sent to the ears of God on our ancient languages. We share too a reverence for ancestral lineage, ritual, and tradition.
From the get-go, ‘Iokepa (who was equally ignorant of my traditions when we met) insisted that I stay the path, live my culture, and observe my rituals. I have done just that. He has been at my side for Yom Kippur; I have been at his, at ancient heiau. We share the deepest respect for the antiquity and vitality of our spiritual traditions. We look for places where they meet – but we don’t overstate them or pretend that we are who we are not.
In this lies an enormous power. We believe that the reach across the divide – that could separate strangers of decidedly different backgrounds – is where the divine on Earth resides.
I am a Jewish woman whose people have known thousands of years of oppression, and a fairly recent effort to exterminate every last one of us. I have said time and again in our gatherings, “If there is a single gift of sustained oppression, it is not the willingness to claim oneself as a victim. Rather, it’s our simple refusal to countenance oppression in any form to any people.”
So that’s one gift of my Judaism. I see, with eyes that refuse to accept a lie, the degree to which ‘Iokepa’s people have been tyrannized by a colonizing culture. I see the poverty, the ill-health, the addictions, and the dysfunction that accompanies these almost two hundred years of oppression – and I refuse to ignore, romanticize, or contribute to the Hawai’i State Office of Tourism’s fiction.
‘Iokepa speaks uncomplainingly of the profundity within his ancient traditions; I speak about the pain of modern Hawai’i. ‘Iokepa sings the praises of his enlightening ancestral heritage; I speak out about the true history that has been distorted by the missionary accounts.
When he speaks of the importance of the breath, the authentic language, the faith – I echo those traditions, and remind our gathering that he speaks for all of us. We are each descendants of indigenous cultures. There are gifts for every one of us to claim.
So ‘Iokepa and I come together across that seeming insurmountable divide of culture and spirit. We solemnly aspire to live within our marriage and within our hearts an alternative to the cultural demand that we draw fixed borders around our differences, or even worse, that asks us to surrender the solemn gifts that define our differences.
There is a single personal consequence of these gatherings that take us from Bismarck to Baltimore. Open-minded and good-hearted men and women have continued to sanction the differences between ‘Iokepa and me. Almost without exception, they have understood and affirmed the reasons we walk this life together. And after fifteen years, I no longer ask, “Why me?”