Controversial in death as he was in life, Carlos Celdran’s legacy is being evaluated far too soon. He was a young man and the reactions to his sudden passing feel like a kind of political litmus test: “which side are you on?” The last time I saw him, around a year ago, we talked about Imelda Marcos and about the “religious feelings” case against him. He was really terribly worried about the prospect of possible imprisonment and had already decided to leave the Philippines. I couldn’t imagine Manila without him and feel fortunate that I had seen his performance/tours a few times over. No one has tried to make sense of the past for the present in the way that he did, bringing it to life for a wide audience.
Only a few days before, another friend had also passed. Evelyn Friedlander’s death came after months of illness and a full and fascinating life of 79 years. She refused to fit into a mould that used to be expected of a rabbi’s wife, as a concert pianist and a scholar herself she took on projects to help build and strengthen the community. I knew her for most of my life at first through her daughters, then in recent years we spent more time together as she grew less mobile and disheartened by her ill health. Evelyn was a historian and set up a museum to house a collection of Torah scrolls from synagogues in what is now the Czech Republic. Those communities were destroyed in the Holocaust and the scrolls are a way to honor them, but the project was not just to keep the scrolls behind glass. Evelyn and the team would find communities around the world who could continue to use the scrolls and remember the people who used them. Her work on the past was always intended to build a better future, she and her husband worked assiduously on reconciliation and the German government awarded them the highest honor of the Order of Merit.
Both Carlos and Evelyn were personal friends as well as public figures, and I’ve found myself comparing the people I knew with the people being spoken and written about.
While alive, Carlos was engaged in a public debate over the present and future of the Philippines that threatened his freedom, he felt it necessary to leave the country to avoid prison. Social media was the most accessible arena for the debate and it got really nasty. Carlos Celdran, the person whose art was hard won and born from deep places in his mind and heart, became a persona: “The Carlos Celdran”. He has bequeathed the world a unique legacy that could possibly only have been formed in the context of Manila at the turn of the century, but is also universal because it is a way of assessing the present through the prism of values reached through his reading of the past, with the belief that people can create their own futures.
Evelyn’s interest was in a much more recent past: in the twentieth century and the Nazi Holocaust and how she personally as well as the community could possibly come to terms with it. She wanted to look beyond genocide at ways to incorporate that lived experience with a future. I think her womanhood, as a daughter, wife, mother and grandmother she had a nuanced understanding of the need for lively engaged interaction between the family and the community and the past and the future. She and Rabbi Albert enjoyed hosting guests with diverse backgrounds and of all ages. Evelyn, rather like Carlos, could be fiercely opinionated but at the same time magnanimously curious and open-minded. At her desk, she pinned a newspaper clipping: Jews have one word for Muslims: Shalom (Peace). She was no Pollyanna but she loved that quote, I think, because she was ready to make the first step toward reconciliation, because she knew it was necessary. She spoke often about her granddaughter and her hopes for her.
I met another friend’s grandchild this week, a very new entrant to the human race. Brixton in south London has changed a lot since I was last there as a teenager in the 1980s. There were race riots in 1981 that lasted for three days and shook the country, poverty and social inequality contributed to the violence that was triggered by police brutality. Nowadays Brixton is gentrified, its diversity is one of the reasons that it’s become an attractive place to live: there are all sorts of African, Caribbean and Asian cafés and restaurants in the area and middle class residents have pushed property prices up. I was there to meet a former CNN and Al Jazeera English colleague, her daughter and her three week old baby. We’ve had a lot of shared experiences, working together in the vintage years of 24 hour cable news in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, not all of them have been easy. Everything we did was under intense scrutiny, as it should be, and that can take a personal toll. So we caught up on news from old friends around the world but mostly we spoke about the new baby.
Like death, birth is a public and a private event: there is a new member in the family and the community whose welfare is at stake. It’s impossible to know what the world will be like as they grow up, with the rapid advance of technology, climate change, social inequality, the internet and the reshaping of the international order. All we can do is guard the moment, protect the truth and care for the vulnerable. That seems like a worthy and best legacy through the generations, beyond death to give value to life.
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