Monday, May 26, 2014

“Life Is With People”

A Memorial Day Reflection

“Life Is With People” is the title of a book on the dying culture of the shtetl; its way of life, its practices and characteristic philosophies. The book was introduced in 1952, with a commentary by Margaret Mead, the renowned anthropologist. A shtetl is, or at least was, traditionally, an Eastern European, Jewish village.

My mother was an assimilating, Americanized shtetl Jew. She grew up in the midst of folks who shared a common heritage; shtetl life was central to their ways.  Of course, it was not completely like the “old country.” Still life among the Jews of Toledo, Ohio did revolve, as in Eastern Europe, around the shul, an Orthodox house of worship. 

Life in this community of like-minded, shared culture, individuals and families, had a long-cherished resonance to times past. Most notable, however, was that these people were safe from the pogroms of the Czar and what was to come of Germany and the Third Reich.

I have long treasured the rather beaten up copy I have of the book. It brings me to wonder if I have kept the words of the title close to my heart, only after finding it on a used book shelf, or had they always been as though cellular to me. I doubt I will ever know.

Well, no matter, now. The title means the world to me. It strikes the deepest cords within me, reminding me who I am and what matters most; a life shared with the people around me in love and laughter, joy and sorrow.

From the earliest days of my life, the experience of a closely-connected life with people was as familiar as my skin; the people of my family and those of my community.

My people are shtetl people. This is my history and my heritage. When I was not paying attention and honoring this, I was cutting myself off from myself, as we all do when we do not tend to our roots. This is simply a fact of human nature.

We are of something. We become something more. But whatever it is that we are at our roots cannot and will not ever be separate from who we are, now, and who and what we will become.

Part of the heritage of being Jewish is that you are, for better or for worse, a member of a tribe.

I remember, attending a high school that must have been eighty-five percent Jewish, if not more. At the time, an “in thing” was to refer to one another as “members of the tribe.” I didn’t think much about the expression then. It was just simply what one said, thought and, somehow, did. In short we were “MOTs” and proud of it. Later, though, and up until the recent past half-dozen years, I didn’t like being a member of that tribe. I wanted out.

So I proclaimed that I’d quit being Jewish. People laughed at me for my idiocy. “You can’t quit being Jewish,” they said. But I was certain I’d bought my freedom. From what I was not quite certain.

Nonetheless, tribal life and its implications came home to me the other day while I was picking something up at a neighbor’s. Walking onto a nearby friend’s yard, I chanced upon another neighbor, a Native American, as it happens. Seeing him standing there in the sunshine I was struck by the beauty of the rich color of his skin.  Then, jokingly I asked, “Do you think I look as Jewish as you do Native American?”

He chuckled and soon, as friends and neighbors do, we went on to the next lighthearted chatter. Tribal differences had not divided us.

Then, I heard, in the distance, another friend of his, unknown to me, calling out. This was a slightly accented voice of a male who turned out to be African American, from Ghana.

Growing up as the daughter of a die-hard shtetl Jew, as was my mother, I was not allowed to interact with anyone who was not Jewish. Anyone not of my “tribe” could not even be acknowledged as existing as a human, truth be told. Native Americans were, seen only, as performing exhibitions at the annual Sportsman’s  Show. An African American would be our cleaning lady.

How very much this breaks my heart when I reflect upon it.

But the times they are a-changing. I am changing too. For one thing I have now answered my query, “Am I an American Jew or a Jewish American?” Having resolved that “Yes, I am of Jewish heritage, I accept that in me. And, that I am equally an American. I hope I am never asked to choose between the two.

I have come to full voice of where lies my heart and soul; all the peoples of the world are members of my tribe. As it turns out, it was the separating from the rest of humanity that had made being Jewish feel so wrong for me.

But that was long ago. Today is the now. Still, if I allow my mind to travel, I am rather certain my “othering” mother would have difficulty accepting this way of mine.

What she might say about the joy and wholeness I find now in the varied array of people in my life I will not even entertain. In attendance, presently, at our Possible Society In Motion conversations forums and our bi-weekly Sohbet/study groups, I think we have, at least, one or more, people of Irish descent, a South American, several folks of German heritage and one person of mixed Bulgarian/Macedonian heritage; none are Jewish, other than me.

So what?

On a day like today, Memorial Day, I am so aware of the freedom I have to simply be me and an MOT of any tribe I choose. I choose the global village as my tribe and the land of this free nation.

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