Americans have long-savored the notion that within our nation there is a unbridgeable division between church and state. It is a distinction that allowed me, as a child in a public elementary school, to sit silently while my Christian classmates recited the Lord’s Prayer.
In later years the very fact, that Jewish children faced that obvious social pressure to conform was challenged. No longer were small children forced to disobey their school authority in order to obey a higher power. Our federal courts reminded: school prayer was against the law.
My entire life has straddled that American divide. Proudly, Americans insisted that no one religion was sanctioned by the state - and no one religion was prohibited by law. That’s what it meant to me and my kindred to be a citizen of this country. We had - after centuries of a wandering diaspora - arrived at a safe harbor to practice what our Torah taught.
The given: I was Jewish; I was American. This country was by definition the home where I could be what my ancestry (dating to Abraham and Sarah) taught me to be - and within that heritage be fully American. There was never a need to choose.
My brothers are older by four and eight years. I don’t know if that was the reason - or if it was because they were boys (at a time that took them out of my solidly Jewish neighborhood far more than me) - that they tell stories which leave no shade of doubt: being Jewish was, for our Christian contemporaries, to be other. And that other was clearly not better.
In childhood I escaped that. My last name is neutral; my face a bit less than stereotypical. I married both times outside of the tribe, so my wedded names might have camouflaged. I never sought camouflage.
I reared my sons in Hebrew School, saw them to bar mitzvah. Both marriage ceremonies paid serious heed to my traditions. Still, I attend synagogue regularly - now with my Hawaiian husband - and I light Shabbat candles every Friday night. I observe my Jewish rituals; I reared my sons to do the same.
As an adult, I have traveled widely and lived in cities - north, east, west, and yes, south. I’ve stood in front of strangers who told me not to “Jew the price down." Or told me that: “You don’t seem like you’re from the East Coast.” (An apparent compliment to my “not so pushy” demeanor.)
I attended a black-tie soiree welcoming the new Symphony conductor to a mid-sized city. She was young, attractive, blond and outstandingly talented. I was standing among a collection of solidly WASP donors and board members - there by a fluke invitation. I was new in town. The handsome middle-aged man behind me me spoke without reticence. Referring to the evening’s honoree - the new conductor - he boomed in an undisguised baritone, “She’s Jewish you know.” There was no ambiguity in his tone, and no doubt at all, he considered it a disqualifying characteristic.
I am not the least bit thin-skinned about my ethnicity. I do not wander this earth looking for slights. That’s not me. My associations after childhood have been unusually broad. I’ve lived in Asia; I’ve lived in Europe. I am many things: a writer, a lecturer, a workshop teacher, a wife, a mother, a grandmother. I have written that the gift of my Judaism and its history of oppression will never be identifying as a victim.
Rather, that gift is a clear-sighted vision of subtle or not so subtle oppression of anyone for any reason - and a determination to do my level-best to identify it, confront it, and change it. I see that as a powerful Jewish predisposition, and I’m proud of it.
For twenty years, I have lived and loved in a stranger’s oppressed culture - that of my Native Hawaiian husband. My words are my deeds daily.
And yet. And yet, in recent days, months, years, I have been hearing an echo of darker days in darker places. I hear televised newsmen declare without a shred of embarrassment (with the entitlement of the handsome man behind me at the black-tie soiree.) “This is a Christian country.” I doubt the speakers know the fear that engenders to non-Christians-all.
I’ve struggled mightily to find some words to add to the cacophony of words that have followed the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre. Finally, I’ve decided to keep it simple. At the birth of this country, we (Jews, Muslims, Atheists….) were assured in the founding document: this is not a “Christian” country..
To claim otherwise, is to dismantle the very home that promised more.