The morning after Charlottesville I woke up thinking about my father. He endured an anti-Semitic beating during basic training at Fort Dix before shipping out to Europe to fight the Nazi expansion into Brussels and France. Wounded twice, he came back with a Purple Heart and an Oak Leaf, but missing a body part. Decades later, when I was a young child, I was noodling around in an old cabinet in the basement of our suburban home and found a Nazi armband. He wouldn’t tell me anything about how he came by it, but he must have disposed of it because I never saw it again, even after helping him move twice and packing up his belongings for donation after he died.
Despite his experience as a victim of anti-Semitism and a soldier against Nazism, my father was not a particularly tolerant person. He lived most of his life in middle class secularly Jewish neighborhoods working in an industry where there were lots of other middle class secular Jews. He knew plenty of people who were not like him, but he didn’t engage with these “others” socially. A few years before he died, we went to an Arizona Dbacks game together. The pregame announcements were delivered in both English and Spanish. “That’s awful,” my father said. Shocked, I asked him what he meant. “Why should they be making announcements in Spanish?” he replied. I explained – or tried to explain – that the nearby border was just a line in the sand, that people were speaking Spanish – and indigenous languages – in this area long before anyone spoke English, and that in all likelihood 1/3 of the people in the stadium had Spanish as a first language, so shouldn’t they be able to understand where the emergency exits are? By way of follow-up a few days later, I shared a statistic with him that indicated that a majority of Americans of all races have never invited a person of another race into their homes (a more recent report indicates that 40% of White Americans do not have any friends of another racial identity) and that never once had their been someone of another race in our home when I was growing up. A lifelong Democrat, he got defensive about his liberal/moderate bona fides, and reminded me that our Black mailman came over for coffee. In turn, I reminded him that the only reason he did was because he was buying our car. (I was quite young, but remember that the car was white and had fins.)
My father’s brand of social liberalism – and perhaps it is endemic of his generation – was to tolerate others as long as we all kept to our own groups. It’s not really a surprising perspective since he was raised by a woman who had fled Ukrainian pogroms with her parents and huddled with others who were like them in self-defense. My generation and especially my children’s are much more mobile. We move fluidly from region to region and neighborhood to neighborhood. I am very much in a religious minority in my current neighborhood; there are more Muslims and Hindus in my kids’ high school than there are Ashkenazi Jews. Despite his faults, my father and the men of his generation fought and died so that the Muslims, Hindus, and Jews in my neighborhood could live peacefully among its Christian majority. Now a few – and I hope it is only a few – of their children and grandchildren have somehow gotten it into their heads that that isn’t such a good idea, that justice and equity for all somehow diminishes their very manhood.
My world view is different from my father’s not only because he fought in a war and I didn’t, but because I have lived in different places, places where public schools aren’t closed in observance of Jewish holidays, where Spanish is spoken in public gathering spaces, and where my children were taunted on the playground for their ethnicity.
But on this morning after Charlottesville, I am not thinking about what divides us, but what unites us. What unites us is not religion (religion is a dividing line), not race (race is a divisive social construct), and certainly not geography. What unites us is that we are all human, with the capacity for love (and, unfortunately, its opposite). How can we build love in our communities? How can we understand what it means to be human? For the biological answer, we have science, but for the spiritual one, we have art. Art questions, art explores, art answers, art loves.