The other day I attended a reception sponsored by Hindu Americans in one of the Congressional office buildings. I went with a colleague who is former evangelical, now a liberal pastor. As I watched a mesmerizing dance by one of the presenters, I thought to myself that I was somewhere that my grandparents never could have imagined: in the legislative headquarters of the country with people they considered exotic pagans with a representative of the tradition they identified with persecution. And then I thought, ain’t that America.
I have spent a pretty good portion of my life venturing into unknown territory. No one will ever confuse me with Lewis and Clark or Buzz Aldrin, but for a Jewish kid from Wilmette, Illinois I have landed in some unlikely places and gotten to know some people who were thoroughly different from me. And now that I spend my working days in the interfaith world, representing (as we like to say) people from 75 or more distinct faith traditions (not to mention those of no particular faith), I am often among people as foreign to me as I am to them.
Some people go into interfaith settings in the hopes of persuading their companions in dialogue to abandon their misguided ways and embrace the true religion. Others enter with the optimistic idea of finding common ground great enough to build consensus. And some believe that these encounters help to sharpen our understanding of each other by bringing differences into focus.
But anytime anyone goes into an interfaith setting, it is unsettling. Language and other symbols become fraught with multiple meanings and the resonance cannot always be anticipated. In the simplest cases, ideas of prayer and scripture and sin and election may be addressed with a similar vocabulary, but with very different understandings. For a Christian, offering words in the name of Jesus is both holy and inclusive. A Jew doesn't hear them that way. In fact, the endeavor of improvised prayer makes Jews who are uninitiated to the practice uncomfortable and so many others feel like poseurs.
But consider what I heard from my Hindu friend: the sacred meaning of the swastika resonates deeply for him. It is a symbol native to Hinduism in India and without any resonance of Jew-hatred. He asked, how can he reclaim what was stolen from his tradition (look it up) by the Nazis without offending Jews?
There is no answer to that question that satisfies anyone, especially (as a very wise rabbi responded) while there are still survivors and the children and grandchildren of survivors still alive.
When Moses sent scouts into the Land it was for the purpose of reconnaissance. The Israelites were expecting to march into the land and take it forcibly from the people who were settled there. In that sense, they were like the first example of interfaith participants, with the added intention of killing those who resisted. Twelve scouts entered the land, and ten came back terrified of what they saw, all evidence to the contrary (Numbers 13-14). In spite of returning quite peaceably with luscious products of the land, they dramatically described a nightmare landscape populated by scary giants, antagonistic and intolerant. In other words, exotic pagans ready to persecute them.
That was the majority view. But it was the wrong answer. The ten scouts whose presumptions began with their own inadequacies and a willingness to ignore evidence to the contrary would have led their people – my ancestors – into a self-imposed exile. Because they would have cultivated a fear in everyone's hearts, the genuine blessings of the land and at least some of its inhabitants would never have been realized for the people whose purpose was to live and thrive there.
Only two scouts, Joshua and Caleb, had a different message, and this was it: just don't be afraid.
It is fear, after all, that disables us in confronting the unknown. Our belief systems, religious and otherwise, produce elaborate messaging, overt and subtle, on the dangers of difference. Why it is that Jews presume that the mention of faith in Jesus or the cultural expression of Hinduism or the egalitarianism of American culture represents a threat to our identity? To be sure, people who hate us should be seen as adversaries, not merely as gentle misguided ignoramuses. And, to be sure, the potential of violence changes the equation. But if we are secure in our beliefs and respectful of others, then we have no more to fear from the honest representations of people different from us than they do from the integrity with which we live as Jews.
The conversation about the swastika and its original and imposed meanings is a sojourn into frightening territory, unexplored for most Jews regarding Hindus and for most Hindus regarding Jews. Wouldn't it be easier – and deeply fruitful – if we all took a deep breath and committed to understanding each other instead of seeking surrender?
The ultimate goal of the Biblical scouts was much different than my forays into interfaith space. I have no territorial motive and they never heard of pluralism. Sometimes, though, I feel like Joshua and Caleb in my conversations with fellow Jews who are suspicious of the scary giants, antagonistic and intolerant. I have one reply: just don't be afraid.
The quip “nostalgia isn’t what it used to be” is attributed to Peter De Vries, a twentieth-century novelist, but it has been used in so many contexts it has taken on folk status. It’s one of those phrases that strikes me as funny, but hard to explain beyond its cleverness. And since I am a firm believer that the best way to kill a joke is to dissect it, I will choose life.
But the opposite of De Vries’s irony seems to be afoot these days. An entire cohort of American citizens seems to believe that America used to be great and isn’t any more. I have to admit that a slogan like “make America great again” is brilliant – those four words convey everything you need to know about how some people feel. But like the nostalgia witticism, it is hard to explain beyond its cleverness. Unlike the other gibe, this slogan is no joke and no amount of dissection seems to be able to kill it.
As you are about to discover, I am not allowing the failure of others to deter me.
Listen, I grew up in the fifties. I remember where I was when JFK was shot. I rode my Schwinn all over creation without a helmet. My father bought a house and provided for his family by running a small business and my mother stayed home and took care of the house. I attended a well-funded public school system where the biggest controversy seemed to be whether we were allowed to wear boots in school instead of shoes. Television, like the rest of society, was black and white. Chicago had three major daily newspapers and scores of others, and the record store had booths where you could sit and preview everything from classical music to rock and roll to comedy albums. I owned every Smothers Brothers record ever recorded.
For me, America was great back then. My crises had to do with dandruff and acne and whether the Cubs were ever going to break .500. (Today, they are over .700, so I got that going for me.)
I was happy most of the time and carefree most of the rest of the time. Would I like to go back to those times? Not on your life. Being fifty years younger would mean being fifty years stupider, and what I learned from America (and not only America) during those fifty years is, for me, what makes America great.
Maybe the most important thing I learned was what that icon of my youth (who was not American), Ringo Starr, sang after his bout with being carefree ended: it don’t come easy. The indulgences heaped on me were the result of hard work, dumb luck and privilege by a lot of people around me. The fantasy held tight by people my age and whiter than me is that our lives used to be a smorgasbord of opportunities without cost, open to anyone. We needed only to show up to the trough overloaded with meat and fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks and garlic.
If you recognize that phrase it is because you saw it in the Book of Numbers (11:4-6). The former slaves, not a year out of servitude, wax nostalgic for the easy life they had in Egypt. At least in the sequence in the preceding chapters, the worst trouble they had was the sameness of the manna. They had just finished dedicating the Tabernacle with riches and enthusiasm. And instead of being nameless and faceless possessions, they were free and responsible human beings. If they remembered the good life in Egypt, it was someone else’s life they were remembering.
And that’s what this nonsense about going back to the future is all about. The people who are remembering an America that used to be great are imagining someone else’s life. They are remembering an America where a person in a wheelchair couldn’t visit a museum. They are remembering an America where a person of color had to go ‘round back to buy the same sandwich a white woman would be served on a gleaming porcelain plate. They are remembering an America where a boy attracted to other boys had two options: living a lie or suicide. They are remembering an America where a loveless marriage, an unwanted pregnancy, a lack of health insurance or an address across the tracks was a life sentence.
That was my America fifty years ago. It was great for me – able-bodied, white, straight, middle-class and educated, with an allowance of a buck or two a week and someone to provide for my every need. Any eligible voter who yearns for those days wants to be someone who was too young to vote back then. America is great because we weren’t satisfied with an elite definition of happiness that excluded more than half the population. Reaching this moment in history is the story of our greatness. There is no “again” because, except for the few and fantasizing, we have never been greater.
In the narrative in Numbers, the complaining Israelites are granted their wish. The sameness of the manna is replaced with a sudden abundance of meat. Indulged to assuage their whining, they find out that sudden abundance is a recipe for bankruptcy, just like the pie-in-the-sky promises of hucksters. Buyer’s remorse begins “while the meat was still between their teeth.”
You can’t go back. Especially since the past never was what it used to be.