Friday, December 24, 2010

The American Opportunity

I don’t really get the shivers on July 4. I forget to fly my flag on Memorial Day and Veterans Day but Christian holidays make me patriotic. On Christmas day, which is also Shabbat, I will be walking to synagogue, dressed in a long black kaftan, a wide-brimmed hat, long side curls, a big bushy beard, carrying my prayer shawl and chatting with my daughter. Generally, my gentile neighbors either ignore me or wave at me like I am a celebrity. I haven’t seen the old Sikh gentleman for a while but we used to exchange greetings in Hindi/Punjabi. I breathe deeply as I pass the Persian grocery store for a fortifying sniff of cooking kababs. Sometimes religious Christians tell me they “love my people.” Hijabbed ladies out for their morning walk are sometimes surprised when I wish them restrained appropriate salaams. Unlike my ancestors in Europe, I will not be fearing pogroms or bands of drunken peasants having yule-tide fun by bashing Jews.
I will arrive at my synagogue to be surrounded by the Orthodox congregation in Irvine. Israelis, French speakers from Morocco and Tunisia, Persians, a guy from Burma, assorted sephardi wannabees from Eastern European backgrounds like me, a family of Asians, three or four Latino families working on conversion. I will speak no less then three languages today and hear no less than five. Unlike my ancestors, I will not be walking into the dingy synagogue of my Jewish ghetto surrounded by folks who look and act just like me. I will dine on great food made from recipes from all over the world. (Sorry no gefilte fish.)
On these days, I celebrate America as what the Lubavitcher Rebbe (zl) referred to as a “medina shel chesed” a nation built on kindness. Has America always lived up to this promise? Sadly not. The promise is nonetheless there. As a proud Jew on Shabbat/ Christmas it seems clear to me that America is an opportunity to build bridges that may never have been built before. I can’t fix the discord between Muslims and Jews in Israel, I can’t fix the breach that led to millions of Jews fleeing Muslim lands that were their homes for centuries. I can’t even clone peace from the DNA of the golden age of Andalusia. But in America, we can draw on that sometimes very unsteady well of kindness to learn to appreciate one another. We can transform those basic elements of American tolerance and civility into warm appreciation for one another. With the help of the Al-mighty we can make the great American experiment into an opportunity to build peace from the ground up
Maybe here is where it all begins. I live in California. Some of the dumbest things in the world have started here (think Hollywood and mass media) maybe that same openness can allow the smartest to start here as well.

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