When I was a pre-teen growing up in small-town New Jersey I loved the fact that I was a first-generation American. My parents, with their families, had fled anti-Semitic pogroms in Russian Ukraine as small children, and all of them had built new lives in America. It seemed dramatic to have a family history of hardship and courage, a unique culture, special food, and a language I could neither speak nor understand except for a few words. I liked knowing that I had Russian roots, with its great writers, composers and ballerinas as well as a mysterious history.
But I was robbed of that sense of pride as a result of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who rabidly tried to destroy communism in 1950s America, even where it didn’t exist. McCarthy viciously accused politicians, actors, journalists, teachers and others of subversion or treason without evidence. Ordinary people across the country began to fear him and what came to be called the Second Red Scare. My father was one of them. “Don’t let on about Russia!” he warned. “Just keep quiet about it.” And so I never talked about my heritage again.
Some years later, while in high school, I went through a period when I was proudly Jewish. I read the Old Testament from cover to cover and fasted on Yom Kippur, holiest of days, as we solemnly embraced the Jewish new year at the mournful sound of the Shofar being blown. I read Jewish writers and wept at Holocaust stories. The young rabbi in our small town was a lovely man who with his family represented modern Jewish life to me. He also understood my desire to celebrate my Jewish identity in the days before girls had bat mitzvahs, a coming of age ceremony at age 13, enjoyed by boys at their bar mitzvahs. And so, reading from the story of Esther, he devoted one March Friday evening to a confirmation service for me.
During this time, I felt enormously proud of Israel for creating a post-Holocaust oasis for diaspora Jews, and giving all Jews a homeland and sense of national pride. But as I grew into adulthood while Israel’s politics were becoming ominous, and as I learned more about the country’s history and came to understand its punishing behavior toward the Palestinian people who share its land, that feeling of pride began to slip away from me. I wondered and worried about things I read or overheard in conversations, both pro-Israel and against. How, I wondered, could a people who had suffered so much visit such suffering upon others?
Then I grew older and became more deeply familiar with American history and its treatment of indigenous peoples, its slavery and continuing racism, its homophobia, misogyny, despicable corruption, incipient violence, false alters to self-righteousness and sharply dangerous shifts right such that today we can actually cage dying children. Now I find that I’ve lost virtually all sense of national pride. The truth is, it’s hard to feel proud when you’re anxious and afraid, and when you’re more likely to shudder than to sing a country’s falsely premised praises.
As I write these words, cognizant of the adoration of the almighty dollar while the planet gasps for life, I find the platitudes of our political rhetoric not only hollow, but deeply shameful, especially now that we are on the cusp of actually losing our democracy to dictatorship as we quite possibly enter an era when we may be called upon to witness and engage in the utter abrogation of any national decency.
Joe McCarthy eventually got his comeuppance; the Soviet Union disbanded; the Berlin Wall fell; and the Cold War took a long break — until now. The Vietnam War ended finally, although it will never leave our consciousness as we continue to trudge on endlessly conducting untoward military action that robs so many of so much and keeps the world in danger.
In the 1990s my husband and I visited Israel. It was a conflicted journey. As a Jew, there is no denying that the concept of an Israeli state gets inside you, and you feel a connection to the country when you stand on its land. At the same time, as a feminist, I had a really hard time reconciling the misogyny inherent in Jewish orthodoxy and seeing it at play. Further, and ever more vigorously, I find myself once again feeling a sense of shame for my heritage because of Israel’s political behavior toward other human beings, and the lack of response to that behavior by so many other Jews. I experience deep sadness, because others more powerful than I have rendered it impossible for me to embrace my Jewishness with as much love and pride as I once did.
Now the question for me is will I be doomed to forfeit yet again any pride I might have felt for my country and my heritage? Will I be expected to be quiet, to behave like a proper Jew, to be a good citizen? Or dare I believe that the dangerous path on which I find myself (along with others) will not leave me (or others) scarred as we continue moving forward, healing and hopefully into a more enlightened, safer, caring world?