That my mother hated Jews was clear, although why she hated them was one of those shameful mysteries I doubt she could have explained had I asked her. What I heard, growing up, sounded like jealousy and resentment. As a waitress in a catering hall, she would serve at Bar Mitzvah receptions and then come home seething about the amounts of money she imagined the young guest of honor had taken in.
Her resentment was palpable and ugly, and—as resentments do—it said much more about my mother than it did about any of the cracked-voice teens she smiled at through gritted teeth while serving dessert. Her own German-Irish family had shattered itself with drink, greedy bickering, and capricious marriages. Stalled on the lower rungs of the economic ladder and keenly aware of all she did not have or would never accomplish, I doubt it ever occurred to her that what she was really resenting was precisely what had gone missing from her life: a sense of identity, communal trust, and support. “Those Jews really stick together,” she would rant, never pausing to consider how the pogroms and ashes of not-distant history were the costly components of so strong a glue.
When my mother served Jews, she encountered doting parents, stable families of sober purpose, curious minds possessed of a singular identity, thirsting for education and determined to transcend the pain and deprivations of their past. All she could manage to see, however, was entitlement, privilege and grasping ambition, avarice and arrogant insularity.
Missing in all of that—or perhaps subconsciously feeding her hate—was the realization that rich or poor, educated or not, Jews would “stick together,” because a people that has repeatedly faced slavery and threats of genocide will tend toward insularity. They had honed their tools and weapons—in this case education and prudent economics—that they had found to be both valuable and portable. Had her interest in her Irish roots gone beyond a willful embrace of hell-raising stereotypes, she might have found a similar emphasis in that history—with stealthy hedge teachers subverting suppressive penal laws to educate, and working immigrants sharing their bounty to bring others out of poverty. I wonder if, had she been more aware of the tribulations and perseverance of her own people’s culture, she might have identified more charitably with the Jews.
Somehow I doubt it. “They stick together” is the complaint of those who feel both excluded and threatened, and it is a sedimentary sentiment; it sinks to one’s depths.
Though the specter of anti-Semiticism has diminished though not been made extinct, it distresses me how often Americans level complaints against each other in the same manner as my mother did against Jewish people.
The haves and have-nots are watching each other with distrust, each saying “they stick together” and the resentment mounts.
The African-American community and the cops are facing off, saying among themselves: “they close ranks; they stick together” and fear and distrust fulminate.
The political class and the hoi polloi are at a similar stand-off, with their roles as servants and masters utterly confused; between secularists and believers, the barricades are rising.
Truly, from class to class, community to community, no one seems capable of assuming good faith, or of reaching out to others in that assumption. There is a sense that only one more line need be crossed before everything falls apart. And if groups of all sorts aren’t able to stick together, how can we hope that America will have any sort of cohesion?
The “great experiment” that has been America is looking a bit rocky, perhaps because we barely know ourselves anymore. And what nation can be sustained without a sense of itself as a people? Churchill identified the British as “our island race.” The French have decreed that a percentage of popular music must reflect the Gallic language and culture. Just try to tell Italians to take down their Marian shrines because they might give offense. It would outrage their sense of themselves as a people.
At the extreme, the notion of a people becomes the Third Reich, or the Islamic State, but nearly anything taken to extremes becomes perverted and then destructive, be it patriotism, or cultural pride, or even faith.
But somewhere, between the weak dilution of a melting pot and a toxic concentration of singularity is the recipe by which e pluribus unum may yet thrive. That formula might, surprisingly, demand a regrouping of our culture-warring factions into cohesive communities that can “stick together” to responsibly serve the least among them; “stick together” to reform and charitably restore the worst amid them; “stick together” to praise and emulate and promote the most diligent and honorable in their number.
A community “sticking together” is a community with a measure of power that is born of cohesion. The community says: This is where we are; these are our strengths and our weaknesses; we have each other’s backs, and can therefore endow the former and address the latter.
In this way, a people come to know who they truly are or are called to be—as a legislative body, or a minority community, or a church, or a law enforcement unit, or a movement—and then, with that self-knowledge, they can consent to be part of a nation: a people-in-full.
Elizabeth Scalia is the author of Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols of Everyday Life and the managing editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos.com, where she blogs as The Anchoress. Her previous articles can be found here.