From our youngest years we are taught to love America because it is a melting pot, a place where different people come to make new lives, find hope, and succeed. And while all of those may be fully possible in our lovely United States, the idea that we are all joining hands and singing Kumbaya seems a far distance from our reality.
As we grow older, we visit Ellis Island and learn that our ancestors’ names were changed to be more “American,” we realize that Chinatown and Little Italy are completely separate entities, and that our internal magnets are automatically attracted to trust those who are most similar to ourselves.
Through my nights of ticket-selling, I’ve come to the conclusion that people love the familiar, they like to feel like part of the group, and be included where they are welcome. The Jews run to Pinchas Zuckerman, the Blacks to John Legend, the lesbians to Indigo Girls, the Swedish to ABBA, the Asians to Yo Yo Ma… Of course, the audience is made up much more than the group to which the performer belongs, but that desire for inclusion, that support for someone so similar to oneself is clear.
Don’t get me wrong: there’s no problem in supporting your peeps but to quote Rabbi Hillel (bring on the JTS jokes): If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?" Will there come a time when we reach out to other groups, to people so different from ourselves with whom we want to bond, see life from their perspective, support their causes and treasure their values?
Last night I was walking in a Hispanic neighborhood with two other girls. We were conversing in Spanish and from out of the dark a boy from my dual language class asks if he could walk with us. “¿Sí, por qué no?” We casually compared summer stories as we walked the dimly lit streets and I could not help but feel somewhat uncomfortable. As I anxiously fumbled with my silver J zipper pull, I tried to remember that this boy had selflessly donated money to Breast We Can(cer)! only months after emigrating from Mexico, that he was always friendly, and despite the fact that this wasn’t the safest neighborhood, nothing out of the ordinary would occur. He said adiós at his apartment building and the other girls confirmed that they too were oddly uncomfortable; as guilty as we felt, there was something odd about the unprecedented friendliness.
It seems that in this world we must always be on watch, always weary about what may happen next, who will try to take advantage of us, hurt us, or scam us. We have barely melted together yet drawn such stringent boundaries that it seems nearly impossible to cross to the other side. My high school was much of that from West Side Story (except snapping and dancing in the halls was never much appreciated). The White Kids had their territory and the Hispanic Kids had theirs. That’s it.
And it seems that the hallways of life barely deviate from that arrangement. We segregate ourselves by social status, ethnicity, religion; putting ourselves in little compartments that only likenesses of ourselves can enter. We are not melted together in a delicious stew but merely sit side by side like the abundance of Campbell’s soup cans at a supermarket. With our shiny wrappers protecting us we can ensure that Classic Tomato never falls in the same bowl Cream of Celery and dare not even touch the same spoon as Chicken Noodle. Sure, there are a lot of us, we all have our strengths and weaknesses, but when can we finally put these together, understanding each other and appreciating our differences? While tolerance and coexistence still have a far way to come, we must strive for so much more than that. Tenemos que luchar para un mundo mejor, un mundo en que podemos hacer todo juntos, mano en mano, donde comprendemos y apreciamos las diferencias de otros y donde queremos ser las personas únicas, las personas especiales y raras, y donde tenemos la capacidad de amar a todos por quienes son.
Because no matter what language we speak, what color skin we have, who we love, or what religious beliefs we maintain, we are all people.