When I turned 18 and started driving my mother’s red Dodge, she asked me one day to drive my aunt Sarah to Brooklyn. Sarah had come from Israel to see her sister and needed a ride.
I asked her how it felt to come to New York for the first time, and she said: “I can hardly wait to get back home.”
“I don’t like to live with goyim.”
I thought she was being ridiculous but said nothing. Okay, she’d come from Holocaust Europe like the rest of my family, but this wasn’t Germany, this was America. She’s too sheltered in the small enclave she lives in, I thought. I was proud of being 18, proud of driving, proud of the red car. My whole life was ahead of me, and I certainly didn’t want to stay with my family and neighborhood. Get me out of here, I thought endlessly. Take me to Manhattan, with its jazz clubs, its bars, its unkosher Italian and Chinese restaurants, its 60s demonstrations.
I’m dying to live with goyim, I thought to myself.
I figured my parents were different, but they actually weren’t. Just three years later they were back in Israel, from where they’d originally arrived in the US. And while I never once heard a word from them that they didn’t feel safe here—if anything, they looked back on their life here as one of struggle that ended with a successful entry into middle class—they were glad to go back and be with their own kind. They had fun visiting, but they didn’t want to live here.
For me, the more kinds the better.
I think about my parents when I hear how many people of color also feel best among their own kind. “I talk differently, I don’t look over my shoulder to see what anybody thinks of me,” an African American friend recently told me. She liked my part of New England and its progressive values but had no interest in living here or in mixing with whites generally, she felt best in her own community.
When I go to schools or universities, I see very few mixed groups. In Queens College in the 1960s there was a lot more mixing; by the time I was in Columbia University’s graduate school, bordering on Harlem, students stayed apart a lot more.
We have our lives and experiences. Some cling to people like them, and some love to mingle with others who’re different. It’s way too complex for guilt or blame, right or wrong. Nevertheless, I often think about how segregated we are becoming. We always had challenges integrating races and cultures; now we also have the challenge of integrating across economic classes. Most white, well-to-do families wish to be with others of their kind, live only in certain (suburban) neighborhoods, and send their children only to certain schools so that they could get into certain money-making professions.
Maybe we’re not meant to mix easily here in America, which lacks one hugely dominant culture in the way European countries have.
Zen Peacemaker International hosted a program on racism this past weekend, and what moved me most was the presentation by Mark Eckhardt, Founder of One Million Truths, on the universal effects of racism. Usually, we talk about who does what to whom, and Eckhardt spoke movingly about what he’d personally suffered. But he challenged a mostly white audience to examine the question of how racism had affected each and every one of us.
This time I seriously thought about it. I realized that I grew up in a home where the question of having a friend of color couldn’t even come up, and where I would have been kicked out of home and told never to come back had I dated a man of color. I thought of the lack of diversity in my early places of work.
I remembered a large publishing company, one of the first places I worked in, with an African American researcher, the only person of color there. He was quiet, thoughtful, and always with a book in his hands when not working. The book was the opening we’d use to strike a conversation, but he ate lunches alone. There was an invisible line neither of us crossed, though I remember him vividly to this very day.
Reflecting on Eckhardt’s question, I realized that relationships could have been so much richer, so much more interesting, so much deeper and more fun, had I been able to break through the strictures of racism. Had I been able to live with goyim
We’re one body and each part yearns for the other part. It’s often not conscious; at times it may even feel quite the opposite. But that’s just in our own small, mechanical minds. Outside that minion mind there’s a call to connect with each piece of the whole, inside and out, see ourselves as one community of humankind trying to live together, claiming its identity as family. It doesn’t mean you don’t have preferences; you like to talk to one cousin and not to another. Ultimately, it’s still one family.
Love comes up for me when I think of this family, when I think of this one country.
Earlier today I went to Jimena’s house to meet immigrant families with food cards and cash. Jimena had bags of food—mostly processed or canned—given out by schools for pupils still staying at home, along with lots of milk.
And even as I was told by a few how much they appreciated the food cards and used them for fresh meat, dairy, and fruits and vegetables, I was deeply moved by how we, as Americans, feed people. Perhaps it’s not highly nutritious, and yes, we could always do more and better, but we feed children. Listen to that: We feed children. It doesn’t happen everywhere. And for that time in Jimena’s unheated closed porch, I felt humbled by and grateful for how much we keep on doing for people, whether they’re like us or not.
You can also send a check either to support my blog or to buy food cards for immigrant families to: Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351. Please write on the memo line what you are donating to. Thank you.