I don't usually, I admit, post July 4th patriotic whatevers. But this year, I've spent some of the past week going to the Smithsonian Folk life Festival on the Mall, and some of what I saw there moved me to reflect (if perhaps a bit belatedly) on being an American.
One of the things that I have found myself thinking over the years, when I try to reflect on being an American, is something that has its roots in a trip I took just before I began rabbinical school.
My in-laws had decided to do a stint in the Peace Corp, and ended up assigned to Ukraine. We took a trip there that summer, before I began, to visit them there. Ukraine, as you may recall has had an anti-Semitism problem for some time. They were pretty bad in the Shoah, and even now, they are not problem free. While I was there, though I had a bit of a revelation. As an American, I am used to looking around and not necessarily knowing by looking, anything about the people I see on the street. I can't guess what religion (if any) what nationality (except the occasionally really Irish-looking person or the like) and so on, a person is. In Ukraine, though, that's not the case. My in-laws told a story about a Peace Corp volunteer stationed there who, if I recall correctly, eventually had to be restationed elsewhere. It turns out that everywhere he went he was followed with suspicion. People were always concerned about what he might do. Now, you'd think in a country where there was precisely one black person in pretty much all the nation, the general thought would be that he wouldn't be able to get away with anything, so why worry, but this turns out not to be the case. But the truth is that even if he had not been that particularly outstandingly different, he might well be subjected to similar treatment: you see, in Ukraine, people really look rather alike. I kid you not.
I noticed very quickly that there were a short list of features and complexions available to native Ukrainians, and people in general tended to look rather similar to one another -even from one region to another. All of a sudden, I realised why anti-semitism was so easy there. Jews probably really did look different from everyone else. In a nation of pink-cheeked, heart-shaped faces (although not all blonde) the occasional slightly sallower complexion or pair of brown eyes really does stand out significantly. Not that that means is okay or good to persecute others because they look different, but it at least makes sense how easy it is to do.
Growing up in the USA, even in relatively isolated parts of this country, people have a variety of skin tones and colors. Even in isolated Appalachia and the Ozarks there were/are the "Portuguese," Native Americans and a variety of mixtures between these folks and the descendants of Africans, and let's face it, of Jews as well, who wandered out as single traders and often ended up married in to some isolated place some where (I'll never forget the first midwestern Levy I met who hadn't had a Jew in her family for five generations. Quite an interesting story).
Americans ultimately, are really from all over; we look it, too. There are few communities so isolated that they don't regularly see people who come in at least a couple of different shades. And truthfully, many of the really isolated communities in the USA really are great followers of the mind yer business school of thought about neighbors, anyway.
And that brings me to the Folklife Festival. I happen to really like this festival. I haven't been in a number of years, but I managed to get there this year. And being there reminded me so much of how different we really are in some ways: I love the people watching best of all, and in people watching, I got to admit to myself that there really wasn't much way to tell while watching, who I saw that was an American, who was a visitor, who was a guest of the festival there to perform of craft or demonstrate. Because we are and remain a country of immigrants. My little blonde-haired blue-eyed son loved to wander into the music tents, and while we were sitting listening to the music of Northern Ireland, we sat next to a family who appeared to be Indian or Pakistani -at some point- in origin - probably the grandparents weren't born here. The kids wore shorts, the mother wore a sort of adapted sari, Dad wore jeans, too. None of them had accents. While we were in the kids tent, and my DS was dancing some sort of dance to drums from a Vietnamese music group, we ran into another family from our shul; next to us was sitting a family headed by a matriarch wearing a lovely tignon who was clearly from the Caribbean, and there were a host of Asian families sitting around enjoying the music: all of us were videoing our kids with our phones as they danced together. While DS and I sat and listened the other day to a Virginia band play Warren Zevon (Again, I kid you not. Was Warren Zevon Virginian? They were playing Lawyers, Guns And Money) he charmed the anglo-looking guy with tats and bandanna, sitting on the top row of the bleachers , and the grandfathery looking African American guy sitting in front of him.
The state this year was Virginia. Along with the African heritage booth, the First Nations booths, the booths on peanuts and horses, there was a little section laid out for the Guatemalan heritage of Virginia. I didn't see any Guatemalans there, but certainly there were some Latinos enjoying spring rolls over my the Mekong delta food area.
I find it hard to believe that the conversation about immigration here proceeds in quite the way it does these days. I mean, I suppose way back when, the First Nations had similar conversations, but I believe that now we're a bit too far into it to go there. All I can say is thank God for this land where I can't look at anyone and tell whether there "one of us" or not. That way any of us can be "One of us." And b'tzelem elohim, really, we all are.
God bless America.