Two recent pieces in The New York Times speak to the new populism that threatens the United States. I find part of the solution within my family and my synagogue.
David Brooks’ June 28 column “Revolt of the Masses” quoted David Vance, author of the book Hillbilly Elegy. Vance writes about the Kentucky and Ohio coal regions in which he grew up and the value of intense family loyalty that’s not always healthy. Brooks quoted Vance: “We do not like outsiders, or people who are different from us, whether difference lies in how they look, how they act, or, most important, how they talk.” Such loyalty also forbids revealing wrongdoing, which lets some family members prey on others. And it generates a parochialism that can isolate families from their community, state, nation and the world.
On July 11, Robert P. Jones in “The Evangelicals and the Great Trump Hope” pointed out that white Christians—Protestants and Catholics—no longer make up a majority of Americans. They’re now 45 percent of the population, down from 54 percent in 2008. This drop is highly visible. When I was a kid in the 1950s, movies, TV shows and advertisements rarely portrayed other than white Christians—almost always Protestants—except as maids, shoeshine boys, train porters and humorous “ethnics,” including Irish, Italians and Jews.
Populism, which spawned Donald Trump’s presidential nomination, is not new. Populism has an economic agenda: spread the wealth, which tends to get sucked out of working-class regions. But it traditionally has constituted a movement to keep white Protestants in power. Now, pushed into a corner, many populists accept white Catholics as allies. Where populists once sought to keep white Americans on top of the pecking order, they now want to return white Americans to dominance. Ironically, the majority of the nation’s business and political leaders are white Christians. Still, “ordinary” people remain distanced from them while feeling threatened by a perceived lack of standing in a nation increasingly multi-ethnic, multi-religious and increasingly secular.
As to my family and synagogue, we open ourselves to others. We understand that while there’s nothing wrong with the Jewish, heterosexual home or congregation, these can be—going back to David Brooks—parochial. When Carolyn—a white, lapsed Catholic—and I decided to marry in 1967, we called my parents. Sight unseen, my father Morris welcomed Carolyn into the family. My mother Blanche flew down to San Antonio. She brought Carolyn a potato grater and a jar of schmaltz (chicken fat). It was love at first sight. Carolyn became a major non-Jewish Jewish mother.
When our youngest, Aaron, married Jeremy, Jeremy became our fourth son. Our fourth because our middle son Yosi was once Rachel. Yosi is transgender. Our love for Yosi remains unchanged. So, too, Congregation Sherith Israel boasts Jews of all genetic backgrounds and sexual identities. Maybe we don’t always “look” Jewish. We just do Jewish.
In the book of Numbers, Moses sends twelve spies to scout the Promised Land. He asks them to report whether Canaanite cities are fortified. A midrash offers commentary: A city surrounded by walls is weak. An open city is strong because its inhabitants aren’t fearful. We might look to Franklin Delano Roosevelt: “The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself!”
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