Lessons of the Jew Safari

Here’s my very personal take on the Muslim ban. It makes me think about Jews. Specifically, me and the Jews in my life. And maybe even more narrowly, it makes me think about me. I feel like it’s about me. It’s not some abstraction about other people out there in foreign countries, it’s actually about me.

Bear with me — I have a circuitous path to my point here. Many years ago our production company got a gig to serve as U.S. line-producers of a German TV documentary about ethnic influences on jazz music. At one point, the young German director told us that he wanted to learn more about “Jewish culture” and asked if we could show him some spots. Our New York team was puzzled by this. Um… what aspect of Jewish culture are you interested in, exactly? Cuz there’s a lot of it. It’s sort of part of New York culture, ya know? Turned out he wanted to see orthodox Jewish culture, to see what it looked like. So one rainy Saturday morning I found myself driving a rental van around Williamsburg, Brooklyn while the German DP and director stared out the window at dozens of orthodox Jews walking to Temple, wearing distinctive wide hats and long coats and looking as they might have looked in Europe a long, long time ago. “How’s the Jew safari going?” my friend called to ask. How could I answer? It was weird. The Germans could not get enough of their van view. They were young — both born long after WWII — -and they had never seen Jewish communities. The director said, optimistically: You know, these communities are coming back, in Poland and in Germany. The DP scoffed at him: That’s not true. The Nazis destroyed them, don’t kid yourself. You’ll never see anything like this in Europe again, certainly not in Germany.

I told them that it was different for me. I had grown up in New York City with Jews everywhere in my life. They were my best friends in elementary, middle and high school. My teachers, my mentors, my favorite filmmakers, my business partner. I told them it wasn’t until I was in 7th grade that I learned that Jews were a minority religion (which shows my sorry command of US demographics.) I had spent hours as a child hanging outside Hebrew schools, waiting for friends to get done with their class so that we could play some more. I thought Yiddish words were English words until I got to college and I discovered that some people didn’t know what I was saying. I told the Germans that I couldn’t imagine my life without Jews in it. I wouldn’t be me. The Germans were amazed. They thought I was exaggerating. They looked out the window with remorse, and even, I’m pretty sure, with a feeling of envy. Envy that the United States could have this view of a group of people practicing their faith in the open, walking on the streets, something that was gone from the towns they grew up in. Here we were, three non-Jews in a van. They had been deprived of the company of Jews, deprived of a normal, quotidian exposure to Jewish culture. But not me. I had been much, much luckier. I tried not to gloat.

The look on the Germans’ faces as they looked out the van remind me of Toni Morrison’s statement when she says those who practice racism are bereft. She says, oh-so-wisely, that racism has just as deleterious effects on the racists as those the racism is targeted at. Yes, indeed — and in this case, I was witnessing the negative effects of racism on the descendants of a society that had practiced extreme racism, i.e. genocide. My life was immeasurably richer because the United States had let millions of Jewish immigrants and refugees enter the country over the course of many decades. And, to put a finer point on it, I have to thank the fact that the U.S. had not listened to those who feared that bringing too many Jews to the U.S. would destroy American culture.

Right at this moment, there are some Jewish, Christian, Buddhist and atheist American kids whose parents came here generations ago who are having the time of their lives hanging out with Muslim kids, kids who are their classmates and neighbors. They can’t imagine life without them. That’s my America. It is not just the Muslim immigrants and refugees who are lucky to come to the U.S. All of us Americans are so beyond lucky that so many people came here from all over the world. Every time an outside group is welcomed in instead of shut out, we are spared one more aspect of the deleterious effects of racism — we get to have our lives be rich and closer to whole.

There are things that make the U.S. great and things that don’t. This — this openness to people who want to make a home here — it’s one of the best things ever. It’s what has made me, me. So I really, really don’t want us to give it up.