The Last American Childhood

The last small town in America?
The good life

I’m visiting my sister Monica and her family in Ashland, Virginia, a small town about 20 minutes outside of Richmond. Only a few years ago, to cross Main St., one needed only wave an unassuming orange flag to bring traffic to a halt at midday. On Saturdays there’s a local farmers’ market rich with freshly-picked blackberries, strawberry lemonade ($1) and talented young bluegrass musicians pickin’-n-grinnin’ among the squash flowers. On Sundays people go to church.

I’ve been working out at the YMCA almost every day this week, and when I’m through I sometimes let my finger fall across the open bible at the entrance for an inspirational thought or two before grabbing my car keys and heading to Starbucks for an iced coffee. On the way home, almost everyone waves from their SUVs, whether you know them or not. It’s a congenial town in every way. I like it.

At the center of this galaxy of congeniality, positioned like a miniature black hole around which spirals an increasing vortex of matter and anti-matter, is my niece Lucy. At least, that’s the way it appears from my perspective.

My sister grasps the hidden irony of her smalltown life. Thirty years ago, the two of us grew up in a suburb twenty minutes outside of Baltimore, just one state to the north. We were “Sesame seeds,” a generation much heralded as being the last lucky one before childhood lost its supposed luster. We walked home alone after school with house keys dangling from a string around our necks. We were kids on the loose, like the Lost Boys in the fictional Neverland: without supervision, restrictions, community.

Here in this calm Virginian hamlet in mid-August of the year 2009, no lifestyle could seem more foreign. Children of all ages play together, horse around, eat peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches, and hate to go to bed on time. Girls watch Hannah Montana on television and aspire to be the next Miley Cyrus, the very face of teenage American wholesomeness. They are polite to strangers and say thank you. All of this is engulfed by leafy greenery any city-dweller would envy. You can even see a few bright stars at night from the back porch.

“This is the last American childhood,” Monica said to me on the way home from Ukrops grocery store, where (rumor has it) they let you tote your groceries home if you happen to forget your wallet. “What makes you so sure?” I asked. She then went on to rhapsodize about the merits of smalltown life: everyone knows everyone else, the streets are safe, there’s a neighborhood watch, it’s a very close-knit community, etc…There are probably hundreds or thousands of identical hamlets strewn symmetrically across the United States, I mused. And every one of them thinks it’s unique.

When I asked her if she wasn’t afraid of everyone knowing her business, she answered that she actually liked it. It makes her feel secure, she told me. Fair enough. After eight years in New York City and six in Rome, I can appreciate the sentiment. I’ve been navigating a depersonalized environment for so long that it seems perfectly normal. People in cities can be nice, too, but they won’t wave when you pass or let you pay for your bagel the next day. And, according to legend, they might just let you bleed to death in broad daylight. There really is something idyllic about this place that makes me want to pinch myself. Is it for real?

In search of a downside, I may have found one. There is a tangible pressure to conform, for one thing. But that’s true even a proudly nonconformist neighborhood like Williamsburg, Brooklyn–only the standards there are zanier. Instead of three-button shirts and khaki shorts, you’re expected to wear Hawaiian shirts and Panama hats–as long as you “get” them. The cultural gene pool is less varied around here. Of course, this could all be an illusion. But I swear people look at me funny, even in my camouflage hunting cap.

In a few days I’ll penetrate the invisible veil that separates Ashland from the rest of the world and reenter the unexceptional, charmless existence of everyday life. Years from now, Lucy will make a similar voyage out of her protective cocoon and into the menacing world beyond the hedge.

“She’ll lose her innocence,” Monica says with a frown, as if the cellophane armor of “innocence” were the secret glue that binds this community together. For a moment, I feel like I’ve stumbled into Brigadoon. Around here they call it paradise.

Published in The American

You Don’t Need God To Be Jewish

Are you there, God? Its me, Yehudis.
Are you there, God? It's me, Yehudis.

This is the topic of much debate when Jews decide they don’t believe in God. Can’t Jews be atheists, non-theists or anti-theists? Is there a discriminatory principle according to which Jews cannot not believe in a supernatural power, just like Jews once could not own property or hold certain jobs? Don’t Jews have absolute liberty of thought like everyone else?

Most people would say yes, of course they do, but once they stop believing in God (if they ever did) they thereby stop being Jews. Baloney. Here’s an example of what I’m trying to convey:

I’m on vacation in Virginia, where I went to college. Whenever I’m in the States I watch a good amount of television in order to tap back into the lifeblood of my countrymen and women. My sister’s television has six-hundred channels, and when I get tired of giggling at Fox News and ogling the Food Network I go channel surfing until I hit the Good News stations. Every evening I watch as faith healers knock down their congregations in the spirit of Jesus, heal blindness, exorcise demons and rearrange human bones in living bodies–all on television. Of course, I don’t believe a word of it, and neither should you. Tonight I even heard a preacher tell the devil to leave his congregation’s bank accounts alone. No shit. This is unbelievable stuff–not the least bit supernatural, but still kind of incredible.

There’s even a Jewish life channel (called, imaginatively, Jewish Life). By the above-stated rule that Jews are defined by their belief in a supernatural God (curiously, not the same one that defines Christians and Muslims), one would expect Jewish Life to be full of programs about Hasidism, Kabbalah, Talmud-Torah, or whatever might interest Jewish believers. Well, tonight I jotted down what they broadcasted in the three-or-so hours I was watching while flipping back and forth between the televangelists. Here’s what I saw: a concert clip by Israeli singer Shlomo Artzi, a documentary on Birobidzhan, an endorsement for a Jewish outreach network, and some arbitrary footage of Israeli life: windsurfing on Lake Kinneret, Tel Aviv by night, Masada and people walking, praying and looking generally suspicious in Jerusalem. Add to this last night’s documentary on the Exodus (the ship, not the book), and so far not a measly mention of the man upstairs on an entirely Jewish television network.

I don’t wish to make prophecies. I don’t know if the Jewish people can survive the next three-thousand years if they were all miraculously to go secular. Then again, I don’t know if any of us will survive that long. I doubt such a scenario is possible–though it may be desirable. I am making a case in the here and now for the Jews as a people with a very complex historical identity, of which the Jewish religion plays a significant–but not dominant–role.

You don’t need God to be Jewish.

American So-Called Jews

The ambiguous title of this post is an example of the brilliant commenting that takes place on the web. The full comment reads:

This article is insane, as 79% of American so called Jews. -Yigal

Here’s the article, if you’re interested. From The Forward:

Alarm bells have been ringing around the neighborhood pretty much nonstop since July 13, when President Obama sat down to talk Middle East policy at the White House with a pack of leaders from a dozen American Jewish organizations.

The meeting was supposed to help buff up Obama’s relationship with the Jewish community, which is bubbling lately with resentment at the president’s aggressive peace-processing. By reaching out to the community’s customary spokesmen, he hoped to build rapport and perhaps recruit a few backers for his policies. Instead he unleashed a whirlwind of attacks against himself, his administration and the Jews who met with him.

The critics accuse Obama of unfairly singling out Israel by demanding a unilateral settlement freeze, without requiring reciprocal Palestinian concessions, and disregarding past American promises to permit some construction. They say he is trying to curry favor with the Arab world, breaking a long-standing presidential tradition of siding automatically with Israel. Some say he is threatening the important legacy of George W. Bush. I didn’t make that one up.


If there is a substantive argument in all this, it’s the claim that Israel is being pressured for concessions while the Arab side is not. Obama himself conceded the point at that meeting. He’s now pressing Arab states for gestures to help Israelis get the medicine down. But freezing settlements doesn’t depend on that. Jerusalem is already committed to “freeze all settlement activity (including natural growth of settlements).” It’s written in black and white in President Bush’s road map, which Israel signed in 2003 — and which Avigdor Lieberman reaffirmed this past April 1 in his maiden Knesset speech as foreign minister. Israel was able to put off the freeze because the Palestinian Authority wasn’t honoring its commitment to crack down on terrorists. Now the Palestinians are cracking down, and Netanyahu is making up excuses.

As for Obama being the new Roosevelt, we should live so long. FDR, if memory serves, was the guy who defeated Hitler and saved the world, after the Japanese air force convinced congressional Republicans to let us join the war. If Obama has any tricks like that up his sleeve, bring ’em on.

The Other Cairo Speech

Mel Konner has a provocative post in which he writes the speech he wishes Obama had delivered in Cairo last month. He prefaces it with a lengthy criticism of Obama’s actual speech, in which he makes some salient points. He stresses that Obama “bowed too low”, just as he had to the Saudi king and Hugo Chavez. He may have a point, and I hope Obama read it. Being the good guy is great, but the world cannot risk an American president who appears weak. Ever.

So here’s my crack at the other Cairo speech, the one I believe many people heard in place of what Obama actually said. It begins like this:

Fellow Muslims…”

In the Quagmire With Jeff and Mike

Today I’m linking to Michael Totten’s interview with Jeffrey Goldberg called The Real Quagmire In the Middle East. Not only is this a conversation between two intelligent, well-informed journalists about the problems that obsess some of us, it is also remarkably free of hate-speech, proving once and for all that it is still possible to have a reasonable discussion about Israel and its enemies without falling headfirst down the rabbit-hole of loshn hora.

Here’s a choice excerpt to whet your whistle with:

Goldberg: I imagine that if this situation gets more dire, America will say to the Iranians, secretly, in no uncertain terms, that “if you do anything to Israel, we will destroy you.” That just seems prudent to do. “Go ahead and have your dreams and desires, but don’t even think about transferring your nuclear technology to attack Israel in some way, because we will wipe you out.”

Bring the Iranian ambassador to the Strategic Air Command and show him all the missiles that are pointing at Iran. “This one is going to go here, and this one is going to go there. You’re wiped out. You’re finished. You’re done. You are exterminated.”

It wouldn’t really matter, though, because the Israelis would already be dead.

Totten: They can retaliate themselves anyway. They have nuclear weapons in submarines out in the Mediterranean.

Goldberg: Jews are floating around in the Persian Gulf with nuclear weapons in German subs that are aimed at the new Hitler. If you step away from your personal feelings about it, it’s just fascinating.

Most fascinating indeed.

The New Bronx Bombers

Ok, so you’re a loser. The world has been a tough place and your life didn’t turn out quite as you had planned. You’ve done jail time and maybe you’ve got drug problems. Welcome to the desert of the real, as my man Zizek would say.

So what do you do with yourself? How do you pick yourself back up and put the fragmented pieces of your failed life back together again? Well, people used to go in for all sorts of stuff like 12-step programs (“give me the power to accept the things I cannot change,” etc…), new age pseudopsychology, or good old hard work.

Now there’s a new alternative: jihad.

The four men who attempted to blow up a synagogue in the Bronx the other day seem to fit the loser model. One had a crack addiction. One read the Koran between shifts as a waiter. All are petty criminals looking to make it big in the world.

The answer: murder some Jews.

Then, the logic would have it, they will begin to pay attention to your “cause.” They will begin to listen. They will probably even–if you become a jihadi superstar–interview you in the New York Times. That’s Warholian fame for a small-time crook.

Would the world listen if you attempted to kill, say, a group of Southern Baptists or Mormons? How about Amish? They would label you a sociopath and throw away the key. But if you kill Jews, or get caught trying, you must inevitably have a grievance. Newspapers and bloggers will spend precious words looking for your “motivation.” Perhaps you are an Arab or a convert to Islam, and came under the sway of a radical mosque where they preach “Death to the Jews!” You will have learned that you can commit an act of homicide in this world and people will actually respect you more. You might, if you’re lucky, get invited to Iran or Lebanon for a hero’s welcome.

From the NYT:

“It’s hard to envision a more chilling plot,” Eric Snyder, an assistant United States attorney, said on Thursday in federal court in Manhattan. “These are extremely violent men. These are men who eagerly embraced an opportunity” to “bring deaths to Jews.”

Don’t call it anti-Semitism, though. Show some respect for Islam and its grievances against the West.

ps…I realize that neither waiters nor those who read the Koran (or Qur’an) are necessarily losers. Lighten up.

Not My Father’s Rome

The Rome I live in is a very different city than the one my father left in the mid- 1960s. I am reminded of this every time I take the metro (I still prefer subway, that arcane Americanism). The trains are always full of readers, and I am a curious observer of public reading material. I am frequently struck by the sheer metropolitanness of a ride: while reviewing my weekly Hebrew lesson, a woman across from me is reading from the Koran, the man next to me is flapping a Chinese newspaper, and all around us is a Babel of incoherent voices babbling sundry languages. This is not my father’s town, by a long shot.

Some people tend to think of Rome—and to some extent Italy—as the Pope’s backyard. An Australian once remarked to me that he was shocked to find condoms on sale in the pharmacies. “But I thought this was a Catholic country,” was his lament. He seemed disappointed that his medieval fantasy had been crushed. Indeed, condoms are readily available, even in supermarkets. And so is alcohol, which will be a surprise to many Americans whose local mega-markets are still “dry” in the year 2009. In many ways, we might do well to think of  Italy as a post-Catholic country.

Another institution in crisi is marriage. Yes, you read correctly. For the record, divorce wasn’t legally established in Italy until the early 1970s. Despite the recent scandal of Berlusconi and his soon-to-be ex-wife Veronica Lario, divorce has never taken on epic proportions here as in the United States (each of my parents has been married three times, for instance). I often meet Italians who are “divorced,” a euphemism meaning “separated.” “It’s too much trouble to get divorced,” they say. “And it’s money wasted.” Better to stay married and live with other people. Or, to note a modest new trend, not to marry at all.

According to a 2007 Istat poll, children born out of wedlock were 15%, or about 80,000 a year. Once, such children were modified by adjectives like “illegitimate”, then the more politically correct “natural.” No longer.They are now simply children, born to parents, with extended biological families and hereditary rights.

Many of my friends have children, and almost none of them are married. In fact, I hardly know one Italian couple under the age of fifty who is married with children.

So the news that I am getting married comes as a surprise to many, especially those who had me pegged as anti-conformist. My answer is: can there be anything more anti-conformist than to be married with children in Italy these days?

Sadly, my father is not around to witness the legacy of these reforms and counter-reforms in his country of birth. In a way, though, he anticipated them. In a time when the traditional institution of the family was iron-clad and Italians still hung on the pope’s every syllable, my father fell in love with a Jewish-American woman from Boston. They were married at the Campidoglio in Rome in a secular ceremony. Both eschewed their family’s tradition. Both crossed the uncrossable boundaries laid before them by history.

More than forty years later I am crisscrossing the same boundaries in the same city. But I come from a different time and place. Like Bellow’s Augie March, I boast playfully, “I am an American, New England born…” I have inherited my parents’ idiosyncratic heresies, and I have found a heterodox woman with which to share them. A friend will be officiating our wedding ceremony next month at the Campidoglio, another innovative touch in a city for which the puzzling expression “everything changes but nothing changes” was coined.

But many things have changed, both in Italy and the world. I am a dual-citizen, which my father never was. He lived for twenty-three years in America as—in his words—an alien. I used to wonder why he wasn’t green. In his day, long-distance phone calls were expensive and infrequent, air travel even more so. Today I Skype my family for free. We email. We are in touch with an alarming frequency. Being a citizen of Italy I am also a citizen of the European Union. One-quarter of the developed world is my domain. This is not my father’s world.

On the eve of marriage, I wonder what kind of world our eventual children will inherit. Technology develops at Planck speed. Borders and boundaries are going up and coming down all over the globe. One of the last memories I have of my father is watching the fall of the Berlin Wall on television, an event that symbolized a new era to Europe and the world. I was fifteen. Three months later he died of a heart attack.

Our children will be heirs to the post-9/11 world, perhaps the post-American world (to quote a recent bestseller). They will be Italians and Americans and, if they choose, Israelis—assuming no walls go up in the meantime to keep them in or out. Walls could fall, too, making those distinctions meaningless. We cannot know.

In the meantime, I still need to buy a suit for the wedding. Did someone say mazel-tov?

Published in The American