American Blessings

It is terribly easy to become convinced that evil lurks in every heart and that cross-cultural friendships are impossible. Many rabble-rousers and politicians get rich and powerful by convincing us of such. One of our daughters mentioned that, as summer weather descended, her children (age nine and under) were playing daily in a local park. Each day, she said, different neighborhood children are there, including children of all religions, colors and ethnicities. Shared water balloons and nerf guns forge friendships. She was having difficulty reconciling the normality and community togetherness that she was witnessing in the park with the hatred presented in her morning newsfeed. Her words reminded me of the Musing I am copying below that I wrote a number of years ago:

For most of my childhood, my grandparent, aunts, uncles and cousins all lived in the same, general area. Even those who moved “far away” were usually within an hour’s drive. Family relationships were augmented by neighbors who became friends, the relationships often emerging more from proximity than from shared interests. One of my closest companions, from even before my memories start, was JoAnn who lived down the block. We had a lot of fun, but we didn’t have a lot of choices. It would never have occurred to our mothers to make playdates and arrange transport for little girls. They unlocked the door in the morning, expected their daughters back for lunch and supper, and assumed that they would find companions without leaving the block.

My friendship with JoAnn was a weekday one. Saturday was my Shabbat and Sunday her day for church. I went to a Jewish school; she to the local Catholic one. Our differences went beyond religion, though. I was an avid reader while JoAnn’s mother coerced her into reading anything at all.  JoAnn enjoyed fixing hair and trying out new styles while I wasn’t terribly interested in fashion.  Had we met in the classroom or at a camp, we probably never would have gravitated to each other. But for those many years during which we were too young to venture far, we played hopscotch and stoop ball and spent many summer days splashing about in her four-foot-deep plastic pool. We rode endless circuits around the block on our bicycles and, if memory serves me right, more than once we saved civilization from utter destruction in our roles as intrepid spies. (I never watched The Man from U.N.C.L.E. but JoAnn’s mother was a fan.)

We knew each other’s families. JoAnn and her siblings rotated spending evenings with her grandmother, and I joined her in visiting the black-clad, elderly widow who knew as many words in English as I knew in Italian. I knew more about communion and convents than most of the kids in my class and JoAnn knew more about less popularized Jewish festivals, like Shavuot or Shmini Atzeret, than did the majority of Jews.

All the families on our block were either Italian-Catholic or Jewish. Across the street lived an older Jewish couple. For many years their youngest daughter was a favorite babysitter for many of the families on the block.  After her marriage, this young woman and her husband took an apartment next door to her parents.  A few years later, we were all shocked when her father had a heart attack while driving home and died.  Jewish burials take place as quickly as possible, and within 24 hours matters were arranged. I was considered too young to go to the funeral with my mother, but old enough to stay home alone. Our ex-babysitter’s toddler was sent across the street to JoAnn’s house.

About two hours after my mother left, JoAnn came running down the block. Their young Jewish charge was hungry and her mother, knowing that it was Passover and how the food restrictions on that holiday are extremely serious, was hesitant to give him as much as a fruit from her kitchen. I solved the problem by sending over kosher for Passover food, but it wasn’t until years later that I recognized and appreciated the sensitivity and respect which JoAnn’s mother exhibited. 

People endlessly talk about multiculturalism and the need for valuing all ethnicities, races and religions as if America in decades past was a hostile and evil nation for all but a select few. To speak that way is an insult to so many who, like the people on my block, treated each other with dignity, were quick to help one another, and who created safe and secure neighborhoods for their children.

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13 thoughts on “American Blessings”

  1. Susan, everything you wrote was familiar to me. I grew up in a neighborhood that was part Protestant Christian (the largest part), part Catholic (as my family was), and part Jewish. It wasn’t paradise, but with rare exceptions people got along just fine, and were kind and accommodating to each other’s traditions and needs, just like you wrote about. What’s more, nobody made a big deal about it! No one crowed about how tolerant they were, it was just good manners, respect for others, and decent polite behavior. This was in late 40s to the early 60s. (I was born in 1947.) Growing up, although I went to a Catholic school, I also had neighborhood friends, both Protestant and Jewish, throughout my childhood. It was never a problem. Am I indulging in selective memory by saying that, although things were not perfect, there was far less religious and ethnic animosity and confrontation then than there is now? Certainly there was no such concept as identity politics then.

  2. Your story brought back many memories of my childhood neighborhood which was much the same as yours, Susan. Your columns are always so poignant…thanks for sharing.

  3. I much enjoyed reading about your childhood. I am Baptist and my best friend growing up was Jewish. We wandered the neighborhood, drinking out of garden hoses and playing in the street. We are now 64 and still friends.

    1. It’s sad to see America, in many ways, moving in the opposite direction today, Becky.

  4. Thank you for this soothing voice of reason! It was refreshing to read of the love and respect in your community. I, too, remember having neighbors that weren’t “like us”, but were valued for who they were. How wonderful it would be if we could return to some of that today!!

    1. Marilee, when my daughter told me of the new neighborhood camaraderie in her area, largely an outgrowth of the local kids not being in school and after-school activities, it reminded me how much I received from that same type of neighborhood interaction.

  5. I enjoyed reading this article because it reminded me of my childhood. Celebrating DIFFERENCES!!!! WONDERFUL!!!! I would hate to see a world where all we had to eat was oatmeal – every day – all the time. No Italian food (NO PiZZA or spaghetti????), no Chinese food (NO EGG ROLLS or LoMein???) No Southern Fried Chicken or Macaroni and Cheese, no Matzo Ball soup, no Paprikash, Reuben sandwiches, Tacos, French bread with Irish butter, Goulash, “Shrimp on the Barbie” , Caribbean Jerk spices. I just made myself sad. Our differences are what made us strong and made life very interesting and enjoyable.

    1. Lisa, I admit to being completely befuddled at the idea of ‘cultural appropriation’ having grown up with the ‘melting pot’ being seen as a wonderful thing.

  6. Thank you Susan for words of wisdom and a positive message. I look forward to your messages and appreciate your emails. God Bless!
    Sharon Hull

  7. I so enjoyed your story. It reminds me of a picture book we keep in our Christmas collection (I am Catholic). It is ‘The Trees of the Dancing Goats’ by Patricia Polacco. It is both a Chanukah story and a Christmas story. As a fellow homeschooling mom I imagine you’ve heard of it. 🙂
    I appreciate your voice of reason in chaotic times very much. May our good G-d bless your family.

    1. I don’t know that particular book, Kristyn, but I do know other books by Patricia Polacco.

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