Because Culture Shapes our Differences

One day when I was four or five  years old my father took a baseball out of my hands saying that I should give it to my younger brother and step aside to the nearby sidelines to watch without getting hit by the ball because “baseball is not for girls” . That one sentence changed my life irretrievably forever.

My father and my grandfather loved me dearly from before my first breath until their last breaths departed decades later, so it was not an act of bad intentions or conspiratorial meanness with some evil goal and certainly not hate. If anything this incantational separation between me baseball and boy sports was designed as a proud moment so that my little brother could take his place among men and boys in the backyard who played baseball not very well but with great pleasure in their spare time.  In fact it was a joyous moment, the big sister need not continue to fill in because the little boy could now walk and perhaps run.  My grandfather was there proudly cheering my younger brother who likely has no recollection of this interchange whatsoever, and might even, if asked, deny that it ever happened. 

The reason this pronouncement changed my life forever was not the fault of my family. Our culture in the USA at the time saw baseball as “America’s Pastime”, baseball the national cultural institution was so endemic in American culture that it was  successfully defended even against antitrust law;  when baseball team owners were brought before the  US Supreme Court, American law had a special exemption just for baseball itself not any other sports not even football. It does not matter either whether I was four or five years old. A full generation later, I enrolled my beautiful daughter at the age of eight or nine in the special baseball camp at a major university in New York City where we lived, side by side with her learning disabled brother. She was great at sports but he had only a confused slow response to teammate signals, yet the coach kept my son on the team and returned the money I had paid for tuition for my daughter. The coach sadly explained that he would love to have her on the team but baseball was not a girls’ sport. So despite my best efforts, it was the culture set in place way back when I was a little child that controlled my knowledge of baseball; a spectator not a player.

That moment of cultural permission to commit a permanent unjust act returned to my vision in a flash when I read the news of the tragic intrusion into a synagogue during worship with the express mission of killing Jews that resulted in the mindless killing of eleven people. The killer did not stop to ask why they were in the synagogue or if they were Jewish, the killer killed and had no self-restraint or shame. And what we fear most is the reality that there is no cultural response to counter any desire to express such hatred, we fear there is in fact some cultural sanction that supports such acts without any shame.

The tragedy in Pittsburgh on October 27, 2018, therefore is not merely the body count of destroyed lives. The tragedy is that we are rendered speechless by this deep cut into the American Jewish cultural matrix when it is indeed a time to fill these passionate wounds with creative new approaches to confronting hatred and dissolving hurtful cultural values that persist like so many weeds in garden variety daily life. It is easy to turn away and say it never happened to us. Or to say it was someone’s personal fault. And then to tell people they must be nice and avoid hate. Worse still, that approach clearly doesn’t work.

We need a new approach. We need a careful and thoughtful discussion about the epidemiology of hatred.  Where does such hatred as anti-Semitism come from and why on earth does it still so potentially grow even after decades of Jewish assimilation into the highest reaches of USA culture and so many tearful Holocaust lessons learned?

The answer may be simple, but it takes courage to ask the simple questions and patience to offer the answers that are sometimes clear and sometimes elusive. There may appear to be no time to sit down in quiet dialogue one to one and listen to the voices who spout hatred with a view to hearing their basic concerns and figuring out the proper language and information for answering them.  But like a girl who was forbidden to play baseball and the boys on the team, most Jews and Non-Jews know very little about the experiences that form each other.

All the more difficult to figure out the root cause of hatred in a fast-paced culture that eschews interdependence and welcomes selfish and self-righteous use of force without due process of law to moderate and temper the emotions that are rooted in small things we learn at home as a child.

Small things innocent perhaps at their first expression, as Eleanor Roosevelt wrote, human rights begin in the small places such as neighborhoods and homes.   I have been to zillions of baseball games and eagerly am a spectator of baseball in the stadium or o TV, and I have traveled the world learned languages raised children and done many professional amazing things. but I no idea what it is like to actually play baseball on a team with pressure to win. So too many people simply can’t imagine what it is like to be a Jew, and our culture somehow supports hatred that fills the imagined void. For many people in America playing baseball is a far more likely experience than visiting and understanding Jewish life at home and the richness of values we bring to American culture and society but we must open our doors to reduce that void found in small things we learn at home as a child.

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