Yesterday was our annual July 4th barbecue. Yes we were a few weeks late. That was deliberate (my birthday is the same weekend as July 4th but our annual bbq is definitely not a birthday party. Over the years though with the advent of FB, more people have learned of my birth date and assumed the bbq was a celebration. Last year someone even brought a cake and they sang to me; my husband couldn’t stop them in time. One couple got angry that I hadn’t told them it was a birthday celebration every year and stormed out. They didn’t come this year. But I digress.)
It’s a wonderful celebration; we started it our first year in town with just one guest. (We moved to town on June 29 and only knew one person). Each of the last 12 years it has grown; I think our record was about 50 adults and 20 kids. We keep the guest list almost exclusively people from our synagogue, preferring not to mix work or the kids’ school friends. Our synagogue is extremely diverse – large numbers of members from Latin American countries, various Middle Eastern countries, and a significant percentage is African American, Jewish going back many generations. Its diversity is one of the many attributes I love about the place. But this year, my own latent prejudice smacked me in the face and I’m writing this diary to process my thoughts.
I grew up in a fairly typical wealthy Jewish suburb – think New Rochelle, NY, Cherry Hill, NJ, Elkins Park, PA, etc. My family was extremely liberal (my father was the head of the state ACLU for a few years), but for the most part my friends looked more or less like me, even in my public school. I remember feeling secretly pleased at shocking my grandparents by having an Asian friend in high school. In college, despite being pretty religious, I deliberately immersed myself in a range of activities in order to avoid being like one of my religious friends, who whispered to me our first week “being here surrounded by all these goyim just makes me want to isolate myself with people like us.” Nonetheless, my friends again continued to look more or less like me, both in college and in the first few places I lived afterwards.
Fast forward a couple of decades and we move to this wonderful synagogue and for probably the first time since my 4th grade best friend, have close friends who don’t look like us. My husband’s seat-mate is a now-84 year old African-American former boxer with 89 grandchildren whose father was a rabbi and a chicken farmer. I introduce a close work colleague to an African-American Ivy-educated banker and my kids were in their wedding. I looked out at our barbecue yesterday and counted an Argentinean, an Israeli, a Dominican, an Egyptian, and several African-Americans. At one point I went downstairs to check on the babysitter and hoards of children watching Little Rascals (the remake), and smiled that my blond blue-eyed boys were the minorities.
But that’s where the problem lies. I asked one friend (the aforementioned banker) to bring his mom. (Since we introduced her son to his amazing wife and she produced a baby 10 months later, we are high on her list of favorite people. And despite her being the local chair of the Hillary for President campaign back in ’08, she is high on our list of favorite people.) And my friend said “is it ok if she brings her two boys”. Of course I said yes but then said “wait, what? What two boys?” “Oh she has taken in some foster children.”
My first thought wasn’t “that’s wonderful of her” or “oh those kids are so lucky”. It was “is my jewelry going to be safe?” and “how will they treat my kids?” And I worried about it.
The boys showed up and they were just lovely. Well-mannered, happy boys who downed corn and hot dogs, then watched a movie and played Wii with the other kids. I asked my friend’s mom about their background and was told they were 2 of eight, whose mom died of breast cancer. My friend’s mom took them in and her friend took another three siblings so they get to see each other. I’m not sure my boys ever asked their names since kids don’t need names to be friends, but at the end of the barbecue my boys said “we had a great time, can they come back again?”
And I felt like a heel. These poor kids have been through so much and without even meeting them, I locked up my jewelry. I made assumptions. I judged children. I keep asking myself, is it their race that made me judge them or the fact that they’re foster kids? Honestly, I don’t know which answer would be better. Either way, I judged people I had never met on the basis of attributes out of their control.
One reason my husband and I became such huge Obama supporters early is that, as my husband says, “he’s one of us”. We could have gone to college with him. Heck, my brother in law did go to college with him. And yet, in the post-Zimmerman days, with President Obama’s powerful words about what it feels like to walk onto an elevator and have women clutch their purses a little tighter or get off on the next floor, I am acutely aware as I never have been before of what that must feel like. Not because it has ever happened to me but because yesterday, to my shame, I clutched that purse and got off on the next floor simply because my friend brought two boys to my house.