When we first moved to America, my dad threw his equal-opportunity-bigot weight around. Mostly it involved not letting my then 12-year-old sister’s first American friend come over because she was, God forbid, Indian-American. If you didn’t look like him, think like him, act like him, you didn’t have a place at his table. (Imagine the brain aneurism my dad almost had when, at 16, my sister came out as a lesbian and began dating a classmate, a relationship that lasted more than 2 years.)
I rebelled against his bigoted attitude. I became friends with all the “wrong people” – the black kids and the Muslim kids and the Asian kids and the Quakers and the Protestants. In fact, only one close friend in my circle was actually Russian and Jewish, like me. Admittedly, Russian Jews were pretty scarce in my suburban Cincinnati high school. And though I did go to Jewish Sunday school and, surprisingly, loved it, I was never more than friendly acquaintances with my friends there.
I guess dad is having the last laugh now, though. While I keep in touch with some of my very diverse group from high school, hardly anyone among my close friends now was born in the States. Most of the people who regularly come to my house, the people whose birthdays I celebrate, speak Russian and are mostly Jewish. My one really close American friend is a self-proclaimed lapsed Catholic, and she’s an honorary Jew anyway because of her incredible patience and curiosity toward all the weird Jew traditions I can wax poetic about. And because I work for a Jewish organization, at work I’m surrounded by Jews, too! Nothing wrong with that picture of course: I carefully picked both my friends and my workplace.
Still, lately I have noticed that I rarely venture beyond the “safe zone.” I feel quite at home with the Russian, the singing to guitar till all hours of the night, the random get-togethers that turn into hours-long discussions about life, the old movies and modern improv comedy shows from Russia.
For the past several years, I’ve been very involved in the whole Russian Jew thing. I’ve gone to programs and led programs about Russian Jewish identity and even helped start an organization for Russian-speaking Jews in Chicago. I enjoy being part of this community and exploring all the ways Russian-speaking Jews fit into the puzzle of American society.
But I refuse to turn into my dad. He’s the kind of person who says he’s not allowed to go to Israel because of his burning hatred toward Arabs and of what he might do once he gets there. I refuse to turn into someone who doesn’t want to hear new, different perspectives or into someone who judges people’s intellectual abilities based on their country of origin or the color of their skin.
In some distant future I’d like to be able to talk honestly to my children about race and religion and diversity. I want to show them diversity in all its glory through the people around them rather than invoking that eternal principle of parenting, “do as I say not as I do.” And in my current bubble, I don’t think I can. So it’s time for the bubble to burst.
In the spirit of the New Year, I’ve decided this is going to be my quest for 5770. While I love my friends and my job, I want to add to my circle and hear new things, meet new people. I feel a little bit as a newly singly woman who is unsure of how to pursue the next love interest – a feeling I haven’t experienced in more than eight years. The question today is where do I find these engaging people? Is there a JDate for friends? Actually, in my case make that a match.com or E-harmony for friends, right?