During a phone conference, a colleague from Philadelphia expressed surprise at hearing of my two passports. After I explained my dual citizenship, he inquired, "Can you have dual loyalties to both the United States and Israel?'''' Without hesitation, I boasted that I could genuinely pledge allegiance to both flags, adding that I certainly hope never to witness the two nations ceasing to be allies, because I feel that I belong to both countries.
Within this blog, much of what we''ve been doing this year has entailed looking inwards to accurately determine who we are. But self-definition can emerge also from looking outside ourselves. We may get a sense of who or what we are by noting which groups we align ourselves with and which groups we elect not to join.
First, a few more words about nationality. Shortly after the State of Israel was established, David Ben Gurion -- its first prime minister -- remarked, "In the 1940s, the world was divided into two halves: those places that Jews could not stay and those to which they could not go." Ben Gurion''s wry and only mildly paranoid insight pertains to the diaspora experience of Jews throughout the ages but ignores the graciousness that the United States of America has provided to Jews, especially during the last 60 years. The modern State of Israel has allowed Jews to potentiate themselves as a "people," and I marvel about that on a daily basis. But simultaneously, Jews have thrived in America because America has so deliberately extended itself to its Jewish citizens. I thoroughly feel that I belong to both of those great nations.
When we consciously decide not to belong to a group, we are also making a statement. Several survivors of the Holocaust have told me that, after World War II, they revoked their citizenship from Austria, Poland, and other countries complicit in the atrocities, because, on both intellectual and visceral levels, they wanted no association with those places.
There are occasions when an inherent clash can prevent us from simultaneous membership in more than one group. We cannot, for example, be Muslim and Roman Catholic; Republican and Democrat; vegetarian and omnivore. That''s part of the maturity built into the processes of choice and choosing. Sometimes accepting one set of rules and core values entails rejecting another.
Sometimes superficial forces govern our choices. I may want to belong to a group of people who dress well and hang out at shopping malls, or I may wish to spend my time with a bunch of jocks in gyms and basketball courts. Or we may make deeper selections. In pursuing a professional alliance--in my case, joining the guild of medicine-- one may indicate a desire to belong to a group dedicated to, as examples, healing, creating, preserving or achieving.
Once inside a group, we invariably become aware of others who would like to join us, but who, for the moment, may feel like "outsiders." Is there a good reason that we are not letting them belong? And, by extension, what do our choices in such matters say about us?
I''ll close with a vignette about the power of belonging to family. When I was a senior in high school, I wanted to attend a university with a combined BA/MD track. These "six-year medical programs" consisted mostly of national merit scholars, Westinghouse science project winners, and valedictorians. Since I had none of those credentials, I realized that my only chance was to present the picture of the well-balanced candidate with diversified extra-curricular activities and strong letters of recommendation. My mom recalled a distant relative (a second-cousin, once removed type of relationship) who was a faculty member at my first choice of schools, Boston University. "Give him a call," she said, "He might be willing to help you."
Up to that point, we’d had no contact with our relative, Dr. M. We had to locate his phone number by calling the Directory Assistance of Brookline, Massachusetts. I was shocked to find myself dialing his home. As he answered, I had to overcome the temptation to hang up.
I shared with him my background, my aspirations, and the awkwardness of the conversation. He saw where this was going and politely cut me off. "We''ve never met, but I remember your grandfather, Benjamin William Greenberg, whose name you carry. I remember what he, as well as others who are now a part of you, stood for. So I know you. I''m delighted to write a letter on your behalf, because I kn-o-o-o-o-o-w you."
I have no idea what he wrote in that letter. However, the reassurance that I received from that phone call gave me a sense of belonging that allowed me to walk into a series of stressful interviews with a feeling of support and an air of confidence that surely distinguished me from many of the other applicants.
There is something very comforting and very vital about belonging. Therefore, we have a longing to belong.
Until next Monday, Shalom.