Friday was Multicultural Day, arguably the biggest annual event at my daughter Ellie’s school, and her first grade classroom became a swirl of saris, sombreros, tunics and caftans.
After the children performed African and European dances, and a Cuban song they’d learned, the kids who speak other languages at home demonstrated how to count to 10 in them: that included Spanish, of course, but also Russian, Nepali and about four different languages from the Indian subcontinent.
Ellie, the lone Jewish kid in the class (and possibly the only child with two American-born parents) sang “Hineh Mah Tov,” introducing it as “a Hebrew song.” We’d picked the song together since she already was familiar with it from Shabbat, and I’d thought the words — which mean “How good and pleasant it is for brothers [and sisters] to sit together” — made a perfect choice for a day celebrating all different kinds of people sitting together. (Certainly better than “Shelo Asani Goy,” the song that thanks God for not making one a gentile!)
As they did last year, preparations for Multicultural Day, which defines identities in national terms and encourages kids to focus on only one ancestry, provoked much discussion and frustration in our house. Each child was assigned to make the flag of his/her family’s country of origin and to decorate a paper doll in that country’s traditional costume. Last year, Ellie resolved the issue by being French Canadian (the heritage of most of Joe’s family). This year, she opted to make an American flag, an Irish-dressed doll (Joe’s mother was half-Irish) and sing a Hebrew song.
“Everyone else is from a country,” Ellie lamented repeatedly in the past few weeks. “I’m not from one country. And Jewish isn’t a country.”
Indeed, to adopt one of the countries from which my great-grandparents fled — to have Ellie dress up in the national costume of, say Ukraine or Poland — feels uncomfortable, even if Helen Thomas seems to think Jews had a blast in these places and left them only out of some colonialist, Arab-hating fervor.
I tried to use all this as a nifty educational opportunity to introduce what is one of the central dilemmas of modern Jewish history: are we a nation or a religion or some confusing amalgamation? Outside America, have Jews ever been fully members of the countries in which they have lived or have they always been viewed as outsiders? That’s why the State of Israel was created, I explained, so that Jews could have a country of their own. And yet, as Ellie pointed out in reply, we aren’t Israelis. And it would be a little disingenuous to say her ancestors are from there when (with the exception of my year and a half in Israel) our family hasn’t lived in that region for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
Add the fact that being Jewish is only half of Ellie’s ancestry, that she is herself multicultural, and Multicultural Day multiplies into something even more multifaceted. But such is the 21st Century American Jewish Experience.
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