31 July 2009

Hot Dogs and Tolerance

Mahatma Ghandi once said, "Intolerance is itself a form of violence and an obstacle to the growth of a true democratic spirit." I happen to agree with this sentiment. It feels lately like intolerance is all around us, seeping into every crack of public and private life and slowly rotting the layers of our democratic foundation. Big media stories like the arrest of Henry Louis Gates and Obama's proposed health care plan along with the angry swirling clamor that surrounds these issues begin to dominate our conversations, our emotions, and our behavior toward others. And against the backdrop of this economic crisis, these highly charged issues leave us scared, angry, and vulnerable to the powers of blame and scapegoating.

More and more we begin to believe that our happiness and quality of life is predicated by the demise and unhappiness of others. I see people who have real power, wealth, and privilege complain about the needs of the poor as if they might be taking something away from them, somehow stripping them of their high held position in society. Instead of looking at ourselves and appreciating what we have and what our true potential is, we have become more concerned with what we don't want others to have - like the right to marry, the right to have health care, the right to collect a welfare check, and the right to be treated as an equal regardless of one's color, religion, sexual preference, socioeconomic status, and one's nationality (citizen or not).

I grew up trusting no one. I was indoctrinated at a young age by my synagogue and the Jewish community at large to believe that we, as Jews, were never safe. I was taught that we will always be hated, targeted, and discriminated against because of who we are and what we believe - and was told - for that reason we have Israel as our refuge. Well, I never did suffer any discrimination or persecution for being Jewish. I grew up on Long Island where everyone I knew was either Jewish, Italian, or Irish. We all got along fine (this is not to say that I didn't grow up in a racist society - there was plenty of racism and racial segregation when it came to color).

My parents and grandparents, however, had the real experience. Like many Jews of my generation, I come from a family of survivors and refugees. I grew up with the harrowing tales of violent pogroms, raped and brutalized family members, forced ghettoization and displacement, concentration camps, murdered brothers and sisters, extermination, running, shooting, hiding, losing, grieving, journeying...

I inherited a fear of persecution along with a deep sense of compassion for those who are continually marginalized, discriminated against, and scapegoated. This is where my consciousness for social justice came from. And while it has shaped me and the kind of person I have become including the work I do, I sometimes believe it's a curse, because I see discrimination and injustices everywhere, and this makes me very unhappy.

So what does all of this have to do with hot dogs?

My grandfather used to tell me the story of how he, my grandmother, and my mother arrived on Ellis Island after traveling for almost a year, running from the Nazis in occupied France; rescuing their five-year-old daughter (my mother) who was in hiding for two months after getting lost in a forest where my family took refuge from German planes shooting overhead; and waiting for documents, money, and train tickets so they could get to Spain, to Morocco, and finally, to New York City. Luckily, the anti-semitic immigration restrictions had been lifted by that time. They had been on a boat for nearly a month. They were weary, dirty, and most of all, hungry.

"The first thing I ate when I came to America was a 'frankfurter.' There was a man with a cart on the dock where we landed on Ellis Island. We had a little bit of change and so I bought one for us to share," my grandfather told me.

"Oy, it tasted so good."

He told me this story many times in his lifetime.

My grandparents had a good life here in New York. They became very successful business people eventually owning a string of delicatessens. It was difficult in the beginning. They didn't speak English and they were poor. They shared a two-bedroom apartment in Hells Kitchen with their brothers' and sisters' families who they were completely dependent on for money and language skills the first few years. My grandfather went into business with his brother, gaining the experience he needed, and then he and my grandmother finally moved out on their own. They opened their own business and bought a nice home in Queens. My mother went to good schools and married another Jew from a poor family (my Dad) who became a dentist. They moved into a big house in the suburbs and had me and my two sisters. We grew up affluent and privileged. Unlike what we were told, we never had to run to Israel to escape persecution. New York was our home. It had been good to me and my family.

For my grandfather, that hot dog was the taste of the American dream. But not the dream we usually equate with success in the US (à la Donald Trump). It wasn't the myth of social entrepreneurial Darwinism or brute Capitalistic abuses, or the mass consumption and waste we have come to believe is American democracy.

It was the dream of tolerance.

Disclaimer: I do not endorse hot dogs as a "health food" or part of the primal diet, although I do enjoy occasional sausages that are made from happy, locally raised pigs, and/or wild game. I don't eat the buns either.