Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

Archive for the tag “Simpson’s”

The End of the Melting Pot

The concept of a society being a melting pot is something that strongly resonates for me. My family has never put down roots for more than a couple of generations. I myself have made two major moves and lived in three continents.

The idea that an ethnic group moves to a country and tries hard to become part of that society is a rich element in literature, movies and music. It is a symbol of a country’s ability to be accepting and absorb different people into its social fabric. It sees the intrinsic value of adding another rich layer of culture, food, costume and language.

There is also an oft-irrational drive on the side of the immigrant. After living in Israel for two months, I refused to speak English (it’s amazing what you can stutter through with a hundred words or so). I only listened to Israeli music, and sought Israelis to hang out  with, even though I was often a wall flower since 90% of the conversation passed me by.

When I moved to America, I immediately adopted the local basketball team, becoming a passionate Golden State Warriors fan (never easy – ask those fans who have followed them all their lives). I have goggled tailgaters, researched the Super Bowl party protocol (still more excited about the game than the ads and half-time show), and learned to look knowledgeable when wine tasting. I studiously watched The Daily Show and Colbert, okay – and the Simpsons.

I work with students on the San Francisco State University campus, a rich and diverse community from all over the world. The cultural richness is stunning and the programs offered impressive. There is an impressive statistic for how many students are first-generation to graduate high school and go on to university (I’m thinking 40%, but please correct me if I have it wrong).

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I recently used the term melting pot in front of a colleague who is also an alumna (yes I checked it to make sure!) of SFSU. I meant it in a complimentary way to express how comfortable students feel to openly express their cultural and ethnic roots.

This colleague, a millennial, baulked at the use of the word. She responded that it is derogatory and suggests we all need to strive to be the same, that there is an intense pressure to conform to whatever the dominant culture demands.

It got me thinking. I desired to fit into the culture around me because I wanted to be accepted. But I never lost sight of my roots. I was always the Englishman in Israel and my friends never lost an opportunity to poke fun at my accent, the Queen, or to accept my undisputed authority on the noble topics of soccer and beer.

I understand why the term melting pot is problematic. Often the liquid in the pot is fermented by racist connotations. But melting pot does not have to mean only one soup with only one taste. Perhaps a tapestry is a better term. Many different colored strands weave together to create a beautiful work of art.

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The millennial baulks every time that the ‘adult’ society tries to define it, put it into statistical graphs and research projects. The millennial doesn’t spend time pondering whether s/he is a Jewish American or an American Jew.

S/he is comfortable with multiple identities. Have you ever watched a millennial working on their desktop (it doesn’t work so well on phones)? They have a dozen windows open at any one time and flit from one to another like a humming bird on speed. It is the same with their identity. They are comfortable being Jewish here, gay there, a jock in one place, an intellect in another. It is natural and easy.

But there is a generation even more exciting than millennials following them. A while ago, my youngest son met three classmates at the park. The fathers stood together and looked on. One was Israeli, another Palestinian, a third from India, and the fourth from Pakistan. While the kids had fun on the wooden playground, the fathers fidgeted, discussing the weather, house prices and the 49ers. The fathers are all good men, wanting a peaceful world and a just society to live in for their families. We were all happy to stand there in that park playing fathers.

But what was amazing was that our sons were perfectly comfortable. They played together because it was simply fun to hang out. I am sure they each have an understanding of their roots and often hang out with people of their own ethnic background but do not feel a need to be defined as such.

The biggest problem I feel with the melting pot is that it is/was deemed necessary. The millennials will treat it with vague intellectual curiosity and the next generation won’t even know what it was – like a pay phone or record player.

And that is what gives me hope for a better world.

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Alon Shalev writes social justice-themed novels and YA epic fantasy. He swears there is a connection. His latest books include: Unwanted Heroes and At The Walls Of Galbrieth. Alon tweets at @alonshalevsf and @elfwriter.   For more about the author, check out his website.

Real Men Don’t Cry

This is how we are brought up. Men used to wander around with a club, bringing down mammoths and dragging a female back to the cave. We have progressed a bit since then, what with vegetarianism and on-line dating, but there are certain mores that we don’t expect to cross. 

I’ve done the ‘man’ things – play and watch sports, hit the gym, enjoy beer, fish, served in a combat unit, wooed a beautiful woman, and fathered two wonderful boys. I have a good job and plenty of friends.

Last month, my eldest son had his bar mitzvah and put on a flawless display of teaching, chanting, and schmoozing. He stood before our community and talked about the need to educate and not punish, to pursue social justice, and his desire to make the world a better place.

He was great and I am very proud of him. He worked very hard for two years to reach the level in which he could achieve this. Then it was time for his parents to bless him.

My wife won the toss (soccer reference) and chose to go first, knowing that I am confidant and used to standing before an audience and speaking into a microphone. Her blessing was modest, genuine and heartfelt, a reflection of her as a mother, wife and friend.

Over the hump, right? Wrong. I had written my blessing for him a while ago. I told him meaningful the project we had pursued together (we wrote the first Wycaan Master novel together) and then imparted how I saw him as our coming-of-age protagonist. And then I choked up…and cried. When I stopped and stole a sip of his water bottle, he leaned over and gave me a hug.

The first thing that went through my mind was shock. I hadn’t expected this, even though I have been known to cry at a Simpson’s episode (another story). I actually wasn’t embarrassed for myself: I was embarrassed for him. I struggled through and he still talks to me. Moreover, many people came up to me and gave me loving reinforcement.

But it was the comments from the men that I remember. There were some who admitted to shedding a tear themselves, others who said that I had done something they would like to be able to do. Some admitted they could never allow their mask to come down like that in public, or maybe any time. 

In the struggle for equal rights between the sexes, we have seen a necessary push for women – equal opportunities, equal pay, and legal protections. All this stems from societal mores that favored men and allowed us to exercise a ‘power over’ that is unacceptable in a modern society.

But we, as men pay a price. Most of us still shoulder most of the burden of material provision, or at least feel we should even when our partners are better qualified and can pursue better jobs. We are mostly the warriors from defending our country to our family,

We all respected George Bush for shedding tears at 9/11 but we still expected him to go blow someone up as a consequence for us being attacked. President Obama’s status rose when we took out bin Laden. He did not gather the intelligence or undertake the mission, but in making the decision, he became a warrior chief.

I have worked closely with my son over the past few years, preparing him for this rite-of-passage, and I will continue to work with him, preparing him to enter society as a man.

To ignore our role as the hunter/gatherer would be foolish. To ignore our rights as men to be sensitive and nurturing would be sad.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

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