Let’s face it- things look dire when you read the news lately. North Korea this, Iran that, the Middle East generally speaking a mess. Democrats who won’t speak to Republicans who won’t speak to Democrats who won’t speak to moderates who won’t speak to liberals. It’s a dizzying and dismaying amount of isolation and siloing of society.
A friend recently messaged me upset about this breakdown in communication. A liberal herself, she found it frustrating when she met people on her own side of the aisle who refused to recognize the humanity of those who disagreed with them. That while some people clearly lie outside the pail of rational debate, there is room for disagreement in a democratic and pluralistic society. And that if we resort to the tactics of extremists on the other side, what do we, in the end, become?
To this end, I’d like to share a story.
I found myself in need of an adventure. And my adventure begins with Yiddish. Yiddish is a Jewish language I speak, the language my own ancestors have used on a daily basis for countless generations. A mishmosh (a Yiddish word itself!) of Hebrew, Aramaic, Latin, Old French, medieval German, Polish, Russian, and more- it is a mixed language much like English. Enriched by its various components. It allows for a degree of nuance. For instance, the word in Yiddish for an acquaintance is “froynd” (“friend” in German), whereas a close friend is a khaver, which means friend in Hebrew. It indicates a lot about the society Yiddish speakers lived in and how social and familial ties developed. As did persecutions.
So Yiddish, for all its various components, is probably about 70% comprised of medieval Germanic words (words which occasionally differ in meaning from their Modern German counterparts, but bear a strong similarity). Pennsylvania Dutch, as the famous scene from The Frisco Kid goes, is remarkably similar to Yiddish. As a pre-standardized form of German passed down from generation to generation here in the U.S., I’ve found it rather comprehensible to me. I tested my theory out by speaking Yiddish to an Amish woman in Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia- she smiled from ear to ear and responded back in Pennsylvania Dutch. She said she had heard of similarities between the languages and you could tell she was tickled to find out it was true. As was I 🙂 .
A few weeks later, I hopped on a train to Lancaster, PA, home of the Amish heartland. I went to another market and tried out my Yiddish while buying some whoopie pies (a delightful cream-filled dessert made by the Amish- they are really good at making dessert!). Some young women smiled and liked chatting with me. A few didn’t speak Pennsylvania Dutch, but were nonetheless happy to see me reaching out to learn and share about our shared cultural heritage.
And one woman was just mean.
After buying her decidedly delicious whoopie pies and complimenting her on them, I tried out my Yiddish-Amish experiment. Her response was to tell me a story about a Jewish woman she knew who she used to call a “dummer yud”. That’s German for “dumb Jew”.
Dumb-founded, I didn’t know what to say. I tried to ask her why she would use such a mean phrase, even about a woman she may not have liked. She simply smiled, my religious or social or emotional arguments completely ignored.
I left deflated.
This dichotomy explains the rough terrain we’re operating in today. Especially when it comes to dialoguing across cultures. Faced with mistrust, I understand the impulse to protect yourself. It’s actually a positive one because we all deserve safety and to be treated with respect.
It can also be a negative one if taken to an extreme. If I don’t ever make myself vulnerable, then I won’t see moments of light, like when the young woman smiled from ear-to-ear in the market while I spoke Yiddish. The first time she had ever heard my language or experienced my culture.
And if I always make myself vulnerable- or hadn’t distanced myself from the mean anti-Semitic woman- well, then I won’t be particularly happy or self-fulfilled.
This is the great challenge of communicating in a time of deep polarization. It’s not easy and I’m always learning and re-learning my boundaries and trying to protect myself while putting myself out there. Because if we never take risks, we never reap rewards. For ourselves or for those lives we could touch with compassion and kindness.
So be the voice of love. When in a group of like-minded people, offer a word of kindness about “the other”. Whether that other be a Republican or a Democrat, a Muslim or a Jew, an atheist or a religious person, an African American or a white straight cis-man from Appalachia. We are people. It doesn’t mean all ideas fly or should be accepted as true. It means that we ultimately share a lot in common with more people than we think- and should take advantage of that to build more compassion in our society.
If there is a solution to our polarization, perhaps it lies in each of us stepping just enough outside our comfort zones to provide some meaningful contact with people of different backgrounds. Even some backgrounds that could make us feel scared- sometimes justifiably, sometimes maybe surprising us with their kindness. Or a combination of both.
And it lies in being understanding. Having spoken with five or six different Amish people in Yiddish and gotten positive or neutral reactions from all but one of them, I am better able to see nuance. So that instead of sitting only with the “dumb Jew” comment (which should, nonetheless, be noted to protect myself), I can also recall the smiles of the young women touched by my actions.
As I left Lancaster filled with whoopie pies, I felt a dash of hope. A hope I wish for all of you. That nuance need not mean being neutral, nor negating our fears or feelings. But that stepping outside and adventuring and getting to know our neighbors as equals- that is a true step towards happiness and wholeness. For us, and for the greater society we share.