– This reflection piece was first written to an email group in a discussion I had started about marriage and disability (for many of us from a lesbian or queer perspective), that brought up issues of care/support in our old age, which is on my mind, as well as loneliness. –
I am thinking about how dislocations shaped my relationship to community, always a qualification or limitation, this but not really or fully this, that but not fully that, etc. again and again. I am an American Jew, never a Jewish American (until perhaps now when facing antisemitism directly in the political sphere). My people were never at home here, not just as settlers but as Jews; and our previous homes were also precarious and then wiped out; my only relatives overseas that weren’t wiped out are in Italy and there was some strangeness about the familial relations that we never got to know them. My parents treated their background culture and language (Yiddish was still spoken in their homes alongside English) with a mixture of pride and shame; my mother in particular strove to assimilate both in terms of class and culture, and there was a lot about that process that was head-scratching for me, just confusing in ways I didn’t know how to understand or even begin to articulate. Because of ups and downs in that attempted assimilation process I never made lasting friends in my childhood as we shifted from one school to another and one neighborhood to another (unrelated to the schools); then I internalized some of that and became a person who stood to one side.
But also we were focused on the family, there was little real sense of community belonging aside of that; there was the sense of being a Jew but as a relationship to culture and not so much community. The Yeshivas I went to, we were class outsiders and also outsiders by not being religiously observant; I tried once going to a neighborhood synagogue by myself (as my family didn’t go) but it’s not a kind of place a child can go alone unless maybe they are very gregarious. And nothing about the wider social or political existence in terms of how it affected us as citizens; my mother told me later she supported the civil rights movement but she never talked about any such activity to us. So adulthood seemed like it was ‘leaving home’ but also leaving culture and any kind of belonging at all, there was nothing in the wide world expected to welcome, just the market economy and how you might become part of it, or get the college degree and do something more fulfilling.
Without a sense of responsibility and mutuality as belonging to something bigger than my family, though there was cultural Jewish political imperative of Tikkun olam – repairing the world – that I did internalize! – there is a way that my wanderings that ended up being locked up in psychiatry reflect the dislocation that became a break and that I could then grow up differently out of, though it took years and painstaking effort to do that. I don’t mean grow up in a psychoanalytic developmental sense, rather like a tree growing up new out of a stump struck by lightning.
I’ve been thinking about this because of the question of individualism and community that is on my mind – related to the pandemic and also to my big piece of writing on social model crisis support, which some of you have read and commented on and that I’m finalizing now with revisions. It feels like this is the root of my need for community and inability to actually achieve it so far, and in a sense replicating the dislocations. I think it’s important to excavate historical dislocations and traumas in a way that isn’t rote, that starts from our own lives and not (only) from some particular historical event or set of events; there are always the particularities (multiple) and how they come together in any person’s life and legacy.
I’m realizing in the pandemic what it is I need in many different ways; and making some tentative feelers towards deepening friendships while being open to what might present itself, and staying close to what matters to me; it is important to not lose your center or unbalance yourself in order to try and fit in some community, to not leave part of yourself outside and hope for the best while accepting some lesser connections. I tried that, thinking it was going to be just easy and casual (with a local recreational group) but that failed too, my personality and culture and politics had to emerge somehow and were too much for that group and their narrow ways of thinking.
Does this resonate with anyone else? The thing about individualism as a strategy for class and cultural assimilation that is actually counterproductive and backfires is what feels important to me politically and personally. And it’s not about prescribing anything to counter it, but just to understand it and see what changes.