As I recall it, the kids in my grammar school in suburban New Jersey in the ‘50s fell into three basic camps when it came to afterschool religious instruction: Some went to Hebrew school; others, to Catholic catechism class; and others, like my sisters and me, to a Protestant Bible class on Thursday afternoons. This Bible class was like a fun Sunday school in which Bible stories were told with the use of a big felt board, and we sang lively songs that still, oddly enough, reverberate in my brain.
Like this one: “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world! Red and yellow, black and white – they are precious in His sight! Jesus loves the little children of the world!”
The fact that all the little children in my little town were white didn’t detract from the fact that the nice Jesus we were learning about loved all kinds of children everywhere. And the fact that my classmates represented various religions didn’t trouble any of us. Just like some of us were good at math and some (like me) were not, we accepted each other’s differences. We all seemed to get along. I grew up thinking, religiously speaking, this was the way the world was.
This week, in an effort to think about other things beside my sore back (see my previous post, “After the Fall”), I’ve changed my mental channel to something altogether different from my physical state, something meaty and intellectually challenging. I’ve been grappling with the question: What is the root cause (or, what are the root causes) of antisemitism, racism, sexism, and agism?
Ignorance? Fear (of the unknown “Other”)? Insecurity? Pure, pointless hatred? All of these? Something else?
Over the years I’ve traveled to and lived in many places where my friends and neighbors have been red and yellow, black and white – and now, brown. Their religions have spanned the gamut, including Muslim and Hindu. I’ve read many books on the subjects of antisemitism, racism, sexism, and (in recent years) agism. I’m no expert on these subjects, of course; but I think I have a right, as a thinking person and a writer, to share my (yes, oversimplified) theory: I believe one of the deepest reasons for such hateful behavior is jealousy.
(Jealousy? Or envy? These two words have become blurred in English. Technically, jealousy is when you’re afraid someone is going to take what you have. Envy, on the other hand, is when you want something someone else has. Neither word has a positive connotation, as they both are based on discontentment, resentment, and bitterness toward others. For my purposes here, the two words are essentially interchangeable.)
Envy, as most of us have learned along the way, is one of those big, bad, seven deadly sins, which, according to Roman Catholic theology, spur other sins and further immoral behavior. (The six others, in case you’ve forgotten, are: pride, greed, lust, gluttony, wrath, and sloth.) All, being sins, are tempting; but envy and jealousy are more so, I feel, in the context of my theory.
One of my best friends in grammar school, Barbara Gomberg, came from an enviably happy and peaceful Jewish home. So I spent a lot of time there, soaking up all the love and tranquility that I could. Her father, so unlike my own, was a sweet-faced, soft-spoken psychiatrist who met with patients in Barbara’s family’s home.
Her mom was a piano teacher who gave lessons in their home and filled the large house with music. They had a Black live-in maid who taught us girls dance steps in their basement rec-room and served us fresh, fat blueberries topped with sour cream as an afterschool snack. (I can still taste the deliciousness of that cool and exotic [to me] combination.)
I secretly envied, too, the encouragement my other Jewish classmates’ parents gave them to succeed in life. Their parents set the bar high, pushing their kids to get good grades, go to the best colleges, then study law or medicine. They were expected to bring pride and honor to the family name (which all of them ultimately did).
In my home at that time, after my older brother joined the Marine Corps right out of high school, my father announced to my sisters and me that he expected us to elope at seventeen. “I’ll provide the ladder,” he told us.
As for racism, which I consider to be the United States’ biggest and most enduring unpardonable sin, I feel that anyone who has known the strength and resilience of Black people close up – as those of us who’ve had the privilege of serving in the Peace Corps in Africa can attest – cannot help but suspect envy on the part of so many pathetic white American supremacists. Yet, despite all of the cruelty and injustice African-Americans have had to endure over the centuries, they continue, despite all odds, to rise.
Maya Angelou brilliantly captures this indomitable spirit in her poem, “Still I Rise.” Here is an excerpt:
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
Sexism? Agism? In my experience as a woman, I’ve observed that the only men who are threatened by women are those who are jealous of our unique powers. Unfortunately, there have been enough of such men to succeed, historically, in keeping women down. The same goes for agism: Many (not all!) elders possess wisdom, which can only be learned the hard way, over time. This enviable wisdom, however, risks undermining the lucrative youth-and-beauty culture, so it has needed to be suppressed.
Do I have the solutions to these problems? I wish. If only I could wave my wise-older-woman magic wand (if I owned one) and make it all right! But these consequential issues are worth thinking about and grappling with, aren’t they? It’s worth digging, I think, like a dog for a bone, for some antidotes.
Oh, here’s a thought: the seven virtues that correspond with the seven deadly sins are: humility, charity, chastity, gratitude, temperance, patience, and diligence. There’s a start…