My Sikh cabdriver pulled up alongside an African-American singing along to Gospel in her car as we were driving along Eastern Parkway at 6:45 this morning. Foreclosure signs on abandoned buildings in East New York; the cartoonish Lubavitcher Rebbe's face, schneering down from above a new development (I should think the American Messiah invests in real estate in New York) verdant London Planes arching overhead, hiding the vast amount of space that is America.
Back from the Land of the Savage, where the citizenry is taming itself for the road ahead--democracy, welfare, housing and more; and into the Land of the Free, where the recent round of budget cuts and deficit reduction are a foreboding prophecy of a greater showdown in 2012, extreme voices battling it out for America's soul: is this a nation primarily founded on the defense of Individual Rights or can one speak of a Collectivity without wild accusations of betrayal and treason?
In the Land of the Savage, they say, you can still die for God and country. Here in the Land of the Free and the Brave, one's violet death is more random, more senseless. The N.R.A. is set to sue the Obama Administration over a federal rule demanding that gun dealers report bulk sales of semi-automatic weapons on the Mexican border. Yeah: that's exactly what the Founders had in mind with regard to the Second Amendment. Gabrielle Giffords heroic walk on the House floor, demonstrating her incomprehensible fortitude and exceedingly profound act of generosity in voting for the debt-ceiling bill is a twin-set of sacrifices that will be lost on too many people. America needs thousands of more leaders like her.
One is aware at such times, with the summer breeze moving the cars along on a care-free August morning in Brooklyn, that to care about God and country is so 19th century--why not get over it! And so the ride into this chapter of civilization entails a certain degree of girding one's loins for the battle that, as Voltaire might have put it in the 18th century, the cultivation of one's garden, wherever one lives, is in fact the one humble goal we may be able to realize. In the cramped and cranky hot land from which I just arrived, two people, madly in love with their God and their land, struggle mightily to find a way to live with one another while hear, in the vast universe of Sea to Shining Sea, there is so much of everything that we have just enough room, so it seems, be left alone to pursue whatever it is we want to pursue. Your yoga class; a new cookbook; a tasty Elk sandwich. I get it; I just don't know what it means.
At an intersection along Atlantic Avenue, the Sikh cab-driver noticed another Sikh selling copies of the Daily News to the commuters who briefly stopped on red. They nodded to one another, knowingly, and I wondered if they knew one another from the cab-driver's workman-like runs to JFK each day, conveying travelers and citizens to and from their destinations; or if they merely nodded in the brotherhood of the hat and beard, immediately recognizable to one another as keepers of a flame not yet extinguished by America's irresistible force to accept your individuality so intensely you actually end up looking and acting like everyone else. In my jet-lagged confusion I took brief comfort in the knowledge that in America, the Collective still agrees to stop on red and go on green (a couple of lawless joyriders on the Belt Parkway notwithstanding.)
Shlomo Avineri in Haaretz and Etgar Keret in Tablet place in to the right context the most exciting thing to happen in the Jewish world in the last 40 years. American Jews would do well to pay attention--just when one despairs of the discomfort of particularities and old narratives, old and venerable cultures have a remarkable way of making themselves truly relevant yet again.