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Seeking a Culture of Dialogue in the United States: Some Reflections at Fifteen
For 15 years, from 1986 until 2001, a group of Catholics and Jews from Evanston, Illinois, met at the initiative of Father Dan Montalbano, Sister Mary Ellen Coombe, NDS and Rabbi Peter S. Knobel. Their project: to dialogue with one another on their respective faiths. At the beginning, there were 33 of them, and their number evened out at 21. They wanted to commemorate these 15 years in the pages they assembled and photocopied under the title, Catholic-Jewish Dialogue Evanston, Illinois, 1986-2001.
By permission of their authors, we are publishing a few of these pages.
When indicated at our first meeting fifteen years ago that dialog between Catholics and Jews would be difficult for me because of my particular experience, I never meant anything more than just a verification of personal history. It was supplied as a definition of who I am and from which perspective I would participate. I never intended it to be construed as anything more than as a bit of background information.
Our initial text was a rather generic approach to the Catholic/Jewish experience. It was written by well-intentioned people, but for the most part it seemed to be directed towards persons with little information, innocent of history, and was basically filled with expressions suggesting “warm fuzzies”. It made me uncomfortable, but since I had nothing meatier to suggest that would serve the purpose as background material, I accepted it as a springboard. There was, however, a statement in its directive that hit home with me. Since I do not have the original before me, I need to paraphrase it, but the gist was that in order to achieve dialog, one must be able to put oneself into the position of the other and try to see the rationale for the other’s beliefs. It was the first time in my life that someone had ever challenged me to consider the side of the non-Jew objectively.
I realize that this statement can be read as an insular and not very “with it” remark. I was then and am now well aware of the population statistics; Jews are a very small minority everywhere outside of Israel. Fifteen years ago I was active professionally in an environment where most of my colleagues and co-workers were non-Jews, and I had spent all of my life in a world peopled primarily by Gentiles. However, I had never been in a situation in which I was asked to express myself openly and honestly to people who were non-Jews about something I consider the essence, the very core of my existence, namely, being a Jew, and the prospect made me rather uneasy.
Although psychology is a Jewish invention, it was not part of my parental upbringing; when the Kowalewskys felt anguish, they drank hot tea and read a book. Religion was all right for those who were incapable of logic (some of us rebel late, I guess), and unlimited, agonizing kvetching, if you will, was deemed bad manners. So I resorted to my parental heritage, had tea, read something, and talked at length with Sidney. He heard me out sympathetically and assured me that it was not going to be anything I couldn’t handle. I trusted him, as always, and the rest is history.
When we decided earlier this year that the time was ripe to speak about our feelings about the group, its members, and our personal growth from the experience, someone asked me about adjusting to life in another country as an adolescent. Mine is not an extraordinary story for someone born prior to 1933 in Germany. I came to America at the age of twelve, three weeks after Kristallnacht (November 9, 1938), still traumatized from the experience. The departure from Germany was not haphazard. My parents had tried to find a place to which to immigrate since 1933. Due to their own statelessness, the British would not issue a certificate for Palestine, while our relatives in the U.S. were rather reluctant to give an affidavit which required them to assume responsibility for a family of three. South America was considered; so was South Africa, but all attempts and explorations to those areas came to naught.
Our presence in Germany was rather a fluke. Both of my parents were born in the Ukraine, which was then part of Russia. Due to the numerus clausus, the Jewish quota for Russian universities, my father was unable to gain admittance to an academic institution. Consequently, my grandfather sent him to study at the University of Leipzig. A year later WWI broke out, and all Russian students were shipped off to Chemnitz, a city south of Leipzig. There they were kept in custody by the German government and were put to work in the knitting mills. He also managed to finish his university studies during that time. My mother, meanwhile, got her degree from the University of Kharkov (she was able to get admitted, somehow), and when the war was over, they married in their hometown in the Ukraine. After the revolution and several pogroms later, my father persuaded her to leave her family, come with him to Germany, where “such things could never happen”, and in 1920, after a six months voyage through Russia, Poland, and the eastern part of Germany, they arrived in Leipzig. She was 26 years old and never saw her parents and sister again. The journey also cost them their citizenship. This proved lucky eighteen years later, when immigration to the US put them into the Russian quota. I was born six years after their arrival in Germany and was their only child.
I grew up in fairly comfortable circumstances. In the early years I went to public school, but the Nazification of everything made that place miserable for me, and by 1935 I was transferred to a Jewish day school, more than a year earlier than the mandatory removal of all Jews from German public or private educational institutions. The world for all of us Jewish children became quite small; we were kept from places where so-called unpleasantnesses could occur, such as parks, playgrounds, theater, etc., and conversational topics at home and with friends consisted primarily about matters pertaining to emigration.
The actual departure from Germany was fairly smooth. We had exit visas, an American entrance permit, an affidavit, and proof of leaving property and goods behind. The few things that we were allowed to take with us were left in the apartment under the supervision of a former employee of my father’s to be packed into a lift at a later date, and most of them did eventually arrive in America.
My father had a sister in Newcastle, PA, and that is where we lived after arrival. It was quite a culture shock. The Depression had left the town bereft, but it was never much of a metropolis. Although one of the few major cities in Germany without a castle, Leipzig had beautiful baroque architecture, and I found the unimaginative buildings of a coal town wanting.
Besides, I was really unhappy at school. Tracking was the sign of the times, and in order to find out what to do with me, the principal and teachers saw fit to give me an IQ test. Since my knowledge of the English language was gauged by such wisdoms as “The tram is always late, and my grandmother knits stockings,” my score on the test was an accurate reflection of my lack of vocabulary. I was put into the lower tracks and found myself completely bored in class. Later I learned that I placed somewhere in the area of moderately retarded, and although I managed to improve the rating on subsequent tests, that IQ grade haunted me throughout my school years. It was firmly inscribed on my “permanent record,” albeit in parentheses.
We did not stay long in Newcastle. Eight months after coming to America we moved to Cleveland, where the low score was eventually judged incorrect, and I graduated from high school and Western Reserve University with a respectable grade point average. In Cleveland we settled in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, where the lingua franca was Yiddish and the formal religions were socialism and Labor Zionism, in that order. My mother found a niche for herself in America, but my father never regained the vigor he had in Germany. Although he was able to provide for his family in a very respectable manner, he never learned to speak English with ease. I was a solitary adolescent; I really didn’t fit in well with the girls and boys in my class. At first there was a language barrier. So much of what I wanted to say was lost in translation, and the American social mores were a constant enigma. I had no past in the society in which I was living. Consequently, I could not dream myself a future, and the present was alien. It was not until my later teens, when I got into the Zionist Youth movement, that I began to feel a certain sense of belonging. But that, too, was tenuous, for even after becoming an American citizen, graduating from college and graduate school, and establishing a career, the sense of being an outsider did not leave me.
It took marriage, motherhood, and Beth Emet to make me come into my own. That probably is not so unusual. Many people don’t find their place until adulthood. But even then I played it safe. I did not explore worlds that were different; my social contacts were exclusively with Jews, and had anyone suggested to me prior to fifteen years ago that I would be part of a dialog experiment with Catholics, I would have deemed it impossible.
Contemplating our activities during the past fifteen years, I think we have accomplished good things, but we have not yet come to grips with some basic issues. Although we have made strides in the understanding of our heritages, I feel we have not reached a true comprehension of what we are truly about. Perhaps that is not the consensus of the group, but I have felt all along and continue to feel that we should delve into some truly meaty issues and come to some general conclusions. In some areas we will always differ, but if we are going to be true to our initial intent, it is my sincere conviction that we need to do more dialog in depth.
On a personal level, has the experience effected a change in me? Probably, I wrote these words willingly, and I am not bothered that you will read them. Neither am I hesitant to share some of these rather intimate observations with you. You know me by now and understand from whence I come. Therefore, it must be trust, and while this may not be a major step for the universe, it is a big leap forward for me. For this, I am grateful to all of you.
August 29, 2001