This is a column about Jewish belonging--which some call tribalism. It's about group identification: the question of whether to count oneself into "the Jewish people" with its proud achievements and miraculous survival or, because of our internal divisiveness and the wrongs occasionally committed in our name, to count oneself out. More precisely, it's about the raw emotions this topic can unleash in us when we least expect it.
On a recent spring morning, a Jewish colleague and I met at a Manhattan tea shop known for its pastries and its closely packed tables. To one side of us sat a brown-skinned couple speaking Arabic--the man bearded, the woman wearing a headscarf. On the other side of us was a young white family--mom, dad and boy-girl twins who appeared to be about eight years old. Noting the children's damp hair, the boy's blond helmet neatly parted and combed, the girl's wet tendrils clinging to her neck beneath a beribboned ponytail, I pegged them as Middle American tourists, fresh from their morning showers at a nearby B&B.
Cliche or not, our comfortably contiguous breakfast parties struck me as a living rebuttal to Trumpian nativism. No need to "make America great again," I thought. Let's just reclaim the old motto, E pluribus unum--"Out of many, one."
Just then, a server arrived and placed a three-tiered caddy containing a luscious array of tea sandwiches, tarts, cookies and petit fours before the wide-eyed twins. The seemingly WASPy mom and dad raised their teacups for a toast, grinned at their adorable children and, to my astonishment, bellowed, "Mazel tov!"
Upper West Siders are nothing if not nosy, so I asked the twins, "Are you celebrating your birthdays?"
"Not their birthdays," the dad replied, brightly. "Their conversions! We've come straight from the mikvah!" He touched his daughter's wet hair and further volunteered that the children were adopted and he and his wife had been raising them in Judaism, but they and the twins had decided to make it official. "You're looking at two brand-new Jews!"
With no warning whatsoever, I burst into tears, not a mist of kumbaya but an unbidden flood of raw emotion. Visceral. Atavistic. Tribal.
I managed not to speak my first thought, the knee-jerk reaction some of us can't seem to outgrow: "Take that, Hitler: two more!" But when I tried to say something coherent about the legacy, history and heritage that now belonged to those sweet little children, all I could do was whisper, "We're...