It was early on New Year’s Eve last that I was walking past a beautiful Slavic Church when I decided to pop in to visit my Eucharistic Lord. An Eastern European type edifice with resplendent mosaics, colorful and gold gilded, the Church was enhanced by the usual holiday Christmas decorations . Very prominent were two flags. One, American, was displayed proudly, and the other, the Flag of Slovokia, seemed inherent with love of the Homeland, the old country from which they came. On the Baldachin above the altar was the image of the Patron saint of this Church, a Slavic priest whose tongue was ripped out because he would not break the Seal of Confession. Interestingly, above the Image there was written in gold letters the word “Tacui.” I have kept silent. The place almost reeked with a pride in the Faith.
I stayed for the 6:00 P.M. Mass celebrated by a young freshly minted Slavic priest who, with great reverence and devotion ,called down Christ, the Lord upon the altar. Since there was no choir, the “music” was supplied by another Slavic priest who was old, bald and who sang Slavic hymns with a terrible, ungifted but sincere voice. This Mass was as valuable before God’s throne as any magnificent Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica or St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
There were about 30 Catholic attendees, oldish, graying and well dressed, all of whom fairly shrieked of Central and Eastern European ancestry. There was that unmistakable emanation one senses from another culture. The homily was entirely in Slavonic of which I understood not one word.
Somehow it didn’t matter. Instead of discomfort, I felt a vibrant spirituality rise in me as I watched my fellow Catholics from another culture drink in words of praise and love for the Creator. They were all deeply involved. The males, so unlike their American counterparts, responded enthusiastically to the Mass prayers in the deep tones one associates with eastern European liturgy. At the conclusion of the Mass, this little group gathered at the rear of the Church for what seemed an almost Biblical Koinoia ( or fellowship). They chatted warmly with each other and seemed eminently comfortable with their ethnicity. They greeted me, so obviously non Slavic, with warm smiles and hearty handshakes. The ambience seemed natural and non-forced.
I left them with contradictory feelings. It was so beautiful to be there with them but I wondered why are there so few of them? Where are their children and grandchildren? Is this different from the widespread phenomenon of the “falling away” from the Faith reported of all ethnicities and areas? Are some young people ashamed of the “Old World” manners and customs of their older relatives? Is there some kind of pressure to shed the past? Is there some kind of revulsion to history? Is there some kind of discomfort being who one really is? Am I not good enough to be a Slovak? Or Jew? Or Irish? Or Portuguese? Or Asian?
As I walked away I passed a group of youngish people waiting to enter a nightspot with a famous standup comic’s name. Their big value for this night was to get bombed, blow on paper horns, perhaps “score” and pay big bucks for the privilege. My impression was that they were brassy, superficial and tasteless. The girls were “overmadeup”. The boys were baggy panted with ugly hair does. And loud. Coming from such a classy experience with the Slovaks, no doubt influenced my involuntary negative comparison. It almost seemed to me that their models were not their elders with their probity and class, but rather Britney and Hilton with their unbelievable ugliness.
However, I know an Albanian waiter working his way for an engineering degree who has similar insights. Just back from a Christmas visit to his family overseas, he speaks of the closeness of families in Europe. Of the communal dimension of Albanian life in spite of their comparative poverty. While we ( and I certainly do) revel in our sense of the individual in America, we seem to have lost something
in our global greatness. I have lived overseas for years and deeply appreciate the American scene ( and would live nowhere else) but I also know that we are becoming desperately weak on some emotional or spiritual level. Europe has its scum level and counting. But they fiercely retain their ethic identity. We have been trying for years to establish what we call the “American identity.” While we have had some real success, there is a Caution flag flying somewhere. Beware of the corrosive effect of the Melting Pot syndrome.
My own Russian Jewish grandparents came to New York with heavy accents, beards and unusual cuisine. Obvious outsiders. They located at the lower East side huddling among their own people in a protective ghetto trying merely to survive. Their children, “to a man”, jettisoned the “old way” and became strident Broadway Joe types, anxious to get out from under the label of “Dirty Jew.” Religion, Language and custom all went into “deep six.” They became the liberal, somewhat agnostic, “slightly” Communist, finger snapping modern of the early to middle 20th century. They yearned to be accepted in the New World, to be like everyone else (or so they thought in their “perception” of what everyone else was). Consequently, much of the rich tradition of European Jewry was lost. My family type of Jew melted into the general population losing one’s “face” and possibly one’s cultural soul in the meantime.
The American political system is the greatest in human history. This is an unqualified statement. Yet, with all the magnificence of the American way, we have our pitfalls. One of which is this artificial “Melting Pot” notion. We will all be the same. We will all equal rights. There will be an equal playing field. Everyone will be treated the same way! Pragmatically, we know this is illusion. Our history in spite of much good will and intent tells us the harsh truth. While we are all Constitutionally equal, some of us are more equal than others. Perhaps this is consequential (and even inevitable) to the now obvious presence of the Great Aboriginal calamity within all of us. Original Sin, in Catholic terms, means, that the human nature will always “tend” toward the less than perfect. There are and always will be inequalities. Some born and some manufactured. To pretend otherwise is be dishonest with oneself.
However, rather than help me to reach my real personal level of who I truly am, the Melting Pot insinuates that what I am, is not good enough and I must change. I must reach some kind of communal faceless Persona and Behavior. I am pressured to be like “every one else,” to lose my own “face” and adopt some one else’s. Fortunately to my mind, the rebellion against such an assumption has begun. The black American community, for example, keenly aware of their interior problem of identity, has worked assiduously to clarify and ingest the correct notion of “blackness. The African-American knows full well the emotional disaster that comes with poor self image. To a very great extent their efforts have been successful. But neither black or white is superior. Nor English over Irish, Hispanics, Greeks, Turks. Nor any one group over another. Buddhists, Hindus, Moslem, likewise. We all have traditions from our pasts.
My fantasy is that we would all, as fervent Americans who love our Country, keep very much alive our relatively diverse and rich backgrounds. No apologies. No shame. No inferiority.
But whatever it is, we need some kind of modern Paul Revere who can wake us up with an alarm cry of some kind!!
The American ideal obviously must encompass a common acceptance of American law and ideals. Yes. But it must also continue to encourage all of us to be transparent about our traditions and grow out of the immature belief that others are always better than mine. Ethnic shame has no place in America life. While our official language is always English rightfully reflecting our history, Yiddish, Hindi, Spanish, and Gaelic have their appropriate place. The delicate balance between the proud declaration: “I am an American” and “My roots are from Africa (or Norway or Mexico or Slovkia) is indeed difficult to maintain or even discover. But it must be done. Not overdone.