Belonging . . . The Vagaries of Community or The Fragmented Self
I created the splash art on the right as a representation of the vagaries of the whole idea of what it means to be a member of a community. Loosely defined, a community consists of a group of people with common interests, skills or vocations. Based on that definition I belong to many communities. Professionally, as a retired professor of language and literacy, I belong to a broadly defined community of reading teachers and specialists as well as to a broadly defined community of English educators with a concentration in the teaching of writing. Additionally, I belong to a community of prostate cancer patients with a current sub-set of prostate cancer survivors (although that could change in the future). I also belong to a religious community because I identify as a secular Jew with an interest in Jewish texts and how to interpret those texts. This latter identification, however, does not connect me to a community of religious/practicing Jews in any way. I also belong to a recovering community of alcoholics belonging loosely to Alcoholics Anonymous having put a cork in the bottle over 22 years ago. In fact, I could likely list dozens of additional communities that I loosely belong to but I don’t actually feel the need to do so at this time. The point is that the lines between what constitutes a community are blurred; they are noticeable covered over by other interests while often overlapping and turning back into themselves.
The communities I feel closest to are independent of my membership. What do I mean by that. First, they existed before I had any active memory and they will exist when my active memory ceases to be. My birth nor my death have any impact on the existence of these community groups. In fact, these communities are based on the ethical idea of extending oneself for the welfare of the other. I want to look briefly at three specific examples: first I explore the Chabad as a place of both refuge and learning that is open to all without reservations, then I examine Alcoholics Anonymous as a more specific ethical engagement, one recovering alcoholic helping another alcoholic for their mutual benefit, a slightly different twist on the fundamental ethical obligation. Finally, I briefly look at the social construction of race and ethnicity in light of my own existential experience and ask what it means to be able to free oneself from the shackles of stereotype; from external definitions and categorizations.
The Chabad as Community
As those who follow this blog know, I am exploring Jewish texts in order to better understand how to think in Jewish. This knowledge will, as I see it, make me into a more well-rounded thinker for two reasons. First, by learning to attack an issue from different perspectives, I will be better equipped to come to more thoughtful and, perhaps, more relevant conclusions. Secondly, learning to think in Jewish fills in a number of gaps in my own education and religious heritage. Both reasons are selfish on my part. What is interesting, however, is that when I approached Rabbi Mendel of the Elgin Chabad, his response was immediate and, as I expected, fully welcoming. He placed himself in my path without reservations offering to assist me in any way he possibly could to help me in my quest.
This notion of community is one based on the clear notion of being available to those wishing to belong. All I had to do was present myself to the community and I was immediately included in the goings on of the group, no questions asked. The Chabad existed long before I was born and will continue to exist long after I am gone; a community of Jews, some observant and some totally secular, coming together for the common goal of learning about their heritage. While I believe there are many roads to this very kind of learning, for most groups one must hang around for some period of time before they are accepted into the community. They must show up on a regular basis, show up when expected and participate to a level that the group expects of them. Not so with the Chabad. Just showing up is good enough for them. Period.
Alcoholics Anonymous as Community
There was a time in my life when suicide seemed to be a reasonable cure for the pain of what drinking was doing to my life. I saw no way out of the trap alcohol had for me. While the journey to AA was long and difficult, at my first meeting of AA, the day I admitted to myself and to a room full of strangers that I was an alcoholic, I felt a weight lifted off my shoulders that felt like the release of a thousand pounds. At my very first meeting of AA I was accepted by those in the room, by those who were there before me. I had no idea why they were being so nice but I did have the sense that I was clearly in a place where I belonged.
Not until sometime later, when I had spent some time in AA meeting rooms, did I begin to understand the power of one alcoholic helping another alcoholic stay sober. Of all the people in the entire world, only another alcoholic can laugh at the tragic circumstances that brought us together in the first instance. While limited to serving anyone with a desire to stop drinking, AA’s mission is given without reservation. My obligation if approached by another alcoholic is to provide whatever assistance is within my power to help that individual stop drinking. From this friendships develop that last a lifetime but that are first and foremost anchored in the simple fact that I do not wish to take a drink today. AA was around before I was born and will be around long after I am gone because its call to community is strong.
Both of these communities have one other thing in common, they are tied together by ritual both in the form of liturgical practices and custom. I have been to AA meetings in any number of places and they all take on the same character and structure. Praying at the Chabad differs little from practices at any other Jewish religious organization. It is clear and recognizable even though they take on a local character as well.
Ethnicity and Race
When my grandparents got off the boat at Ellis Island as they immigrated to the United States from Eastern Europe in 1898 their immigration records listed their race as Hebrew. Now, when I am asked to fill out a government form that asks for racial information I am given any number of choices but Hebrew is not among them. While I was young, being indoctrinated by Sunday School teachers at the Reform Jewish congregation that my parents belonged to we were constantly told that Judaism is a religion and not a race. The assimilationist strain ran quite deep in the Reform movement at that time, the late 1950’s through the early 1960’s. As I grew older, however, I found that I did not always fit in to a broader, more Christian, community. My first experience with the whole thing was a flat rejection from all college fraternities except the Jewish fraternities on campus. I didn’t think much of it at the time but it was a precursor of things to come. Sometime, in my mid 50’s, right after I earned my doctorate in language and literacy, I made a conscious decision that assimilation wasn’t working out quite so well as I was led to believe. I began to think more about the ethnic and racial categorization that was placed upon my grandparents, that of Hebrew, and I began to think about just how the very idea of race and ethnicity are socially constructed. I came to the conclusion that race and ethnicity can, and should, exist side by side with social responsibility. One can be a good citizen and yet identify with a group outside the norm. W.E.B. DuBois called this idea acculturation, an understanding of the dominant culture while maintaining a strong identity with one’s own core group. Since the time I began to think about just where I belong in the ‘human race’ I check the other box when I am asked about race or ethnicity on a form. I do not elaborate, I simply protest the very idea that one fits into a stereotypical category that serves to define one’s status in society and power over others.
Questions that Remain Open
Because these communities precede me and will exist without me, can I truly claim membership? Because I belong to any number of groups, some core and some peripheral, does that belonging fragment me into pieces that emerge only when I am within a specific place and time surrounded by fellow travelers? Or, should I even seek to try to identify with any group, any community, even the core community that forms the ethical core of being in terms of membership and simply live as a sentient being in the river of time beholden to no one or nothing that serves to classify me or put me into a cubby hole?