This evening as I was watching the MSNBC coverage of the inauguration of the President, I heard one of the announcers use the words "melting pot, or mosaic" as they described America. The host didn't stumble over it; whoever it was just rephrased casually and went on. Is mosaic a more descriptive term for America than melting pot?
Well, I don't know what anyone else thought, but my mind went on a roller coaster when I heard that. I have always thought of America as a melting pot--one place in the world where everybody gets together, we shake well and see what is in the soup. We see the ebb and flow of human beings in major immigrant centers giving rise to all the mixed marriages that make America what it is: the Italian girl who married the Jewish boy, the Irishman who marries the Polish girl. Then we had the war marriages, when the boys brought their brides back from Over There.
If you want to see a period portrait of those times, rent and view the film "Sayonara" starring Marlon Brando and the exquisite Miiko Taka, although you'll be unable to avoid noticing how Red Buttons and Miyoshi Umeki stole the show. Anyway, the interaction between the Armed Forces trying to hold back the tide of intermarriages with a teaspoon of paperwork and harassment is very instructive.
But when you consider the image of a mosaic to describe the American culture, there is something about it that doesn't sit well with me. A mosaic is made out of tiny pieces, and it suggests to me an isolation of individuals instead of widespread coming together, whether a matter of individuals or of neighborhoods.
My Polish grandfather, who came from the Old Country in 1915, lived on Chicago's Northwest Side for most of his adult life after me made his way there from New York. Every day he stopped at a news stand and picked up the Polish newspaper; he got his Polish sausage at one of the vedlinas, or Polish butcher shops in the Six Corners area (for those of you who might know it). He was just northwest of Logan Park, which I ended up living in by coincidence years later. There was actually a tiny Polish Catholic church around the corner from the apartment building where I lived.
That neighborhood was also graced by excellent Italian and Greek restaurants, and my family used to go down to the area now occupied by the Chicago Circle Campus of the University of Chicago to eat in Old Greektown--as opposed to New Greektown, which is northwest along Milwaukee Avenue.
If you went to a high school like Jacob Riis, where my mother and her sisters went, you would meet literally every ethnic group in Chicago, as I learned when I worked there as a substitute teacher. At Riis I saw more mixed teenage couples than not, and now that I am in Tucson I see the same thing.
I don't think of America as a mosaic that might be broken--or have some of its pieces removed and thrown away--I just don't like the metaphor. We used to think of America as a Christian nation, or at least a nation under God (it being understood that the God mentioned is the Judeo-Christian God). But if we want to claim a Christian heritage, it takes us in only one direction: towards the tolerance that our President asked for when he urged Americans to seize the moment that we are presented with together, to pursue a better future for all of us.
When Jesus was asked about our duty, he quoted the Hebrew Scriptures, understandably. What he said comes from Matthew 22:
"Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets."
The Law and the Prophets to which Jesus refers is another name for the Hebrew Scriptures. As a Jewish man, Jesus had no New Testament to refer to, lest we forget; his repetition of the Great Commandment of the Jews was taken forward into the religion that emerged from his life and death.
But you would hardly know that if you turned on one television preacher after another, or listened to their hate-filled radio programs. It is ironic, but the fire-breathing, homophobic, closeted, self-hating gay evangelicals are doing more to destroy Christianity than the most dedicated atheists.