Not long ago, my five-year-old daughter overheard a radio broadcast during which the speaker mentioned “black” people. On the car ride home from school, she asked me what that meant. I explained that God made all people different and that shades of color are a reflection of beauty and diversity in the world. Then, I asked her whether she knew anybody who was black. She thought for a moment and was silent. When I mentioned our African-American next-door neighbors and their eleven-year-old who sometimes comes over to play, my daughter responded: “Erica? I don’t remember what color she is.”
Before leaving Chicago for Baltimore, I sat down with Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, and asked him about his approach to interfaith work. He suggested that the first task for anyone wishing to understand, learn from and dialogue with the other is to develop his or her own theology of pluralism. “I can cite verses from the Koran that teach about the need to relate positively to Jews and Christians. You need to be able to look to Torah and Rabbinic literature and do the same.”
This post is the beginning of a response to Eboo’s challenge. To live in a diverse community (diverse in appearance, beliefs, economic resources and more) is to, at once, examine differences and also to see beyond them. The question is not “how do I teach my children not to notice?” but what to do with those differences once they become aware of them. It is no sin to see color, hear dissent or perceive a varied and variegated urban landscape. In fact, Jewish tradition teaches that the world is richer for such diversity. A legend reminds us that people produce currency by first forming a mold and then producing thousands upon thousands of identical coins. God, on the other hand, made a mold and has produced billions upon billions of utterly unique human beings.
How great that my daughter never noticed Erica’s skin color. How wonderful that she lives in a neighborhood where there are such things to go unnoticed.
This, too, is the new Jewish neighborhood.