I was born privileged. That privilege has nothing to do with race or gender. My privilege was to be born surrounded by intact families. My parents, both sets of grandparents, and all four sets of great-grandparents kept their families intact. That’s seven couples who raised their children to adulthood and stayed together until one of them died. They weren’t all great marriages, but to their great credit and my great fortune, they all stuck it out.
What’s more, though my childhood coincided with the divorce boom of the 1960s and 70s, I knew only a handful of kids with divorced parents. I knew another handful with parents who died young. I knew a sizable number whose grandparents had been exterminated, and whose parents suffered in the concentration camps. When I visited their homes, however, what I saw were intact families.
Those families came together to form a modern, upwardly mobile, suburban, religiously observant community. It was not an idyllic community. We had our share of internal politics, infighting, cheating, and resentments. We experienced crime, and a few (thankfully relatively minor) anti-Semitic attacks. As the first post-Holocaust generation of American Jews, we suffered from communal PTSD. We were immensely patriotic and grateful to America, but less than entirely convinced that “it can’t happen here.”
Worse, plenty of members of our community were far from impressive. Many were ignorant, judgmental, petty, mean, uncouth, ostentatious, egotistical, and unethical. Though I didn’t know it, we had our share of child abuse and domestic violence. As a teen, I knew kids who smoked, dropped out, did drugs, became arsonists, and committed suicide.
I was less than enamored with our community. The costs of belonging — layering communal judgmentalism on top of religious rules — were high. If they didn’t produce fine, ethical, informed, compassionate people, could membership be worth the cost?
The question plagued me for decades. Then I found the answer. Intact families and stable communities alter the odds. Yes, we experienced every ill that befell every other community in America — but we did so in smaller numbers. The dropouts, runaways, addicts, and criminals were genuine exceptions; elsewhere, they were becoming the norm.
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