Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Friend Selection: Do I Know Too Many Jews?

Birds of a Feather?
I have been thinking a lot lately about the process of selecting friends. I don't know if I'm good at it, I think for the large part, I let them select me. Still, when I view them as a group there are some common themes. Yes, I do know a lot of Jews, tons of childless people, a good number of queers and an overwhelming amount of civil-service workers. Throw in a handful of starving artists as well. Almost all of my friends seem to be from lower middle class or working class families, who have backgrounds somewhat similar to mine.

Obviously, I never set out with a set of guidelines for friends, the results just evolved. It all seems random like it just happened. Friendship, like lovership is surrounded by an aura, a mystique. But clearly, the people we gather around us are folks we are drawn to for a myriad of reasons.

The Jewish dynamic can be a bit unsettling. I grew up in a neighborhood near Cleveland that was about 85% Jewish. This did not evolve through cliquishness, but was a natural consequence of "gentleman's agreements" that limited the places Jews were permitted to live. I despised the insular nature of this singular, ethnic community and couldn't wait for the time when I would try my luck in the, reputedly quite Anti-Semitic world. So why, in adulthood, do I return to my roots so often in the friendship realm?

The Jews who made up my world left deep marks on my psyche. Not just because of history and sad tales of persecution but due to cultural styles, modes of expression, ways of looking at life and both interpreting and expressing it to others. In later life, I was forced to come to the conclusion that, in spite of my best efforts, I am a terminal Jew. People of all ethnicities who appreciate my humor, my observations, my glass half-empty perspective gravitate towards me. Those who find it annoying, overly analytical or too negative head for the door.

Oppression has a language all its own. It's not a upbeat idiom but we learn it by heart when we are young.The more oppressed people are the thornier and more difficult they tend to be. Not because they are inherently inferior, but because they are more damaged. I don't think this is, in and of itself, a bad thing. Would you choose to eat bland food at every meal? Many Americans do.

The upside to a heritage of oppression is that we need each other more. This explanation applies to differences in gender orientation and socioeconomic class as well. The class thing is especially difficult to sort out. I tend to experience more working class people as more open, less what we used to call, snotty. When I worked at the San Francisco Water Department I would get into conversations about everything from laundry detergent to unrequited love.The topics were not necessarily deeply introspective but there was a free-flowing exchange of information that was not coated with suspicion and trepidation.

At the Main Library, people with master's degrees were circumspect. You were expected to keep your mouth shut and climb, baby, climb. In the striving class, to expose yourself is to give weapons to the potential enemy. The "appropriate" subjects of conversation are based upon work. Unless you found someone you could really trust you did not talk about real life experience. I found the walls that co-workers intentionally placed between one another jarring and upsetting. I was never acceptable in the upper middle-class world that I had worked so diligently to enter. My role was that of the square peg being relentlessly hammered into a round hole. Fortunately for me, those corners never got shaved off or worn down. I must be made of harder material than I'd previously imagined!