My wife and I just returned to Israel  from a wonderful eight days in Italy.  Tuscany, to be exact.  Three nights in Florence,  three in Sienna, and two in Lucca.  Beautiful.  Great food and wine and olive oil,  tremendous scenery, terrific history and architecture, nice people, and charm, charm, charm.

Even the driving was hassle-free, despite Italy’s reputation for horrific traffic and terrible driving habits.  Granted, we were not in Rome or other major urban centers, but we did hit some traffic and traveled on the audostrada without problems.  Hardly heard a honking horn.

Exception:  finding the rental car return at the Florence Airport.  Signs that require microscopic equipment and arrows that require inspired interpretation.  I needed three times around the circuit to finally get it right.

But other than the car rental return, all was smooth. My nomination for the greatest invention by humankind since the last great invention by human kind:  GPS.  A godsend.

One cloud over an otherwise terrific trip:  Every young, college-educated person we met, whether Italian or another European nationality,  told us that finding a job at or near a level commensurate with their education was very difficult or impossible.

We spoke with impressive young people who had moved across borders in a futile search for meaningful employment.  No luck.  The European Union takes well-deserved pride in creating open borders.  I doubt that the idea was to create more cross-national opportunities to be told No Work Today.

Anyone who has traveled to Tuscany can attest to the richness of life in its many small hill towns.  There is one beautiful square after impressive church after quaint tower after beautiful woman on a bike after charming trattoria after. . . Well, you get the picture.  In fact, one cannot stop taking pictures.

The richness of Italian life, and the zeal with which the Italians still seem to enjoy it, got me thinking about what immigrants to the U.S. have given up in exchange for the wonderful freedom and economic opportunities America offered.

As each generation goes by,  Americans descended from immigrants lose a little bit more of the habits and traits and traditions that were characteristic of their immigrant ancestors.   Grandpa’s accent, Grandma’s boiled chicken, Yiddish papers on the kitchen table.  I remember them.  My children don’t.

The great welcome that America gave the immigrant–and the opportunity to move into the mainstream and achieve “success”–security, acceptance, the large home in the suburbs–extracted a price.  The more a descendant of immigrants moved into the mainstream and away–in distance and time–from the immigrant experience, the more he or she shed the characteristics that made the immigrant experience unique and rich. 

The more a child moved into the mainstream and achieved success, the more the child lost the sense of  belonging to and comfort with the immigrant community.  For many it was a price well worth paying, but it was a price.  

 The author Richard Rodriguez, who grew up a few miles and a few years before me in East Sacramento, wrote in his book, Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez, of the bittersweet experience of moving into and up in mainstream American society while feeling estranged from and sometimes embarrassed by his parents’ immigrant roots. 

Rodriguez loved his family and his heritage, but he felt the need to unshackle himself from some of his ties in order to fully take advantage of America’s opportunities.  His fight with himself over the struggle is poignant and enlightening.  While the book was written a generation ago, it still rings true.

I remember East Sacramento from my childhood.  You still could hear lots of older immigrants with Italian accents.  There was an Italian flavor in many of the shops.  Quality Market and Corti Brothers Market smelled and looked a lot like the markets in the Tuscany towns we visited.  And the old gents gathered in Portal Park to play bocce ball.

The accents are gone now, as is Quality Market.  Corti Brothers is still hanging in there, but on most days there are a lot more cars in Trader Joe’s parking lot a few doors down.  The bocce ball courts are still there.  In fact, they have a signing heralding the hosting of some significant championships.  But I am not sure that it is Italians playing.

The neighborhood is the hope of America–it’s “diverse.”  That’s a good thing.  But it isn’t the rich life it once was.

Daniel Gordis, in his recent book, The Promise of Israel, Why Its Seemingly Greatest Weakness Is Actually Its Greatest Strength, attributes a good part of the animosity toward Israel to its conscious purpose to re-create the Jewish State–a nation-state–for the very purpose of congealing, enriching, and preserving the Jewish people.  In short, we’ve recreated the neighborhood.

A lot of folks came back to Israel so that they could live fully as themselves in the only place one can truly do that–their home–and in the only environment one can do it in–in freedom.   As Gordis writes, in Israel the days turn on the Jewish calendar, the debates invoke Jewish teachings, and the children shout in their historical language.  Just like in the old neighborhood.

But timing is everything. And, as Gordis argues, the Jews are getting themselves back together and preserving and enriching their life as a people just when a lot of the world, and particularly the intellectuals of Europe, have decided that nation-states are, to put it politely, no longer fashionable.  When it comes to the Jewish nation-state, they are often just downright hostile. 

Gordis argues that the nation-state dedicated to preserving a people’s heritage and way of life is a good thing.  Indeed, he argues that preserving differences is a key to maintaining and spreading freedom. 

One can appreciate and embrace the wonderful freedoms and opportunities that America’s melting pot gave millions of immigrants and their descendants while also appreciating and encouraging the specialness and richness that were part of the old neighborhood and that are preserved and continued in the nation-state. 

One model does not preclude the other.  Indeed, one could argue that the world is a better place for having both.                                                                                                          

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Election note:  I was in Istanbul for five days a week or two before the 2008 presidential election.  Everyone–Turks and visitors alike–wanted to talk and get our opinions about the upcoming election.  Would America really elect a black man President?  Was he a Muslim?  How could McCain select Palin?  Could she become President some day?

Four years later in Italy:  In eight days just one person mentioned the election to me.

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