It was one of those only-in-Tasmania moments. A Catholic brother in his black and burgundy robes bowed his kippah-clad head and said the blessing in Hebrew over the challah. Of all the Jews in the room, he was the only one who had grown up with any awareness of being Jewish.
Despite its isolation and tiny population, Tasmania is no place for the narrow-minded.
You see, there are so few Jews in Tasmania that we cannot afford to be parochial. We do not have the pernicious luxury of limiting our company to kindred spirits. We have been forced by circumstance to get along with those who act and think differently to ourselves. There is no Jewish neighbourhood. A minyan happens ‘once in a blue moon.’ We do not get to choose our community.
So what? you say, but I am not talking about the politically correct ‘tolerance’ that denounces racism and discrimination and all those other labels for bigotry. It is easy enough to wring our hands over the plight of refugee child on the other side of the world. It is easy to feel tenderness for the distant stranger whose out-of-the-ordinary ways have the charm of the exotic. We all know how to talk the talk.
As G.K. Chesterton observed, the real challenge is to love one’s neighbour, to live in the “too stimulating society of [one’s] equals”, to live among the “perverse, personal, [and] deliberately different…. We make our friends; we make our enemies; but God makes our next-door neighbour.” And it is thus that Tasmania’s Jews have been blessed. In a society that facilitates narcissistic harvesting of friends who are like-minded, our Jewish identity calls us to accept whomever comes our way, Hasidic or Reformed, Liberal or Orthodox, even Catholics and atheists.
It wasn’t so long ago that people were friends because circumstances threw them together. Kindred spirits were sought but known to be rare gems of which there might only be one or two in one’s life. And those kindred spirits were cherished, for they were the ones to whom one could (to quote Anne of Green Gables) confide one’s “inmost soul”.
Now, we demand like-mindedness from all and sundry. Those who differ are ‘un-followed’ or ‘de-friended’ on social media. If you are too bothersome, you may even find yourself ‘blocked’ and erased from virtual existence. Get under someone’s skin, and the modern-day Stasi will make you disappear. To some, you will no longer exist. And if that doesn’t work – because you can’t make an entire country disappear – there is the boycott with its holier-than-thou facade.
Being a free thinker has become a rather lonely business, because you can’t please everyone, and yet everyone – or almost everyone – expects you to agree with them.
As we have become more disconnected from our neighbourhoods and communities and ‘plugged in’ to whichever network we’ve joined or group of internet friends we’ve created, we have lost the practice of loving one’s neighbour. We have narrowed our world. It is easy to click ‘like’ on a meme against bullying or racism, but how many of us undertake the daunting task of befriending the person at our work or school or sports club who holds opinions that make us cringe?
This is the challenge that faces us all, the glorious opportunity to truly broaden our world. Every time we cull our friends because of their irritating political views or absurd beliefs, we narrow our minds and constrict our love for fellow man. If we want to avoid being narrow-minded, we must hold firm to our own convictions but learn to love despite the convictions we do not share. We must banish “the strange delusion that [we] are stepping into a world which is actually larger and more varied than [our] own.” To do otherwise is to flee from life.
Chesterton said that the “best way that a man could test his readiness to encounter the common variety of mankind would be to climb down a chimney into any house at random, and get on as well as possible with the people inside”. It is easy enough to get along with those who share our passions and tastes, but we are called to love our neighbour with whom we might have nothing in common.
Last century, an autodidact longshoreman called Eric Hoffer wrote: “It is the stretched soul that makes music, and souls are stretched by the pull of opposite bents, tastes, yearnings, loyalties. Where there is no polarity — where energies flow smoothly in one direction — there will be much doing but no music.” He lived on Skid Row for ten years, never went to university, and liked to write in railroad yards. Some might have considered him backward, as my home of Tasmania is often said to be, but life’s vagaries do not confine our minds. The only backward place is the one we create when we insist on ‘consensus’.