A Woman’s Voice

To explain the almost cult-like appeal of writerRichard Rodriguez, best known as an essayist on PBS’ “News Hour withJim Lehrer,” let’s start with a story he told last weekend to anear-capacity crowd at the Skirball Cultural Center.

“I was at lunch with some film producers the otherday,” Rodriguez begins. “And they were predicting the return of thecowboy film. They couldn’t wait to cast cowboys and Indians. Theywere unaware that all around them, in that very restaurant, wereIndians who were already playing the role of waiters, and Indians whowere playing the role of Italian chefs. These producers wanted toremake a movie in which the cowboy wins the battle, but, right infront of them, the Indians had already won the West.”

The audience, from the Westside and the Valley,sophisticated about the myth that Jews created Hollywood, know thejoke is on them, but they laugh anyway. The producers referred towere probably Jews; the joke uses the racially suspect term”Indians”; and are the Indian waiters laughing at the (elite, Jewish)producers as they serve their pasta and cappuccinos?

It doesn’t matter; the crowd relishes theambiguity. They warm to the debonair man with longish, graying hairand a black pinstripe suit. Rodriguez has the knowing, slightlydepressed mien of character in a Somerset Maugham novel, a guide on atour of a world in decline. They give him a standing ovation and tellhim that they will follow him anywhere.

“I am,” Rodriguez proclaims, “a middle-aged manliving in a Chinese city (San Francisco) explaining Indian politicsto a gringo audience.” The difference is that, unlike most otherethnic observers, Rodriguez still thinks “gringos” are worthreaching.

Rodriguez, 48, the third of four children born toMexican immigrants who came north to Sacramento to cure an olderson’s asthma. His mother bought into the American dream and becamesecretary to Gov. Pat Brown, “the real Gov. Brown,” he said. Hisfather, who made false teeth for dentists, had a more cynicalresponse to the new land: “Nothing lasts 100 years.”

Rodriguez, whose efforts to keep a culturalbalance are recounted in “Days of Obligation: An Argument with MyMexican Father,” was schooled by Irish nuns and lost not only hisSpanish accent but use of his native tongue. He was an Englishscholar, a lover of Twain, Saroyan and Bellow and Ozick before hediscovered Garcia Lorca and his eventual role model, thediplomat/writer Octavio Paz.

His goal was to be Public Man, a citizen of theworld. But it backfired. In an earlier memoir, “Hunger of Memory,” hecalls himself “scholarship boy,” a term of disgust about his years atStanford and Berkeley. He turned down tenured faculty positionsbecause they were based on filling ethnic quotas.

When he speaks today on college campuses, againstmulticulturalism and bilingualism (though he opposes the movement tomake English the official national tongue), Rodriguez is frequentlypicketed. He is alone in all his worlds. But among Jews at theSkirball, he was completely at home.

Here are three ways Rodriguez achieves theremarkable feat of bringing Jews back into the civic discourse, whilerarely mentioning the term “Jew” at all.

Race “This face,” Rodriguez says, “is Indian,”immediately sticking a thumb in the eye of our “color-blind” society.He loves to use the inept words Indian, mestizo, Latino, Hispanic, todescribe a diverse people from the Southern Hemisphere. Go deal withit! he challenges his audiences. Indians are mestizo, those of mixedblood. As a mestizo, Rodriguez is enraged at President Clinton’scommission on race, which continues a three-decade-old insistencethat Americans come in only black and white. “The mestizo blows ahole in ethnic politics,” he says, “because he has married both blackand white.”

Why do Jews, who might feel threatened by thespecter of unavoidable mixed marriage, hang onto his every word aboutrace? The answer: He doesn’t think Jews are white. Rodriguez attendedthe Jewish Theological Seminary, where he was taught by Rabbi AbrahamJoshua Heschel that while Jews do not leave great temples ormonuments, they did leave “the Word.” He says he was the first Latinoscholar at the Yeshiva University. Rodriguez, who hopes to explodethe tiny box that has defined ethnic politics in America, needsJewish difference as proof of American diversity.

His argument is: If America will let Jews be Jews,it will let brown people be brown. Go be Jews, he implicitlyencourages the crowd. Prove me right.

Religion Rodriguez is a deeply religious RomanCatholic. Yet, like many Jews, he lives with alternating degrees ofcomfort and irritation in “Protestant America.” Each day, he says, “Iask myself how American I want to be.” He studied for a time at theUnion Theological Seminary (Protestant), and learned that hisProtestant individualism is often in conflict with his Roman Catholicsearch for community.

“In America, no one asks who your father is. Noone asks where your community is,” Rodriguez says. But America,addicted to the myths of eternal freedom and continual rebirth, needssome alternative to the unfettered I. Catholics and Jews offer anescape from narcissism within strong traditional community. Thesereligions are bedfellows of hope.

Civilization Finally, Rodriguez posits thatsociety need not go to hell. There is still a small chance to createan American character through the revival of educationalstandards.

“Education today too often is about teachingchildren how to be ‘me,'” he says. “It should be anything but that.It should be showing children how to be ‘you,’ how to be other, howto learn the greatness in other cultures.” Most every Jew can relateto that hope.

Some of Rodriguez’s appeal is little more than anupdated Melting Pot, now spiced with chili peppers. Other parts of itare a call to national culture, to become Americans again. But it isresonating in the Jewish community. When Rodriguez speaks, many of usare listening.

Marlene Adler Marks is senior columnist of TheJewish Journal. She hosts a Thursday-evening chat room for AmericaOnLine. Keyword: Jewish Chat. Her e-mail address iswmnsvoice@aol.com.


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