A kiss on the hand may be so Continental, but diamonds aren’t forever anymore

“No one would want a diamond on their finger if they knew it meant another person lost a hand.” — Jennifer Connelly in “Blood Diamond.

When I turned 18 years old, my parents gave me a pair of diamond earrings.
Later that same night at a comedy club, when a comedian on
stage asked me what I got for my birthday, I showed him the diamonds.

“You must be Jewish, right?” he said.


Jewish Singles Cruises

I was — still am, as a matter of fact. But I didn’t know yet about Jews and diamonds. I’m not talking about the diamond industry, in which Israeli and Diaspora Jews are heavily involved, but in the purchase and wearing of diamonds.

Over the next few years, as more of my young girlfriends got engaged, boasting rocks the size of eyeballs on their smooth, manicured hands, I was as mystified by the appeal of these gargantuan rings as I was by the rush to the chuppah.

Why would you want to wear a $10,000, 2-carat obstruction — getting snagged on sweaters, dirty on hikes, hidden on subways, lost during hand-washing — on your hand every day? Was this the price of your dowry? Was it the measure of a woman’s value, like so much chattel, as written into the traditional ketubbah, the Jewish wedding license?

It must be, I thought, as it seemed that the bigger the ring, the more valued my friends seemed to feel.

Look, it’s not like young Jewish women are the only ones taken in by the diamond hype — women everywhere have fallen for the industry slogan, “Diamonds Are Forever,” which, as evidenced by the high divorce rate, they are not. (So what if the stones last forever? The promises of love they ostensibly represent can fade like ice melting.)

This whole issue came to mind again after watching “Blood Diamond,” director Edward Zwick’s exposé of conflict diamonds — stones acquired in war zones, in this case during the civil war in Sierra Leone.

Much has been written about the film and the state of the diamond industry today — for instance, is it true that the big companies store away diamonds to make them more valuable? Is it possible for consumers to differentiate between “conflict diamonds” and “conflict-free” diamonds? But after all is said and done, what bothers me still about diamonds is the same question I had when I was 18.

What do diamonds have to do with love?

Now, as when I was 18, I still believe: nothing.

When I was 18, I thought I’d buck the trend. I swore I wouldn’t get married till I was at least 25, I said, to the consternation of my friends and relatives, and I wouldn’t wear a diamond ring.

“You just don’t understand!” My friends rolled their eyes at yet another of my feminist outbursts. A diamond, they said, represents something. “People see the rings on your finger, and they know you’re taken, and well taken care of.”

“Why can’t I wear an amethyst, a sapphire, a ruby?” I said.

It’s not like I really wanted to wear a different stone. There would still be the same snagging, mugging and hiking problems. As a matter of fact, I hate all rings, because when it comes to typing, writing, playing piano and surfing, they just get in the way.

But a diamond ring seems to me — now that I see the controversy of their production — a symbol of everything wrong about the institution of marriage.

No, I’m not so antediluvian as to say: “Why get married? It’s just a piece of paper.”
I believe marriage is a holy covenant, one that makes both a private and public statement as to a couple’s commitment. I just don’t know why a diamond, through marketing genius, must represent that commitment.

And why we, as consumers, as single women — some of whom now buy themselves diamond rings as symbols of their self-sufficiency — give in to the hype, especially now knowing the controversial origins of some diamonds.

As to my own diamond earrings, like most of my jewelry — lost, broken, languishing in boxes waiting to be restrung, cleaned, soldered — I lost one of the earrings a few years after my birthday. I had the other one made into a necklace. It hangs from a gold chain, fastened by a secure clasp to prevent loss. It’s a rather delicate, miniscule stone, really, and it’s the only piece of jewelry I’ve kept over the years.

It survived the years with me: the transcontinental and transatlantic moves, the boyfriends, the jobs, the successes, the losses — and somehow it has come to mean more to me than the sparkle it emits, more than the sum of its parts.

I hope that when I get married I’ll eschew the whole ring thing, or at least the diamond, or maybe the diamond that costs two months’ salary — and especially the diamond that costs someone their hand or their life.

But who knows? Love — and especially weddings — have a way of making even the most staunch feminists starry eyed. Still, I hope it’s my love — not the materialistic sparkling symbol of it — that lasts forever.

A girl can always dream.

Sept. 11 Still Roils Our Nation’s Heritage

Anniversaries take on lives of their own. The further from the original event, the more laden they become with symbolism, meaning and portent.

Since the tempo of our time is fast, even abrupt, it’s not surprising that since Sept. 11, 2001, we’ve backed away from the stomach-churning horror of that day.

We had to. You go insane if you keep tumbling over the same precipice forever. How we’ve shrouded and protected ourselves is of question, not the need to shroud.

Last year, I was in New York on the first anniversary of Sept. 11. The city was quiet, subdued, still reeling from the events that had changed it forever or so everyone thought. Yet people were being buffeted by gusts, inside and out — winds blowing down the streets at 60 mph matched the whirlwinds inside every New Yorker, whirlwinds of fear, of loss and, yes, of hate.

Somehow, this must be stilled. If not, we wither and die.

E.B. White, in his prescient essay, "Here Is New York," first published in 1949, looked into a post-Hiroshima future and saw a city that, "for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now…."

White was smart. He’d once lived in New York; at the time he wrote "Here Is New York," he was living in Maine, as safe from Gehenna as you could be. But there are many forms of hell, and maybe the worst is the one that we absorb and that lives inside of us — a hell that you can’t escape, not even by moving to Maine.

Sept. 11 is that kind of hell. That may be why we have yet to decipher and sort it out. And why we may never be able to.

Thanatologists like to talk about the various stages of death, starting with denial and anger, moving through bargaining and depression and ending, for some of us, with acceptance. We couldn’t deny Sept. 11. It was replayed over and over again on television. But we can’t accept it, either, and we shouldn’t.

That leaves us on ground that is unstable, malleable and ripe for opportunists, of whom there are many. Civil liberties are being trumped by "security," foreign relations by unilateralism and sense and sensibility by runaway jingoism — the fruits of fright and confusion. Reason, reflection, moderation have retreated to the vestibule of public life.

That blow to discourse may be the most corrosive and the most lingering casualty of Sept. 11. This is not to minimize the many lives lost two years ago, but we do not need a rerun of Palmer Raids or McCarthyism. That cowboyism, jingoism, damn the Bill of Rights-ism surfaced so swiftly and so tenaciously after Sept. 11 makes me wonder whether turning us into our own worst enemies was the true goal of Muhammad Atta and his 18 pals.

The buildings crumbled and the bodies fell, and the emotional blow coast to coast was immediate and devastating. But more invisible, and maybe more effective, was the blow to our civic integrity, our national heritage, our communal raison d’être.

If we forget why we exist as a country, if we spurn the founders’ principles and vision, then our tongues, as the psalmist wrote in another context, will cleave to the roofs of our mouths. Or worse, and more subtly, as Job moaned, "Oh, that my grief were thoroughly weighed and my calamity laid in the balances together! For now, it would be heavier than the sand of the sea; my words are swallowed up!"

Our words and our beliefs are not yet swallowed. We still hear them — if we strain. But amid the current clang and clutter, our words — words of justice, words of truth, words that truly mark us as Americans — are harder to notice and harder to heed.

Arthur J. Magida is writer-in-residence at the University of Baltimore. His latest book is “The Rabbi and the Hit Man” (HarperCollins).