Tuvia Tenenbom is a man of enormous appetite. Most of us will agree about that, despite other disagreement we will have at the end of this review, or at the end of his travel memoir around the United States. Tenenbom, by his own description, is an overweight, cigarette-smoking, brandy-drinking, non-religious, non-apologetic, argumentative, shape-shifting Israeli Jew who claims whatever citizenship (German, American, Israeli) will grant him greatest access to people’s inner thoughts. The more he wrote, the more he revealed about himself, a phenomenon he'd trumpeted about in his experience with talkative but reluctant interviewees, despite themselves.
I could pick at inconsistencies I found in Tenenbom’s observations about the people in our country, but mostly I was rapt. He is a thoughtful, seeking man with a background in religion, computers, journalism, theatre, and a lifetime of attention paid to history and world affairs. He makes notes of his interactions as he travels the northern route to the west coast, to Alaska and Hawaii, and then the southern route back to New York City. It was a huge journey, and his memoir is informative and fascinating.
He wanted to know who Americans were: what we thought of Jews, Palestinians, and Israelis; how party politics manifest amongst us; how do conservatives and liberals justify themselves? What was immediately apparent to him setting off from New York City was race, how it segregates us, how it completely colors our experiences, our choices, our lives. We overlap so little, Tenenbom had to go out of his way to get through the barriers to entry: white people and black both told him to “stay away,” be careful,” “watch yourself,” etc. if he entered or wanted to enter the places black people lived in Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, San Francisco, Honolulu, Charleston…cities whose class divisions left a mark on his psyche.
As he travels he reports a bit of the day’s news. This was 2015, the year Dylan Root entered Emanuel AME Church in Charleston and shot nine people, this was the year of the Bataclan nightclub massacre in Paris, this was the year President Obama renamed Mount McKinley in Alaska Mount Denali. Tenenbom finds that politics often determined where an individual stood on climate change, their support for Palestine, their perceptions of Jews, gay rights, abortion rights, the boundaries so clear cut opinions seemed cookie-cutter and instinctive rather than well-thought-out and reasoned. Mostly folks were surprisingly unwilling to share their thoughts on politics, apparently afraid it would spoil their personal and business relationships. This struck Tenenbom as suspicious: how can one arrive at a well-argued position without refining it at every opportunity? Americans are a fearful people, he concluded.
Rights of gun-ownership was a subject that arose for Tenenbom in the midwest. He found he liked handling others’ weaponry very much and, to his surprise, he himself was very good at shooting targets. We get his explanation of how handguns or guns which use magazines require permits…we never get a full-throated disavowal of such weapons. One suspects he thinks it is the least of our worries. If we dealt with the more obvious divisions among us, guns wouldn’t be an obstacle to good self-governance. Possibly.
In October of the same year of the Charleston shooting, nine people are killed by a gunman at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon. Tenenbom points out how quickly the news fades when race as a motive is not involved. When someone else points out that more white people are killed by police in America each year than blacks, he investigates. His statistics read:
"during 2015 [as of sometime in the fall season], almost 250 blacks and close to five hundred whites were killed by US law enforcement personnel."Without some indication of the percentage of blacks’ minority status, it is hard to use these statistics properly, but the truth is that I did not know white people were being shot by police at higher levels than black people. What does it mean for our understanding of police work, or the Black Lives Matter movement? What should it mean?
There is nothing knee-jerk about Tenenbom. If he has an opinion, it is usually thought-out, or if not, like his undecided stance on climate change, he is willing to continue to collect information. He doesn’t like the selfishness he often observes among wealthy conservatives , but neither does he like the unexamined righteousness of liberals who have an opportunity to make a difference where they are and insist instead on opining about politics in distant lands while doing nothing at home. He likes black people, their culture, and what they add to diversity, a word which gets bandied about atrociously in this book. We don’t have much diversity, for all our many cultures, in America, because white people are privileged and have separate opportunities, no matter how woke they think they are.
What I don’t understand about Tenenbom’s point of view is his mix of nationalism and religion. Just like his willingness to call himself German, American, or Israeli depending on which works better for his purpose, he blithely says he loves his adopted America, but his Jewishness seems more important to him, despite his self-proclaimed non-religiosity. If a Muslim does the same thing, do we react differently? I think we do. Muslims are constantly having to reiterate publicly their love of America, and how it supersedes their love of religion.
The thing about Tenenbom that is so interesting is that he gives the impression he can be persuaded. He’s interested. He pays attention. He asks questions. He knows what injustice is and will call it out. He doesn’t like everyone parroting support for Palestinians without knowing more about the situation in Israel. I still think he is being disingenuous in claiming “no foul” in the settlements, in the outsized responses to Palestinian resistance, in the discrimination of opportunity, etc.
No, Jews don’t have to be better than everyone in the world. They have to strive to be better than they are, is all. Americans have their own indignities to face, the most egregious right now being race and class. Both countries could use clear-sighted critics. He and I agree on Samantha Power, former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Sometimes “liberal” turns a corner into something else entirely.
I’d like to hear a podcast discussion between Tuvia Tenenbom and David Remnick of the The New Yorker. I think they are on opposite sides of the Israel questions, and they might be able to uncover sources of anti-Semitism in the U.S. that is hidden to most of us.
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