Living in the Upper Midwest, heavily populated by Northern Europeans, and now some obvious Africans, I miss the melting pot of Detroit (of course, it never melted). It was Armenians, Italians, Rumanians, Greeks, Jews, Southern Blacks and Hillbillies (my family). Today's Times had an interview of that Italian, Al Pacino, who in my mind, along with Jack Nicholson, Robert DeNiro and Meryl Street, is one of the most fascinating movie stars alive. All four of them can play different cultures so effectively that it's tough to believe they don't belong to their story. So I had to laugh at this line from Pacino--that Sicilian--about his current role as Shakespeare's Shylock in The Merchant of Venice.
When asked about his role his role as the Jewish Shylock, the reporter wanted to know whether he had ever felt Jewish. His response:
What is a Sicilian but an Italian Jew? That's what I am. I did grow up in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. There weren't many Italians. I remember acting in a school play about the melting pot when I was very little. There was a great big pot onstage. On the other side of the pot was a little girl who had dark hair, and she and I were representing the Italians. And I thought: Is that what an Italian looked like?
Last year I walked out of the Guthrie's presentation of The Merchant wondering about Shakespeare's objective and that ever-present statement about "a pound of flesh." It is an ugly phrase originating with Shakespeare in his 1596 play, The Merchant of Venice. Shylock, the Jewish money lender, has made a deal with Antonio that allows Shylock to cut off a pound of Antonio's flesh if Antonio defaults on a loan he took from Shylock. Although there's an attempt to whitewash Shakespeare because of his brilliance, in this instance I decided it was pure anti-Semitism.
What's important about that discussion is how certain characteristics attach themselves to a given culture. As I occasionally remind my friends, there are plenty of historical reasons that Jews became financiers. The Catholic Church of the Middle Ages wouldn't permit money lending for interest (usury), but the Catholic monarchs were always quick to turn to the Jews to finance their wars. Thus, the Rothschilds, etc., etc., etc. There's plenty of guilt to spread around.
And, there are plenty reasons that my family members were issued the pjorative "hillbilly." Although even my grandmother born in the 1880's in Arkansas had a year or two of college--wealthy store owning family--the accent she gave us put us in the category of "hillbilly." Most of us in the immediate family from western Kentucky would resist the appellation "redneck." Although based on the current status of Kentucky politics, I suspect that the appellation "redneck" is appropriate (I just couldn't resist that comment).
Well, we Americans are a motley crew, mongrels all--and like Al Pacino I've always been intrigued by the whole lot of us. I'm a former Baptist Seminary professor who taught in a Roman Catholic seminary (Benedictine), who grew up with beloved Jews, and who's just as intrigued by the Moslems at the local coffee shop. What fun all this noise can be! As Pacino suggests by his statement, we all share a lot more than we differ.