Lost and Found in America

Gregory Rodriguez is a fellow at the New America Foundation

Most Americans don't think of their country as a large extended family in the way that, say, the French or Italians view their homelands. Attempts to describe what it means to be American invariably wind up in cold abstractions and lofty ideals, like individualism, political freedom, or life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. For most of us, our nation may at times inspire pride or shame, but--with the possible exception of enjoying the express U.S. Customs line for citizens at JFK or LAX--it rarely gives us a sense of warmth or belonging. To meet those more intimate needs, Americans have often turned to the many ethnic identities that exist concentrically within what J. Hector St. John De Crevecoeur called the "broad lap of our great Alma Mater."

Since the 1960s, America has seen an outbreak of what one scholar has diagnosed as "ethnic fever." One after another, the country's ethnic subgroups have sought to highlight their ethnicity and reaffirm their ties to their cultural past. Though it may have begun with a resurgence of black nationalism, other racial and ethnic minorities soon followed suit, including "white ethnics" of European ancestry. Their urgency to reconnect with their heritage has long been characterized as a resurgence of pride, but the primary impetus for this movement has always been an impending sense of loss. After all, one rarely seeks to recapture something unless it has already begun to slip through one's grasp.

America's ethnic renaissance sprang forth before the immigration boom of the 1970s and in the very midst of the suburban revolution, the vast population shift that fundamentally changed the way we lived. Though in 1950 the populations of America's oldest urban centers reached historic highs, the succeeding decades saw them lose sometimes as much as 50% of their residents to the newer cities of the South and West and to the suburbs that were sprouting up just beyond their city limits. Sixty years ago, urbanist Lewis Mumford observed that "suburbia is a collective effort to lead a private life." As such, half a century of uninterrupted "privatization" has left many native-born middle-class Americans feeling isolated and nostalgic for community.

With their newfound affluence, newly minted suburbanites bought space and distance, not just from the city but also from their neighbors. They also took one more huge step away from their ethnic pasts. Because mass European immigration was legislated to a halt in the 1920s, by 1970 84% of Americans were born to native-born parents, meaning they were at least third-generation Americans. Urban sprawl and westward expansion took them even farther from the white ethnic enclaves that once organized older American cities. A combination of their distance from the immigrant experience and the atomization and homogenization of middle-class life has made many people long to identify themselves as members of groups more intimate and nurturing than just plain American.

The result of this longing has been the rise of what Harvard sociologist Mary Waters calls "symbolic ethnicity" as well as the general fetishization of ethnicity on the part of many culturally alienated U.S.-born Americans of many backgrounds. In a word, many latter-generation Americans now look to ethnicity--their own and others'--to add a missing psychological dimension to their atomized lives. In addition to giving them a sense of rootedness in a rootless society, ethnicity also confers upon them automatic lifetime membership in a "community" of people with whom they presumably share hereditary traits.

Of course, many observers have noted the dual and competing American cultural impulses of self-reliance and cooperation, individualism and conformity. In postmodern America, acquiring a symbolic or optional identity ostensibly allows one to have one's cake and eat it too. One can have a modicum of nurturance and a sense of uniqueness without having to actually live within the rigidity and constricting rules of a genuine traditional community. Indeed, in a truly postmodern world, we imagine that we can dabble in all sorts of cultures without accruing the personal costs that come with belonging.

Nowhere has the ideology of individualism been more triumphant than in the American West. In his 1893 meditation on westward expansion, historian Frederick Jackson Turner called the frontier a "crucible" in which immigrants were "Americanized" and "liberated" from the European heritages that lingered in the East. Western iconography long has been dominated by images of ruggedly individualistic cowboys and mountain men.

Indeed, it is their Western setting that makes these two collections of photos, "Hutterites of Montana" and "The Jews of Wyoming," all the more captivating and textured. Shot against the remote expanse of the Upper Plains, these thoughtful and respectful portraits of two extraordinarily different groups are elegant testimonies to the ongoing struggle between community and individualism, roots and wings. "Hutterites of Montana" by Laura Wilson, an accomplished and widely published photographer, is a 14-year labor of love as well as, in the words of the author, an urgent attempt "to stave off loss--loss of place, loss of family, loss of identity." A nearly 500-year-old German-speaking communalist Christian sect, the Hutterites moved to North America in the late 19th century, escaping persecution in Russia. Since barely surviving an 18th century genocide in their original homeland of Moravia, the Hutterites have wandered the Earth holding firm to their pacifist anti-materialist religious beliefs. Living within self-contained communes of no more than 120 people, they live off the land in remote corners of the Upper Plains both above and below the Canadian border. Adhering to a strict traditional code of conduct and a centralized economy in which workers are assigned jobs and no individual can own property, the Hutterites frown on any activity that doesn't benefit the entire community. Even individual artistic expression is strongly discouraged, and all children leave school at 13.

But what they miss in individual fulfillment they gain in communal warmth and security. The Hutterite colonies, writes Wilson, "[protect] the individual from isolation and hopelessness." Indeed, the faces in this book exude resilience, purposefulness and a quiet confidence. And yet these photos, which are shot in black and white, also strike the reader as stark and lonely. Just as Hutterite colonies are designed to keep the world at bay, their faces--even those of children--are inscrutable to outsiders.

But there are cracks in the shield where the outside world--and all its vanity and materialism--is beginning to seep in. Forbidden from wearing jewelry, young girls with perfect vision have taken to wearing elaborate eyeglasses in order to appear prettier and to distinguish themselves from their peers. Although their religion forbids photographs, the Elders made an exception for Wilson and allowed her unprecedented access to their isolated world. Perhaps ironically, then, Wilson fears that the allure of outsider--that is, American--culture may in the end prove irresistible to new generations of Hutterites. Names like Sarah, David and Joseph are giving way to Crystal, Tiffany and Tyler. The processed hogs, wool and grains of the most successful Hutterite farms have found their way onto the world market. These beautiful photos of rustic communalist life are a homage to cultural resistance. They are meant to place the reader in the ironic position of hoping that these unique people do not become us.

But if "Hutterites of Montana" is ultimately about resistance, then "The Jews of Wyoming" by Penny Diane Wolin tells the more complex story of adaptation and evolution. Wolin, a documentary photographer who has made a living for the last two decades photographing celebrities, spent 15 years putting together this triumphant epic of the 150-year history of Jews in the Cowboy State.

The granddaughter of "pious old-world Jews" from a Russian shtetl, this adopted Californian celebrates her own upbringing in the most unlikely of settings. "It is good to be a Jew from Wyoming," Wolin writes at the beginning of her accompanying essay. Most of the book's narrative, however, is provided by the photos and the revealing quotations that serve as captions. Although not more than 1,500 strong, depending upon the season, Wyoming's Jews are presented here as a diverse world unto themselves.

Indeed, the book's wide range of images and personalities is what gives it its dynamism. Wolin has not sought to define what it means to be Jewish in the least populated state of the union. Instead, she seems to revel in the multiplicity of definitions among believers and nonbelievers; those who identify strongly as Jews and those who do not. Her subjects are posed in the settings or with the props that make them unique as individuals. A young member of the Future Farmers of America holds a pig by its hind legs before an open field. "I don't eat them," he says. "But I give someone else a good product."

Perhaps the most interesting photographs tell of people adapting to new forms of religious and cultural expression that conform to their unique environment. Seventy-five-year-old Dorothy is photographed as the "tenth man" in her synagogue after she was allowed to complete a minyan (a prayer group) due to a shortage of men. An Israeli-born ranch appraiser in Johnson County sports a cowboy belt buckle with a replica of the circle-U symbol that the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations uses to certify kosher food.

Today, Wyoming's Jewish population is waning largely because of the tremendous success of its younger generation. Urged by their parents to achieve in school, many third- and fourth-generation Jewish Wyomingites have had to choose between individual advancement in other more cosmopolitan states and preservation of their distinctive community back home. "Most of the young people went to college and became professional people," says one interviewee in Cheyenne. "There's nothing here for them."

Like Wilson's, Wolin's book is an attempt to stave off loss. Though these two books focus on specific groups in specific places, they both succeed in giving us broader insights into the American condition. It is a truism that the United States has exacted a price from the many ethnic and religious groups that have found refuge on these shores. What we rarely acknowledge, however, is that the resulting alienation has now become a permanent part of whatit means to be an American.

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