I was recently at a dinner party in a New York apartment with a group of friends, all of them black except for a single white visitor. Toward the end of the evening, the conversation turned to how to improve black social, financial and educational progress. One black man, a lawyer, blurted out, "Blacks should be more like Jews."
This was an idea I'd heard many times before.
All too often it meant blacks should be more clannish.
As the lone white diner among us, who identified himself as being Jewish, began talking with the lawyer, my thoughts drifted. I'd grown up in Beverly Hills, which was virtually all Jewish when I lived there. I asked myself if Jews really are clannish and, if so, should blacks use that as a model for advancement? But more to the point, I asked myself if there were things Jews do that blacks should adopt to become more prosperous.
My answer: an emphatic yes.
First, blacks should become custodians of our own history. There is a body of Christian scholarship about Jews, but for the most part Jews depend on themselves for their self-definition and history. It is true that blacks have scholars such as Molefi Asante and John Hope Franklin, but a lot of black history is interpreted by writers such as Taylor Branch and Eugene Genovese. By all accounts these are good white men, but the question remains: Should they and people like them share custodianship of our history.
Second, blacks should have a collective narrative. Jews have the first five books of the Bible. Despite the best intentions of Black History Month, the shared black narrative, to the extent that there is one, tends to focus on our enslavement and victimization in this country. Perhaps the true mission of black leaders should be to hold a summit to form a consensus on the story we blacks should tell about culture. The book and television series "Roots" was a beginning of a collective black narrative, but where do we go from there? What story should we be telling ourselves about ourselves, and how should it be told? How should it be disseminated?
Third, blacks should have a widely celebrated adolescent rite of passage ritual. Bar mitzvahs -- the coming-of-age rite for Jewish boys -- and bat mitzvahs, the name of the same rite for girls, are widespread today. They symbolize taking adult responsibilities in the community. While African Americans do have adolescent rite-of-passage ceremonies, finding someone who has gone through one is the exception rather than the rule. Perhaps that is another task for our black leaders.
Connected in my mind to bar and bat mitzvahs is the question: "What is a Jew?" In the 1960s there was a best-selling book by that name, and in talking to the parents of my Jewish friends at the time, I understood that the question is an ancient one. In his most recent book, "Nothing Sacred," essayist Douglass Ruskoff offers a recent iteration of the question.
So, the fourth thing that blacks might adapt from Jews is a continuous inquiry into who we are. How do we define ourselves? How are we to behave as black people? Should our ideal be that of a being scholar or a dropout? A thug or a warrior?
The fifth, but by no means last, thing blacks might learn from Jews is to be unified without being uniform. I don't remember Jews being particularly clannish in the neighborhoods of my adolescence, but I did notice their unity. At my high school and junior high school, I knew Jews who were Orthodox, Reform and Conservative. Despite their good-natured ribbing of each other about their differences, there seemed to be an underlying unity among them. This unity has been strained in recent years, particularly because of the conflicts in the Middle East. Yet, still I have a sense most Jews feel that what befalls one of them might befall all of them.
The dinner ended, and the Jewish man and I happened to leave at the same time. On the elevator on our way out, we recalled how stimulating the dinner party had been. When we reached the street, ready to say our goodbyes, I said to him, "Jews really have got it together."
He looked at me for what seemed like a long time. The light from the full moon and a distant street lamp combined to give his eyes an eerie twinkle. Smiling, he gently grabbed my right arm at the bicep and leaned in so that his mouth was only an inch or so from my ear. I could feel his breath on me as he whispered, "You'd have your act together, too, if you'd had your butt kicked for 5,000 years."
Eric Copage is the author of "Soul Food: Inspirational Stories for African Americans" (Hyperion, 2000).