Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Like the Jewish Cartoonists Who Invented Superheroes

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Feeling Part of the American Family Once Removed

Every year around this time, I begin to feel un-American. U.S. Thanksgiving is the gateway to the Christmas season that many now inclusively refer to as the holiday season, but I always feel like many Americans really are still thinking of Christmas.

Thank God, this year, "a first look at life's newest solutions:"

This patented "menorahment" reminds me of a similar impulse I learned of five years ago with Pat and our friends Judy & Jim at the Milwaukee Art Museum. While there, we saw a terrific show on comic book artists. Through it, I learned that many of the most famous American superheroes were created by Jewish artists who were realizing their deepest fantasies of what it would be like to be ultra-American, which at that time, was a contrast to how they felt as Jews, i.e., to be loved/admired/respected by the whole community, and to be able to protect it from evil-doers. Somehow, this tree-topper seems born of similar wishes -- to be a star that is part of, yet in parallel apart from, the rest of the earth-bound ornament community. This item was featured in "Skymall" magazine, just in time for the holidays.

Who Am I Kidding?

When I am with people from beyond the United States, I'm reminded that compared to them, I'm as ultra-American as any comic book character, to the point albeit unwittingly of caricature occasionally. For example, with a Dutch friend who lives in Paris, I'm visible from a mile away when we're in Milan on business, in my bright red raincoat; Europeans do not wear such bright colors in their rainwear. Or I'm silly for taking a series of vitamins daily with my breakfast. But here, in the United States, I sometimes feel like a foreigner during this season compared to most of my fellow countrypeople. Perhaps it's the impossibly challenging combo of being a Jew who would never have need for a menorahment along with the challenge of staying engaged in the series of football games that populate our Green Bay branch of our family's home all day on Thanksgiving (and every Sunday and Monday night during the long season).

This year, though, I came to think about this outsider sensation in a new way, since I'm fresh from finishing my Masters thesis on cultural intelligence. Yesterday, I even tweeted about it: "In one way, surely, I'm culturally intelligent: I try to dress like the locals when in Green Bay; today, I'm wearing Packer-logo'ed pants." In the case of my thesis, cultural intelligence referred to being able to work effectively with colleagues and clients from other countries, but in my own life, currently, I've come to realize that there can be a domestic version as well. In addition to aligning my sartorial choices with those of the townspeople, when in Green Bay, Wisconsin, I need to be able to "talk cheese." Or at least, I need to be able to comprehend it when Pat and random strangers engage in it.

At breakfast today, the hotel cook chatted with us during his break and Pat and he went on endlessly with what I've always thought of as small-talk. I've never seen a conversation like this anywhere in the Northeast, where I grew up. Here, it's common. I first learned about it during -20 degree Fahrenheit weather, when Pat was pumping gas in Green Bay during one of our annual visits 18 years ago. "Where were you?" I asked Pat when she finally returned from paying the gas jockey.

"Oh, we were talkin' cheese," she answered simply.

Somehow, no matter how American I seem to my European friend, with my multivitamins and red raincoat, when we head into Football Season, into the Christmas gateway of Thanksgiving and into Green Bay, Wisconsin, I feel like one of these things is not like the other, to borrow a phrase from the American kids' show, "Sesame Street."

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