Where everyone knows your name

Why the enduring desire for community still matters


Jay Walljasper | July/Aug 2005 issue

Flying home from New York City last night I found myself in the midst of a wedding celebration. The young groom and a couple dozen well-wishers, all of them Orthodox Jews, were on their way to Minneapolis for the big event. They boarded the plane with sacks of bagels and chicken sandwiches, turning our section of the cabin into an airborne picnic. The flight attendants sensibly gave up enforcement of rules against standing in the aisles as merry wedding-goers moved from seat to seat in a conversational carousel.

It reminded me of an old Eastern European village with men and boys in yarmulkes and women and girls in ankle-length dresses telling jokes, whispering confidences and joyously shouting out opinions. The most touching scene was when a pretty teenage girl sat down next to an older man, perhaps her grandfather or uncle, to talk about troubles she was having in school. Never had I seen such a heartfelt conversation crossing normally rigid gender and generational lines.

I never did figure out who was married to whom, which children belonged to which parents and grandparents-or even if this was one extended family or an entourage that included friends and neighbours. It reminded me of the old African saying, borrowed by Hillary Clinton for the title of her book: ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ These are lucky kids, I thought, to be embraced by an entire cluster of interested adults.

‘I bet you wished you’d sat somewhere else?’ asked a woman in an unmistakable Brooklyn accent, as she watched me pretend to work on some papers. I told her it was no problem at all. But I really wanted to ask her if I could attend the wedding and then bring my family back to New York to spend the summer with them.

Usually I feel that life with family and friends in Minneapolis is quite rich but compared to all this, my world suddenly seemed atomized and a little lonely. Seeing some of those dear to me means picking up the phone, and scheduling time, often a week in advance. There are few times when everyone is festively gathered in one spot. Even at family weddings, people arrive and leave in separate nuclear family units.

I know that I would never fit comfortably into that religious and ethnic culture, nor any other that preserved its identity with a set of strict social rules and obligations. I am accustomed, and perhaps even addicted, to having many choices. A tight-knit community might easily feel constraining to me. I imagine, for instance, this groom never allowed himself to think about falling in love and marrying outside the faith, as I did.

Yet it strikes me as unfortunate, even sad, that the virtues of communal life seem alien to our era. In the process of gaining so many options for our hearts and minds, we’ve lost something of our souls. I don’t believe it’s romanticizing the past to yearn for some richer, fuller sense of community. My fellow airline passengers last night were not relics from a by-gone era-they were using laptops, wearing chic eyeglasses, reading Time magazine and debating the fine points of text messaging.

There must be some way of uniting our deeply ingrained desire for community with modern needs for choice and mobility. It might involve ideas like co-housing developments, where people live more closely connected to one another; new forms of urban planning, which revive the convivial spirit of classic neighbourhoods; or some kind of enlightened spiritual revival that restores social bonds. I don’t know for sure what form it ought to take, but I do know that not acknowledging this basic human need for communal experience is causing big problems-from growing social alienation to the rise of harsh religious fundamentalism. Finding a way to bring people back together must be one of our prime goals for the 21st century.

Solution News Source

Where everyone knows your name

Why the enduring desire for community still matters


Jay Walljasper | July/Aug 2005 issue

Flying home from New York City last night I found myself in the midst of a wedding celebration. The young groom and a couple dozen well-wishers, all of them Orthodox Jews, were on their way to Minneapolis for the big event. They boarded the plane with sacks of bagels and chicken sandwiches, turning our section of the cabin into an airborne picnic. The flight attendants sensibly gave up enforcement of rules against standing in the aisles as merry wedding-goers moved from seat to seat in a conversational carousel.

It reminded me of an old Eastern European village with men and boys in yarmulkes and women and girls in ankle-length dresses telling jokes, whispering confidences and joyously shouting out opinions. The most touching scene was when a pretty teenage girl sat down next to an older man, perhaps her grandfather or uncle, to talk about troubles she was having in school. Never had I seen such a heartfelt conversation crossing normally rigid gender and generational lines.

I never did figure out who was married to whom, which children belonged to which parents and grandparents-or even if this was one extended family or an entourage that included friends and neighbours. It reminded me of the old African saying, borrowed by Hillary Clinton for the title of her book: ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ These are lucky kids, I thought, to be embraced by an entire cluster of interested adults.

‘I bet you wished you’d sat somewhere else?’ asked a woman in an unmistakable Brooklyn accent, as she watched me pretend to work on some papers. I told her it was no problem at all. But I really wanted to ask her if I could attend the wedding and then bring my family back to New York to spend the summer with them.

Usually I feel that life with family and friends in Minneapolis is quite rich but compared to all this, my world suddenly seemed atomized and a little lonely. Seeing some of those dear to me means picking up the phone, and scheduling time, often a week in advance. There are few times when everyone is festively gathered in one spot. Even at family weddings, people arrive and leave in separate nuclear family units.

I know that I would never fit comfortably into that religious and ethnic culture, nor any other that preserved its identity with a set of strict social rules and obligations. I am accustomed, and perhaps even addicted, to having many choices. A tight-knit community might easily feel constraining to me. I imagine, for instance, this groom never allowed himself to think about falling in love and marrying outside the faith, as I did.

Yet it strikes me as unfortunate, even sad, that the virtues of communal life seem alien to our era. In the process of gaining so many options for our hearts and minds, we’ve lost something of our souls. I don’t believe it’s romanticizing the past to yearn for some richer, fuller sense of community. My fellow airline passengers last night were not relics from a by-gone era-they were using laptops, wearing chic eyeglasses, reading Time magazine and debating the fine points of text messaging.

There must be some way of uniting our deeply ingrained desire for community with modern needs for choice and mobility. It might involve ideas like co-housing developments, where people live more closely connected to one another; new forms of urban planning, which revive the convivial spirit of classic neighbourhoods; or some kind of enlightened spiritual revival that restores social bonds. I don’t know for sure what form it ought to take, but I do know that not acknowledging this basic human need for communal experience is causing big problems-from growing social alienation to the rise of harsh religious fundamentalism. Finding a way to bring people back together must be one of our prime goals for the 21st century.

Solution News Source

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