The Earth That Dayton Stood Still


The recent release of the sci-fi remake The Day The Earth Stood Still gave me pause to wonder: How would visiting aliens perceive Earthlings circa 2008?

Given the outrageous cultural contrasts of this year, we must appear as a yo-yo to outsiders looking in. Consider:


* Are we the open-minded, forward-thinking society who elected the first African-American President, or the fearful 87 percent of Missourians who voted to require that public meetings be conducted in English (despite an utter lack of evidence that such meetings aren’t so conducted currently)?

* Are we the hateful and senseless terrorists who inflicted massive suffering on the residents of Mumbai, or the proudly multicultural lot who came together at the Jewish Federation to honor the lives of the victims and find salvation in the hope of a better tomorrow?

* Are we a species that memorializes Harvey Milk’s struggles for gay rights as witnessed in Gus Van Sant’s powerful film now in theaters, or do we eschew social change as evidenced by the defeat of Prop 8, the same-sex marriage ballot measure in California? And as if that juxtaposition weren’t sufficiently challenging, what would visitors make of the spite, venom and boycotts directed back toward the LDS/Mormon church as a result of its leaders’ public support for Prop 8?

Perhaps Van Sant could have aptly titled his film: Milk: Is the Xenophobic Cup Half Empty or Half Full?

Xenophobia is, at its broadest, a dislike and fear of those different from oneself (including, by the way, aliens). It has forever permeated human civilization, and has served as a sword to justify myriad cultural, religious and racial slaughters. Jews have suffered inexorable pain and death at the hands of xenophobic leaders and masses.

The Big Question is, are we making progress on eradicating the world of such hatred? As a raging optimist, I choose to believe that the ugliness of brutal intolerance can be put behind us as we strive to become better world citizens. Others might shrug their shoulders in resignation upon witnessing the very depressing events of ’08.

But in one personal experience this year, my view won hands down. I was blessed to briefly occupy a microcosm that drained the contents of the xenophobic cup to virtual nothingness.

The place: Dayton, Ohio. The occasion: A wedding.

Many of us know Dayton, Ohio as the home of the flight-creating Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur, and their partner, Paul Laurence Dunbar. As the Web site for the federal Dayton Aviation Heritage Area so poignantly states, “these men offered the world something far greater, they offered the world hope, and the ability to take a dream and make it a reality.”

For me, Dayton served as host to a living dream, though one of an entirely different sort. Two of my friends, David and Bijal, joined together in marriage in an exceptionally beautiful way.

This wedding was not commonplace, but instead the union of a woman and man — and of two families — from vastly different backgrounds. Bijal is Indian American and from a Hindu heritage, David an Hispanic American of Catholic upbringing.

The night before the wedding, the families donned Indian wear at a Garba, a traditional Indian circle and spiral dance of the Gujarat region. Two ceremonies graced the day of the wedding — a simple but elegant Catholic one in a modern suburban chapel, followed by elaborate and exceptional Hindu wedding rituals. And thank goodness for the blowout bash that featured Indian cuisine utterly to die for.

It is impossible to communicate in mere words the sheer joy of the families as they shared their cultural practices and religious beliefs. This was not simply “tolerance,” a word I generally avoid because it carries a connotation to many of “putting up with.”

This was Embrace. A celebration in which distinct cultures intertwined, in which people derived their smiles and tears as much from what was distant as what was familiar.

Some of those tears were mine that weekend. I cried partly because I love my friends. But I cried mostly because I observed the brilliance of what life can be like when we cherish our respective cultural beauties instead of warring over our differences.

I waved goodbye, albeit briefly, to xenophobia that weekend. And though I returned to The Real World, I knew that I could freeze-frame Dayton and stick it in my pocket as a lasting emblem of hope and respect, of love and joy.

And if the aliens ever do stop by, that’s the picture I’ll show them.

Larry Levin is Publisher/CEO of the St. Louis Jewish Light.