I have recently been faced with such a collision. Ironically, I finished writing a personal memoir just about the time that Donald Trump was elected president. I reached the age of 80 when my memoir was published. The title summarizes its focus: Leaving South Dakota: A Memoir of a Jewish Feminist Academic. I tried to tell the story of a Jewish girl growing up in South Dakota, leaving home at a time of immense change in the US, and trying to find a way to make sense of a constantly changing environment.
The memoir dealt with three themes. The first shows that people change but usually maintain attributes of their early life. The second highlights the contradictions and conflicts that continued throughout my life. And the third acknowledges that change comes in unexpected ways as a result of unanticipated experiences.
Clearly, I did not anticipate the presidency of Donald Trump. Trump challenged many of my basic beliefs. His election not only tested my political and social beliefs but has actually confronted the story that I have told about my life. I look at the memoir today and start questioning my interpretation of the basic parameters of my life. Was I really a Jewish girl who described herself always living in multiple worlds, balancing change and tradition, operating outside and inside the system, being both a practitioner and an academic, and an advocate and an analyst?
Like many of the people I know, Trump’s presidency has contributed to my daily personal problems. I am uncertain about the future. This uncertainty seems to have contributed to health issues that limit my mobility and (even though I am over 80) makes me worry about my professional and personal future. And it causes me to worry about the younger members of the family and how they will survive this depressing environment. What should my twin great-nieces expect for their future?
This is not surprising. But I do find myself wondering how people I knew escaped from the suicides of the Stock Market crash of 1929 or learned how to deal with their shifting role in the world (as did UK citizens when the British empire diminished in size and impact in the post-World War II period). But those comparisons are largely theoretical or at least abstract.
Its when I pick up a copy of my memoir today that I am struck by the Trump impact. Writing the memoir had allowed me to reexamine my experience. But it didn’t give me a hint about the disjuncture between my assumptions and those that emerged from Trump. I told the story of a family of immigrants (I was a first generation American) who found a way to be proud Americans and contribute to all of the ways available to the US society. My parents lived through the depression, continued to identify as Jews to the broader society, valued education, and – interesting enough – were good citizens in a small city in South Dakota. The term “immigrant” evokes a different reaction today than it did as I was growing up.
My memoir did include the description of some experiences that showed that anti-Semitism was not dead but when it did surface it did not control our lives. As I have subsequently learned since the publication of the memoir, my experiences growing up in Aberdeen, South Dakota were both familiar and yet different from those of my colleagues. While those colleagues do seem to have differentiated between our experiences, it did not take the classic forms of anti-Semitism.
What would I say if I were writing that memoir today?
Would I emphasize the experiences that had anti-Semitic overlays? Would I spend more time on the experiences that made me skeptical of traditional Judaism? Would I believe that J Street could withstand the pressures both inside the US and in Israel that ignored the values of Judaism that I had supported?
Would I characterize my experience as more of that of an outsider than an insider? Would I note that I didn’t have a desire to return to Aberdeen and instead explore the world and find friendships and experiences across the globe? Would I have become an academic who valued information, research and the ability to be skeptical about “truths”, especially those masquerading as “fake news”?
Would I believe in the ability of the US democratic system to withstand challenges to its way of sharing power across sectors and deal with complexity? And perhaps most importantly, would I calculate cost and profit margins as my single measure of success, ignoring values of equity and effectiveness?
History is always written in new ways as historians deal with the realities of the present as they present the past. That can happen in one’s personal history as well.