Sh’ma Blog: Confessions of a First Time American Jewish Voter
By Juan Mejia
Sh'ma: A Journal of Jewish Ideas
Published: January 16, 2012
My American soul is still in its infancy. I have been living in this wonderful country for only six years. This coming April I will celebrate one year of becoming a citizen. As far as being and feeling American, I am just but a baby. I came to this country, like many others, as a victim of religious discrimination. I had been living in Israel for three years and as a Conservative convert, under the legislation of that time, could not apply to make aliyah. Being married to an American and having been accepted at a prestigious American Rabbinical School, made the move to these golden shores a very appealing move. During my first years of adaptation to the American way of life, I must confess that I found many things confusing. Chief among them, was the seriousness with which young people took politics and the democratic process here. Having grown up in Colombia during one of the country´s most violent and unpredictable periods, my attitude towards politics was at best aloof, if not outwardly cynical. Hailing from a country where virtuous politicians were unfailingly assassinated and where voting was an exercise of choosing the lesser of two evils, I could not understand why my American friends and family were so passionate about their votes. Did they really think that their small choice could alter the life of their country? How could they think that their actions had an effect on that distant ivory tower of global power called Washington DC?
President Obama´s election changed all of this. I remember watching his victory speech on the television, while outside my Harlem apartment crowds were celebrating. Even though, I had not followed the electoral process carefully, and, despite of being left-leaning in politics, I was not really invested in the victory of either candidate, the election of the first African-American president shook my cynicism to the ground. Indeed, it was possible to change things with the humble and modest act of voting. The people have a voice and that voice can overcome insurmountable obstacles. I compared what my eyes were seeing with the situation of my own country where there are no Afro-Colombian bishops or generals, and I felt ashamed of my own cynicism. I remember turning to my wife and telling her, "I think I am ready to become American now."
A lot has changed since then. I do not longer live in New York City but in the buckle of the Bible belt, the reddest of states, red-dirt Oklahoma. I love it here. My neighbors are a rare mixture of piety, patriotism, and solidarity. They are proud of their country (our country, now) and are not afraid to show it. The red white and blue flies everywhere, from the front porches of the houses, to the excessive size of the car dealerships to the rear bumpers of dirty pick up trucks. It is in this context that I will cast my first ballot as an American this coming November. And although my almost certain liberal vote will be drowned in a sea of red votes, I confess that this will be the first time that I vote and feel strongly that my voice is heard, even if it is not harkened to. Maybe this is the enthusiasm of the newly naturalized. But as I could see in the eyes of the other 120 immigrants that became American with me in an Oklahoma City courthouse: Amerika ist anders! America is different. This is the place where unique ideas may not succeed overnight, but are given a fair chance and in a generation or two rise to power to change the country and, with it, the world. As a Jew and as an American, I hold that profoundly Jewish idea to be one of great simplicity, beauty, and power.
Originally published here: