Searching for Roots We Never Had

Aug. 21 1998 3:30 AM

Searching for Roots We Never Had

You don't have to have Mayflower ancestors to feel at home in New England.

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In the summer, people come to New England--Vermont, Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard, Maine--for the natural amenities, the water, the mountains, the clear, fresh, cool air, the blue skies. But they also come, I think, in search of their roots. They want not only to find but also to identify with the America of 200 years ago. They want to sit on the porch of the local country store and drink coffee and eat blueberry muffins. They want to browse through the flea market searching for some memento that connects with, let us say, 1830. If they are near the sea they want to eat lobsters by the peck. Some of the men will grow little beards, to be shaved off after Labor Day.

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Some of the summer people have been coming to the same small town for so many years, even for more than one generation, that they are part of the local scene and do have roots there. I am thinking of the more occasional visitors. Very few have roots in small-town New England. Some may have Boston roots. More have New York and New Jersey roots. And most have roots two or three generations back in Lithuania or Ireland or Sicily. But they like to think of themselves as having a family connection with early America.

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T hese small New England towns are part of the origins of the political, economic, and social world we all live in. But so are Philadelphia and Charlottesville, Va. The summer people coming to these small towns are not tourists looking for a civics lesson. They are, it seems to me, seeking and imagining a more personal, familial connection. That is what I mean by "roots."

I don't deride this at all. On the contrary, I think it is wonderful that people here should become so Americanized, so naturalized, that they come to admire and seek to identify with a history in which their families had no part. It is a testament to openness and democracy in America that so many of us want this connection and succeed in achieving it. I don't know this, but I doubt that this absorption occurs elsewhere in the world. Would a person whose family had lived in France or Japan for three generations come to identify himself with the French or the Japanese culture of 200 years ago as if his family had been a part of it? I don't think so, unless the person was exceptionally rich or distinguished and so transcended national boundaries.

The search for roots is a common phenomenon. People want to see where they came from in order to understand and appreciate themselves better. The Irish like to go back to the Old Sod and see the conditions in which their grandparents lived and perhaps meet relatives they had not known before. The same seems to be true of Italians and probably others. But the New England phenomenon is the adoption of roots that are not really there.

Why do people seek ersatz roots to identify with? Perhaps because the world changes so rapidly that for many people, the real roots no longer exist. Once on a trip to Detroit, where I was born, I tried to visit the scenes of my boyhood. Nothing remained that had any possible connection with me. The scene of my mother's childhood, Brownsville, in Brooklyn, is now light-years distant from the culture in which she grew up.

Finding real roots is especially difficult for Jews of eastern European origin. The shtetl in Belarus that my father left to come to America as a boy, over 100 years ago, certainly bears no traces of my origins--if it still exists. Hitler was quite thorough in cutting us off at the roots. Some American Jews do go back to visit the larger eastern European cities in which Jews once lived. But the occasion is one for mourning a separation, not for celebrating a connection. Many Jews find a trace of their roots in Israel. They can look at those stony fields and think that members of their families lived and worked there. But that was a long, long time ago, and the connection grows faint.

So we--and now I do not speak only of Jews--come to small New England towns to find our roots and imagine an old family connection. I understand that the "natives," the year-round residents, do not want to adopt the visitors into their families--and may even resent them. But they are courteous. For one thing, they are all in the business of selling roots. And maybe in the long winter nights the "natives" may realize that they are not really natives either, that there were Native Americans here before them who have now been cut off from their roots.

Herbert Stein, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, was chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under Presidents Nixon and Ford. He is a member of the board of contributors at the Wall Street Journal.

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