THE BLOG
11/24/2005 12:31 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Blacks, Jews, and Gratitude

African Americans and observant Jews may be the happiest people in America. When you ask my pal, Rabbi Scheiman “How ya doin’?” He replies “It’s the best day of my life!” Jews are required by law to feel and express gratitude one hundred times a day. The affect is not so pronounced in all of us as in Rabbi Scheiman but his attitude is the goal. When I ask the same question of black people, “How ya doin’?” I estimate that about one in four respond, “I’m blessed.”

My gratitude as an African American derives from my age. I was born in 1956 In the age of full-frontal discrimination. When I was born, restaurant owners legally threw Negroes out of the joints for trying to sit and eat in the same room with white people. Now, a few decades later I wish somebody would try to kick me out of Spago because of my color. I would, a few court dates later, own Spago. Racism of course remains. In America you can still get killed for brown skin. But now the killers are prosecuted more often. And my children suffer the indignities and dangers in far greater comfort. The big view of American history can make gratitude sing in the Negro heart. Louie Armstrong says. “If you ‘member how you started out, you got to be happy ‘bout how you end up.”

We Jews enforce our gratitude by law. The first thing an observant Jew must do when he wakes up is thank G-d that he woke up. That's the beginning of a day filled with thank you’s. As we don our suits and dresses we thank G-d for clothing the naked when we look at ourselves in the mirror we thank G-d for giving sight to the blind. Jews are mandated to regularly thank G-d for bodily functions we are squeamish to talk to our doctors about.

Then we’re required to be. It’s not enough to express gratitude. We are also required by law to feel, our grateful words must have a sincere intention -- we call it “kavanah.” It ain’t a good prayer that’s just words in the air.

Gratitude ameliorates the worst aspect of American life. Which is that the consumer culture makes us constantly aware of what we do not have without counterbalancing rituals of gratitude for the mind boggling bounty that is the USA. But black history allows and Judaism requires folks to swim in gratitude for everything from freedom to lunch.

Now I don’t doubt that grateful white gentiles abound… somewhere. I just personally have not run into any who impressed me as such. In fact I more commonly find white gentiles arguing against an “unrealistically positive” view of the world.

Maybe blacks and observant Jews are more gratitude prone because our histories are so full of suffering. Maybe we are marginalized just enough that we take our prosperity a little less for granted. Maybe white gentiles express their gratitude in ways not yet understood by me.

Truth is I cannot adequately explain the differences I observe. But I do know that unlike most generations of Freeman’s before me, I have the leisure to think and write about the question. My city is safe, my family is healthy and full of love and spring is around the corner. It’s the best day of my life.