Why am I so successful, creative, empathetic and independent? Because I had a Jewish mother.

Badda bing! It sounds like a set up for a Henny Youngman routine.

Actually, it’s part of the subtitle of Marjorie Ingall’s insightful and funny new book, “Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.” (“Mamaleh” is an endearing Yiddish term for mother.)

Without knowing it, Ingall offers an important lesson for haoles who have moved to Hawaii from the mainland.

Passing showers blanketed Waikiki's landmark Diamond Head with rainbow in foreground. 9 june 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
White people moving to Hawaii will be happiest if they embrace a difficult but rewarding cultural balancing act. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The lesson is this: Haoles have to see themselves as outsiders, but as a particular kind of outsider based on skills and attitudes that Jews have learned, often the hard way and out of necessity, throughout the centuries.

Haoles need to see themselves as informed outsiders.

Many Caucasians who have moved here react to Hawaii with one of two extremes: They see themselves as martyrs, victims of small but powerful discrimination, like “they wouldn’t wait on me,” “they’re so aloof” or “it’s such a Third World country.”

Or they go native, trying uncritically to embrace local values at the expense of their own backgrounds and culture. The librarian who first got me involved in storytelling said to me, “I need you to tell Jewish stories. All the haoles ever want to do is tell Asian and Pacific stories.”

The informed outsider status worked for me — still does — because I began to realize that any other way I saw the place was artificial and not my reality.

This going-native reinforces a common belief here that haoles have no culture. They are simply haoles, or as Ingall puts it in a different context, “boring white people.”

Those two statuses fail to get at the essence of what it takes to live here. Both the martyr and go-native status wish away the more difficult but more productive strategies of living in Hawaii.

What does it take to be an informed outsider, and why is that good?

Initially for Jews, being an outsider was a pretty vulnerable category. As Ingall puts it, “so much Jewish identity has been tied to feeling homeless, worrying about where it is safe to hang one’s hat.”

Even as Jews thrived, they maintained a healthy, realistic sense of discomfort. Discomfort is not necessarily a bad thing.

What Jews have learned to do over the centuries is what haoles need to develop, “the ability to live among others while keeping a sense of self,” Ingall wrote.

What she says about Jewish parenting — the need to continue to transmit “solid values” and “flexible thinking” – applies just as much to people who move to Hawaii.

This involves a complicated balancing act that too many people ignore, take for granted or wish away. You are in effect never quite comfortable because this balancing act never stops.

On the one hand, it involves an understanding of your own traditions, religious or otherwise. You grew up a Methodist in a small Iowa town and then moved to L.A.? How did that affect your life? Not just the big things or the “issues,” but also the family stories, small memories, life lessons and the taken-for-granteds.

The important thing is that you understand that you don’t come to Hawaii as an empty vessel waiting to be filled or as a filled vessel waiting to be emptied.

Then, Ingall advises, you pick and choose from these traditions and values in light of your new place and new life.

You respect difference and accept the possibility that there are multiple truths, but at the same time you assess them in terms of your core beliefs.

Do I need to tell you that there is no formula for doing this? The important thing is that you embrace the tension either because you find it liberating, as I do, or because it is the only realistic way of thriving in Hawaii.

This idea of selectively accepting core beliefs — choosing from a menu — drives religious traditionalists, including ultra-orthodox Jews, nuts as it does other people who think that tradition and truth are unchanging. Does that sound familiar? (Ingall is a very observant Jew, by the way.)

That is why, as Jews have learned, it makes sense to be wary of secular leadership. Jews had particularly good reasons for this wariness because secular authorities often killed or expelled them.

Nothing so dramatic is going on in Hawaii of course. But it pays to be wary of political leaders who talk about “local values” or “our traditions,” because that kind of language is often used to deflect people from being critical.

Authorities sometimes call people who oppose them “outsiders” in order to delegitimize them. That is simply the risk that informed outsiders have to live with, part of the challenges and opportunities of living in Hawaii.

I don’t want to sound like a bad K-12 teacher here, imposing from on high a list of formulaic dos and don’ts in an authoritative manner. So let me briefly describe my own experiences.

It took me a long time to figure out how much of my outsider stance toward Hawaii was in my bones. There was never a eureka moment. It was mainly about making sense of living in Hawaii where I have felt both comfortable and uncomfortable.

The informed outsider status worked for me — still does — because I began to realize that any other way I saw the place was artificial and not my reality.

This became clearest to me when I wrote a book of stories, some of which were about growing up in Milwaukee and others about living most of my adulthood in Honolulu.

I discovered — again more by stumbling than self-consciously — that I could not have written the Milwaukee stories had I not lived in Hawaii and that my perspective in the Hawaii stories stemmed from not just living here but from my past.

That’s why discomfort can be liberating, and outsiderness, if developed the right way, can be hard but rewarding work.

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