After Charlottesville, I came out as a Jew. It had a lot to do with my DNA results returning as 98.2% Ashkenazi. But it was the overtly anti-Semitic neo-Nazi, violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville (*1), and the resulting, revolting response by our bigot-in-chief, that moved me to buy a Mogen David (star of David) and join a Shul (synagogue).
In talking and writing about the rising level of hate in this country, I cannot ignore the too-close-for-comfort parallels to pre-Nazi Germany. As an educated white person, I am fully aware that my privilege buffers me from the rampant daily bigotry suffered by other minorities. Yet here we are in 2018 facing the slaughter of 11 people at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, the most violent attack on Jews in the history of this nation. I have been re-living some of the anti-Semitic assaults that scarred me during my lifetime, and though I have never directly experienced physical violence because of my heritage, I now feel more personally afraid of this very possibility. These days, many Jewish friends are confiding in me that they have never felt safe. This collection of memories is a glimpse of my life as an American Jew. They were seared into my psyche at different times and in different places throughout my many journeys in these less-than-United States.
My first anti-Semitic recollection was learning that my Jewish family was not welcome at the public pool in Memphis Tennessee where we moved when I was three and lived through my 5th grade year. Blacks were forbidden and Jews were severely shunned. My family joined the Jewish Community Center, which had a far better pool anyway, and I spent many a fun summer there while my parents worked or studied full time. I didn’t feel at all deprived, I never felt afraid, and I’m sure my parents knew I would be protected because they left me there all day, every day. I learned later that we were in Memphis waiting out a 1950’s quota system commonly imposed on Jews applying to universities. My parents’ plans and our family’s future were stalled, held hostage while in the queue for Dad to be admitted into the University of Tennessee Medical School.
On my first day of first grade in Memphis, I was punished for not knowing the Lord’s Prayer, and I remember being told by my neighbor Louise that unless I prayed to Jesus I would be cast into hell. My family didn’t believe in hell, or any other religious mishigas (ignorance/stupidity) and I had been instructed to ignore that kind of “christian crap.” I’m so glad I was exposed to this lesson early on, as the size and stink of the excrement pile seems to be growing exponentially in recent times.
When my family finally moved back to New York, I was 11. There, a different kind of bigotry took me by surprise. I had lived in Tennessee since I was three, essentially learning how to speak there. Attending elementary school with its very southern ways left me with a drawl so thick that it was a challenge for many of my new northern classmates to understand much of what I said. To them, I was from the Deep South, which pretty much meant I was stupid. Eventually I learned to expel guttural gs like the best of those Long Islanders, and they eventually forgot I was a “backwards Southerner.”
I spent the next 10 years in the Northeast going to middle and high school surrounded by mishpucha (other Jews), then on to college in northeastern cities with their mélange of other, more exotic cultures. It was at Boston University that I was called a kike (*2) for the first time. I had to look it up to know it was an anti Semitic slur. I eventually graduated from New York University in 1973, not hearing until just before my departure that NYU was sometimes referred to as “N.Y.Jew.” I suppose that could be considered a slur, too.
My next encounter with ant-Semitic ignorance was from one of my first high school students. I had moved out to San Francisco and landed a job as an art teacher in an alternative high school. After school on the first day, a new student came to see me for some reason I no longer recall. What I will never forget is her young face and youthful voice asking me at some point during our brief conversation, why I didn’t have horns. I remember pausing, and catching my breath. I didn’t understand. I surmised she must have been joking so I replied with something about how I would be a fun teacher, not a bully. She then clarified her query with, “ I thought all Jews had horns”(*3). Never having heard this particular mishigas (stupidity) before in my life, I’m surprised at how appropriately I responded. Maybe it was because she was truly innocent, and I trusted she was asking her question out of sincere curiosity. Maybe I was being naïve.
A year later, I had to flunk one troublesome student who neither showed up to class, nor completed several final senior assignments. He begged me on his knees the last day of classes to let him pass so he could graduate. I gave him several options to make up his missed work over the summer. Instead, he chose to spray paint a yellow swastika on the door to my classroom for all to see as students lined up to take exams the next Monday. This was the first time I felt afraid. He was a big, bad, biker bigot.
Like no other Jew ever, I moved to middle-of-nowhere wilderness New Mexico in 1976 to work as a ranch hand. The owners were of German descent, and the man turned out to be a bigoted anti-Semite who treated me like a third-class citizen, and didn’t pay me the promised $10/week wages for the work I completed. He called me lazy and dirty and made jokes at my expense during the rare times a guest might venture out to our isolated compound. I was stuck out there, 90 miles from the nearest town with this nazi-sympathizing PhD Geology professor and his milquetoast protestant wife. That’s when I realized higher education doesn’t always counter ignorance or stupidity.
If I had to choose, I would say my most shockingly stereotypical anti-Semitic experience happened during graduate school in Washington State. Through National Teacher Corps, I had won a full scholarship to Western Washington University, as well as a living stipend in exchange for bringing new educational ideas and energy into an impoverished rural white community. On the first day of my new job as high school art teacher, after an all-staff lunch meeting at a local steak house, the check was being tallied and reconciled. As we were getting ready to return to school, the very flirty football coach/math teacher who had been inching up to me all afternoon yelled across the room in a somewhat joking, but very loud voice, “Trying to Jew your way out of it, Harry?” Evidently, “Harry” had ordered more food than he was allotted in the meeting budget, and he hadn’t yet paId his overage. In an instant, I glared at the jock while he looked at me. Our eyes locked like that for what felt like a really long time until he flippantly remarked, “Oops, sorry.” That was the moment I made the critical mistake of retorting with what was by far the dumbest comment I have ever uttered in a professional setting. I looked right at him and said, “That’s ok buddy. All you dumb jocks are alike.” While I have to admit feeling great in the moment, I did end up paying for it dearly as the brunt of many mean practical jokes perpetrated by that small-minded, small-town hick and his team of conniving coaches who repeatedly badgered me for the next two years.
By far, the two biggest stabs of hurtful anti-Semitism I ever experienced were from Miss Lauder, a native Colorado Evangelical Christian who had always lived in the same house and gone to the same church, never leaving her rural Colorado home. Teaching in Lafayette in the 1980s was diverse for her. By then I had already earned a bachelors degree in Education from a prestigious university, and a masters in education through a merit-based scholarship program, and taught for 5 years. Nevertheless, the State of Colorado required even more from me to certify as an elementary teacher, and I was placed in Amy Lauder’s classroom.
Midway through my 4-month student teaching assignment with Amy, a much younger and less experienced teacher than I, we held usual conferences for the parents of our third graders. I participated fully in all of the meetings up until the single father of our only black student was scheduled to arrive. Completely out of the blue, Miss Lauder abruptly announced that she didn’t want me to be part of the meeting because she wasn’t sure if this particular dad would feel comfortable with me in the room. I didn’t feel comfortable asking her what she meant, but I had a strong inkling that, considering her bias, dare I say fear of anyone not white and not Christian, she was afraid. I think it was she who didn’t feel comfortable being alone in the room with two different minorities at the same time.
Two months later, after the academic year had ended, Miss Lauder told me during our final evaluation meeting how surprised she had been to discover that someone like me from “back there” could be so nice. I was the first Jew she had ever met, and she seemed perfectly justified, and righteously self-satisfied saying those words directly to my face, as if she were offering me a compliment for which I should be grateful. This woman was about to write the only letter of recommendation that would matter to me in my search for a teaching job in Colorado. This time, I swallowed my tongue, and tried to conceal the smoky fury that was surely pouring out of where she imagined my horns might have been.
Since then, I was often the only Jew in the schools in which I taught. I was repeatedly needled to serve as the token Chanukah maven (expert) during Xmas time, and I honestly tried to pretend to not be offended by the overwhelming number of public displays of Xmas dreck everywhere I looked, and the all-Xmas-all-the-time conversation in the staff lounge, not to mention the tacky Santa Claus and Xmas tree sweaters that seemed to be the required teacher uniform during the season. Amusingly, I did and still do find comfort in knowing that most of the sappy sounds of Xmas music played in every store all over this country, from East to West, North to South for way too many months, were penned by talented Jews, tiptoeing through their own misadventures in anti-Semitic blacklisting.
These are my most vivid memories of anti-Semitism, though I never know what current event might reignite another. We have a corrupt, questionably elected, self-described nationalist, (*4) amoral demagogue sitting on his golden Whitehouse throne stoking fear, violence, and instructing his gun-worshipping minions to ignore and disbelieve what they see and hear with their own eyes and ears. It is for his reason I feel compelled to share these memories now, just in case, because I have started to feel afraid again. And while I have no direct connection to Pittsburgh, or any of the people slaughtered there, I do feel their grief. And like most of my Jewish friends, I am also experiencing their fear.
We American Jews have been brought up with a deep-seated alertness, perhaps a molecular or genetic remnant from eons of ancient and ongoing persecution, exile, and immigration. Our history is a repeated tale of ancestors forced to flee anti-Semitic misadventures over and over and over again, in search of a safe place to simply live. I think this is why I viscerally feel the desperation in that caravan of bedraggle Hondurans heading towards the U.S. border in search of safety and freedom. And just as the open-armed promise of Lady Liberty was denied to so many of my kind, her golden gate is again barred to these new immigrants, trapped in their own terrifying misadventures, fleeing for their lives.
(*1) A “Unite the Right” rally at the University of Virginia, gathered a veritable who’s who of top neo-Nazis in the United States, including Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke and alt-right leading light Richard Spencer, among others, brandishing nationalists brandishing torches and chanting “Jews will not replace us” and the nazi slogan “blood and soil”. The attendees proudly displayed giant swastikas and wore shirts emblazoned with quotes from Adolf Hitler. One banner read, “Jews are Satan’s children.”
(*2) The word kike was born on Ellis Island when there were Jewish migrants who could not use Latin alphabet letters. When asked to sign the entry-forms with the customary “X”, the Jewish immigrants would refuse, because they associated an X with the cross of Christianity. Instead, they drew a circle as the signature on the entry-forms. The Yiddish word for “circle” is kikel, and for “little circle”, kikeleh. Before long the immigration inspectors were calling anyone who signed with an “O” in place of an “X” a kikel or kikeleh or kikee or, finally and succinctly, kike.
(*3) The source of this is uncertain, but the Encyclopedia of Swearing stated the most reasonable and most likely origin of the term is the one proposed by Leo Rosten, who asserts: it started with a mistranslation (or misinterpretation) of a line in Exodus, where Moses is described as having “rays of light” coming from his face after meeting with God. Medieval European Christians mistranslated the ancient Hebrew scripture as “his face was horned”. This became the norm. Michelangelo’s statue of Moses is just one example of a medieval depiction of Moses with these strange horns.
(*4) While the word nationalism is not inherently toxic, in the 20th century, nationalism has come to be associated with far-right politics, with fascism, with leaders like Mussolini, Hitler, Pinochet, Franco and now Donald Trump. This is perhaps part of the reason why previous American presidents did not describe themselves as nationalists. They called themselves patriots. The late American journalist Sidney J. Harris defines the difference: “The difference between patriotism and nationalism is that the patriot is proud of his country for what it does, and the nationalist is proud of his country no matter what it does; the first attitude creates a feeling of responsibility while the second a feeling of blind arrogance.” Nationalism stresses unity based on a cultural background, including language and heritage. Patriotism, rooted in the love for a nation, emphasizes values and beliefs.