There are reasons for this, some of which are understandable, given the deeply problematic assimilation of Jewishness into whiteness in United States culture. Others, though, result pretty unambiguously from straight up, old fashioned antisemitism. Regardless of the reasons, however, what Nancy’s comments made me think about is how important it is for Jewish people to tell the stories of our encounters with antisemitism. Because I don’t know about you—and here I’m addressing myself to my Jewish readers—antisemitism has always been a part of my life. We need to tell these stories from our lives, and tell them and insist that they be taken seriously, not simply as expressions of an unfortunate and perhaps residual hatred, left over from “a time before” when people were not as enlightened about Jews as they are now—a not uncommon attitude I have encountered—and not as what we ought (sadly and resignedly) to expect given how Israel behaves in the world, especially towards the Palestinians; but as the systemic form of hatred and oppression that it is, woven no less ineluctably into the secular Christian culture of the United States than racism and Islamophobia. (I realize, of course, that antisemitism is also a worldwide phenomenon, but I live in the United States, and my experience is in the United States, and so it’s about the United States in particular that I am thinking right now.)
In blog posts that I’m not going to link to because the context in which I wrote them would distract from the point I am trying to make here, I told some of my own antisemitism stories, and in a good deal more detail than in the Unlikely Stories essay. I’ve decided it’s time to tell them again. For the reasons I gave above, I think they are a necessary response to things like the call for an armed, neo-Nazi/white supremacist march targeting the Jews of Whitefish, Montana; to the appearance of swastikas on my campus and so many other places throughout the United States; because of incidents like this one illustrated by the photo at the top of this post, in which vandals turned a family’s homemade menorah into a swastika; and because of the wave of bomb threats that have been called in to Jewish Centers since the beginning of 2017. My own stories cover a lot of ground, and so I am going to break them up into shorter posts, starting with what I experienced in elementary school, which would cover the mid-1960s to the early 1970s.
Third Through Fifth Grades
Antisemitism has been a tangible and to varying degrees violent presence in my life since at least third grade, which would have been in 1970 or so, when John W—it’s amazing that I remember his name—having asked me the previous day what religion I was, came up to me in the playground while we were choosing sides for dodgeball and said, “My father told me I’m not allowed to play with Jews.” I can’t recall whether or not I was permitted to be part of the game that day, but I can see very clearly the one and only fistfight I have ever had, which that same year. I don’t know why John B and I ended up in the middle of the schoolyard circle of boys trying very hard to get one of us to throw the first punch, but I do know that John W was not the only voice I heard reassuring my opponent that I was “only a Jew” and therefore “weak and easy to take.” In the end, the first and only punch was mine. I landed one right on John’s chin. He started bleeding and the sight of his blood frightened us all into running wherever it was that we ran to. I was scared because I thought I’d really hurt him, but I found out later I’d only broken a scab on his face.
That show of strength, however, did nothing to dampen my classmates’ enthusiasm for shows of antisemitism. Next came the pennies they started throwing at me in the schoolyard. At the time, I did not know the antisemitic canard of the cheap Jew, and they said nothing that connected what they were doing to my being Jewish. I’m guessing they wanted to see if I would prove what they already “knew” to be true by doing “what came naturally” and picking them up. Since I often ended up with as much as twenty cents—an amount that meant something to a third grader back then—I laughed at them for being so stupid that they were giving me free money. I could not for the life of me understand why they thought it was so funny that I took it. Eventually, someone explained to me just what the pennies were supposed to signify. I wish I could say I stopped picking them up, but I didn’t. I’m not entirely sure why, except that the freeness of the money seemed to outweigh the insult it was supposed to convey.
The last penny-throwing incident I remember was in fifth grade, which means people had been throwing them at me for two years. Usually, this happened in the schoolyard, during recess, but this time someone tossed a few pennies in my direction during class, when our teacher had stepped out of the room for a minute. Clearly, this had been planned, since one classmate actually handed me an entire roll of pennies. Then, a group of boys started chanting “Jew! Jew! Jew! Jew!” (I don’t remember if the girls participated or had anything to say at all.) I don’t remember what precisely happened when my teacher came back into the room, but I do know that, even after he’d calmed the class down and got us all back in our seats, he did nothing to acknowledge the antisemitic nature of what had just happened.
My sixth grade music teacher made a point of embarrassing me in front of the entire class for not knowing what holly was in “Deck the Boughs…” “Don’t you Jews know anything?” she asked. When I asked if we could learn a Chanukah song, she said it was more important for me to know the Christmas songs; and when I got permission to leave school fifteen minutes early so I could get to my Hebrew school classes on time, she muttered something about how “Jews were always asking for special favors” and almost didn’t let me go.
There was no sixth grade graduation ceremony, but we did get a signature book. On the very first page, Jim wrote, “Rose are red, violets are blue/I never met a nicer Jew.” Evan: “To the Jew, Have a penny good time in 7th grade.” Andy: “Of all the pushy Jews, you top them all.” I don’t remember what I felt reading them then; but it astonishes me now—though it probably shouldn’t—how normalized that kind of casual antisemitism was.
Next time, I’ll cover grades seven through eleven.