In seventh grade, I was accused of truancy because I stayed home from school for the first two days of Sukkot, the Festival of Booths, a holiday in the Jewish calendar that is as major as Passover—meaning that it is a holiday you are not supposed to work or go to school on. Very few non-Jews know about Sukkot, though, because it does not coincide with any Christian holidays, the way Passover does with Easter or Chanukah does with Christmas, and because it is not as easily explainable as Rosh HaShana, the New Year, or Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. When the attendance officer called my house, she was surprised that I answered. I guess she figured I would try not to be found, but when I explained to her about Sukkot and that I had just gotten home from synagogue, she thought I was lying. “There are Jews at work here today,” she said. When I suggested to her that maybe they were not religious, she told me to stop being so sneaky. “You’re all alike,” she said.
In eighth grade, I changed schools and started going to a yeshiva about twenty minutes by car away from my house. I no longer had problems with antisemitism at school, and I cannot even begin to explain how relieved I felt not to have to explain myself all the time, but the problems in my neighborhood continued. From about ninth grade on, I was more or less constantly harassed in the street, called Jew, kike, heeb. I was threatened with being cooked in an oven, with crucifixion as revenge for the killing of Christ, and once someone said they planned to sacrifice me to the devil because all Jews were going to hell anyway. I had beer bottles thrown at me, rocks the size of softballs. My home was robbed and my room was singled out for particularly vicious treatment. The thieves carved the word “Kike” into the door of my closet; they threw the books of Jewish learning that I had on my shelves on the floor and walked all over them. This was the year I started to carry something I could use as a weapon if I was going into certain areas of my neighborhood, even if I went with “friends,” because I had learned from experience that I generally could not count on them to stand with me if the antisemites decided to attack me.
When I was fifteen or sixteen, one of these antisemitic kids spray painted graffiti about me on the walls of the public library. The cop who arrested him was smart, making sure to wait until the kid was done so that the antisemitic nature of the graffiti was clear, and the kid could be charged with the more serious crime of desecrating, rather than simply defacing public property. (There was no such thing as a hate crime back then.) Nonetheless, it took the town where I lived three years before they decided to try to clean the graffiti off the wall. They did such a bad job of it that, fifteen years later, when I brought the woman who is now my wife to meet my mother for the first time, you could still read the words, “Newman is a penny Jew,” and make out the drawing of a penny that the artist had drawn, just in case you didn’t get the point. Sixteen additional years later, which made it 2004, when I drove by one day with my son because he wanted to see where I lived when I was growing up, parts of the graffiti—my name and the word Jew—were still legible. The town had never bothered fully to erase it; they waited for the elements to do it.
Another time, on Halloween, this same group of kids executed a carefully planned ambush when I got off the school bus. To get to my building, I had to walk through a fairly long parking lot, with garages on the right and the outdoor parking spaces on the left. Some of these kids were hiding behind the parked cars, waiting for me to pass them so they could come out and start throwing eggs and other things at me. I refused to run and kept walking at my normal pace, despite the fact that some of the things being thrown were quite painful when they hit me in the back. When I got to the end of the parking lot, as I walked up the stone steps that led to the walkway at the side of my building, the leaders of this gang came out from where they were hiding, and I was suddenly surrounded by about 10 boys–some of whom had been kids I played with when I was in elementary school–who knocked me to the ground and started kicking and punching me, calling out antisemitic epithets the entire time they did so. This was in broad daylight, and they were loud, and we were close enough to the surrounding buildings that someone certainly heard them; but no one seemed to notice what these boys were doing to me.
Eventually, there was a lull in their attack and I was able to stand up. I don’t know why, but when I did so, the group backed away, and when I started to walk towards my building, they opened the circle so I could leave–suddenly they were silent–and I walked home without even a glance backwards. Remarkably, I was unhurt, but when I closed the front door behind me, my mother took one look at me and called the police. One of the things the boys had thrown at me had red dye in it, and since I was wearing white pants, the dye looked like it might be blood. When the officer arrived, I opened the door, and he immediately asked if I needed an ambulance. I had forgotten to change my pants. Once he realized I had not been stabbed, his demeanor changed. He took my statement, muttered some platitudes about how kids will be kids and you can’t do much about it, and then he left. I changed my clothes, put the pants in to be washed–the red never came out and so I did not wear them ever again–and went on with the rest of my day, and as far as I know nothing was ever done to follow up on my complaint. Except for mine and my mother’s memory of it, the entire event seemed to have vanished into nothingness.
In eleventh grade, my class went on a trip to somewhere that included a tour of a ship of historical importance. I don’t remember which one. We were standing on the deck, when a group of much younger kids, probably in elementary school, came on board. One of the girls asked one of the adults accompanying them why the boys in my group were wearing those “funny hats.” The adult explained that they were called yarmulkes and it meant we were Jewish. “Oh,” the kid said, a tone of wonder completely bereft of irony creeping into her voice. “Then where are their horns?” I did not hear the adult’s answer.
Next post will cover grade twelve.