(I wrote the original version of this post at least four years ago, but events of the last couple of years, along with what I wrote in my last post about the erasure of antisemitism in one writer’s critique of whiteness, makes me feel like it’s worth posting again.)
In the context of a discussion we were having about an essay I published in Unlikely Stories, called The Lines That Antisemitism and Racism Draw, my friend Nancy reminded me of a conversation a group of us had about antisemitic graffiti that was showing up on the campus where I teach. It gave me, I said, a real feeling of déjà vu, and I started telling the group stories—some of which are in the essay—about the antisemitism, violent and otherwise, that I experienced growing up on Long Island in the 1970s and early 80s. Nancy had never heard me tell those stories before, she said, and asked if writing about them had helped me speak about them. Her comments struck me because I have never thought of myself as not speaking about my experience with antisemitism. When the subject comes up, I share the stories quite readily, but I guess that’s the point: the subject very rarely comes up. Indeed, it seems to me that antisemitism often gets treated as an “oppression apart.” It is sometimes—but not always and, in my opinion, not often enough—paid lip service in the list of oppressions people of good will are supposed to reject. Rarely, however, except by Jews, is it taken seriously as a social, cultural, political, and institutional manifestation of privilege that people who are not Jewish need to account and take responsibility for in their lives. (This is not true of Nancy, whose essay about her own negotiation/navigation of white privilege, Meeting the Man on the Street, you ought to read.)
There are reasons for this, some of which are understandable, given the deeply problematic assimilation of those US Jews whose skin color marks them as white into whiteness. 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. Why? Because—and here I’m addressing myself to my Jewish readers—antisemitism has always been a part of my life, and I’m guessing it has, in one way or another, always been a part of yours. We need to tell these stories 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 (which is nothing more than a convenient rationalization); 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 [which were current when I first wrote this post] 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, in which vandals turned a family’s homemade menorah into a swastika; also, more recently, the chants of “Jews will not replace us” at Charlottesville; the shootings at the Tree of Life and Poway synagogues; and how white supremacists are actively promoting conspiracy theories blaming the COVID-19 pandemic on the Jews.
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.
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 my religion 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 was 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, 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’ antisemitic enthusiasm. They started throwing pennies 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 in my pocket, 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 were laughing at me. 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 taking advantage of what I thought of as their stupidity seemed to outweigh the insult the pennies were 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 walked over to me with great ceremony and actually handed me an entire roll of pennies. Then, a group of boys started chanting “Jew! Jew! Jew! Jew!” I don’t recall if the girls participated or had anything to say at all. Nor do I remember what happened when my teacher came back into the room. I am sure, though, 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.
(An interesting side note: Years ago, in a much earlier version of this blog post, before I really understood how the Internet worked, I included Andy’s full name. Shortly thereafter I got an email from him. People googling his name, looking for his construction business, were finding my post instead and he had heard that some decided against doing business with him because of it. I was kind of embarrassed by this, since harming him was the last thing on my mind, and it would never have occurred to me to hold him accountable as an adult, at least not in any material way, for what I’m sure he thought of in sixth grade as a harmless joke. We emailed backed and forth a few times; I edited the post; and I did what I had to do to make sure the original post disappeared from Google’s archives. One thing stayed with me from my brief encounter with him, though. He made a point of bragging to me about how diverse a group of young people his children’s friends were and how he always had them over his house, but he never once thought to apologize for what he wrote in my book when he and I were their age.)
In the next post, I’ll cover grades seven through eleven.