Write me: rjn@richardjnewman.com
Antisemitism Has Always Been a Part of My Life — 1
In the con­text of a dis­cus­sion we were hav­ing about an essay I pub­lished last year on 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. She’d 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 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.

Sixth Grade

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.

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8 Comments on "Antisemitism Has Always Been a Part of My Life — 1"

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[…] Life… March 24, 2017 rich­new­man anti­semitism 0 Com­ments In case you didn’t read my pre­vi­ous post, I’m going to repeat here what I wrote there: I don’t know about you—and here I’m […]


[…] about anti­semitism in the future. In case you haven’t seen the pre­vi­ous two posts (Part 1, Part 2), this is what I wrote about why I decid­ed to write them: I don’t know about […]


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[…] some day have use for them, and which ones I will con­sign to the trash. The first three reposts (1, 2, 3) are rel­a­tive­ly recent ones that tell the sto­ry of my expe­ri­ence with anti­semitism from third […]

Rarely, how­ev­er, except by Jews, is [anti-semi­tism] 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. I’ve seen you write sim­i­lar things before. What do you mean by “need to” in this con­text? I would have thought it the epit­o­me of non-Jew­ish priv­i­lege that I don’t need — in the ordi­nary sense of the word — to do, say, or think any­thing about anti­semitism at all. I could get along fine with­out ever think­ing about it. Do you mean “should”? Also what… Read more »
I sup­pose I wrote “need to” because I was think­ing about peo­ple who would say that, when some­one has priv­i­lege, he or she need, in the sense of being oblig­at­ed, to take respon­si­bil­i­ty for it. It might be that “should” would have been a more clear what of say­ing what I meant. Moral­ly or eth­i­cal­ly oblig­at­ed then. That clears up the phrase “need to”. Sev­er­al things are not clear to me. What do you mean by “account and take respon­si­bil­i­ty for” in this con­text? Why do non-Jew­ish peo­ple “need to” do this in the moral­ly oblig­at­ed sense that you have clar­i­fied. How… Read more »