Write me: rjn@richardjnewman.com
Antisemitism Has Always Been a Part of My Life — 2
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 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.

Seventh Grade

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.

Eighth Grade

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.

Ninth Grade

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.

Tenth Grade

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.

Eleventh Grade

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.

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[…] 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 […]

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