In twelfth grade—I had switched from yeshiva back to public school—we were discussing Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” in my English class. The teacher asked if anyone knew the biblical reference in the poem’s closing lines: “Thus, though we cannot make our sun/Stand still, yet we will make him run.” I raised my hand and said it referred to Joshua making the sun stand still at the battle of Gibeon. “You should be ashamed of yourselves!” he scolded the rest of the class. “This boy who doesn’t even go to church knows the bible better than you. The Battle of Gibeon was in the reading this past Sunday!”
That same year, one of the girls in my class invited me to her house for dinner. It was a big deal for me, since I didn’t have many friends, and it didn’t hurt that she was cute. As we sat around the table after the meal, I don’t remember why, but the subject of the Holocaust came up. Joan’s father said something to the effect that, well, maybe a couple of thousand Jews at most had been killed in the concentration camps, but the idea that 6 million had died was just preposterous. Moreover, he said, the fact that so much of the world believed it was 6 million was the result of some very good propagandizing on the part of the Jews in general and the State of Israel in particular. He said this in the most friendly of ways, as an adult trying to educate a misinformed youngster. Joan argued with him, which I wish I had appreciated more at the time, since so few of my peers had ever stood up for me in situations like this, but I sat there more or less silent, feeling like I was being punched in the stomach over and over again. I had heard about Holocaust deniers, but I had never actually met one in the flesh. I don’t remember what happened after that dinner, but I do know that Joan and I never became the friends it had seemed we were on the verge of becoming.
As should be obvious from the last three examples, physical safety was not my only worry, nor was it the only way my body was at stake in the antisemitism that pervaded so much of my childhood. Once I started to grow, especially once I hit puberty, the kids in my neighborhood latched on to the fact that I had “a Jewish nose,” and they teased me about it mercilessly, sometimes to the point where I would run home in tears and refuse to show my face outside for the rest of the day. Neither they, nor I had any way of knowing at the time that “the Jewish nose” is an antisemitic trope with a long history. As Beth Preminger points out in “The ‘Jewish Nose’ and Plastic Surgery: Origins and Implications,” the prominent anthropologist Robert Knox described the Jewish nose in 1850 as “large, massive, club-shaped, hooked [and] and three or four times larger than suits the face…. Thus it is that the Jewish face [is never and can never be] perfectly beautiful.” This lack of beauty, Sander Gilman argues In The Jew’s Body, was understood “not merely [as] a matter of aesthetics but [as] a clear sign of pathology, of disease [and] syphilis [was the disease understood to be responsible for] the form of [the Jewish nose]” (173).
The Nazis, of course, also made use of the Jewish nose as an identifying feature of the Jew. Here, for example, is “Little Karl” from How To Tell A Jew, a story in Der Giftpilz, an antisemitic children’s book published by Julius Streicher, the publisher of Der Stürmer:
One can most easily tell a Jew by his nose. The Jewish nose is bent at its point. It looks like the number six. We call it the Jewish six. Many non-Jews also have bent noses. But their noses bend upwards, not downwards. Such a nose is a hook nose or an eagle nose. It is not at all like a Jewish nose.
Look at any antisemitic caricature of the Jew from the 19th century until today, and the the Jewish nose will figure quite prominently. You can find these caricatures in today’s neo-Nazi publications, in anti-Israel cartoons throughout the Arab world, in France in the 1890s and even as recently as 1996, in plastic surgery manuals that, according to Preminger, continued to portray the Jewish nose as a deformity.
As I said above, neither I nor the kids who teased me so cruelly could possibly have known at the time that they were continuing a long tradition of seeing the Jews’ body as deformed and diseased, but the effect of their teasing was, nonetheless, to make me see my body in precisely that way, and so I grew up with an image of myself as horribly ugly. Even when I entered the yeshiva in eighth grade, despite the great relief it was to spend my day with other Jews, to whom my nose–not to mention everything else that was Jewish about me–was no more remarkable than the fact that I had two hands, it was hard to shake the feeling that I was somehow physically deficient because I was Jewish.
In 2004, when I first wrote the posts in which I told these stories, I also wrote this, which I have edited slightly:
If I were to continue this accounting of antisemitism in my life and tell you about things that happened to me in college, in the working world, in my career as a college professor, and in my marriage to an Iranian Muslim woman, the examples would, in general, grow less and less frequent, more and more subtle and the overt violence or threat of violence would completely disappear. With the exception of having been advised when I was a teenager not to bother applying for a job at the country club near my home, since it was well-known that they did not hire Jews, I have never been denied a job because I am Jewish; I have never had a hard time getting a loan, renting or buying an apartment, or in any of the other aspects of life that are made difficult if not impossible for people who are structurally discriminated against in this country. (And, I should add, this does not mean there aren’t other Jews in the United States who have had those experiences.)
I am no longer afraid when I walk down the street that someone, because of who I am, will decide to call me out in some way or attack me outright—though it’s also important to acknowledge that I live in New York City, probably one of the safest places to be Jewish in the US, and that there are places in this country where it would be foolish of me not to feel that fear at least a little bit. I live, in other words, a relatively comfortable like—though I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that every single one of the stories I told above took place in a town on Long Island just over the border dividing Queens from Nassau County; for all intents and purposes, in other words, in New York City.
So, on the one hand, antisemitism was a central experience of my growing up a Jew in the United States; on the other hand, as I have grown older, it has receded in prominence, partially because of where I live and partially because its structural manifestations have been almost, if not entirely, eliminated–to the point where I can sometimes pretend it does not exist.
Until now. Whether or not Donald Trump is himself an antisemite is irrelevant, though I think his overall silence on the antisemitism that has emerged since his election has, de facto, earned him the title. The fact is that antisemites in many parts of this country were emboldened by his campaign and have been even more so since he was sworn in as president. So I do not want to make this about Trump himself, or the relative silence on this issue of his Jewish son-in-law, or even about Steve Bannon. Something is happening and it is not new, and I’m not referring to the echoes of 1930s Germany that so many people are hearing, and which we need, all of us, not just Jews, to pay attention to. I’m referring to what happened to me in the 1970s, not even fifty years ago. I know I am not the only Jewish American of my generation or younger who has had these experiences. We need to start telling our stories.