Thinking Some More About Antisemitism

(Note: The image above was taken by Naomi Ellis, the mother of the family discussed in the Washington Post article I discuss briefly below.)

In the context of a discussion we’re having about an essay I published recently on Unlikely Stories called The Lines That Antisemitism and Racism Draw, my friend Nancy reminded me of a conversation a group of us had around the same time the essay published 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 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. We need to tell them 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 hated 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, and to the appearance of swastikas on my campus and so many other places throughout the United States, and because of incidents like the one illustrated by the photo at the top of this post, in which vandals turned a family’s homemade menorah into a swastika. The stories, which take a while to tell, start below the fold.

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 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.”

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, crucified as revenge for the killing of Christ and being sacrificed 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 attack. 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 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 I know for a fact there were mothers at home because they were the mothers of kids I knew, and maybe there were people who walked by–this I don’t know because I was curled in the fetal position on the ground–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 even 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.

Twelfth Grade

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. The fact is that antisemites in many part of this country were emboldened by his campaign and will, I have no doubt, feel that even more strongly when he becomes 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.

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10 Responses to Thinking Some More About Antisemitism

  1. 1
    Jake Squid says:

    Good and necessary post, Richard.

    Your experience, Richard, was different in intensity but similar in kind to mine. I’m four or five years younger than you and grew up in Northern Westchester. I’d completely forgotten about penny tossing until I read this. Like you, I had no idea why it was funny that I was picking up pennies others were discarding. A penny in the mid-70’s was 1/8th of a carton of milk or 1/5th of a piece of Bazooka bubble gum. I remember asking my parents what “kike” means. I’ll never know whether the violence I experienced had anything to do with being Jewish or if it was just because I was tiny and not all that socially ept.

    I remember as late as high school (81 through 83) being called bewildering names like “jewbag.” I still have no idea why that one was popular. And it was definitely in high school that I heard the What’s the difference between a Jew and a pizza joke. (A joke that, despite or perhaps because of it’s incredibly callous awfulness is one of my all time faves.)

    And it was during the housing bubble (between 2003 & 2007) that my wife’s Aunt, while discussing the increase in real estate prices in Bend, said that people moving up from California don’t even Jew you down.

    Antisemitism has been pretty low key in Oregon since I moved here but I’ve always felt that’s because there are hardly any Jews here at all. (A friend of mine once ruined a joke at a performance by Amy Schumer when she asked about Jews in Portland by explaining how few there are).

    I’m not religious at all and haven’t been since I was 8 or 9 but I’m clearly culturally Jewish. But I’ve noticed I’m less and less willing to divulge my Jewish roots to strangers as I’ve gotten older because I’ve become more and more aware of the bigotry that follows.

  2. Oy, Jake! I’d forgotten about jewbag. I wish I could remember where it came from. I’m guessing it was an extension–there’s a technical linguistics term that I’ve forgotten–of douchebag, but who knows.

  3. 3
    Jake Squid says:

    I’d always ask if that was a bag in which to keep Jews or a bag made out of Jews. That always left them confused.

  4. 4
    Ruchama says:

    My mother said that, when my family was moving in 1985, they looked at a house, and were chatting with the owner about what other houses they were looking at, and the owner told them not to move to a particular school district, because that’s where all the Jews live. (We did end up moving to that school district, and I’m pretty sure that one of the other districts had more Jews. But, anyway.) Also heard the pizza joke in high school, and a couple of my friends said that kids threw pennies at them, but it never happened to me.

    Also once had a conversation in college in which some dorm-mates concluded that Jews are “white, but not, like, WHITE white.” (I tend to have a weird place in conversations like that, because I’m Jewish, and I’m white by most people’s definitions, but I’m also pretty dark, just by the roll of the genetic lottery. Strangers often assume I’m Hispanic or Indian or Arab or just ask, “What ARE you?”)

    In high school once, when I mentioned that my parents wouldn’t buy a BMW, a teacher told me that that’s discrimination, just like it would be discrimination if a white person refused to buy anything from a company owned by black people.

  5. 5
    Grace Annam says:

    I want to thank all three of you for sharing your experiences. Not being Jewish, I’ve not experienced these particular bigotries first-hand, but it broadens my understanding to know about them. Thank you.

    Grace

  6. 6
    Ruchama says:

    One of my best friends in college was from North Dakota, and I’m pretty sure that I was the first Jewish person she’d ever really been friends with. She once told me, with clear pride, that she’d told her mother to stop using the phrase “Jew him down,” because, “I’ve got friends who are Jewish, and that’s not cool.” Which, OK, great, but a little weird that she had to tell me that.

    Also, once, she and I and a few other people were talking, and she said that she wouldn’t be comfortable marrying a rich man, because she’d always feel guilty about having so much more money than other people. I said that I thought I’d be OK with it — about to follow that up with something like, “If I had all that money, then I could use it to help people” — when she said, “You know, there’s an ethnic stereotype I could use here, but I won’t.”

    Also once, same friend, we went to see “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” and afterwards, I said I really liked it, and she said it was just OK, “but maybe I’d like it better if I could relate more by being from an ethnic family, like you.” I responded something like, “Your family eats lutefisk. You think that’s not ethnic?”

  7. 7
    Ben David says:

    Thanks for writing this. I had pennies tossed at me on the NYC subway in the early 70s.

    Also was proselytized by a Catholic neighbor who invited me to see what church was like. Only by the reaction afterwards did I realize how many strings were attached to this ostensibly ecumenical invite.

    When I started working for a government agency in NY I encountered initial suspicion and “cheap Jew” stereotypes from most of the American-born blacks, less so from recent African and Latin American immigrants.

  8. 8
    Jane Doh says:

    We are not particularly religious, but are definitely culturally Jewish. As a kid, I had pennies thrown at me (and didn’t understand it either). I was called a jewbag. When I was in kindergarten, a bunch of older kids on the school bus thought it was funny to teach me how to draw a swastika. I thought it was just a cool shape like a star, but my parents were totally horrified when they saw me drawing it at home. When I went to Alabama in high school on a trip, a local high school student asked me where my horns were. A friend in a neighboring school district almost failed chorus for not wanting to sing “Silent Night” at a school concert.

    These things seemed normal at the time, and now I don’t think about them much, but I would be horrified if any of this happened to my kids. So far, so good, but who knows going forward?

  9. 9
    Ruchama says:

    When my family goes up to Massachusetts, where my mother grew up, when we’re driving somewhere, my mom points out every town we pass by, and which of her friends lived there. “That’s Chelmsford, Joyce lived there. That’s Billerica, Brenda lived there.” And so on. There’s one town, I think it’s Melrose, where it’s, “That’s Melrose. I didn’t know anyone who lived there, because Jews weren’t allowed to live there.” (I might have the wrong town.) Apparently it wasn’t ever a law or anything, but just a general understanding among realtors and among people who moved in, that you don’t sell or rent your house to a Jewish family when you move out, and people abided by that until the sixties or so.

  10. Ruchama,

    I don’t know if this your experience, but for me, it’s amazing how once you start remembering, you remember a whole lot more than you thought you did.

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