Friday, May 31, 2019

Thoughts on Anti-Semitism

The first time I heard, in person, an anti-Semitic remark I was 24 or 25. It was not directed at me. I was in the Ansonia, Conn., bureau office of The New Haven Register writing a story while two late-teenage girls in the next room discussed their car buying adventures. Unhappy with the price she was offered, one of the girls said she would try to “Jew them down.”

I remember recoiling at the words but remained silent. The bubble I had grown up in had been punctured. I was no longer in Brooklyn. 

In the Brooklyn of my youth almost everyone I encountered was Jewish. I went to Jewish day schools through twelfth grade. My summers were spent at Jewish sleepaway camps. Brooklyn College was overwhelmingly Jewish. All my friends outside school were Jewish. 

Indeed, the only gentiles I interacted with were the workers in my father’s factory and the housekeeper-cooks my mother employed so she could join my father at what she euphemistically called “the Place.” I knew most of them by name and task: Eloise who sewed lace onto the slips and panties pieced together by Big Mary and Little Mary, Solita who packed the finished goods, a dozen to a box, Ricky the piece goods cutter, James the shipping clerk and overall heavy lifter, and Lucy, the floor lady who supervised all the workers and who, in my parents’ later years when they no longer required a full-time housekeeper-cook, came every week to their home to clean and sit with my mother. Our housekeeper-cooks were mostly black—Bertha and Virginia being the most prominent and long-tenured. Bertha baked the best butter pound cake I ever tasted. Virginia was a better cook than baker. She and James chaperoned my sister Lee’s Sweet 16 party in our basement, though our parents were not too thrilled to discover Virginia had laced her several glasses of milk with scotch. 

One of my high school social studies teachers tried to enlighten his students about ignorance in the outside world, ignorance that can lead to violence. Lou Morose grew up in Albany in the 1920s and 1930s. Often, he told us, gentiles would rub the top of his skull. They were searching for his horns. Boys and men who barely had an appreciation of any artwork were instilled with the canard transmitted down from Michelangelo’s famous statue of Moses from whose forehead the sculptor fashioned two goat horns, a misrepresentation of the Bible phrase that light emanated from the lawgiver’s head when he descended a second time from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments. 

While I was enjoying a shtetl-like sheltered life among fellow religionists, Gilda’s childhood in Saratoga Springs in upstate New York was far different. During the winter gentile boys threw rocks encased in snowballs at Jewish children as they exited a school bus outside their Hebrew school. When they sought relief from their rabbi he simply suggested they move faster from the bus to the school door. 

I didn’t encounter any discrimination at The Register. If anything, I benefitted from reverse discrimination. The managing editor who hired me grew up in Brooklyn, went to a rival Jewish high school and, perhaps most serendipitously, shared my first name. Murrays stick together. 

To my knowledge, I never encountered any anti-Semitism during my subsequent career as a journalist at Chain Store Age, though I do recall a Rose’s discount store manager in rural North Carolina saying he immediately recognized me and one of my staff, Marty Brochstein, as visitors from New York the moment we walked into his store. Marty and I had no difficulty understanding his drift.

As parents, Gilda and I observed incidents that challenged the protective bubble in which any good parent tries to envelop their children. 

One December, when Dan was about seven and Ellie four, he asked why so many Jewish homes displayed Christmas lights. For him and Ellie their only reference were friends from their Jewish day school. They thought everyone in White Plains was Jewish. Thus began their education into the real world. 

Five or so years later Dan and his school basketball teammates encountered overt anti-Semitism. Players on the opposing public school team taunted them by throwing pennies on the court. 

Though my brother and I attended modern Orthodox religious day schools, we never wore yarmulkas before or after classes. It had nothing to do with fear. Our safety was pretty much assured in our neighborhood. At Brooklyn College our friends, almost all graduates of similar Jewish day schools, didn’t wear them either, even when eating. The symbols of religious observance were not as openly displayed 50 years ago. At least not by my crowd.

I suspect no Jew, even the most religiously garbed, presumes he or she will be attacked on the street, much like the public at large does not feel they will be mugged when outside. 

For a time back in 1968 assaults on individual Jews and Jewish institutions seemed to be daily transgressions in New York City. To combat the appearance of Jewish passivity Rabbi Meir Kahane founded the Jewish Defense League. The objective was “to combat anti-Semitism in the public and private sectors of life in the United States of America.”

I recall discussions about the JDL among my friends as we sat in the Brooklyn College cafeteria, but no one I knew joined the JDL, for sure after it turned more extreme, eventually to be labeled a “right wing terrorist organization” in 2001 by the FBI. 

Antisemitic attacks domestically and abroad have risen to intolerable levels. Some reasons can be traced to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Some to religious bigotry. Some to gang membership practices. Some to economic imbalance. Some to the very conditions JDL identified 50 years ago: “political extremism” and “racist militancy.” And some to that same condition my teacher Mr. Morose related—ignorance. Plain and simple ignorance that shuts out the humanity and tolerance of anyone different.