By Richard Reiss / Special to the BJV
I was ten years old the first and only time I was called a dirty Jew. The school bully had taken my bike, and I ran after him trying to get it back. I couldn’t catch him, but eventually, he stopped riding, perhaps bored with a chase that ultimately lacked conflict. He waited a few minutes for me to get closer, and as I did, he dropped the bike to the ground and shouted those awful words.
A dozen years later, I was camping with a close friend from college. He was telling me a story about some stereo equipment he bought at a yard sale and said, “The guy wanted 50 bucks, but I Jewed him down, and he took thirty-five.” And yes, my friend knew I was Jewish. Moments later, he realized what he had uttered and said, “You know, that doesn’t mean anything, right?”
Add a few more years, and I’m in my early thirties having lunch at Jerusalem Pizza in Highland Park, New Jersey. A bald man walked into the restaurant. He looked like someone I knew in high school, a time when he would have had a full head of hair. I said, “Ken, is that you?” My hair was still intact, and he recognized me right away. He wasn’t a close friend, but he was an athlete like me, and occasionally, our paths crossed. He was also Jewish, which in some New Jersey towns was not a big deal in the early 1970s. But in Pompton Plains, our hometown, there were fewer than ten Jewish families.
Ken and I began to talk about high school, which apparently neither one of us enjoyed, when he said something unexpected. “High school was just awful for me,” he said. “There was so much antisemitism.”
“Really?” I said in disbelief.
“Totally,” he said, “especially on the football team.”
I didn’t play football; I wrestled. And then I told him what happened to me when I was ten.
I packed away Ken’s story with my own but wondered, how had I been spared? Growing up, my two best friends were Catholic, and most of the people living in the ten white houses on my dead-end block were fundamentalists. When I was very young, I would go to church with them on Saturdays for Bible stories and dodgeball. I sometimes decorated their Christmas trees and always enjoyed the Christmas cookies shared with my family. I could not have recognized an antisemite among them.
Today, it’s not hard at all. Antisemitism is everywhere, and it’s frightening. Torch-carrying neo-Nazis marched through the streets in Charlottesville chanting, “Jews will not replace us.” In Brooklyn, Hasidic Jews are attacked regularly for no apparent reason other than being Jewish. At my son’s middle school in New Jersey, non-Jewish students threw pennies at the Jewish students, egging them on to pick up the coins. And in Pittsburgh, at the Tree of Life Congregation, eleven Jews were slaughtered during Saturday morning Shabbat services. It was the most violent attack on Jews on American soil in our nation’s 245-year history, and it happened just three years ago. Like so many things in America today, what was once under the surface is now in plain sight.
If you pay any attention to the news, it’s hard not to see what’s happing in America, let alone the rest of the world. In America, 1 in 4 Jews experienced antisemitism last year. Let that sink in for a moment.
There is a saying in politics, all politics are local, which means if you want to get things done, start with your community. Here’s what I see in my community: I see a policeman outside my synagogue whenever I go to services. I see Jewish students on college campuses being harassed and censored for supporting Israel. I see a public-school educator suggesting students learn both sides of Nazism.
And then, just weeks ago, I waited with millions of Americas for the resolution of the hostage situation at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas.
I’m looking for a light, but I don’t see it. I know there are public and private organizations doing all they can to call out, educate, and fight antisemitism. I go on their websites and take to heart the breadth of suggestions to repair our world and address this awful place in time. I pray they are successful.
Thirty-five years ago, my wife and I looked for an apartment in a very affluent town. We met with a realtor who took us to a few places that were all beyond our means. The realtor kept telling us about those people and how those people were interested in her properties but weren’t “right” for the community. It took us a while, but finally, we realized (although the realtor did not) that we were those people. Those people were Jews.
For years, we joked about those people. Today, I know it’s no joke at all. Today, I fantasize about recording on my smartphone every word the realtor said, posting her comments on social media, and finding a very good attorney to make her life miserable. Then I thought about the endless amount of hate and antisemitism on the Internet and realized I can’t be like them. In the short term, my anger would have been satiated. But in the long-term, I would have accomplished nothing and lost an opportunity for dialogue and change.
It’s often hard to be optimistic, but look at where we have come as a people over the centuries. Our ideals and aspirations have been noble. When we lose sight of our goodness as a people, when we strike back in anger rather than hope, we lose the battle.
I never imagined that antisemitism would grow as it has in our nation. It breaks my heart, but it reminds me that as a Jew, I must be vigilant, and as a citizen, I must exercise my right of expression in purposeful ways.
Michelle Obama said it better than anyone: “When they go low, we go high.” In today’s world (in any world), we have no choice. And we and everyone else will be better for it.
Richard Reiss lives in Canaan, NY, with his wife, Paula. He is the author of Desperate Love: A Father’s Memoir. His column, Reiss’ Pieces, appears every other Tuesday in The Berkshire Eagle. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.