On an airplane flight some years ago, I had one of those candid conversations one has at times with a stranger. I was reading The Fellowship of the Rings, and our conversation began there, went on to good and evil, and then turned to religion. The stranger was a Jesuit, and he was deeply interested in Judaism and assumed I had a much greater understanding of my own religion than I did or do. At one point he asked me what I found to be the most difficult aspect of my religion. I doubt I gave him the type of answer he expected. I said, “As I child I used to wonder what the Jews had done to make so many others hate them.”
I was a child of a generation to whom the Holocaust was real and recent. I also was a child growing up in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn in the 1960s, which made me a double minority—White and Jewish. It was an odd position to be in among my classmates, who were mostly Black and Puerto Rican. The other Jews in their world were teachers and shop owners. At times my Jewishness earned me unwanted favoritism from teachers—making life among my peers a bit difficult—but for the most part my peers saw me as separate from the world of the Jewish adults they perceived as having all the power and wealth. I remember clearly one day when a classmate, upon seeing LBJ on the TV screen, said something—probably not very nice—about him being a Jew. I knew little about the larger world, but I knew enough to respond “they wouldn’t let a Jew be president.”
I was pretty confused as a child about what it meant to be a Jew, even though my parents started sending me, with my siblings, to the local shul when I was eight or nine. I think much of this confusion wasn’t any different from a child’s general confusion about the world—negotiating its unknown rules and complicated fabric. Judaism just added an extra layer, particularly because it was different from so much of the world I saw around me that had to do with Christmas, Easter, and Jesus. I remember once, at a very young age, I volunteered to sing a Jewish Christmas song in class. Oy gevalt! Was I mixed up!
I also attributed various family values to Judaism. At school fights among girls—and between the sexes—were not that uncommon. When some of my more pugnacious classmates would try to goad me into a fight, I would declare it was against my religion. After all, to my mind, this must have accounted for how the Holocaust occurred. I don’t recall how I reconciled this view with the Six Day War.
My family moved before I entered middle school, and there I found myself surrounded by other Jews, and that in itself was a perplexing experience—the unwritten rules were quite different. On through high school, college, work, and living in multiple states—at times I encountered nuanced, and not so nuanced, anti-Semitism. Through most of that time, though, being Jewish was not part of my self-identity; I found it largely irrelevant to my life except when others didn’t. When I moved to Texas, though, I was motivated to learn more about Judaism because I was raising my children in an environment in which religion, that is, Christianity, permeated everyday life, including the public school system. For the most part, people I’ve met in Texas have been curious albeit ignorant about Judaism. Admittedly, I assert my Jewishness here on a one-person mission to promote awareness of diversity.
In ways there is not much distance between who I am today and that young child, confused as to why a group she belongs to by birth is hated by people she does not know and who do not know her. This is the face of prejudice, though, and I can’t help but think of all the children who are seeing it today.