Growing Up Jewish and Racist

My wonderful wife has a heart of gold. After all the years we’ve been married, she still amazes me. For one thing, she cares deeply for people. For another, she has an intuitive understanding of others that’s almost scary. Words will come out of her mouth that are dead-on perfect while I’m still muddling through my feelings and trying to figure out what’s really going on.

Like last week, for example. We were having lunch in a nearby restaurant on Saturday afternoon. I started chattering about police-involved shootings and the Black Lives Matter movement when my wife’s comment stopped me in my tracks. “Am I the only one who feels like walking up to a black person and apologizing?” she asked.

No, my dear, you’re not. That’s exactly how I feel, though I hadn’t been able to define it. And I suspect there are a lot of us white folks out there who feel the same way.

I can hear the criticism now. “Feel sorry for what? I didn’t do anything to them.” Well, there has to be a collective sense of guilt. For referring to those with a different skin color as “them,” for one thing. There is no “them.” There is only “us.” An injustice done to one is an injustice done to all. We are all connected.

Each Passover, observant Jews read the Haggadah’s warning that he who fails to acknowledge his freedom from slavery on the grounds that he was never personally a slave to the ancient Egyptians is a sinner who, had he lived in Egypt in those times, would not have been deemed worthy to be redeemed.  Dare we ignore our brothers’ legacy of slavery and their continued oppression and marginalization in modern times?  We do so at our peril.

This puts me in mind of the prejudices deeply instilled in me during my upbringing. Trust me, these early influences are extremely difficult to overcome. Intellectually, of course, I know better. But it is frightening how those preconceived notions continue to sit there in my subconscious, waiting for the right moment to invade a split-second thought.

I grew up in a lily white suburban neighborhood where I rarely encountered anyone who looked different than I did. Segregated neighborhoods resulted in de facto segregated schools. Oh yeah, also the teachers all were white. And this was in New York, not Mississippi!

I attended a very large junior high and I don’t think there were ten black kids in the whole danged school. They must have lived right on the district line. The only black kid I remember was named Leroy (hanging my head in shame) and he was constantly in trouble. I watched him set a fire in the boys’ room once.

At home, blacks were schvartzers (or worse, if my parents were angry). The Yiddish word just means “blacks,” but was always uttered in a tone dripping with contempt. By the time I was five years old, I knew that a vast chasm stood between “us” and the schvartzers.

Us: People of the Book. Value education.
Them: People of the Street. Can’t speak English properly.

Us: Doctors, lawyers, accountants.
Them: Maids, cooks, janitors.

Us: Married with two children.
Them: Single women with five kids by different daddies.

Us: Hard-working. Law-abiding.
Them: On Welfare. Criminals.

Us: Sip of wine in synagogue.
Them: Bottle of wine in a paper bag on the street corner.

Us: Kosher
Them: Hazer (pig) lovers

Us: Academic track. College bound.
Them: Detention, suspension, things too horrible to mention.

Us: Success.
Them: Failure.

I learned early on to stay as far away from the schvartzers as possible because they were no-good troublemakers. They would steal your money, beat you up and kill you.

I am crying as I write this.

There is no pennance I can do that would begin to atone for the hate instilled in my heart when I was a kid. Al het shakhatanu… For the sin which we have committed. The sin of hate, for which there is no forgiveness.

Can hate and fear be unlearned?  Can I forget my father’s ugly racial slurs, cruel jokes, imitations?  Can I replace these memories with love and blot out that evil forever?

And then I went to high school and the world changed overnight. It was 1973 and we were now integrated. Uh, sort of.

A lot of the seniors were still hippies with their faded denim jackets, ripped jeans, flower decals, beads, peace sign chains, pot smoke. The school was beyond capacity, bursting at the seams courtesy of the baby boom. And a few hundred of us were black. (I hadn’t yet heard the term “Hispanic.” Oh, you mean Puerto Ricans?)

The school district was heavily into tracking. The extent of one’s exposure to teens of another race largely depended on one’s track. “B” class? (Remedial level) Nearly all black. “O” class? (Average track) About 3 whites for every black. Advanced placement or honors class? Lily white.

Well, everyone has to eat. The cafeteria, you would expect, would be the great equalizer. You would be wrong.

The student newspaper denounced the lunchroom’s “invisible line.” The white kids sat on one side, the black kids on the other. I thought it was just plain dumb. No one dared cross over to the “wrong” side. This self-imposed racial segregation was accepted by most of us as an ironclad rule that could not be violated. I don’t recall any brave soul from either camp ever attempting to break down this barrier.

After a year and a half of accepting without understanding, my mother took a job an hour and a half away and I found myself in another giant high school, this one on the edge of farm country. White as the January snow. I learned what an evangelical Christian is. They learned what a Jew is. I came to the conclusion that being different just wasn’t worth it. I stopped wearing a yarmulke when I ate my tuna sandwich in the cafeteria. I joined the chorus and figured out that it wouldn’t kill me if I sang a song with the word “Jesus” in the lyrics. But the impromptu prayer meetings after school was where I drew the line. So I was never a real native, even though most of the time I could pretend. What if my skin were black? Would I have been able to blend in then? And would I have been welcomed at the prayer meetings?

Flash forward to the present. My efforts at color blindness have met with mixed success. I say “mixed” because there are so many interracial relationships now that I often couldn’t make a racial identification of a particular individual if I tried. I am far more interested in what a person knows and what someone can do than I am in what he or she looks like.

Case in point: My family has become a melting pot. (Whispering: And I love it.). My twice-divorced sister-in-law had married two Hispanic men. We have a lot of fully and partially Hispanic nieces and nephews as a result. They all grew up and many of them got married, to spouses of every race, skin color and cultural background. So when we attend our grandniece’s third birthday party (Hispanic mom and African-American dad), we know there will be a piñata, hard core rap music, and American burgers and hot dogs on the grill.

We all need to be involved in narrowing the cultural chasm, the racial divide instilled in me as a child that I continue to struggle to overcome. I see my landlord as a role model. He and his wife are Ukrainian-Americans. His wife emigrated as a child. He owns his own business and rents us a house that he built with his own hands. They home school their children, attend a Russian church, speak excellent Spanish and hire employees of every race and culture. If the American Dream still exists, surely this is it.

I was disappointed recently when I read about how a “Black Lives Matter” posting on an employee white board (!) at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park was crossed off and replaced with “All Lives Matter.”

Really? With the epic gun violence and shocking murder rate in our country, I am led to believe that life is cheap. It’s hard to believe that “all lives matter” when the pettiest slight will get you shot and no one seems to care if you live or die.

So all lives matter, eh? Do white-skinned people have to worry about racial profiling? Do white-skinned people have to worry about being automatically thought of as criminals? Do white-skinned people have to suffer the indignities of serving as the butt of tasteless jokes based on racist stereotypes? Do white-skinned people resign themselves to being shooting targets for the cops? Do white-skinned people have to live life knowing that many consider them utterly disposable due to their appearance alone?

I was relieved that Mark Zuckerberg chastised his staff for crossing off the “Black Lives Matter” sign. Insisting that “all lives matter” diminishes the pain and suffering experienced by African-Americans. The aggressor is not entitled to share in sympathy extended toward the victim. And don’t tell me that you never did anything to “them,” that what happened to “them” is not your fault. Let me say it again: There is no them! There is only us!

We’re all responsible for this horrible mess. I bristle when I hear the words “check your privilege,” but it’s true! I enjoy white privilege that my darker-skinned brethren will never have. And although I can’t undo that, I can only hope that this privilege will erode through a combination of education, exposure and cultural melting. For it is only then that our nation’s ideal of E. Pluribus Unum will become a reality: Out of many, one.

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