If memory serves (sorry, no guarantees!) I was about five years old and we were visiting my aunt and uncle and cousins in Long Island when my father told me we were Jewish. I’m not sure what the context was. I just remember thinking “okay, we’re Jewish” without any idea what that meant.
I still had no idea what it meant in third grade, when my parents started sending me to the local synagogue two weekday afternoons and Sunday mornings each week to learn Hebrew (“you mean there’s another alphabet?”), the Old Testament, and how to observe the sabbath and holidays.
In fourth grade I was walking home with a Jewish friend around dinnertime when we encountered half a dozen kids our age. Some were from our public school but others went to the nearby Catholic school. “Here come the Christ killers,” one of them said. They picked up a round metal pipe longer than the sidewalk was wide and stood behind it to block our way. When I tried to push it aside, they started hitting us (fortunately, not with the pipe). I eventually broke out of the scrum and ran away, something my friend had done a few seconds earlier.
When I got home, I told my mom what happened. She didn’t say anything. As the adrenaline rush subsided and I realized I hadn’t suffered any serious damage, I moved on.
Then my father came home. (Late from work as usual.)
After dinner he called me into the den for a one-on-one. His face was drawn, his lips tight, but his tone calm. He asked what happened and I told him. He asked who the kids were and I told him.
What I didn’t know is that one of the kids was the son of the local superintendent of public schools. My father called the superintendent, and the next day my fourth grade teacher discreetly drew me and the superintendent’s son aside. The son apologized to me. He’d clearly been coached; his words were rehearsed, not heartfelt. I nodded and that was the end of it.
Except not really. Because I was finally starting to grasp what it meant to be Jewish.
(And here I thought going to Hebrew school three times a week was a drawback!)
Nobody in my parents’ circle took their kids to therapy, so I was on my own. I reacted — quite unconsciously — in two ways. The first was to take Judaism more seriously. I listened closely during those Hebrew school lessons, often read ahead in the textbooks, and started going to sabbath services on Saturday mornings. I’ve never been as devout as I was then.
The second was to not be overtly Jewish in public. That was easily enough achieved. I never wore a skull cap except in synagogue, and I already dressed like all the other boys. My parents were not observant (I remember Mom frying bacon on weekend mornings) and other than a thin mezuzah on the front doorpost, nothing marked our home as different from anyone else’s. But around this time, I began to drop my New York accent, often considered a marker of Jewishness. And I cringed whenever non-Jews called out my Judaism, as when that same fourth grade teacher would say in front of the class “you kids going to Bible school, you can leave ten minutes early.”
In other words, I adopted one of the most important, if unspoken, tenets of assimilated Jewish America: none of the bad things that happen to Jews will happen to you here if they don’t know you’re Jewish.
It’s worked! Throughout adulthood, most people haven’t cared about my religious background; they like (or dislike) me for my character and personality. I’ve been decently housed, educated, and employed. And though I suppose I could complain about micro-aggressions, it’s really no big thing when people wish me a merry Christmas or ask me what church I belong to (I say I’m happily unaffiliated, which is the truth). Plus I haven’t been called a Christ killer in a long, long time.
So, right strategy? I thought so. But a few weeks ago I read novelist Dara Horn’s new non-fiction book People Love Dead Jews, and now I’m not so sure. I hope to explain why in my next post.