Suburban Soliloquies # 12
Some of my best friends are Jewish. I,
myself, am Jewish, yet I spend very little time
conscious of this. On the other hand, I find society
and events often try to keep me from forgetting that
I'm a Jew.
One day I was flying home from Colorado and the
elderly gentleman in the seat next to mine asked me
if I was Jewish. I said that would depend. Depend?,
depend on what? he exclaimed. It would depend on what
you consider a Jew to be. Then he asked, are your
parents Jews? Yes, I said. Then you're a Jew.
(Actually, by Jewish law, only the mother has to be
Jewish.) Okay, I said in my most agreeable tone, I am
a Jew. How do you feel about Israel? he next asked
me. I don't support them, I said. WHAT!, you don't
support Israel? he shot back at me, his eyes wide
with shock. I told him how I didn't approve of their
treatment of the Palestinians, the lack of separation
between the State and the religion, nor am I
convinced in the justice by which they came to
reoccupy the country. And he said, you can't be
Jewish and not support Israel. So then I guess I'm
not Jewish after all.
While a young man I worked for the Atlantic Tea
Packing Company in Bristol, Pennsylvania. I was a tea
packer earning less than three dollars an hour.
Raises came every so many months, a nickel or a dime
at a time. The people I worked alongside asked me my
nationality. I told them I was an American, a name
the United States has monopolized; whereas anybody
from Tierra de Fuego to Churchill, Manitoba might
properly wear the tag. No, no, my fellow workers
exclaimed, we mean, you know, where did your parents
come from. My mother and father were born in New York
City. But of course what they were looking for was
something much older. So I told them Russia. Russia?,
we thought you were Jewish. I explained to them that
Judaism is a religion and not a nationality (and for
that matter, I'm an Atheist), but they couldn't
understand. When I asked as to their nationality they
told me Poland and Italy. Oh, I said, you mean you're
Catholics. Well, yes, they informed me, they were
Catholics, but our nationalities are Poles and
Italians. It was as if, as a Jew, my people are not
allowed to be associated with real estate. We're not
Gypsies, although not far different, except we're not
required to wander.
Safety in numbers. It was a Jew who built Levittown
and plenty of Jews live here. A Jewish realtor helped
my parents get the financing they needed for the
house they wanted because they were Jews. In all my
years growing up in Levittown, I think I was only
once called a kike, and even then it was for no other
purpose than another kid trying to get me to fight.
The general belief has been that genocide that is
happening elsewhere or in the past can't happen here.
That here we are finally safe.
One Monday night in October, here in Levittown,
vandals painted anti-Semitic graffiti on Temple
Shalom, one of two Levittown synagogues. They painted
black swastikas, "Death to Jews," and
"Juden Raus." Thus, I'm reminded that
I'm a Jew.
In this country we call these "hate
crimes," hurtful acts that are aimed at a
specific collection of people grouped racially,
ethnically, by gender, religion, et cetera. It
doesn't matter what you are, somewhere is a group of
people who hate your kind enough to see you tortured
and killed. Has any group of people survived history
spared from discrimination or genocide? You,
regardless who you are, might forget the past today,
but if you do, you are likely to get caught in it
again, as history is reenacted tomorrow.
The Friday night following the incident, it pleases
me to report, members representing twenty-five
Levittown church congregations attended the eight
o'clock Shabbat services at Temple Shalom to show
A morning soon after the incident, I drove over to
Temple Shalom. Two heavy women were gabbing in front
of the building and as I pulled into the lot, they
leaned and stared hard to see who I was. My guess is
first they were trying to figure out if I was someone
they knew, but I had not been this close to Temple
Shalom in nearly thirty-five years, when I had
attended my friend's bar mitzvah. Their hard looking
must have identified me as a stranger, but their
interest remained as they further identified me as a
Jewish male. I parked the car and made small talk as
I walked by them. And perhaps they noted that I
wasn't wearing a wedding ring. Neither does my
I asked them about the vandalism. The culprits had
painted across the pair of front doors and on the
adjacent wall. The congregation had already painted
over the offenses, but I could get an impression of
what it must have been like as the black paint of the
vandals had begun to bleed through.
I couldn't read the words, but I knew what it had
said from the newspaper account. For a third time the
two women invited me to come inside the building, but
I had no reason for going inside. And their eagerness
to have me go in made me all the more wary. They
wanted to know more about me, all about me; they
wanted to further observe me, as if to determine my
value and decide to what use they could put me.
I asked if the vandals had been caught and was told
they had not been. The police believed the vandals
were just youngsters. I thought to myself how they
were probably old enough to drive, as they had
attacked two synagogues a few miles apart. It might
have been the mindless prank of one kid who could not
begin to grasp the suffering he or she caused others,
or is it that the kid is trying to draw attention to
his or her own suffering?
Sometimes youth is just not conscious of how deep the
devastation, the hurt, they cause. They have so much
energy and not yet the sense of how to direct it.
They want to exercise that energy and see the extent
of their power to affect events. Society demands
restraint from them, unless there is a war we can
ship them off to.
For youth it is often an insincere game, a
fascination with how certain acts or gestures can
ignite a chain of reactions. And so they do acts like
these. They probably don't even have a thorough
investment in any ideology. It isn't as if they are
acting from conviction - which is not to say it is
impossible for them to act from conviction.
Who among us, while yet very young, has not
experimented without caution, or despite warning,
just to see what would happen for ourselves. Still, I
don't mean to excuse hate crimes. This goes beyond
mere restlessness and curiosity. The kids wanted to
cause genuine hurt. And I wonder to myself what was
it in their upbringing that has robbed them of
compassion, made them vindictive and insensitive to
the hurt they can cause?
My great-grandmother was murdered for sport by
Cossacks. Although my grandparents escaped Eastern
Europe before the Second World War, very few of their
neighbours had the foresight and luck. The problem
is, for any group of people, a safe haven is only
temporary. Just as so many Jews were in denial in
Berlin just before the Second World War. They could
not believe it was happening to them in modern times
and the tolerant society of Berlin, until it was too
late. Suburbanites fail to realize that any of us
exists purely by the consent of a larger society.
Whenever I lose sight of being a Jew, there are
others who will remind me.