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Funny, You Don’t LOOK Jewish!

Anti-Semitism has been a fact of my life for its entirety, from the first time, at age 5 or 6 I was told I was going to hell because I did not believe in Jesus, to the countless times I was called a “stupid Jew,” a kike, a baby killer, and a host of other names; from the time when, after the tent revivals rolled into town and everyone got “saved” (for the first or fifth time) the saved would then try and save and convert me; to the whispers behind my back; to the boys whose mothers would not let them date me because I was Jewish; to the huge number of insults that were hurled my way throughout my teenaged years (anyone still think “jawing” someone down is all right to say?)

People have several times, asked to see my horns and cloven feet. And even as recently as a couple of years ago, a Brazilian woman I counted as my friend, told me with complete seriousness that the Jews were responsible for starting the war with Iraq, and when I tried to act as though she were kidding, she went on to defend her position by telling me that surely I must agree that the Jews control the United States, its banking, politics, and culture, and can get the government to do whatever they want. Needless to say, we were no longer friendly.

Ignorance has been rampant along with the insults. I have been asked by perfectly reasonable people what kinds of sacrifices we make at our temple, and have, on more than one occasion, been the first Jew people have ever met. I have been examined curiously for whatever character flaws are associated with my race.

This is a story that people have a difficult time believing. You may not believe it either because you don’t want to.

In fact, when I have told some of this story before, people look at me the way they look at people who say that there still is lots and lots of racism in America– as if they just wish it weren’t so, as if wishing it weren’t so would make it go away. As if the fact we elected a half-black man as our President suddenly means that we no are no longer prejudiced and everything is hunky dory somehow and we can now just all hold hands and live in peace, love and understanding. Uh huh, sure.

Which is why there was a shooting at the Holocaust Museum yesterday. And when the Department of Homeland Security sent out a report on just this very kind of thing happening, it was decried by the right wing as somehow critical of all of them, as opposed to just those who are fanatical nuts.( Which are many more than they seem to think. And, by the way, rousing hate speech does incite violence.)

Which is why Holocaust deniers abound and too many people are still horrifically anti-Semitic—even in the United States, yes, the United States– while too many others have decided that Israel equals all Jews, and if Israel does something wrong, then each and every Jew bears responsibility for that wrongdoing, no matter where we live. I would be interested in why it is so easy to criticize a country that is fighting for its survival, when the most powerful country in the world has committed much more heinous crimes, one of which: turning refugee Jews away from its borders, helped found the state of Israel in the first place.

But that’s another story.

This story is my own personal experience with anti-Semitism: virulent, hateful, ignorant, willful and stupid: growing up in the south, as an adult woman living in the south, and as an adult woman bumping up against people around the world.

(I wrote about this subject—in a somewhat less angry and more palatable manner in a book called Matzo Balls for Breakfast, a collection of essays which the comedian Alan King was putting together right before he died suddenly and was completed by editors at Simon and Schuster. It was published a few years ago. Lots of famous and some not-so-famous people recollected their Jewish-in-America stories in it. )

I was born in a small mill town in East Tennessee. My parents were part of an influx of Jews to several small towns all over the south and deep south during the 50s and 60s when many manufacturing businesses were growing and the veterans of World War II were job hunting, marrying and thinking about raising families. We ending up in Morristown, Tennessee, where my father went to work for his uncle in a foam business that sold to the booming furniture trade. My father fairly quickly grew tired of that and started his own factory which made cotton batting to stuff mattresses and furniture from Tennessee to the Carolinas. He worked. We stayed. And that is where I grew up. Up and wise and slightly cynical. Maybe more than slightly so.

The population of Jewish families in Morristown was small and eventually most ended up joining synagogues and temples in Knoxville, forty miles away. This is the set-up. Like the number of blacks in town (when the schools finally integrated in 1966 we realized how tiny a population they were), the number of Jews was very small. And the level of ignorance was very high. Especially among the “faithful” and there were many many of the faithful.

And those “faithful” like the abortion-doctor killers and the museum shooters and the Holocaust deniers and the name-callers and the bloody-minded who won’t even consider that a country like Israel needs to exist when so much of the rest of the world uses the Jews as convenient scapegoats, are the ones who made being a young Jewish woman in the south of the 60s and 70s a nightmare.

There was no possible avenue of discussion. No possible education. Not even a defense. My elementary teachers gave out gold stars for church attendance but not for synagogue attendance. We all learned to sing Jesus Loves the Little Children. We were the objects of pity for months before Christmas because we didn’t celebrate that holiday. My middle school homeroom teacher began each day with a Christian prayer that thanked in Jesus’ name. When my mother protested, I was allowed to sit out in the hall until he was done. Every morning.

And oh those who tried and tried to save me. When I didn’t need a bit of saving.

I never understood religions whose people proselytize and try and convert, and now, whose “faithful”—whether Christian or Muslim—think it’s okay to kill in God’s name, as long as you are killing those who aren’t like you.

Is it any wonder that I automatically assume anti-Semitism until proved otherwise? Like, I am sure, many black Americans assume racism, until disabused. Or homosexuals must naturally assume disgust and prejudice from those they meet. Until ….

I could pass. Like some blacks did for years. Like Jews have for years by changing their names and sliding in under the radar. Many people don’t automatically know I’m Jewish–partly because they are looking at me through their own prejudice: all Jews have big noses and dark curly hair, right?

But I have never passed. If anything, I make it known right away, just to give people a chance to think before they open their mouths. Sometimes it works.

We know people and what they want from us: They want us to be just like them.

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