Wednesday, February 02, 2005


At work today, I came across an article about a Jewish woman who lived in Russia at the turn of the twentieth century. At that time, entrance to Russian high schools for Jewish pupils was restricted by the numerus clausus (quota) system, though all candidates, including Jewish ones, had to pass a special test in order to continue their education.

When the time came for this young woman to take her high-school entrance examinations, another candidate, a Russian princess, asked her to write the examination essay for her. (What the princess wanted, of course, was her classmate’s good handwriting. In more recent times, she might have asked her to type up her essay. In our era of electronic devices, many of which don’t even have keyboards anymore, it’s hard to imagine that there was a time when penmanship was important. Today it’s a lost art.) The Jewish woman replied that she already had two essays to write—her friend’s and her own—and told the princess that she would write her essay if she still had time after completing the other two.

On hearing her answer, the angry princess called her a dirty Jew. The Jewish woman slapped her across the face. As a result, she was expelled from all Russian high schools and had to go abroad in order to continue her education.

Remind me never to take my American public-school education for granted.

Yet there was plenty of antisemitism in the United States too. A family member of my parents’ generation recalls that when she was honored for having placed second in her high-school entrance examinations, one of her classmates hissed, “She’s Jewish.” My relative did not challenge her classmate, but I would like to think that if she had, she would not have been punished for it, certainly not with expulsion at the national level. For all its imperfections, the United States was not czarist Russia.

By the time I was of school age, antisemitism was less visible but still existed. When I was seven years old, my family moved to a rural town which did not contain many Jews at the time. Consequently I was the only Jew in my class for the next several years. I did not encounter much antisemitism then, at least not overtly, except for one incident from third grade that came to mind as I read the article.

During that year my stop was one of the last on the morning school bus route, so by the time I boarded the bus, most of the seats were full. At the time, we were still small enough to sit three abreast. When I got on the bus one morning there was only one empty place left, next to E., a boy who lived several streets away. When I approached it, getting ready to sit down, E. turned to me and said, “You can’t sit here, you dirty Jew.”

I stared at E., too shocked and hurt to speak. Since I had moved to the area only the year before and was originally from a place where many Jews lived, I knew about antisemitism from stories my relatives told. But I had never experienced it personally. It was a monster from the old country, a demon from the dark and distant past, a hostile alien from another planet. This was my first encounter with it, and I did not know what to do.

No one intervened, including the bus driver, so I stood all the way to school.

Some of my readers may say: Why bother with such a disturbing memory? That’s all in the past. All of you were, what, seven or eight years old at the time? Surely E. has learned better by now.

I’d like to believe that. Heaven knows that when I was small I did my share of parroting stupid things I heard outside or on television, much to my parents’ dismay. But even if E.’s offensive remark was only mindless imitation, where did he hear it at such a young age? How did he know about the concept of a “dirty Jew”? Where did he learn that he could stop a classmate from sitting next to him on the bus because she was Jewish?

E. has a German surname. In the context of this story that may mean much or little, but either way, sometimes I wish that I had known enough Jewish history at that moment to ask him, loudly enough for the entire bus to hear, Who taught you to say “dirty Jew,” E.? Do you know what a Jew is? And of course, the clincher: Tell me, E., what did your grandparents do during the war?

(For all I know, E.’s ancestors might have come to the United States before World War II. Yet everyone knows that antisemitism existed in Germany, and indeed in all of Europe, long before then.)

I recently looked E. up on the Internet and discovered that he is now a physician in a particularly sensitive specialty. This is an uncomfortable admission, but it gave me a creepy feeling to see that. Before my readers accuse me of holding a childish and stubborn grudge against a little kid who did a stupid thing thirty years ago, let me say that I don’t hold a grudge against E. To be fair, he developed into a gifted and intelligent young man and I don’t remember hearing him utter another antisemitic remark.

But I never heard him disavow it, either, and he never apologized for what he did that morning.

It would be reasonable to assume that E. has matured and that since he chose this particular branch of medicine, he must be above that sort of thing by now. Yet even though medicine is called a caring profession, we all know from recent history that one can be a compassionate physician to one’s own group and still cherish enough hatred toward others—in the most genteel and cultured manner—to commit mass murder.

As I consider what E. does for a living today, I can only hope that the antisemitism he expressed as a child was indeed only a mindless parroting of what he heard around him—or, if not, that he has done the personal inner work necessary to overcome it.

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