When I was eight years old I got into a scuffle with another kid who called me a dirty Jew and although I’d had occasional nightmares after seeing newsreels of the German death camps, for the first time in my life I realized that there something about me, not something I said or did but something about my very existence, that was the object of hate.
I didn’t dwell on it in the moment. We threw punches. We rolled on the ground. And I wasn’t really afraid because, as a crowd of neighborhood kids gathered around to watch a good fight, most of them were Jewish. For many ethnic minorities, clustering together was how we protected ourselves. Education, and the attempt to raise our social standing, was another way, as was trying to look like everyone else, and using humor to deflect an attack before it hits. Humor is a big thing for Jews. Some of us are really funny in public while others maintain a quiet ironic sensibility, the feeling that no matter how good things may seem they can go wrong at any moment.
Many Jews that I’ve known share that sensibility. This has nothing to do with being alike. Our ideas and personalities and preferences are all over the map and often at odds. But having had six million of your people exterminated has a way of sticking with you. Call it that holocaust thing. Like a lot minorities and people of color and LGBTQ people, we know we are outsiders.
We may be targeted in violent and hateful gestures like the synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh, but more often insulted in innocuous ways. For instance, when I ran for selectman my opponent asked how, since my relatives had come through Ellis Island, I could possibly understand the needs of real Cape Codders.
Or when working in a restaurant a fellow waiter described a bad tipper as a New York Jew.
Or when watching an evening news story about the West Bank with a friend when he blurted out, “Goddamn Jews.” Not the Israeli leadership or the soldiers but the Jews because, well, weren’t we all one and the same?
Israel is a big thing, of course. Most Jews I know are critical of the Israeli government and long for a solution to the conflict with the Palestinians. But we know it’s complicated and wonder why we’re sometimes considered stand-ins for a government we never elected in a place we never lived. And of course there some of us who are proud to know there’s a powerful military that’s ready to fight back the next time Jews are targeted for slaughter. Once again, it’s that holocaust thing.
Anti-Semitism is so old it’s been referred to as “the longest hatred” and I’m certainly not going to go into its history here. Suffice it to say that historically Jews live in a precarious situation one described with the metaphor of a Fiddler on the Roof. You probably know the wonderful musical; I know you know the songs. The metaphor refers to survival in a life of uncertainty, as precarious as a fiddler on a roof, “trying to scratch out a pleasant simple tune without breaking his neck.”
And I would say that speaks to many people living in this country today: Black people trying to go about their business without the police being summoned; Muslims trying to worship; immigrants attempting to work; women subject to the whims of powerful men; young families struggling to make ends meet; gays denied services because they offend someone’s religious beliefs; trans people simply being themselves; and yes, Jews trying to pray together without the fear of being murdered.
I get that people are wary of groups they don’t understand. I think all our lives are difficult and it’s easy to pin the blame on others who seem strange. And I don’t think I’m getting too political here when I say that that that distrust is being exploited for political gain.
Nor do I pretend to have an answer. I just know that as this country now stands we’re all potential subjects of hate. Mexicans, Muslims and women; transgender people, gays and Jews. But even if you’re not any one of these, what makes you think you’re safe? Are you old? Are you poor? Can you lose your home?
The country will change eventually, for the better or the worse. But right now we’re all potential fiddlers on the roof.
I’m Ira Wood and that’s my opinion.