On Being Jewish, On Being A Part Of The Tree Of Life

30 Oct

Me As A Rat (See #10 )

“Mom, some boy called me a kite today!” I told my mother, after walking home from school in third grade. I didn’t understand why he called me that word, but I knew it had to be something mean, because of the tight twisting of his face when he screamed it at me on the school playground.

Right then is when my mother had to teach me the word kike, a derogatory word for Jew. There is some discrepancy on the origin of the word, but some say it was born on Ellis Island when there were Jewish migrants who were also illiterate, or could not use Latin alphabet letters. When asked to sign the entry-forms with the customary “X”, the Jewish immigrants would refuse, because they associated an X with the cross of Christianity. Instead, they drew a circle as their entry-form signatures. The Yiddish word for “circle” is kikel, which got shortened to kike, as a nickname for Jews, and later turned into a derogatory slur. Another story is that German Jews already assimilated in the United States, used kike, a word created from how many Jewish last names ended in ki or ky, as a put down for Eastern European Jews coming to the States, who they saw as inferior to themselves.

It’s four decades later from that day on the playground. But the familiarity of the pain associated at times with being a Jew came back to me this past Saturday when a fellow staff member at work called me over to our hospital unit’s dimly lit tv room to see the breaking news of the murder of eleven Jewish people worshipping at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Numbness was all I could allow myself to feel in that moment. Yet, I was forced to remember there are still people who hate me, who want to see me gone; dead, simply because I am a Jew.

Memories cropped up. Here are 10 times I remembered who I was, was not acceptable.

1.”What are you doing here? Go home, Jew!” said to me and the only other Jew in my class in sixth grade, Chuckie Handler. Chuckie and I went to the same Reform synagogue, Temple Israel. As Reform Jews, we celebrated holidays for one day, and took one day off from school. Our other Jewish classmates were all Conservative Jews. More observant in practice, they celebrated holidays for two days, and took two days off from school. Our predominately Catholic students did not understand that. Still, I wonder who taught them to not want us around at such a young age?

2. “You don’t look like a Jew!” = You don’t have a large nose. “You don’t act like a Jew!” = You’re not cheap with your money.

3. Growing up, a number of my Jewish friends’ parents took their tailoring to a woman named Mrs. Singer. My friends told me Mrs. Singer was in a concentration camp, and that she had “the numbers” tattooed on her arms. They said you could see them, if she had her sleeves rolled up. One day, when we were in 7th grade, my friend Beth had to pick up a garment for her mother from Mrs. Singer. I wanted to go, so I could see the numbers. I was scared to see the numbers. Mrs. Singer, a short, solidly built woman with a salt-and-pepper bob, and thickly-lensed eyeglasses, greeted us with a smile. She sat down at her table to write a receipt. I saw the numbers. My heart cracked open.

4. I remember the time I lived in western Kentucky for a year to study furniture making. As some of my wood shop mates and I sat one day in this lunch spot, where we’d joke that everything was sweet–the tea, the waitresses, the decor, even the tuna fish sandwiches–I overheard a conversation one table over. Three women in their 40’s sat discussing a neighbor of theirs. I caught the snippet, “…but, Patty, what benefit would it be to us to have a Jewish woman join our group?”   The woman who apparently made the suggestion hedged slightly in her reply. “…Well, I thought since she’s still kind of new to town, it would be nice for her to get to know other women here.”  “Well, she should have known what it was like here, when she moved here,” the first woman said, shutting down any further possibility of welcome for the Jewish woman deemed not fit for their circle.

The sweet relish tuna sandwich I had ordered usually felt like a treat after many bland 99-cent bean tacos from the local fast food chain. Post hearing the women’s conversation, it sat like a heavy rock in my gut. It takes a lot to get me upset, or to anger me, but both feelings were deeply intense in that moment. I knew I was in the Bible Belt, and Christianity reigned supreme, but this woman’s hard-line exclusion hurt me. I think I may have noted this before here on the blog, but over the years, I have spoke up many more times for offenses made against Black people, Latino people, or people from the LGBTQ community, than I have for myself. When it is personal, when someone is attacking me directly or indirectly for being a Jew, I freeze. It is a moment of surreality. Like you are watching or hearing this thing happen in another dimension, and your brain doesn’t want to believe it, or it wants to protect you from the hate, so it pushes it away as if it is not really happening, because how could it actually be?

Just like it takes a lot for me to become upset, it takes a lot for me to speak up for myself. While my brain was telling me this conversation wasn’t happening in this sweet lil’ Kentucky cafe, my brain was also telling me it was my duty to walk over to the women’s table and say the very words twirling around in my brain, but remaining mute on my tongue. I envisioned myself walking up to the woman and saying, “You asked what benefit it would be to have a Jewish woman join your group? Well, I’ll tell you what benefit it would be. It would be a benefit to you to learn about another person who is different from you. Another person whose religion and traditions are different from yours. It would benefit you, and your friends, and this new Jewish woman in town, if you were kind to her, and reached out to her to invite her to your group, and make her feel welcome in her new home town. That’s how it would benefit you.”

But I didn’t do it. I let it be. I beat myself up for not speaking up. I moved on. Or, I say I moved on. That was twenty-five years ago, but I can still feel the bitter sting of exclusion, masked by sweetness, like it was yesterday.

Now, when I have these moments of surreality in the face of someone speaking in a derogatory manner about Jews, I think of Claudia Rankine and her critically acclaimed book, Citizen, in which she so deftly describes the daily microaggressions, and more overt acts of racism, she has endured throughout her life time. In no way can I ever know what it is like to be Black and endure the level of trauma from racism that Black people endure, but if I could describe the out-of-body feeling that comes over me in these kind of moments, I connect to the way Rakine poetically frames her encounter with microaggressions.

5. About five years later when I lived in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with my now, ex-husband, Tim, another one of those brain tricks came into play. I was in the process of buying a used station wagon. My ex’s uncle had me bring it to his mechanic to check it out before buying it. When I called to ask the mechanic what he thought about the car, and the price the owner was asking for it, he said, “well the car is in good shape, but I think you can Jew him down on the price..” Did I hear him right? “Excuse me, can you repeat that?” I asked, wanting to be sure I heard him correctly. I had heard him correctly. I told Tim, and when he went to pick up the car, and the mechanic said the same phrase to him, Tim said, “you know, my wife is Jewish, and so that’s not really something you should say because it’s seen as an offensive statement.” The mechanic said he didn’t mean it as anything derogatory, and went on to say how it was maybe even something to be seen as a compliment, you know, expressing how Jews are shrewd business people, and crafty.

6. Working presently in a psychiatric hospital, facilitating groups on our Adult Intensive Treatment unit, more than once I have been caught off-guard by a patient bearing a swastika or Iron Cross tattoo. While I have heard that the Iron Cross also is used by the biker community as a symbol of rebellion, and not necessarily as a symbol of hate with Nazi origins, it still makes me uncomfortable. And even though many that we offer treatment to, suffer from psychotic disorders, and at times their delusions have caused them to make pro-Hitler statements in my presence, it knocks me off-balance. When this happens, I put on my professional armour and let them know they need to refrain from making such statements as other people may be offended by them, not letting on that I, myself, feel weakened by their words.

7. My daughters, now sixteen and eighteen, have shared over the past few years about snapchats and group texts from high school classmates that have said things like the Holocaust is fake, that the ovens were a good invention worth bringing back, and how in one of my younger daughter’s classes, a group of boys, all friends, make comments about the Jewish boy in their group, to get him mad.

8. Growing up, our family belonged to a pool club. I loved that place. The tables of ladies playing mahjong in the shade, the shuffleboard and tether ball courts, the way some of the couples would change into more dressy clothes on the weekend for dinner at the clubhouse, the men’s Star of David and chai necklaces exposed between their open-collared shirts. When I finally caught on, I asked my Dad, “why is everyone Jewish here?” He explained that all the other country clubs were only for Catholic and Protestant people, and that they didn’t allow Jewish people to join, so we had to start our own club. I was too young to truly understand that level of exclusion, but I remember imagining the country club with this big gate where a Catholic person stood guard not letting any Jewish people in.

Ridgewood Pool Club. L to R, my Mom, Myrna Kahan, daughers, Nancy and Diane Kahan, Debbie Albert

9. Just this month, flyers were posted at UC Davis and Berkeley colleges, among several others, saying: “Every time there is an anti-white, anti-American, anti-freedom event, look at it, and it’s Jews behind it.” The flyers were put out by the Daily Stormer, a Neo-Nazi, Holocaust denier group.

10. The Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 11th, 2017, saw the self-named “alt-right,” lead a march of over 250 mostly white males, with some white women present as well. With tiki torches in hand,  they marched onto the University of Virginia campus chanting racist and anti-Semetic slogans, including “White Lives Matter,” “You will not replace us!” and “Jews will not replace us!” I remember looking in the mirror the following night and seeing myself as they saw me. As something less than human. As an ugly, curly-haired, rat.

Why do I list these? Perhaps it is my way to process what happened on Saturday. A friend, Julia, on Facebook, asked, how is everyone processing all the hate from even the last week alone–the CNN bombs, the white supremacist murdering of two Black senior citizens, Maurice Stallard, 69, and Vickie Lee Jones, 67, outside of a Kroger supermarket, and the murder of eleven Jewish people celebrating a newborn child at a bris ceremony at The Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Murdered in Pittsburgh were, Daniel Stein, 71; Joyce Feinberg, 75; Richard Gottfried, 65; Rose Mallinger, 97; Jerry Rabinowitz, 66; brothers Cecil Rosenthal, 59, and David Rosenthal 54; husband and wife Bernice Simon, 84 and Sylvan Simon, 86; Melvin Wax, 88; and Irving Younger, 69.

When I blog here, it is most of the time, me looking outward, at what is happening to Black people in this country. How racism is traumatizing their lives. How it is literally killing them. How despite this, they have lived centuries in this country having to keep on living despite white people in this country telling them they are less than. Not allowing them the same rights, freedom, or opportunity to truly live free, and prosper. So, even as I think about and mourn for Pittsburgh, and my fellow Jewish brothers and sisters, I realize, too, that my white skin affords me the luxury of not always being seen as Jewish, and so I am still thinking, but this is what Black people in this country have lived with for hundreds of years, and I thought today of the nine people murdered in the church in Charleston, South Carolina by a young white supremacist. I think about how on the highway this morning I saw a US Customs and Border Patrol car beside me, and I feared for our brothers and sisters who have immigrated here, and sought asylum here. And, I think about how the same friend who asked how we are processing hate, also stated, that she felt the word “hate” isn’t the correct word for the media to use with what we are experiencing now. She said, “Hate does not fully capture what we are experiencing. This is racial/ethnic/religious cleansing. So to hear this reduced to “hate” just really gets under my skin as it feels like a form of denial and a failure to fully capture the experiences of those of us who are being subjected to racial/ethnic/religious cleansing.” While I process all that is going on, this is what and who I am thinking about. After all, we are all a part of the Tree Of Life.

Yet, today I look inward more than I look outward. I liked growing up being Jewish, knowing we were different within our greater community. I thought it was special to be different. I liked the lessons I learned in Sunday and Hebrew school, and from my parents, and from our rabbi, that told me that being a Jew gave me the responsibility to live my life as a good person here on earth, not for the false reward of going to a place called heaven, but because that is the right thing to do. To be good to your fellow human beings. To help one another out when they need it. To alleviate another’s suffering.

Today, as I let myself feel, and let down my guard, let myself feel more than the numbness that protected me at work on Saturday, I came across a photo of my Aunt Jane on social media with the photo frame being used to honor those lost in Pittsburgh: #Together Against Anti-Semitism. A joyous, sassy smile, as she stood in front of a photography exhibit of hers, I couldn’t help to see in Jane’s face, a young Anne Frank, and then all of my ancestors, and all of us here now, and to see that we are the ones who some wish to extinguish, and it brought tears to my eyes.


Together Against Antisemitism

  Family: My Aunt Jane



As I look inward, and to friends and family for support and inspiration, I remember my friend Davey from Waterbury, who said that we have seen dark times in history like this before, and we have gotten past them, and together we will get past this. I will carry on, as my friend Marco called for, when he said, “we — all of us — must figure this out with radical love, unrelenting grace, and authentic solidarity, forthwith!”

I leave you with one of my Facebook poems created from my friends’ status updates on the day of the Pittsburgh murders. I wish you all love, peace, and the knowing that you are beautiful.



oh dear god! the republicans have
shot up a synagogue!
the count is 11 now
I have few words but
many feelings about
today’s tragedy
racist hate has been
on a slow burn since
the end of
the civil war
in this case-
racism is the heat source
hate is the accelerant
people are the fuel
drumpf is the match
everything is on fire
and there’s no
first responders
in sight
love and solidarity with
the jewish community
during this time
you are all my
brothers, and
my sisters. just
because you
come from another
house, or maybe
speak another language
than I, or exist
within a culture
and tradition
however alien to my own,
you are still
my family
and, I love you
I really need a
group of
critical thinkers to
help me
process all that’s
happened including
these mass murders,
kavanaugh, state and
quasi state murders of
black people,
white women calling
the police on
innocent black people.
I guess I could
simply say
I need a place to
process hate.
for those of us who
have strength and
life and love–we
must pour these
into the world
as long as they
survive in us
we must offer
a counterbalance
so when we feel
the deep pain of
the suffering of
the world and
all living things,
think: counterbalance
radiate your love
and life and strength
and courage. make
your difference
when I pray
in synagogue next,
I will mourn the
human beings who
were murdered as they
participated in the ritual
celebrating the
miracle of existence,
who weren’t able to
finish their prayer for
the healing of
the world
we have
so much potential

Thank you to poem contributors: ShaRhonda Knott-Dawson, Ria Moni, Eric E. Axelman, Warren Leach, James Michael Leonard, Angel Rosa, Julia JZ, Diana Fox, Carrie Marsh Dixon (quote from The Atlantic) Nancy Strisik


www.wikipedia.org (for origin of word, kike)


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