The first time I was called a “Jew” with malicious intent was September 1958 in the playground of Belmont Hills Elementary School in the suburbs of Philadelphia. It came as a surprise. I was eight years old and up until that time had been living in New York City where everyone I encountered was Jewish. Well, almost everyone. Those boys in blazers I had to walk past outside Loyola School on Park Avenue were far too badly behaved to be Jewish, although I could not have told you what it was they were exactly. Anyway, the word Jew until that moment in the playground had simply been one of the words and phrases, like “Mike,” “son,” and “114 East 90th Street,” whose meanings were slowly building up into a sense of who I was.
Whoever called me a “Jew” didn’t accompany the word with a shove or a punch, but the way the word was bitten off and barked contained enough implicit violence to make it clear that it was a bad thing. I simply didn’t know how to respond. I was the new kid in the class, bewildered by the provincial environment, overweight, incorrectly dressed for the new suburban life and therefore struggling on a wide range of fronts to avoid being singled out for ridicule. After a few months I had managed to blend in so the next time someone barked “Jew” at me I was still surprised. It was not like I wore a yarmulke or any other outward manifestation of Jewishness. I had just been typed and there was no getting away from that. Before too long I learned I was a “mockey” and a “kike” as well as a “Jew.” And with the help of the adults in my world I learned the boys calling me names were “Wops” and “Dagos” and “Micks.”
By American measures the Second World War is ancient history so it is easy to forget that, in addition to its horrors, the War liberated a generation of immigrants who had grown up in the Depression with little or no prospects for a better life. The conflict did more to break down class barriers and shake the society up than any of the New Deal’s economic plans. World War II was a tontine and the winners were the second-generation immigrants raised in ghettoized city neighborhoods who didn’t get killed. In the service they had a chance to meet people from other strata of society, make connections and build the social capital that made it possible to find the means to open businesses; the G.I. bill educated them and created the opportunity to achieve professional qualifications. They quickly began to acquire wealth, and by the 1950′s new suburbs were being thrown up to give them a chance to get out of the city and breathe clean country air.
Regardless of ethnic background when people did move to the suburbs they stuck to their own kind recreating the security in numbers feeling of the old neighborhood. In Philadelphia, the most successful Jews moved to new developments in Bala-Cynwyd and Penn Valley, barely over the city line and just adjacent to Belmont Hills a working class neighborhood strewn up and down a steep ridge carved out by the Schuylkill River. Belmont Hills was similar to hundreds of mill towns throughout the northeast in topography, architecture and ethnic structure: mostly Italian and Irish with a few Germans and one or two French Canadians who had drifted south; all staunchly Catholic. Their lives were based around employment in the small factories that still lined the Schuylkill in the 1950′s.
And because of the way the Lower Merion School District boundary lines were drawn the children of the new middle-class Jews and the working class Catholics were thrown together. It was like 18th century Europe from Alsace to Galicia without the money-lending. There was mutual suspicion and occasional exploration between the two groups and a childlike acceptance that “they” were different. But a couple of times a year the tension in that difference boiled over in the schoolyard or an unsupervised moment in the classroom.
Then shoving and ten-year old fisticuffs until a teacher intervened..
Anti-Semitism is a complex phenomenon. It wasn’t simply Jew hatred being expressed in these occasional outbursts but envy and fear of any people who were different – and wealthier. Whatever the reason, being regularly called a Jew and the threat of violence that hovered in the air with it continued to add to my sense of who I was. I was a very diligent student at Hebrew school but not very religious. My sense of being Jewish came as much from the nasty way in which I was periodically reminded of my difference from the Catholic kids of Belmont Hills as it did from rituals of religion.
There were other ways, of course.
In spring I walked the mile or so to Penn Valley through the Hill. Occasionally I would be accompanied by guys from that neighborhood to the boundary of my own. We would talk about the things eleven and twelve year old boys talk about: toughness, strength, whose father was meaner. For forty years a fragment of a conversation with Joey Fital and Joe Roscioli has been stuck to the inside of my skull like a barnacle. We were bragging on who got the worst whippings, comparing our respective old man’s belt preferences, how many smacks we got and for what offences. I tried to uphold the honor of the Jews in this conversation, exaggerating the number of times I got the strap and the offenses that led to punishment but when Joey Fital asked whether my old man used the buckle like his did I had to remain silent. My father was a reluctant flogger at best and I couldn’t exaggerate more than I already had.
Until that conversation I had known Joey mostly as one of the leaders of the anti-Semitic chorus, now we had a different understanding of each other. It didn’t end his occasional ugly use of the J-word but that conversation, and others like it, put it in a different context. If at the age of eleven I had know the word recidivist I would have used it to describe the occasional name calling when balanced against the more intimate conversations about fathers and other guy stuff walking in the spring warmth.
My younger brothers have less happy memories. One day they wandered into some woods near our house and crossed paths with two older kids from the Hill.
“Didn’t you see the sign?” one of the older boys asked.
“No Jews Allowed.”
Then one of the Hill kids held a knife to one of my brother’s throat and said the Jews killed Christ and they would kill him, unless my other brother promised to renounce Judaism and apologize.
From within and without the J-word has a unique ability shape a person’s sense of themselves in large part because it has carried different meanings down the millennia.
At the beginning of the story, Jews weren’t called Jews at all. In the Torah, Jews are usually called the children of Israel, but in the book of Exodus they are called Hebrews. The precise origin of the word Hebrew is lost somewhere in the time before writing. In the language spoken by Abraham, “eber” means the other side of the river. It is possible that the word Hebrew comes from that root. The other side of the river is a perfect metaphor for where the monotheistic tribe descended from Abraham stood in relation to the polytheistic idol worshippers around the Middle East. More prosaically it might just be a name whose origins are unknowable. There is a tribe called the “Habiru” mentioned in ancient cuneiform texts who apparently did battle in Canaan.
By and large, the word Jew is notable by its absence in the Old Testament. The New Testament on the other hand makes plentiful use of the J-word and defined it as a term of abuse for the best part of eighteen-hundred years.
A polite fightback by community leaders began in France during the early days of the French Revolution. The status of the Jewish community, particularly, the ghettoized Ashkenazic Jews of eastern France was a great concern to all the factions – left, center and right – in the constitution writing National Assembly that began meeting within weeks of the fall of the Bastille. The fate of France’s Jews became the ultimate test of the Revolution’s principals. To paraphrase the question: If we say all men are brothers and they have equal rights including the right to worship as they please, are we including the Jews, as well?
In the last months of 1789 the subject came up for debate often. The word “Jew” was used both to designate the people whose rights were being secured and as an epithet to remind legislators that Jews were a “nation within the nation,” a people apart, incapable of being French.
In an essay, one of the leaders of the Jewish community, Berr Isaac Berr noted that Jew was a term of abuse and asked that in future, officials should use the word ‘Israelite ‘ or ‘Hebrew ‘ when referring to his group. Berr reasoned the etymology of the word “juif” or Jew was traced back to the Kingdom of Judah in Biblical times and the use of the word Jew implied that Judah was their homeland. But as France was now the home of the Jews it would be better to use a word like Israelite when referring to the community. Israelite had not acquired the pejorative connotation of Jew. Israel, after all, was the honorific bestowed by God on Jacob after their all night wrestling match.
In one of its last acts before dissolving itself, the Constitutional National Assembly voted to give full rights to Jews. When Napoleon emerged from the rubble of the Revolution to embark on his campaign of conquest, wherever he went he extended these rights to Europe’s Jewish communities. In some places French soldiers literally tore down the doors of the ghetto. A new era in the life of the community in Europe began, the era of Emancipation. Throughout the nineteenth century, “Israelite” or “Hebrew” or “follower of Moses” supplanted Jew as the way outsiders and members referred to the community if they wanted to be polite and correct. It was a process analogous to the way “black” and then “African-American” or “person of color” replaced Negro in polite discourse after the Civil Rights era.
Jew increasingly became a pejorative term. In German, the word morphed into slang. Judentums is the German for Judaism. Judentums in the 1830′s became argot for business. What does he do for a living? someone might ask. “He does Judaism,” would be the answer and everyone would understand the person being discussed was an entrepreneur, regardless of his religion.
Not every Jewish person went along with these semantic games. In 1832, a magazine appeared in Germany that left no doubt who it was for and what it was about . It was called Der Jude: The Jew. The editor and pretty much sole reporter was Gabriel Riesser, a lawyer by training but prohibited from practicing his profession because he was Jewish. Many members of the community had converted to Christianity to get around the restriction. Processing past the baptismal font had become a common charade for ambitious, talented Jewish men. But Riesser simply would not play that game.
By calling his journal, The Jew, he was waving a red flag to his own rapidly assimilating community. That community, not even two decades out of the ghetto felt “Jew” was only used by Judeophobes and self-haters, never in polite society.
Riesser asked readers of Der Jude if they thought by changing the name Jew to something more acceptable to society they would avoid injustice and hatred. “Vain hope! Believe me, hatred will find its man, just like the Angel of Death. It shall recognize him through a thousand favorable names.”
The contents of the pint glass were already airborne as we turned towards the shout. The beer hit my friend Douglas directly in the face, soaking his glasses and forming a little drip from the end of his long, classically Semitic nose. He removed his spectacles and tried to find a dry spot on his shirt to wipe them. I looked back towards the shout and saw the backs of three youths, wearing tight, white t-shirts, the flesh on their wiry arms chapped raw by the chill July afternoon. Their bony shoulders shook with laughter as they disappeared into the throng sluicing down into the center of Durham, a cathedral town in the northeast of England where the annual Miner’s Gala was in full swing.
Douglas and I turned away and trudged wordlessly up the hill towards St. Aidan’s College. It was the summer of 1967, the summer of love, and we had been in England less than 24 hours. This time being called Jew hurt for all the reasons you can imagine plus one other, that glass of beer damped down what had been a very wonderful and giddy few weeks of Jewish pride.
The spring of 1967 two things happened in our Jewish section of Philadelphia’s suburbs. First, came the Six-Day War which we followed on transistor radios as we went from class to class. “The canal … They’re almost at the Suez Canal,” someone would say as we went from English to Algebra II. High fives had yet to be invented but the vibe was there.
The second was we invented The Game, which we later re-named Maul Ball. The game combined elements of all the hard contact sports so few of us played. It took place on a lacrosse field and used a football and was basically a form of rugby with a goalie. The idea was to put the football into the lacrosse net. There were no forward passes allowed. The team with the ball kept it until someone was tackled so hard they coughed it up. There was no limit to the number of people on a team. However many showed up to play were divided in half. We played five a side and twenty a side.
Maul Ball became an obsession. I played lacrosse for the high school team but very few of the other guys had participated in any organized sport and so did not know the hormone flooded pleasure of non-stop running, hard contact and the adrenaline surge when you see your own blood sluicing out of a gashed knee or trickling warm into your eyes out of your forehead. Aspects of personalities previously hidden by good Jewish boy manners boiled up in the mayhem. Whether this sudden outburst of physical recklessness was encouraged by the desire to emulate the courage of Israeli soldiers is a matter for psychoanalytic speculation but it was a remarkable change of activity in a group whose previous expressions of aggression and gamesmanship had been confined to Friday night poker games at Jeff Frank or Hal Pastner’s house.
We spoke about the game non-stop and as the new school year started someone must have been talking about it in the vicinity of one of the guys from Belmont Hills because we were challenged by them to a game of full contact football. The Hill had a team that was part of an unofficial sandlot league. It was our senior year and we were already well on our separate ways: us to college, most of them to Vietnam. The Jews against the Wops: one last showdown.
The Sunday of the showdown was just before Thanksgiving. The rules were the basic rules of football with a stipulation that no protective equipment could be worn. No cleats, just sneakers, although a couple of guys from both teams turned up with spikes and were allowed to play in them.
Game day was cold, the kind of cold that turns a football into a rock that can break your fingertips; so cold that a warm up stretch is as likely to snap a hamstring as loosen it up. The Hill players took the right approach. They sat in cars that quickly filled with Marlboro fumes and just before the appointed kickoff time they emerged. We recognized most of the guys but, inevitably, a ringer had been included.
“Who’s that?” someone asked one of the Hill guys.
Butchie DiCicco, ohmygod, Butchie DiCicco. The Butchie DiCicco. We were more than six degrees of separation from him but we all knew his legend: a badass of the first rank, thrown out of more Catholic schools than there were holy orders to staff them. Here he was, not overly tall but slab-like in the torso, stalking across the rock hard grass towards us.
We lost the toss and on the first play, DiCicco took a hand-off and slanted off tackle. He stormed through the line untouched, it wasn’t the blocking that created the space it was his aura. Just as he was about to pick up real speed, Dougie, half his size by width and height stepped into his way. Butchie bore down on him trying to run him over. At the last minute, Doug stepped to one side leaving only his toe out. DiCicco tripped and went down hard on his face into the frozen grass. He popped up almost immediately, both fists clenched. Doug backed away at speed laughing, “Sorry man, I couldn’t think of anything else.” DiCicco took a few more steps then started to laugh as well. The riot potential in the game ended there and then.
Beyond that the memories of the contest are fragments laid out on a screen, mostly of Jeff Frank’s back as he stormed downfield on a couple of cracking runs. The feel of cold, unprotected bodies colliding or the thud of hitting the ground is gone from my memory. As is the final score. The Wops won the game by 3 to 1 or maybe 4 to 1 but the Jews gained the moral victory. The next day we all managed to make it to school, a couple of their players didn’t and, as an added sign of respect, Jeff was invited to be the Hill team’s ringer at their next game.
And that was it, we went our separate ways, although a week before graduation one of the kids from the Hill managed to hiss a last “dirty Jew” at me. It was not for old time’s sake and it was as threatening as ever.
The last time I was called a Jew with malicious intent was in Prague in the heady days after the fall of communism. It was well past 1 a.m. and I was walking home from a rave in the basement of an old communist monument. The teen-age boys who shouted at me could not have seen many Jews in their lives. How they could tell I was one, moving in and out of the expressionist shadows thrown by the street lights, was beyond me. It made me wonder whether a millennium of Jew-hatred had become genetically encoded.
A few years later I saw the word “Jude” written in an ugly graffiti underneath a picture of a gibbet with a stick figure hung from it. That was along a railroad siding in Cracow. I was passing through the city on my way to Auschwitz to cover the ceremonies marking the fiftieth anniversary of the liberation of the camp. Seeing the word written out was no different than having it shouted at me. This time I felt neither confusion nor bemusement. I felt rather proud. That’s right, Jew, and we’re still here.
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(c) 2011 MIchael Goldfarb. Do not quote without permission