Innergiggler's Blog

THIS JEW’S DILEMMA

Posted on: December 2, 2010

My birthday was quickly approaching and I’d always bought myself some kind of gift.  A nice article of clothing or a modest piece of jewelry would usually be perfect but I was coming up empty.   I was unaware at this time that my IPOD had suffered a stroke and would need a replacement.    

Stopping into Bed Bath & Beyond my attention was drawn to the strangest looking menorah I’d ever seen.  Used to celebrate Hanukkah – the Festival of Lights – menorahs are generally pretty generic.  My mom always kept an electric one in the living room’s big bay window of our home  on Long Island for the eight days.  But that was a very long time ago.  Despite my desire for a more extravagant present, I deemed this as my gift, determined to celebrate the festive holiday this year. 

My husband and I don’t have a bay window here in our Westchester, CA house of only 45 days, but there are several other plain windows facing the street. We are the new neighbors.  As I was considering where I’d place the celebratory ornament tonight, a rather uncomfortable feeling came over me.  I knew there weren’t any synagogues in this new neighborhood – but I had seen several churches.  Upon mentioning the discomfort to my husband – who was born a Christian but by age 10 had completely retired from religion – he reminded me of a story I’d once shared with him:

A month before entering my junior year in high school my family moved from Queens, NY to East Meadow, Long Island.  Our immediate neighborhood was primarily Jewish – but the town was split in half with a majority of Jews or Christians living on each side. I didn’t know the 11th graders in my neighborhood were enrolled in a different school.  I was about to experience what it was like to be the minority for the first time in my life.    

Being the new kid in school was scary, but a sweet 11th grader named Connie invited me to sit with her and a bunch of her friends.   Happy to be included anywhere I immediately said “yes!” A combination of sophomores and juniors – we giggled, shared teacher/ parent/family stories as well as general girl stuff.  It was fun and I definitely looked forward to lunch. Sometime during the second week I thought I heard an anti-Jewish comment.  Surely I was mistaken.   A few weeks later I heard another – which was followed by laughter.  I was unsure how to handle this.  Gratefully, weeks went by without any prejudicial comments and then came the third remark.  Everyone laughed except me – and except Connie.  She sat stone-faced.  I sensed she knew I was Jewish but was letting me handle the situation.  Rather than deal with the discomfort and discord, I followed up on an invitation offered by some Jewish girls to join them for lunch in a different area.

Lunchtime with these girls felt immediately more comfortable.  Paranoia-free, I didn’t have to think about being “different.” However, instead of the general laughter and silliness I’d gotten used to with the other group, I noticed these girls maintained an enormous focus on everything and anything negative.  So it was okay to be a Jew – but not so great to be happy.

“The lunch room lady with the cleft palate purposely shorted me on mashed potatoes today.  What a bitch.”

“Did you see Sharon Scott standing in assembly with the ugliest dress on the face of the earth?”

“I can’t believe Cindy O’Neil stepped on my brand new loafers during chemistry and now I have a scuff.”

We were only 15 or 16; we lived in middle class “prosperity” of the early 60s – had plenty to eat, sizable roofs over our heads and clean clothes.  These particular girls had no appreciation for life and generosity. 

By the middle of the second week of “Jews only” I decided to return to the first group aka the “shiksas*” and re-engage in heavy giggling and silly conversations.   I would keep my mouth shut –  they were just making harmless comments. 

That was until the second week when one of the girls noted that the gym teacher would never pick a Jewish kid to participate in the annual sports night.  I was shocked.  Wow!  They really didn’t know about my background; I just listened.  The conversation continued pointing out the teacher’s history of anti-Semitic bias – concluding “that” was a given – no Jews allowed.  I looked toward Connie and her beautiful blue eyes were dim; her pink lips were pressed tightly, appearing very white. 

“I’m a Jew!  I’m Jewish.”  It was like a volcano of lava spewing out of my throat clearing my heart and palate.  Quiet.  No one said a word – but there appeared to be a smirk on Connie’s lips – and they had returned to their natural pink color. 

“I don’t care about Sports Night, but I didn’t know I automatically couldn’t participate.”

“Well…uh…if you want to – I’ll talk to Mrs. Jensen” streamed uncomfortably out of Carol’s mouth.”

And now, as the official Jewish sentry:  “Maybe everyone should have a talk with Mrs. Jensen and Mr. Stevens!”  (The principal)

Amidst the frenetic clanging of dishes and silverware, the table became uncomfortably quiet again.  Finally, a sophomore named Margaret turned to me:

“I’m so sorry for the insulting comments and attitude.  Thanks for putting up with the prejudice.  I’m glad you’re here.”

The silence was broken and everyone had something apologetic to add.  That was fifty years ago and I am forever grateful for the experience.  Mrs. Jensen suddenly changed her mind and included “some” Jews; and that felt so damn good. I took action that was uncomfortable and it “mattered.”  

Despite this success and others I’ve had fighting discrimination in other categories, here we are in the 21st century and I’m afraid to display a religious reference to my heritage.  What’s this Jew to do?

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4 Responses to "THIS JEW’S DILEMMA"

There are temples in your neighborhood. I have a friend who is Jewish living in Westchester and there are Jewish families I know. I think the main temple relocated to Temple Akiba in Culver City. I put up lights in my neighborhood and I am surrounded on all sides by non Jews but there are enough of us on the block to balance it out. I would put up the menorah and see who comes out of the woodwork to meet you. So funny you talked about an electric menorah we had ones of those as well when I was growing up besides the real Menorah. Glad to see you back to writing.

Put it up for sure! I really would hope people don’t think of Jews as ‘different’ anymore.
As a non-Jew, I admit to being a tiny bit jealous of all the interesting Jewish traditions and culture. I would love to see a menorah on my street.

I might scuff your shoes though just for fun.

OOooo, sweetie, put that menorah in the window!

I can’t speak for the people in your neighborhood, but I live in the South surrounded by ultra-conservative Southern Baptists. I’m a Christian, but I’m one of those “liberal” Christians who is supposedly “not really saved” and bound for hell anyway because apparently a bunch of stuck up old Southern white men think they have more say over that than God. *shrugs* OK, so given that I’m the weird chic around here who actually has some semblance of a clue about comparative religion, if I saw your nifty awesome menorah in your window and new your were new to the neighborhood and needing a good welcome, I would totally pop by and say “Happy Chanukah!” and bring you a plate full of appropriate yummies. I’d also be all like, “Cool menorah! Where’d you find it?” 🙂 (Any chance you can post a pic of your menorah? Now, I’m all totally curious.)

Good luck in your new neighborhood whatever decision you make. And, ENJOY your new menorah and HAPPY CHANUKAH!

I’ll be an avid reader of anything Linda:)

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