My Mother’s Antennae for Antisemitism

My mother kept a list in her head of antisemites. The list was long and basically included anyone who was not Jewish. She shared it with me on every appropriate occasion, which is to say at least a couple of times a week for my entire life.

Her parents were both from Budapest. They’d fled the Nazis and ended up in Cleveland, Ohio, more specifically the Glenville neighborhood, a place that in the 1940s and 50s was crammed with delis and synagogues and kosher butcher shops. Whenever my mother ventured outside her bubble, she knew to be on high alert.

At 18, my mother married and moved from her childhood home to an apartment near an army base in Tampa where my father was stationed. She dove head first into adjusting to life south of the Mason Dixon line, trying out Cuban food in a fancy restaurant that offered live music and mojitos, maintaining an immaculate apartment and landing her first real job as a department store clerk. A few weeks into the job, some of the other salesgirls surrounded her. Two of them rubbed her head.

“What the hell are you doing?” She wasn’t one to ever use profanity. A pretty blonde girl replied: “We’re searching for your horns.”

My mother didn’t understand.

“You know,” her coworker said. “You’re a Jew and Jews are supposed to have horns.”

Whenever my mother told me that story, I’d roll my eyes. The same way I reacted when she told me about the grocery store owned by antisemites where she refused to shop. I still go to that store.

As a teenager, I felt certain my mother hadn’t yet caught on to how much things had changed. Jews were cultural leaders. My rabbis were Mel Brooks, Bob Dylan, and Gloria Steinem. In my generation, kids of all stripes protested against the Vietnam War in one united and stoned-out voice.

In post World War II America, I asserted my Judaism openly, proudly, and often acerbically. But today, I’ve come to believe I was living in what journalist Bari Weiss refers to as “a holiday from history.”

The antisemitism my mother bumped into was clandestine and subtle. History, as we all know—but too often forget—repeats itself. The whispers and rumors heard by my mother are now tweets on X and reels on my Facebook and Instagram. I shudder when I hear the loud sing-song voices chant “Globalize the intifada,” “From the river to the sea,” and “Burn Tel Aviv to the ground.” The faces of the chanters are obscured by Covid era masks as they call for the destruction of the world’s only Jewish state. This is a direct and profound assault on my existence.

I’d admired my mom for her feisty demeanor, even if she embarrassed me with her scrappiness and the way she’d never back down from a perceived slight. Often, my mother would say: The whole world hates us.

Today I caught myself repeating that last line to my grown daughter. My perception may not be accurate, but too often these days it sure does seem that way. My mother would not take any pleasure in my finally realizing how right she was.

Quote:

“Hope for the best. Expect the worst. Life is a play. We’re unrehearsed.” ― Mel Brooks

Do Try This at Home:

As you go through your day, notice a story you tell yourself about who you are:  if I open the bag of chips and eat one, I’ll finish the bag; I’ve always been uncoordinated and clumsy; I’m not the kind of person who can sit still and meditate. No need to change or challenge the story. Simply notice and be aware of these self-imposed barriers.

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