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It All Began with

It All Began with "You Dirty Kike"

I am no longer ignoring the ignorance.

by

I was only eight years old when Carl Schmidt’s mother called me a “kike.”

Anti-Semitism on Cadwalader Terrace? It was the best-kept secret on the block.

Cadwalader Terrace, the street where I grew up in Trenton, New Jersey in the 1950s, was a multi-religious, multi-ethnic melting pot where diversity, inclusiveness and mutual respect were the norms. My best friends were Margo Russo from an Italian-Irish family and Angie Apostolaros who was Greek. A few African-Americans even lived in our predominantly white neighborhood.

As part of a Jewish minority, I never encountered anti-Semitism nor heard the “k” word until Mrs. Schmidt raged against a group of us kids for causing a ruckus as we played in the alley. I assumed “kike” was a curse word used by angry grown-ups like Mrs. Schmidt, not an ethnic slur invented for Jews.

I may not have recognized the anti-Semitism in Mrs. Schmidt’s rant, but I felt like her scapegoat, the one she blamed for our rowdy behavior. Her glare settled on me as she screamed “you dirty kike!,” her face beet-red, nostrils flaring, her large frame barreling across her backyard like a Mack truck as she chased us from the alley.

Growing up only a decade or so after the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, even in America, was a reality that we Jews had to accept.

I never told my parents what happened. Even if I had understood what “kike” meant and come home crying, I imagine my mom would have told me to “just ignore Mrs. Schmidt.” My dad, a former professional athlete who had lost a spot on the Olympic Soccer Team in the 1930’s to a less qualified non-Jew, would have agreed, explaining, “Anti-Semitism has been around for 2,000 years and will be here for the next 2,000.”

For me, growing up only a decade or so after the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, even in America, was a reality that we Jews had to accept. For my parents, ringing Mrs. Schmidt’s doorbell and confronting her hatred head-on would have been unthinkable.

That 1950’s mindset followed me into adulthood. I became adept at listening passively to anti-Semitic remarks in my presence as if they didn’t apply to me.

I recall once sitting on a train when a woman talked about her daughter who had been engaged to a Jew. “Thank God, she didn’t marry him. You know those Jews, they’re such snobs,” she said. She stuck her nose way up in the air to demonstrate.

A black woman who had been sitting with us later asked me, “You’re Jewish, right? Why didn’t you say something?” I just shrugged.

How ironic, in retrospect, that it took a black woman, no stranger to racial prejudice, to point out that my Jewishness had come under attack, something I chose to ignore.

Over the years, I’ve been in the room when other anti-Semitic canards have been expressed, such as: “Jews are obsessed with money. They go to the synagogue to pray for it;” “My landlord personally comes to collect the rent, you know, because he’s Jewish;” or “Where do you think the word jewelry comes from? Jew…jewelry.”

Even more recently, while eating in the employee lounge, I overheard a loud discussion about the executives who “are obsessed with power because they are Jews.” I felt tempted to inform them that there was only one Jewish executive, but I remained mute, choosing not to respond.

My habitual reaction on hearing such absurd falsehoods has been to sit back, keep quiet and disregard them. I initially may have felt shocked or offended, especially since it was no secret that I was Jewish, but then I would tell myself that, unlike the hate-spewing, anti-Semitic Mrs. Schmidt, these non-Jews spoke out of ignorance, their words innocuous with no malicious intent.

But now, with the recent proliferation of hate speech and hate crimes, I find myself looking at what I considered “innocuous” statements in a new light. Wasn’t it thoughts and words that smacked of anti-Semitism that ultimately led to Jewish cemetery desecrations in Philadelphia and St. Louis, a New York City subway car covered with swastikas and “Heil Hitler,” and neo-Nazi threats against Tanya Gersh, a Jewish woman in Whitefish, Montana who was told, “Thanks for demonstrating why your race needs to be collectively ovened”?

Such blatant anti-Semitic acts rattled me to my Jewish core, forcing me to confront my history of indifference.

And then, this summer, we all witnessed the expression of anti-Semitism in full display as white supremacists and neo-Nazis marched through Charlottesville, Virginia, shouting “Jews will not replace us!” and the Nazi slogan of “Blood and Soil!” For the first time in my life, I felt vulnerable as a Jew living in America.

Such blatant anti-Semitic acts rattled me to my Jewish core, forcing me to confront my history of indifference in the face of anti-Semitic comments.

I consider myself an outspoken person willing to dive into potentially confrontational situations in the name of justice and morality, so why did I cave in to and inevitably enable the expression of anti-Semitic slurs? Was I fearful of being disliked or socially ostracized if I spoke out? Maybe I was too curious, wanting to be the “fly on the wall” to get the scoop on what non-Jews really think of us. Or was my passive approach a cop-out because I simply did not know what to do in such instances?

The latter explanation resonated as the most plausible, but what were my options? I could have eyeballed the perpetrators as they spoke or angrily accused them of anti-Semitism, neither of which would have the desired effect. They might have perceived me as overreacting and not to be taken seriously.

As I pondered this dilemma, I remembered a tour guide in Santa Fe who many years ago taught me a lesson about my making disparaging comments against a group of people. She was talking about a Civil War battle won by the North when I piped in, “Hooray, the North wins again!” She later took me aside and politely yet firmly told me, “I had many Southern relatives who were killed in that war.” I never again thought or uttered an anti-Southern sentiment.

So, taking my tour guide’s lead, the next time I hear an anti-Semitic remark, I will approach the person involved and tactfully say, “You know, I am Jewish and what you said was offensive.” Such engagement might take me out of my comfort zone, but silence is not a choice in these times of escalating prejudice, hate and violence.

I don’t have to be the Anti-Defamation League or Simon Wiesenthal Center to take a stand against anti-Semitism. As an individual, I can do my part in my own small way. Hopefully, I have evolved from that eight-year-old girl who didn’t know the meaning of “kike” to a woman ready and able to stand up for herself and her Judaism.

January 20, 2018

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The opinions expressed in the comment section are the personal views of the commenters. Comments are moderated, so please keep it civil.

Visitor Comments: 34

(24) Ruth, February 21, 2018 12:20 PM

Ricki dear, excellent, moving and enlightening article!

Naphati's comments bear repeating and acknowledging.

(23) Simon, February 12, 2018 9:13 PM

Symbol of Hate

I work at an internationally renowned hospital/health system. We have several compressed nitrogen cylinders that were manufactured by a variety of different companies, some here in the US, and some in other countries. One of which, was manufactured by a company called the Linde Air Group, based in Hamburg, Germany. The dates that the tanks were inspected for integrity are stamped on the side of the tank. The latest date was in 2008. The first date was in 1937, next to which was what looked like a sign in a box, but was in reality a swastika that the company tried to cover up by chiseling into the tank to complete the square and to hide it. We contacted the company, which acknowledged that it really is a swastika and they issued a company wide recall to look for any other tanks, to deface them completely and remove the universal sign of antisemitism from them, and replaced my tank, with their sincerest apologies.

(22) Sue, February 3, 2018 9:26 PM

My first Anti-Semitic encounter was in the UK

over 45 years ago. My working class boy friend's friend told him to "be a Jew" and lick up some beer. I was horrified and he knew it. Not sure if I said anything at the time but later that day, he mentioned the incident to his mother who then told me that I should be "proud of my race" and things went downhill from there. I was inspired to connect to what little Jewish Community there was at my college. Very good essay Ricky. We all need to be reminded to speak up these days.

(21) Joe Altomare, January 27, 2018 7:08 PM

The Obligation of Gentile Rejoinders

I'm a gentile who, along with my wife, are deeply offended by antisemetic (as well as anti-racial and anti-nationalty) remarks made in our presence. When this happens, whether in a professional or social setting, and especially when occuring in a group setting, we feel obligated to voice our objections We find that in group settings, the offender is usually embarassed and at least some in the group feel empowered join in our objections. The embarrasment aside, such rejoinders may do nothing to change an offenders' deep seeded predudice, it's our hope that he or she will think twice before spreading such hate again.
Kudos to Fredricka for a thougtful and well written essay.

(20) Lindsay Taylor, January 24, 2018 5:40 PM

Sharing who I am

After several anti-semetic incidents at a hs where I was an English teacher, I decided to stop telling students I was Jewish. On a visit to Israel, I mentioned it to a group of tourists. " Why," asked one, " are you ashamed?" That cured me. I am proud to be Jewish and realized that I could be a role model. Like the author, I respond firmly but quietly to anti-semetic remarks

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