From pre-school through midway of second grade, my parents and I lived in Bergen County, NJ in a town called Dumont. On the surface – in a liberal leaning state – Dumont looks very peaceful, with a small-town feel, and the very definition of American suburbia. Well-funded public schools and modest style homes on big tree-lined streets with so many leaves that the ground becomes a multitude of colors in the fall. My dad worked in ‘the city’ (New York City), as did many parents, and this was my parents first house – after living in apartments for their young adult and first years of marriage.
Unlike most people, I tend to not remember a lot of my childhood. I remember poignant and coming of age moments of course, or really trying times – but mostly, I was lucky to have grown up in a happy and loving home. However, even at the young age of a kindergartener to second grader, I remember feeling very alone in Dumont.
Shortly after we moved in, it became known that we were Jewish. We weren’t really practicing or extremely religious in any sense, but we were Jewish. After this started to become known to the community, kids I used to play with would slowly stop coming over. At first I didn’t understand why and my Mom would just say that the other children were busy, but I knew something was wrong. Finally, one day a kid I was playing with deliberately broke a toy gun from my favorite sci-fi series. Granted it was just a toy, but as a young kid – I was devastated. Due to it being deliberate, my Mom called his mother to very politely ask for her to replace it.
I don’t know exactly what was said, but I do remember my Mom hanging the phone up in fury. When I asked if they were going to replace it, she told me no. I asked why. My Mom took a deep breath, looked me in the eye, and said because we’re Jewish. Not really understanding what that meant or why it mattered – I asked why it mattered. She said that they think we are the devil and that we killed Christ. Quite a thing to say to a ~6-year-old.
I didn’t understand the Christ reference completely at the time, but I did understand the devil reference. I remember crying and asking why they thought we were evil or bad, and my Mom did her best to explain that it was just ignorance and anti-Semitism – but those are hard concepts for a young boy to grasp. I DO remember learning the word anti-Semitism for the first time and for several years after that, associating it with people who exclusively hated me and my family simply because we were ‘Jewish’ even if I didn’t understand what being Jewish meant. As if my family bore the brunt of anti-Semitism ourselves.
Other kids also started to bully me in school, pushing me around and asking to see my ‘tail’. And then, a few weeks after the toy gun incident, a cross was set on fire in our front yard.
As a result, I spent my remaining time in Dumont without anyone to play with – save for when I got chicken pox. Apparently, the health of their children trumped their distaste of our religion because for a brief and wonderful week or two, I remember having play dates every day. Then, I went back to being a lonely child.
My parents moved as soon as they were able, midway through my second-grade year, and to their credit – I was still taught that nobody – regardless of their race, color, sexual orientation, or religion were different or inferior in any way. They would also often talk about their socially active days during the tumultuous 60s, protesting the Vietnam war, etc to help drill that in.
However, despite being taught this – to which my parents deserve a lot of credit – I remember the whole experience had instilled in me a small chip on my shoulder…badge of honor / sense of bitter pride in being Jewish as a result of being ostracized. In our new home, we became active in our Temple as I needed to start going to Hebrew school to prepare for my Bar Mitzvah – so the ability for me to immerse myself in all things Jewish was very easy. I suddenly became very interested in Jewish activities, history, surroundings, learning Hebrew, etc – and I took an odd silent comfort in people who were on the other side of the spectrum from anti-Semites: people who either preferred to only be around other Jews or believed that THEY were superior to anyone who wasn’t Jewish. These people (mostly through the temple) weren’t overtly prejudiced, certainly not in the consciously damaging way of the anti-Semites from Bergen County, but they were still very one-sided in their thinking. In their own way, they still created and enforced a dividing cultural and religious line. Of course, I didn’t tell my parents that I found this comforting.
Inevitably however, during my Jewish immersion – I discovered the Holocaust. So, at a very young age I became a student of the Holocaust. Due to my voracious interest in history and all things academic, thankfully what was minimally taught in school and Hebrew school wasn’t enough. Also – I needed to learn about all things Jewish.
So, I read about the History of WWII, how it started, listened to Holocaust survivor stories, read books, etc. When I discovered the depths of the horrors and the atrocities committed, I started needing help to understand it – to digest it, fathom it if you will. Somehow, and thankfully so – I knew to turn to my parents who had never wavered from their teachings of equality, and they did their best to not only explain it – but made me realize that Hitler’s Holocaust was not just against the Jews, but against anyone he deemed racially or genetically inferior, for example – homosexuals. Since my family was involved in theatre as a kid, I knew a fair amount of homosexual men and women, and instantly knew this would mean that they would have been killed as well. This hit home with me. It wasn’t just about being Jewish.
Finally, I remember listening to a Holocaust survivor who told in vivid and scary detail how the SS didn’t distinguish between those who were Jews, and those who were trying to help the Jews.
All of this combined finally ‘clicked’ if you will, and that potential seed that was planted and had started to grow all of those years ago – was finally up-rooted. While I am still very proud of my heritage and today I consider myself ‘ethnically’ or ‘culturally’ Jewish as opposed to religious – I finally understood how it shouldn’t matter what you are, and just because you are ostracized or bullied for that, it doesn’t mean you should become defined or one-sided by that as a result. I was finally able to look at the world and realize that in all of our history, at one time or another – every religion, race, gender, and sexual orientation was (or still is) ‘The Other’ at some point, and since I knew how that felt – I knew that nobody deserved that.
It was thanks to my study of history, my own experiences, and my parents that I was able to finally learn/understand inclusion – and avoid ending up on the wrong side of a line or belief, even if I had gotten there due to completely understandable reasons. However, I do remember a lot of friends who didn’t learn that, didn’t make that leap. If I hadn’t wanted to learn more than I was taught in the classroom on the Holocaust, and if my parents hadn’t put it in the right context, I’m not sure I would have either. Let’s just say that those friends are not friends anymore – as they were content to grow up in a very narrow viewpoint on life, religion, and political views. For example, fervently believing that Israel has an incontrovertible right to exist and that it’s government (as long as it is a Jewish run government) can do no wrong. Regardless of whether you or I believe if Israel has a right to exist or not, no government can do no wrong.
On a more comical note, I remember frustrating my grandmother when she was alive when I told her that I didn’t need to marry a Jewish girl, because – why should it matter?
All in all, while I don’t wish my experiences on anyone, it did help make me who I am today.