I remember seeing the swastikas when I went outside to play.
Standing there in my lush backyard, I noticed them spray-painted on the back of my one-story, red roofed house: two large, white crooked X’s.
I was about eleven years old. My mom had put a menorah, symbolizing the Jewish festival of Chanukah, in the window of our house like she did every year. Though we were the only Jewish family on our block, we lived within South Florida’s dense Jewish population. Miami’s Hasidim were thriving. Our synagogue was just a few blocks away. The Golden Girls could have been our neighbors.
And yet, in the middle of the night, someone had broken in through the chain link fence separating our backyard from the alley way and spray painted Nazi symbols onto the house. All my life I had felt safe there and now, painted on the wall in front of me was proof that I wasn’t. Not really.
I can still see those large swastikas, side by side, white against a maroon background. I remember them clearer than I remember most of my college professors’ faces. The police came by, took pictures, wrote up a report and then, told us there was nothing they could do.
My father sprayed the outdoor hose hard against the wall, while my grandmother scrubbed the graffiti away with a big yellow sponge. The next night, my mom still put the menorah up, now with three candles instead of two.
This week marks another Rosh Hashanah, or Jewish New Year, and lately, I keep thinking about the overtness of that swastika-spray-painting hate crime. Most of the ignorance I’ve faced for being Jewish since then has been driven more by the power of words than by violent or disturbing deeds. While spray-painting a house with swastikas is a clear, evil action — saying something ignorant is less, for lack of a better term, black-and-white.
In high school, at a week-long journalism camp in Gainesville, Florida, a group of girls nicknamed me “Piggy” when they found out I kept kosher and didn’t eat bacon. It was a stupid joke, but every time they used it, it felt like getting bitch-slapped by a crucifix.
In college, I went with my Irish Catholic boyfriend to a party in his hometown of Springfield, Massachusetts. In a conversation circle in the kitchen, a guy was talking about how he’d tried to buy discounted Rolling Stones tickets the day before.
“He told me they’d be $80, but when I got there, they were $100,” the kid said. “He totally Jew-ed me.”
At first, I thought I must have misheard him. When I realized I hadn’t, the world narrowed around me like the cliche sucked-in movie shot. My face paled. My hand clenched and sweat on the mug I was holding. My boyfriend shot his friend, Patrick, the host of the party, a look he couldn’t miss.
“Hey!” Patrick yelled at the speaker. The party stopped like Mr. Freeze had just walked in. “Don’t you ever fucking use that word in this house again,” he said. Then, he threw the kid out.
“I’m sorry about that,” he told me later, as I stood by the counter, alone and feeling terrible. I hated myself for reacting so strongly and “ruining” the party, and I also felt confused. What was it, 1950 in here? Were we all gonna head over the sock hop and have milkshakes at the soda shop afterwards? Were the Greasers about to show up? Like, seriously? Were people really still saying “Jew-ed?”
It’s more common than I thought. My current boyfriend, a stand up comic, tells a story about performing one night, where the announcer brought him on stage by saying, “And now, a very funny Jewish comic…” As soon as he grabbed the microphone, an audience member in the front row tossed a quarter on stage. It rolled and stopped by his feet. Then, silence. It’s enough to turn even Jason Statham into Annie Hall’s skittish Alvie Singer.
There’s a part in the new Conan O’Brien documentary, ‘Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop’ where Conan is standing outside a stadium he is about to perform in. Two young guys come up and tell him they’re huge fans, but they couldn’t afford tickets. They ask Conan if he can get them in. Conan surprisingly obliges, but says he has to run it by his manager first. One of the kids expresses his gratitude, “Man, those ticket people Jew-ed us,” he says. Like me at that party in Springfield, Conan O’Brien freezes.
“They what?” Conan, who is not Jewish, asks. The kid says it again. He has no idea what’s wrong with saying “Jew-ed.”
Conan spends a few awkward minutes debating what to do. Finally, he explains to the guys that saying “Jew-ed” is anti-Semitic; it implies that Jewish people are somehow out to swindle the world. He emphasizes that the manager, who is about to give them free tickets to Conan’s show, is Jewish. The guys are surprised. They hadn’t made the connection between the slur and the people it referenced.
“I’ll get you into my show,” Conan says, “if you promise me you’ll never ever use that word again.”
The kids promise.
My first reaction is that I wouldn’t have wasted my time with these assholes, similar to how Patrick immediately tossed the Rolling Stones ticket buyer out of his house. I always felt like he’d done the right thing (TM Spike Lee), even if it probably didn’t convince this kid that Jews weren’t the cause of all his problems.
But watching that short clip in the Conan documentary, I wonder if it would have been better to simply explain to Patrick’s friend why saying “Jew-ed” wasn’t okay. Is it worth it to spend the time educating ignorant people that they’re being, what seems to me, very obviously ignorant?
What would have been done to the people who vandalized my childhood home had they been caught? Community service? A fine? Stringing them up by their toenails and letting every Jewish grandma in Boca Raton fling blintzes at their faces? I would have reveled in hearing about any of these punishments.
As an adult, I wonder: Would it better to have them take some kind of Judaism class or make them spend time with us as we light the menorah? Would they see us as people then, and reform the error of their ways? Can you really fight actions with words?
I’m still not sure. But Rosh Hashanah is a celebration of rebirth and change, so maybe, maybe I can start here.