For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to celebrate Christmas.
I remember wanting the beautiful, glistening tree, the large, boisterous family drinking hot cocoa by the fire, joyful sentiments all wrapped in that cozy, accepting sensation of being a part of something so simple, and yet so magical.
My Christian yearnings were a façade to a much deeper irony: my grandfather is a Holocaust survivor. Because of this, my entire life, I’ve been lectured on the importance of preserving my Jewish heritage so that we could continue to educate our posterity years after the last victims were gone. I understood this on the surface, but every December, I still never cared when Hanukkah started. I didn’t own a menorah, and I certainly didn’t attend temple. When asked my surname, I would spell it instead of say it. When studying abroad at Oxford, I would avoid the question of religion and simply join in on the Christmas chatter. And when I found out my maternal grandmother was born Russian Orthodox, I pounced on it as my technical get-out-of-jail-free card from the Jewish faith.
I’ve always believed the reason behind my religious ‘rebellion’ was related to growing up surrounded by Jews on Long Island — the Prada bags, the BMWs, the typical monied culture that seemed to promote ostentation and shun humility — followed by me going to a conservative college where my worst fear was falling into that same stereotype that everyone at school (myself included) knew and loathed.
And yet despite this paradox, I appeased my family senior year of high school and wrote an essay on the importance of Holocaust education. The essay won me a first place national scholarship, and a trip to DC to meet survivors, and while I felt grateful, I was still somehow detached. I had won a scholarship that earned me recognition and a check towards a college that would turn me towards the other end of the religious spectrum. I had no personal connection to my essay. Nobody had ever shunned me for being Jewish, and to me, it was simply a school paper written about a tragedy that happened 50 years ago that won me an informational trip and some extra pocket change to spend on textbooks at college.
It’s amazing how in one day your entire view on the world can change.
One week ago I sold three items to a woman on eBay. She paid for them, and I was taking a few days to ship them as the box was heavy and I was fearful the items might break. Before I had a chance to ship them, the buyer contacted me asking for her tracking information. I explained the situation and with no reply, she opened a Paypal dispute claiming “unreceived items.” This was, of course, ridiculous, and I immediately contacted her on my personal email asking if this was some kind of joke. She told me no, and that I had given her nothing but excuses and that I had better “get my off my ass” and “get it done NOW” or that she will take “great delight” in making sure my Feedback ratings took a “huge nosedive.”
Not only had I never received such a disrespectful email in my life, but it took me a few seconds to process that his was a grown woman sending this kind of threatening jargon via email over a couple of eBay products. The email exchange then continued. I told her I don’t respond to the threats, to which she proceeded to ask if I was really “this stupid” to which I let her know that — yes — I was both Oxford educated and that stupid.
After continuing with mindless insults, I received the email from her that I will never forget. In an effort to disregard my education, she simply wrote: “I prefer to focus on a few constants in your emails, starting of course with the ‘from line.’ Now that speaks VOLUMES… Merry OOPS Happy Holidays.”
It took a few minutes to register that this woman had just referenced my Jewish surname, and actually, explicitly, in 2012, used a cowardly computer screen to insult my perceived religion and judge me simply based on a combination of letters in my email address. Her anti-Semitism wasn’t finished: “You may well have in some fashion been associated with Oxford, but based on what I’ve ‘seen’ here and in your previous entertaining emails from yesterday PM, you better apply for a refund if you’re truly under the impression that you have been ‘educated.’ Christ, you’re still stuck in New Yawk…” And her closing line: “New Yawk New Yawk. I’m thinking you’re where you need to be…”
The ignorance of this anonymous woman awoke in me a brand new sense of awareness of something I had previously lived for so long without: bigotry. Perhaps I’ve lived in the tri-state area “bubble,” but with a black president, and in a world so tirelessly working to unite others through tolerance, I supposed I thought it somewhat impossible in this day and age for a seemingly educated adult to be so openly hateful toward another human being simply based on their last name. And for all of us who think the technology of the new millennium is advancing us, it’s that same technology that allows the cowards and racists of the world to sit behind a screen and regurgitate their anonymous prejudices to anybody with an email account.
As can only be expected, after this, my day was effectively ruined. I was angry to the point of physically shaking. And yet, while part of me felt infuriated, another part of me felt deeply sorry. Sorry for all of the times I’d denounced my own faith as something insignificant, unimportant. As something that I had let the stereotypes of others supersede. Sorry for the times I’d lied about who I really was to avoid ignorant people from pigeon-holing me into a category in which I felt I didn’t belong. Sorry for the times I put up Christmas lights instead of lighting a candle on a Menorah. Sorry for not feeling pride in my family’s history.
My mother told me I needed to let it go. By letting the filth of this woman’s words affect my mood meant she had won. And as always, she was right. It had to go on the back burner. Besides, I was due to the airport on a business trip that day and my last stop was to the pharmacy to pick up a prescription to appease my fear of flying. And as always, I was late.
With an hour to get to the airport, I could immediately sense the person working the pharmacy, a black man standing somberly behind the counter, was going to be in no mood to put my looming flight deadline in front of the rest of the frustrated customers waiting for medications of their own.
I finally stood at the front of the line and asked how long the prescription would take. Without even looking at the queue, he told me about 45 minutes. In what I can’t imagine was the kindest tone, I explained that I had a flight to catch and was desperate for this to be a rush order. I suspected this man was hardly interested in the timing nuances of my life, but suddenly he spoke much more softly, and pointed to my prescription script.
“Do you see this?”
He was pointing to my last name. The visuals of that morning’s events came flooding back, and I could feel my face getting red.
“Yes…” I replied, reluctantly.
“Because of this,” he said, still pointing to my surname on the script, “I will rush this order just for you…
“You see,” he continued, “this is some of my family’s surname. I have many cousins and grandparents from long ago with this same name. It is very respected to me. And so I will do this for you, because, you see, we are connected.”
The man smiled.
I don’t usually believe in karmic retribution. I don’t believe in ‘what goes around comes around’ or the idea that God always makes things right. But that day, in that busy, crowded pharmacy in New York City, I realized that maybe — just maybe — it was something from above telling me to have more of the faith I seemed to have to lost somewhere over the years. Because while anybody with a computer and a vengeance can spread hate and ignorance across this world, you never know when there’s someone else around the corner that can unite you in a way you never thought possible. And it might be the last person on Earth you would possibly expect.
I learned something important that day. It may sound cliché, and you may not believe it. But I now believe that for every person out there who thrives on hate, there is another who thrives on hope. And if the middle-aged black man working at my local pharmacy can feel connected to me, a 27-year-old Jewish stranger from Long Island, simply based on the overwhelming pride he has in his family’s surname, I realized maybe it’s about time I take some in mine.