AUGUST 24, 2017 – Why am I so upset when a Jewish person does something terribly wrong? Why am I afraid that each negative act reflects badly on all Jews? I can’t tell you how many times I find myself thinking, “Why does he [or she] have to be Jewish?”
I’ve verbalized that thought to my dear friend Ralph many times.
So it was no surprise to him when I got upset at the most recent showing of HBO’s “Wizard of Lies,” a portrayal of Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, purported to be the largest financial fraud in US history.
The last time I said it, Ralph questioned me. “Why do you always say things like ‘Wouldn’t you know, he has to be Jewish?’”
So how do you explain that Jews feel a certain responsibility for other Jews? How do you tell others that this is a shonda (a real shame)? How do you get others to understand that every shonda resonates painfully with most of our people? It’s part of our DNA; you won’t find it in ancestry.com or 23andMe.com, but it exists just the same. And it’s pretty powerful.
I’ve never found an exact explanation. Through the centuries, Jews have been victims of anti-Semitism. Many have risen above it to become trusted and important people in the world, but even they had to tread carefully. Life as they knew it could change in an instant. My theory is that this feeling of keeping a low profile and staying under the radar of those in charge can be traced back to the shtetl, whether in Russia, Poland or any small, out-of-the-way area where Jews were confined. Too often, they were targets of violent pogroms that devastated their villages and threatened their lives.
I have always felt that this kind of fear, for that’s really what it is, was brought to the United States, not necessarily in our ancestors’ luggage but in their minds. Immigrants tended to stay together in their new country no matter where they landed. In some ways, they created their own ghettos, where they thought they would be safe. They instilled this fear of being singled out in the next generation and their children passed it on to my generation. To a certain extent, without realizing it, I probably passed it on to my children. But there, I think it will end.
As I was growing up in the mostly Jewish section of Mattapan, I wasn’t aware of this fear of being singled out for my religion. After all, most of us were Jewish. I first came out of my comfort zone when I entered the seventh grade at Girls’ Latin in Boston. We were a melting pot of young ladies of different backgrounds. It was a little difficult to explain to my non-Jewish friends that I really couldn’t be dismissed early on Holy Thursday so I could go to church.
But then it was off to college, and it was a different world where people of all religions and ethnic backgrounds fraternized.
But somewhere along the line, my family tended to repeat something I had heard as a child and perhaps stored in a deep corner of my mind. I was told to never talk about politics and religion because those two subjects could attract attention. I often wonder how they would feel if they could have heard all the heated discussions before the last election.
As for religion, I know I was petrified when I first entered a church. I had no idea what I thought was going to happen. Now I am an honorary member of St. Richard Catholic Church in Danvers and I’m friendly with other priests and ministers.
Yes, I know we have much to be proud of, including the strides that have been made by Jews in medicine, science, music, and education. We take pride in the state of Israel, for which many Jews gave up their lives to create. But now I’ve begun to feel real fear for our people and with that fear comes anger. Life in today’s world — with so much hatred aimed at Jewish people along with other groups — has instilled in us not just fear but a resolve to no longer remain under the radar. It is time for us to have the courage to speak up against the hatred, the anti-Semitism, and the negativity we see and hear daily.
As President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said in 1933, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Myrna Fearer writes from Danvers.