Growing up as a tail-end baby boomer in the North Shore of the 1970s, was an exercise in contradictions. Despite its sizable Jewish population, life in our lovely seaside communities was offset by the barely perceptible stench of anti-Semitism, made no less bitter by its close proximity to privilege.
We Jews couldn’t purchase homes on Marblehead Neck, or become members of the yacht clubs that ringed the edges of the bay. There were golf clubs, beach clubs and a hunt club we couldn’t join. There was also a yearly dance, held at a historic hall in Salem, that invited many local teenagers, just not the Jewish ones.
In the well-regarded public schools, more than a few Jewish children had casual epithets tossed their way, and others were bullied, yet we barely reacted. It was part and parcel to our existence.
If the bigotry seemed acceptable, it was because we couldn’t do much about it, and our responses, if any, were nearly always muted.
For many of us, there wasn’t a scintilla of interest in any of the exclusive spaces we were barred from. The polite hatred seemed to reside in a universe separate from ours, which made it difficult to parse any feelings of being less than.
As I got older, I contended with guilt about my complex feelings regarding the private clubs, and occasional insults. So many others suffered daily indignities. What right did I have to complain? I couldn’t begin to consider the effect anti-Semitism was having on my psyche, and internalized my experiences so completely, I devalued them out of existence. It left me bereft of the emotional resources I needed to confront hatred when it was aimed at me.
Not being readily identifiable as Jewish, put me in rooms where I heard my share of comments about Jews. Outing myself evinced gas lighting from the offending parties. There are only so many times I could be told they didn’t mean anything by it, or that I was too sensitive, before understanding the rungs for this behavior just went lower.
When I got married, we moved to a city 15 minutes from downtown Los Angeles. There are nearly 120,000 residents here, yet only two synagogues, and until fairly recently, no Chabad.
We also had a kid, who attended Jewish pre-school and K-6 Jewish day school. With a non-Jewish father, and a secular mother, our choice of schools had less to do with faith, than educational philosophy – which became critical as she grew older. It was clear she was being inculcated with Jewish values and an identity, that was much different than mine.
In 7th grade, the kid left the Jewish school with less than 100 students, for a public school with 1,500. Kids like my child often were the first Jewish person their classmates met. She was also the recipient of many ignorant, albeit not necessarily malicious, comments. I suggested ignoring those kids, she countered by informing those kids.
When a group of Armenian boys told her that Jews were weird, and there had never been any of them in Armenia, my kid provided them with proof that Jews had a long history in that country. The information was met with great interest, not derision. It was a teachable moment for me.
In high school, she was one of nearly 3,000 students. This school had a new challenge, a junior football player, who was stuck in her freshman Algebra class.
He liked to cheat, going so far as to push my kid’s arm to get a better look at her work. My kid requested a seat change. But when the teacher moved her seat, the boy followed.
When finally caught cheating, he blamed my kid. Shortly afterwards, when he discovered she was Jewish, his behavior went from irritating, to disturbing. With three months left in the school year, she opted to ignore the taunts. He escalated, and became threatening.
The kid requested another seat change. The teacher reported both of them to the school’s discipline office, where they were each told to write a version of the events.
Up until this point, I knew none of this.
My kid reluctantly told me about writing the report, because she feared the school would call me first. At that moment, my anti-Semitism acceptance level changed forever.
I never got a call from the school, so the next morning, I went to the discipline office and read the report. It was breathtaking in its cruelty. “Dirty Jew,” was the most benign insult. Some of the harassment included his blowing on the back of my teen’s neck, and whispering that he was “gassing a Jew.” Burning and hanging were motifs. Later, she would tell me there was a lot she left out of the report.
I asked for a copy of the report, and was told I couldn’t have one. Numb with rage, I walked out.
I don’t like sharing personal information on Facebook, but I shared a bit of the story. The response was swift and supportive. The parent of a popular upper classman got in touch. She said she hoped they dealt with our incident, as rapidly as they had with the incidents directed at her son. I lingered over the word, “incidents.”
The next afternoon I went back to the school. I had no plan, other than to sit in front of the vice principal’s office until she would see me. When I arrived, my kid was there. She had been called to the office to go over the report. The vice principal was surprised to see me.
She told us the boy denied harassing anyone. She would need to question other students to confirm the story. She asked my kid for names. I spoke up. If this boy were as big a problem as indicated, who would snitch? These were teenagers, and none were friends with my kid outside the classroom.
She changed the subject, and mentioned it would be hard to move my kid to another class so late in the year. I found this galling, and said so. If anyone was going to be moved, it had to be him. She called the Algebra teacher. When he joined us, she pulled up both of the kids’ school records. Something about the boy’s record gave her pause.
The teacher said he couldn’t hear the content of the chatter, but the boy was an ongoing problem. Repeated seat changes had been for naught. Being sent to the hallway or the office had no effect on his behavior. He said my kid was honest, and a pleasure to have in class. The reason he had sent both students to file reports, was because a resolution was more likely to be found outside his classroom.
At the end of the meeting, I requested a copy of the report, and was refused again.
The next day, the boy was escorted out of class. Two days later, he was back, in another seat.
I sent an email to the vice principal and cc’d the principal. I recounted the details of the meeting, and requested a copy of the report. I wrote that moving seats was not a resolution, and without an appropriate response, I’d consider other options.
She assured me they were conducting a thorough investigation, and attached the report. I couldn’t see the point of investigating the obvious. I emailed the superintendent of the school district, and cc’d everyone else.
Two days later, the boy was removed from class.
The effect that incident had on me was profound. While I could easily call it what it was, Jew hatred, I finally had clarity that all anti-Semitism, genteel and otherwise, carried weight. There is no brooking its acceptability.
Elisabeth Greenbaum Kasson grew up in Swampscott and writes from Los Angeles.