Drifting Backward: Deborah Paul On Bigotry
The world feels more dangerous than the one I used to know.
I grew up in a large, tight-knit family. Jewish traditions were strictly held, from fasting on the Day of Atonement to eating only kosher foods that did not include pork, shellfish, or the mixing of meat and dairy. We watched my father daven, or pray, every sunrise and sunset. It never occurred to me that anyone would find such customs strange or, worse, threaten our way of life.
That is, until the Molly Garrett episode, an anecdote I have relayed often, which reminds me I was a victim of discrimination without even realizing it. When I was a girl, the Riviera Club, or “Rivi,” a popular swim club in our neighborhood, did not welcome Jews. One day when Molly was otherwise occupied, I borrowed her membership tag and proudly pinned it to my swimsuit. I never questioned the necessity of delivering my rehearsed speech: “I’m Molly Garrett, and I’m 5 years old.” The lie nagged at me, but, at the time, not the reason for it.
Our religious habits were not abhorrent to anyone I knew; I never dreamed such a thing possible. Granted, most kids in our public school class left the room a few times a week for “religious education,” leaving one or two of us behind to color or read library books. No one explained where my classmates had gone, and I did not ask. Mixing church and state was common but not mandatory.
We Jewish kids had our own activities, such as Hebrew School in preparation for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah and, later, “Teenville” at the Jewish Community Center, where we spent Thursday nights dancing and deciding whom we like-liked and who like-liked us. Our baby boom population was large enough to keep a popular girl plenty busy enough.
I didn’t suffer disappointment on the social front either inside or outside the Jewish community—not counting that tall, friendly boy with red cheeks and an easy smile. He invited me to the prom, but I could not accept; my father’s rule against dating outside the faith could not have been more serious had it been etched on a stone tablet and handed down by Moses himself. So I liked the boy from a distance, and, heart a-flutter, read and re-read his yearbook inscription: I’ll never forget how you looked at the prom.
If I was surrounded by enemies, I didn’t know it. No one burned crosses in our yard, called our synagogues with bomb threats, or sprayed hate graffiti on our windows and doors. I was insulated and, as such, safe. I felt more oppressed as a “pledge” in, ironically, a Jewish social club. Active members required that we carry heavy bags of candy to offer them, which was nothing compared to the degradation we faced at meetings, when we were ordered to quack like a duck or scramble like an egg. Luckily for me, the actives enjoyed my songs and skits more than my humiliating impersonations.
When immigrants come upon a wall, their personal travails will not matter. A wall has no ears.
Other than the Rivi, the only outright discrimination I witnessed had nothing to do with religion. It was about race. One summer I attended a sleep-away camp in North Carolina, and upon arrival at the train station I saw two drinking fountains—one labeled for whites, the other for blacks. I was more baffled than outraged: We may have grown up insulated in my family, but we were not taught to hate. In my first letter home, I asked my parents why—why did a “law” separate by skin color? Innocence can confine.
My grandmother learned about hatred at an early age. As a teen in her village in Galicia in Austria-Hungary, her family faced pogroms so horrific, her family placed her on a train—alone—to travel to a ship that took her to America. I was told her grief-stricken father ran alongside the train until he could no longer see his daughter’s face in the window. She never laid eyes on her family again.
Grandma traveled through Ellis Island and started her life over with her husband, whom she met on the ship that transported them both so far from home. They eventually opened a small grocery, and then a larger one that specialized in gourmet foodstuffs. Had she been turned away, neither I nor my descendants would exist. I am sad for current family stories such as Grandma’s. When immigrants come upon a wall, their personal travails will not matter. A wall has no ears.
We live in a time when many Americans have more relaxed religious standards. Only the most stridently observant Jews subscribe to the old theories that held us naive yet captive when I was young. The next generation in our family consorts with whomever they like. They will not read yearbook inscriptions and wonder what if. They don’t have to pretend to be someone else to gain entry anywhere. At the same time, their world is more dangerous than the one I knew. Anti-semitism has always existed, but for the most part kept its distance from me. Now, virulent hate speech and frightening ideology called “alt right” or “white nationalism” are infiltrating the mainstream. Swastikas appear as graffiti, Holocaust deniers court the media, and bomb threats on Jewish community centers are commonplace. Some people are moving backward while evolving technology, business, entertainment, and social mores pull the rest of us forward.
My father prayed to keep us safe. We could use his protection today.
Editor emerita Deborah Paul’s personal reflections on culture, society, and family have graced the pages of IM since 1981.