I was 14 years-old and, as most 8th grade days were, it was unremarkable. I remember walking into the Language Arts classroom the same way I had all year and sitting down in my typical middle of the room perch, fluorescents humming overhead. I remember taking out my notebook and looking at the board to begin my written response to the quote of the day, selected by a teacher whose name I have long since forgotten.
The words of Adolf Hitler stared back at me.
After that my memory gets fuzzy.
I don’t remember the exact quote (because that’s not the point anyway), nor do I remember my response to it (although it did involve expletives). I remember the teacher’s insistence that the quote came from a time before Hitler and his party began exterminating Jews (and knowing the history as I do now but did not then, I know just how incorrect that bullshit excuse was) and so it was acceptable to use a writing prompt for 14 year-olds. I do not remember how my parents reacted (but it probably also involved expletives), nor do they. I do not remember if the teacher ever apologized but I know it did not happen publicly. I do remember being told not to make this something bigger than it was.
But more than anything else, I remember a singular fact that I will never be able to forget: antisemitism was alive and well.
It still is.
As I watched the news unfold of the hostage situation at a synagogue in Colleyville, Texas on Saturday, my mind rotated through a near constant set of flashbacks, with the most frequent being that one fuzzy moment in 2001.
Growing up two generations removed from the Holocaust was like being told your entire life that category 5 hurricanes and magnitude 9.5 earthquakes used to hit every single day while it was perfectly sunny and breezy outside at that moment. Our parents and grandparents worked hard, after six million Jews (and six million more Roma and Sinti, homosexuals, communists, and a mixed assortment of individuals who did not meet the definition of Aryan perfection) were murdered in cold blood, to make the world safe for their children and grandchildren. They fought and bled so that we wouldn’t have to. They gave us every single sunny day we enjoyed. But all the while, they warned us to always stay vigilant, to “never forget” what befell our people, and never take for granted that in the long history of the modern world, the target never stayed off the Jews for very long.
But as the years wore on and the days stayed sunny, we became content to view antisemitism as either a thing of the past or, at worst, an endangered species. A toothless boogeyman meant to lock us into a cycle of fear and resentment that could fuel the continued survival of our people. We began to roll our eyes when accusations of antisemitism were thrown around, or at those who professed to stay up at night worrying about the future of the Jewish people. Those folks were clearly locked in a cycle of societal abuse that our people had shed long ago. Their fear was an unnecessary shadow in the wake of our unrelenting positivity and naive belief that the worst was behind us.
And of course there were sun showers here and there, as there always are. The time in third grade when a second grader I did not know learned I was Jewish and insisted I “go back to a gas chamber.” Or the time in sixth grade when a classmate angrily insisted that Judaism was invented in the 1970s in order to “make Christianity look bad.” At the time, I chalked moments like this up to childlike stupidity, a vain attempt to boost one’s own status by defaming the status of another using words and phrases that seemed hateful but the origins of which they could not name. If it wasn’t my status as one of only three Jews at that large public school, it would’ve been any number of the parts of my identity that deviated from the norm (and there were many). (Yes, I did actually think this back then. I was a very neurotic teenager. I still am a neurotic teenager, actually.)
Then came 8th grade Language Arts and the teacher so tone deaf that she thought a quote from Hitler belonged in the same space as quotes from Abraham Lincoln and Buzz Aldrin. It was then that it finally hit me: ill-informed, mean children grow up into ill-informed, mean adults. And the words they threw around senselessly when they were young become much sharper when they get older.
Do I believe that teacher was antisemitic? No, I don’t. Frankly, I probably wouldn’t be as bothered twenty years later if I thought she was. I don’t believe she held any malice towards the Jewish people or towards me, in particular. Rather, I do not believe she paid any mind to the Jewish people at all. In all likelihood, I may have been the only Jewish person (or, possibly, non-Christian) with which she had ever regularly interacted. If we existed at all, we certainly did not matter. In her mind, and in the minds of those she knew and the assumptions she made about those she did not, Hitler was just another historical footnote to her. A dire one, perhaps, but one which, to her, was non-threatening. And when one is not threatened by someone, their words hold no power over them. And anyone who disagreed, for whatever reason, was likely overreacting. She, and the other students who treated that quote as just another in a long line of thoughtless writing practices, are exactly who Elie Wiesel was talking about when he said the opposite of love was not hate, but indifference.
So, if I don’t think she was antisemitic, why does this event serve as my antisemitism wake up call? Simple. It was her actions that showed me that the beast that threatened my ancestors and kept my mother awake at night was not as dead as I thought. In a deep slumber, perhaps, and buried under layers of progress and recognition, but still there. Waiting. Stirring ever so slightly, to remind us that it was still there. And if it awoke, the rest of the world would not protect us from it. Or at least my teachers wouldn’t.
I transferred to a Jewish private school in another state at the end of the year.
The idea that the Jewish people are no longer a persecuted minority is not a new one. And to be completely frank, there is plenty of reason to believe that narrative, especially in North America, where the idea of the Jew is automatically (and unfairly) associated with white skin, therefore giving Jews the added layer of protection afforded in societies designed for the benefit of White People. (Although, for hundreds of years, Jews were very much not considered white and some Jews, right or wrong, still do not consider themselves to be.) On top of this, for many in the Non-Orthodox Jewish world, we cannot be easily identified as Jewish based on appearance alone, a privilege not afforded to many other minorities, and to equate our experiences is tantamount to micro-aggression. (I have, in fact, been told as much by dear friends who are both right and wrong in that assertion.) But, as I teach my Middle Schoolers at the Jewish Day School at which I have taught since 2017, one narrative never tells a complete story. Because the narrative of Jewish safety and complete assimilation into some kind of white, Judeo-Christian monolith is challenged, full stop, by events like Colleyville.
If Jews should not longer feel threatened, as the world seems to be telling us…why are we still threatened? Why are our fears minimized when dangerous political actors are explicitly seeking out Jewish gathering spaces and institutions? Why are we told to settle down when school districts are required to provide “opposing views” on the Holocaust? There is remarkable cognitive dissonance when elected members of congress spout vile, incomprehensible antisemitic remarks, and we are told to write them off as zealots as if their constituents didn’t send them to Washington based on those words. Why must we accept our place as part of a system that does not protect us? When those who wish us harm view us as anything but insiders? We are attacked, and then told how good we have it almost in the same breath.
It is hard to balance one’s views in times like this. Do I ascribe to the tenet of Jewish Victimhood and constant vigilance lest we be Holocaust-ed again? No. Do I scan for escape routes every time every time I enter a synagogue? Yes. Do I feel scared going to work at Jewish institutions everyday? No. Do I fear that I am not fearful enough? Yes. Do I wonder what might happen if I ever needed to put myself between an attacker and one of my students? Do I think about my own children in cases like that and wonder if someone else’s children matter more to me than they do? No. Am I lying and do I actually think about both of those things all the time? Yes. Was I also lying about not worrying about working at Jewish institutions everyday? A little. Do I overreact to things like Colleyville? No. Do I underreact? Maybe.
It is a weird liminal space between feeling safe and threatened. As far as feelings go, those two in particular demand pretty firm alignment, lest one’s head explode. And yet it is where I find myself. I’ve been here a lot longer than I’ve allowed myself to accept, too. There is no way to go but forward, really. To let the scars scab over and keep our fingers firmly crossed. But the skies keep getting darker everyday, and the storms of the past seem remarkably, confusingly, on the horizon once more.
And all the while, the beast keeps stirring.