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A prejudice-free life?

by: Dan Pine - Last updated: 2004-09-21

Dan Pine

Dan Pine

Anti-Semitism. It’s one of the most pernicious forces in history. Yet somehow I managed to get though life with hardly a single anti-Semitic arrow shot in my direction.

What am I? Chopped liver?

Don’t the Jew-haters of the world want to stick it to me too? Given half a chance, I’m sure I could offend them.

Growing up in California –– as philo-Semitic a region as there is outside of Israel –– I never encountered the visceral Jew-hatred we see in other parts of the world. I come from the land of 24-hour delis, where local network affiliates wish their Jewish friends a “Happy Yum Kipper” every fall. Where Salvadoran immigrants order “shmear” with their Noah’s Bagels and every Andronico’s sells yahrzeit candles.

Unlike my ancestors, I never spent a second afraid someone would hurt me, fire me or kill me because I was Jewish.

Which makes my few personal encounters with anti-Semitism all the more striking and flat-out weird.

Describing one of those encounters requires an embarrassing confession but, hey, I was a dumb teenager, so whaddaya want from me? Here’s the story: My family had been evicted from our old three-unit apartment building to make way for a new condo complex.

The landlords gave us only a month to move out. So, to teach the fascists a lesson, I did what any mature young man would do in similar circumstances: I started throwing garbage out my upstairs bedroom window and onto the covered parking structure below.

I’m talking banana peels, toaster leavin’s and coffee grounds. I’m talking dripping No. 2 cans of tomatoes and empty boxes of Count Chocula still trailing clouds of cereal dust.

After a week, it began to look and smell like New Jersey out there.

So one day, I’m minding my own business chucking a bag o’ crud out the window, when I hear the angry voice of a neighbor several buildings down.

“Hey, you!” he barked. “What are you doing? Stop it right now or I’m calling the cops!”

I looked at him, hurled a little more garbage and laughed the sneering laugh of the rotten teenager.

Then he cried: “You dirty little Jew!”

Safe in my perch, I then told the man to do something highly irregular with one of his body parts. That seemed to cause him some distress.

He started leaping over fences, heading right for me. I closed the window and reflected. Dirty little Jew? What an odd thing to say. Was he trying to hurt my feelings? If so he should have shouted, “You scrawny dweeb with no girlfriend!”

Upshot: He did call the cops, who made me apologize to the man face to face. I mustered so abject a phony apology, I thought the guy would buy me a Coke afterward (I also mentioned the “dirty little Jew” thing to the cops, which balanced the scales a bit).

Still, I was immediately ordered to clean off the roof, which was a drag for me and sad for the scavenger birds who had taken up residence there.

The point of all this, besides the fact that kids are idiots, is that absent any experience with anti-Semitism, I found the man’s insult melted off me like a snowflake. He could have broken my nose, but he never could have made me feel bad about being Jewish. His words had no punch because they had no resonance, no context. They didn’t serve as a front for any larger threat: no state-sponsored discrimination, no hidden torture chambers, no gentleman’s agreement.

It wouldn’t have made sense for a longhaired punk like me to appreciate how good I had it. But I sure do now. Living on the West Coast, I never had to face a Crusader, Cossack, kapo or shaheed, and if I did, I think he’d be dead meat in no time.

This is not to say that my prejudice-free life is the norm. Plenty of people have faced their share of anti-Semitism American-style. And every time vandals scrawl swastikas on synagogue doors, every time the Anti-Defamation League holds a press conference, every time pro-Palestinian activists march down San Francisco’s Market Street calling my Israeli brothers and sisters Nazis, I know we’re not out of the woods.

But I’m grateful. Other than that one moment of trash talk, at least this one California Jew has been spared the pain of anti-Semitism.

Dan Pine lives and kvetches in Albany. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.
 

First published in J, the Jewish news weekly of Northern California.