Since 11 Jews were murdered on Nov. 4 at the Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood in Pittsburgh, it seems like every media outlet has a theory as to why anti-Semitism is on the rise.
The reporting is non-stop, from in-depth analyses in the New York Times of the psychology that underlies hatred of Jews to cable news personalities convening panels whose members feign disbelief at the intensity of the ugliness targeted at Jews. It’s as if anti-Semitism were a contemporary phenomenon, rather than a 2,000-year-old trope.
Not long after the murders in Pittsburgh, I was sitting in my bed writing while I half-watched an edition of Meet the Press. I turned the sound off right after they showed a clip of President Trump discussing the synagogue shooting. I should have turned it off before he started talking.
My stomach tightened as he blamed the victims for their inability to defend themselves. Then I laughed and said to the air, “Of course it’s their fault.” Scapegoating is nothing new to Jews.
Just this week, I was talking with my friend Alex, a financial planner, who told me he hadn’t experienced overt anti-Semitism until he was an adult. He’d grown up in a Jewish community much like Squirrel Hill. When he made the mistake of telling clients that he wasn’t available on Saturdays because he was Jewish, they pulled their business from him. Told him he was satanic.
Unlike my friend, I knew what Jew hatred was from the time I was old enough to be told by my mother that our Catholic neighbors hated us because they think we killed Jesus. “They hate us on Good Friday but not as much on Easter when they believe he rose again,” she declared, nodding her head in agreement with herself.
At that point, I didn’t know what the significance of my mother’s reference to Jesus was, but I was pretty sure he was someone whose very existence was the source of a lot of trouble for Jews.
My mother’s words were a warning I could never forget.
They were with me when I was 8 years old and Harry, the boy next door, locked me in his yellow woodshed, just feet from the chain link fence that separated our houses.
Sitting on the damp mud floor, I heard him shout that I was a dirty kike and to consider myself lucky I was still alive. He gave me the conditions that would determine my freedom. I could come out when I accepted Jesus.
Jesus again. By now any uncertainty about this guy’s status had vanished. If only I had known Jesus was a Jew. That might have changed everything.
Again, I remembered what my mother said when my neighbor on the other side, Patty, came by, intent on converting me to Catholicism. We sat on my gray concrete steps when she announced that I would be allowed to play at her house as long as I had a communion. “You’ll get to wear a bride dress.” Even though it was a warm September day, the concrete felt so cold pressed against my bare legs.
Still, her offer sounded pretty good. A frilly white dress, a veil, a blue beaded rosary, a Bible and a visit to her house. I wanted that. I was in second grade, and I wanted to play at Patty’s house.
We were the only Jews left in the neighborhood. To my mother’s credit, she managed to get me across town to religious school and, later, to Hebrew school, where I met my teacher, a kind woman with a sad smile. She had blue numbers etched into her flesh. Even though it was 1959, the numbers looked fresh.
By now, the search for approval from my neighbors had evolved into a desire to know more about why they had such disdain for me.
I knew Jews were different from most Americans. I knew when I was sent home from Hebrew school because swastikas were painted on the windows, and I knew when I was cajoled into singing Christmas carols at my public school, where I was one of two Jews.
In honor of my Lithuanian grandmother who often reminded me, “Don’t think it can’t happen here,” I told myself I would defend Judaism wherever and whenever I could. I would be brave. I would shout down anyone who disparaged my people.
That childish notion disappeared long ago. And now with our country on the precipice, I’m not so sure.
I’m leaning toward silence. It’s safer.
Linda Laderman is a Detroit area freelance writer who often writes about social justice issues.