At Norbert Blei's workshop last summer, we talked a little about the influence of Jewish literature and a little, too, about our views of Jewish/non-Jewish relations. We were to think of our first awareness of being Jewish, or of our first meeting with a Jew.
Several of my correspondents have reminded me of the little piece I wrote on the topic. I'll reprint it here, with apologies for possible mis-spellings of names and Yiddish words.
My First Jew
Mrs. Steinberg, my second grade teacher at the Oklahoma Avenue School, kitty-corner from Thompkin’s ice cream parlor and just up from Rexall drugs where I got caught stealing Hershey’s chocolate, what can I remember of you?
After first grade’s militant Miss Marshall, I was already up to here with shiksas; not that I knew from shiksas, that would come later. Not that I knew from Jewish; that too, would come later.
Of course, I’d already heard the term “dirty jew” here and there, mostly from the unscrubbed snot-noses of my neighborhood who also taught me about “dirty japs”, and taught all the other loveless lies designed to demean.
But Pa would come home from building new booths at Oscar Plotkin’s deli or building cabinets at the Goldberg’s house and he’d talk of what wonderful and wise people were these Jews. But, what did Pa know? He was a small, hard man with a big, soft heart – he always saw the best in everybody – what about the grimy ragman who bought rags in the alleys? What about “jewing you down”, to get a better deal, to get the best of you?
No, Mrs. Steinberg, you were Dad’s kind of Jew; nurturing and loving and making me excited to get to school and eager to learn new things. Too bad I didn’t figure out ‘til years later that YOU were Jewish.
Oh, that you had been my first Jew! It was not to be. My first Jew was no Jew at all, but a phantasm, a myth, born of ignorance and bigotry, of hatred and envy. My first Jew was very, very old when we first met, but he is still very much alive, and he lives . . .
just down the street.