Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Second Grade and Second Class

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.

-Ralph Murre

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As an actual Jew, I read with interest.....my own family, as giving to others a bunch as I have ever known......I never knew we were thought to be tightwads,until I heard it later. but still the shame sticks.
My parents even humored me when I left cookies and milk at age 9, near our fireplace on Christmas eve, in the hopes that it might lure Santa Claus into a navagational error. A mistake like the angel of death might have made regarding the occasional unmarked doorjamb at the first Passover.
I think I was in first grade, when Becky from the neighborhood, who went to Parochial school, informed me that she couldn't play with me because the Jews killed Christ. The Loose's accross the street followed suit, after I informed their children that there was no Santa Claus, but that eventually blew over. I didn't know it was up to me to perpetuate the myth.
I read of late with interest that there is a war on Christmas, and I'd like to inform anyone to whom I may be an unwitting adversary, that I think our side already lost.
On Tuesday, at 9:10, I will go once again to the Public school and listen to my child sing Christmas carols, and watch the satisfied faces of the other parents, who have no idea that I am miserable. Iwill once again explain to my child that Santa will not come to our house, even if he is coming to town, and that I am sorry for the disappointment. I refuse to assimilate, just to make her happy. Even more insulting is the token inclusion of a book on Chanukkah,or the one dumb song, or inviting me to speak about it, as the spokesperson to cover up for all the disenfrachised. Chanukkah is a pretty minor holiday, on the Jewish lineup, and in fact noone ever notices us at Rosh Hashana , YOm Kippur, or Passover....because the Christmas thing is nearer to that holiday. In fact Chanukkah ironically is a celebration of not assimilating into the Greek Culture, that was the prevalent, and the majority.
Doesn't matter to me whether it is a holiday tree or a Christmas tree, neither one is actually my tradition. If I decide to have one myself on a given year, when I get caught up, and succumb to my natural tendancy toward tolerance, that is just one more waffled stance, and I am the better for it.