The Jewish High Holy Days began Sunday night. Ellie and I attended a splendid Rosh Hashanah New Year's celebration dinner with friends on Monday, so it seemed like a good moment to post this poignant boyhood memory, contributed by a friend who wishes to remain anonymous; and, at the same time, to add a story that I wrote myself, based on a memory from my own Christian upbringing. I post it not to shame my mother, but merely to show how unexamined, mindless prejudice can be passed on across the generations. Anti-Semitism, shamefully, is not yet extinguished: we should all be outraged by the realization that, along with other cultural and racial bias, it is making an ugly resurgence in today's America. First, then, my friend's story:
“You killed Christ!”
“Kill him? I didn’t even know him!”
As Thanksgiving approached in the early 1940s, I sat schmoozing with a small klatch of my young buddies on a curb in a suburb of Pittsburgh, called Dormont.
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and much of the U.S. during the 1930s and 1940s was anti-Semitic. These were the days of Father Coughlin’s excoriating radio broadcasts and the German-American Bund. Their prejudices aligned only too well with the teachings and sermons of the Catholic and Lutheran churches at that time. And in turn, these feelings and attitudes filtered down to the sons and daughters of their congregants.
As a kid, I never thought much about it until that emotionally painful moment when, as my young friends and I were casually talking about the approaching holidays –– Thanksgiving and Christmas –– and one of my buddies casually asked, “Where are you going to buy your Christmas tree?”
Without hesitation, I replied, “We don’t get a Christmas tree. We’re Jewish.”
And that’s when one of my closest friends, “Chinkie” jumped to his feet and whacked me on the back of my head, blurting out that I had killed his Savior.
Stunned by the abruptness of his attack and the shock of friendship betrayed, I got up and ran home. From that moment on, I became more and more aware of the malicious undercurrent of Jew-hatred which even some of my young schoolmates seemed to possess.
To my young psyche, it almost seemed as though they had stitched a yellow star to my soul.
Luckily for me, there were many other children in my Brookline Elementary School classes who did not share this hostility and even though I was defeated in my election bid for class office because “he’s a Jew”, I enjoyed my early education and particularly my teachers, who seemed to quietly sense that I was special –– but for different reasons. Upon graduation from the 8th grade, I was selected as the winner of the American Legion Honor Award, which stated that I was “selected for this award because he is found to possess among others these high qualities of character –– Honor, Courage, Scholarship, Leadership and Service –– which are necessary to the preservation and protection of the fundamental institutions of our government and the advancement of society.”
Seventy years later, I happened to reconnect with one of my very best and true friends from those days at Brookline School, Arthur R. This is an excerpt from his recent email to me:
“You were the first Jewish kid I ever met. Thanks to my upbringing and Mom and Dad, that was no big deal to me but I know it was to some. The very first time I ever seriously thought about how it must feel to be a ‘minority’, was worrying about how you felt at Christmas time each year when for weeks all around you people were up to their ears in all things Christmas. I liked you very much, and so admired how you went along with it all with good humor, extending best wishes to all, and flashing that Bob Sallin smile that was as genuine as it was bright. Thinking back, maybe that's why I never forgot about you. You played a good role in the early stages of what has been thus far a fulfilling and satisfying life. And I'm grateful for that.”
A few friends like Art made me feel valued for who I was.
And that perhaps I was not an assassin of biblical proportions after all.
Coming from one who today lives, as I do, in Los Angeles, this story ignited a rather less benign, but related memory of my own. I was brought up in war-time rural England, in a Church of England parish where my father was the Rector. I was old enough, after the war, to remember adults speaking in hushed, horrified whispers about what had happened to the Jews. I was aware, too, that one of our neighbors was a prominent Jewish publisher; he was a "very nice man," in that polite British parlance, but his religious affiliation was spoken of in our family with a kind of awed suspicion. Otherwise, I had really not the first idea what it meant to be a Jew, and was not particularly aware of knowing any before coming to America in my 20s. I would have been heartily surprised to have learned, as a nice Christian boy, that I was destined to spend the better part of my life with a nice Jewish wife...
So here's my own little horror story:
LITTLE SAINT HUGH
by Peter Clothier
It’s bedtime in the nursery. There are two beds, on opposite sides of the room. My sister’s bed is under the window that looks out over the rhododendrons in the Rectory garden. The foot of own my bed rests against the big doll’s house my father built for my sister. When the lights go out, I am always scared that thieves will come in the night, climbing out through the doll’s house window.
The curtains are drawn. We are little children, my sister and I. We love the bedtime stories that our mother reads to us. Our mother is the most beautiful woman in the world. She reads our books to us before we go to sleep. Her favorite is “All Saints for Six O’Clock.” So that’s our favorite, too.
Our mother is the Rector’s wife. Our father is the Rector. He wears a black cassock and a white dog collar. He wears a thin black leather belt and shiny black leather shoes that squeak when he comes upstairs.
Our mother’s story tonight is “Little Saint Hugh.” Little Saint Hugh was a martyr boy, who was stolen by the wicked Jews as he walked the streets alone at night. He was stolen and killed, because it was his blood they wanted. The Jews. They wanted the blood of a little Christian boy. This was the story. Our mother reads it to us before she puts the light out. The story of Little Saint Hugh.
Our mother is the most beautiful woman in the world, and she is the kindest person in the world. We know that she could never hurt anyone, she is so very kind and gentle. She has blue, blue, faraway eyes and lovely hands, and she reads to us at bedtime.