It's Hard to be a Jew

            June 2012    
Search the Jewish Magazine Site:     

Browse our




"S'iz Shver Tsu Zayn A Yid"!

By Walter D. Levy

"S'iz shver tsu zayn a Yid!" my mother would say.

As a young man, I must admit I didn't pay much heed to mayn muter's Yiddishe expressions.  After all, I was spoiled.  I had grown up in a predominantly Jewish section of Boston.  It was the kind of place where incidents of bigotry, religious slurs and anti-Semitism were rare.  However, that would all change when I moved away from my Dorchester-Mattapan neighborhood and embarked on my teaching career.  I would soon come to the realization that subtly, and-sometimes not-so-subtly - it can be, as my mother would often say: "...shver tsu zayn a Yid!"

The year was 1965.  I had recently graduated from college with a B.S. in Education.  That summer, I would have my first interview for a teaching position in an upscale public school system north of Boston.  Well, as I recall, the school system's superintendent and I were discussing the typical teacher-type questions when - like a bolt out of the blue - he asked, "Are you planning on taking off the Jewish Holidays?"  I responded, "Yes."  Oh, there were a few more questions; however, that pretty much ended our interview.

Well, about a week or so later, I received a cordial letter from the superintendent in which he said that he had enjoyed meeting me, but that his school system was looking for a candidate with more teaching experience (I had, to that point, only student-taught and substituted), and also one with a stronger background in the field of economics (I had only taken one economics course in college).  I tried not to read any more into the letter than its face value (I felt the superintendent did raise valid issues).  However, I believed, most strongly, that it was totally inappropriate of the superintendent to ask: "Are you planning on taking off the Jewish Holidays?"

Another incident would take place at a school system where there were an ever-increasing number of Jewish families   The families were urging the town to have the public schools close for the Jewish Holidays.  At the time, I remember one of my fellow teachers coming up to me and saying, "What do you-people want?"  "You-people," I thought.  However, at the time, I did not believe that this person's remarks necessarily reflected the attitude of the majority of the other teachers; yet, nonetheless, I found that teacher's comments both hurtful and insensitive.

Oh, as I think back, I remember that once we did the have "The Holidays" off, one of my colleagues came up to me just prior to Rosh Hashonah.  At first, I thought he was going to wish me: "A Happy New Year."   However, I recall that instead he said, "... it's too bad you can't join the rest of the teachers a week from Monday for golf."   He then added, "We're calling our golfing outing: 'The Yom Kippur Open'."

Then, there was the occasion at the start of the school year where I attended an orientation meeting at my department head's home.  He said he wanted to play what he called an "ice-breaker" activity.  He called it: "What's Your Family Origin?"  I might mention that as soon as he mentioned the activity I began to feel apprehensive.  But, what am I going to do?   I'm literally "between a rock and a hard place."  I'm certainly not ashamed tell my colleagues about my family background; it's just that I didn't think the activity was appropriate.  In addition, I was also acutely aware that I'm being placed in a situation where if I don't go along I'll likely be labeled as someone who "makes waves."  So I participated.  As it turns out, most of my fellow-teachers had Polish, German, Irish, Italian, English, or French backgrounds.  I was the only Jew (I'm sure they all knew that.  In fact, I believe I was the first Jew who was ever hired in that department.)  When it was my turn, I told my colleagues that my mother's family were Lithuanian Jews from Vilna.  I then said my father's family were originally Russian Jews.   As I think back, I recall feeling very uncomfortable during this purported "get-to-know-you-better" activity.

In that same school system, there was another incident that I found most upsetting.  On that occasion, our principal had scheduled an after-school meeting in the auditorium to go over the final exam schedule.  As I was covering a near-to-the auditorium, end-of-the-day study hall, I was, along with a handful of other teachers, among the first to arrive for the meeting.  When I walked in, the principal was already standing up on the stage behind a lectern.  Just as I was beginning to sit down, I heard the principal, a man of Catholic faith, say: ""The Lord be with you."  Several of the early-arriving teachers, also Catholics, responded: "And also with you."  I couldn't believe it!  The principal is using a Catholic Mass Greeting in a public school!  When I later happened to mention it to one of my colleagues, he said, "The principal was probably just kidding around; you're being too sensitive." 

On another occasion, in another school system, there was, in the teachers' cafeteria, what I would call an "elite table".  Every day, the same privileged people sat at this table.  Well, on one occasion, a teacher who ordinarily sat at that table was absent.  I decided to sit in his spot.  I remember that as soon as I sat down, one of the teachers who always sat at this table stridently asked, "What are you doing here?"  In so many words, I believe the person was saying, "How dare you sit here!"  Outwardly, it had nothing to do with my being Jewish; yet, that may have been a veiled factor.  In my memory, there wasn't one person who was Jewish who had ever sat at that table.

Well, I'm retired now.  I've been away from the classroom for several years. Yet, I'll sometimes think back to when I first got started as an educator.  It's at those times that I'll recall my mother's mame-loshin admonitions.   I know, in hindsight, that I should have paid closer attention to my mother's wisdom.  If I could speak to my mother now, I would say, "Oiy, Mamenu mayn, you were so right: "S'iz shver tsu zayn a Yid!'"


from the June 2012 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

Material and Opinions in all Jewish Magazine articles are the sole responsibility of the author; the Jewish Magazine accepts no liability for material used.



All opinions expressed in all Jewish Magazine articles are those of the authors. The author accepts responsible for all copyright infrigments.