Anti-Semitism & Assimilation


Anti-Semitism & Assimilation


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Day of Remembrance

Norma Sherry, July 2002

It was the eve of Remembrance of the Holocaust. The day and its message still wore its horrors upon my brow, upon my being. But, our dearest friends were joining us for an evening of friendship and camaraderie. Much like many evenings we had spent together before. But this evening would prove to be very different indeed.

As I readied our desserts, I began to share a little about the day and all that the Rabbi had told us about how he survived the Holocaust by miracle heaped upon miracle. My friend of almost twenty years offered, quite matter-of-factly, "My father doesn't believe it ever happened."

If I were to tell you that my heart stood still, that it stopped beating for a millisecond, a nanosecond, I would be expressing how I felt. Transfixed in my spot, when once again my heart began to pound, it did so, relentlessly upon my chest, my mouth grew dry, and my entire being began to tremble from within.

It had been years, literally, years since the truth of Anti-Semitism, flashed its ugly face upon my own. I had long ago thought it wasn't truly possible in this enlightened age. Certainly not within my own circle of friends. Not just friends, but dearest ones, thought even more dear than my own family. You know the adage, "you can pick your friends, but not your family?" I had long thought I had carefully picked my friends. Individuals bright and aware, smart and professional, above and beyond belligerence and hypocrisy. Individuals who would never buy into the stereotype of prejudice and assumption.

But that day, the Day of Remembrance, was the day I learned I was wrong.

I learned something my Grandmother had said to me, so very long ago, when I was just eleven. I had assimilated. Fooled myself, as my brethren had done before me so long ago. Proudly I purchased that which I reckoned was best, regardless of where it was made, or by whom. Boldly I displayed my Krups coffeemaker and my bright red bowls emblazoned with Made in Germany by WAECHTERSBACH. When I set my dinner table my knives were the best money could buy, J.C. Henckels etched in the fine blade.

I drove a handsome red sports car, made in Italy, designed in Italy by Alfa Romeo. Quadrifolio was the standard. The best. When I reached into my closet to drape myself in my finest garb, no doubt the label read some French designer name. I pontificated that it was foolish to not buy the best, that to blame a country for its mistakes of the past was no longer relevant. The atrocitors were long passed dead. That the children of today wore no resemblance to those of their father, or their father's father.

Yes, Grandma, I had assimilated. Or I thought I had.

It wasn't until that evening that I realized that I was first and foremost, a Jew. Not Jewess in the genteel sense, but a Jew in the vile, disgusting sense. The same Jew that's blamed for the death of Jesus, or the demise of the economy, or touted as cheap and stingy, or big and hook-nosed.

In that same instant I remembered my own Mother-in-law, of Italian-Christian heritage, saying, "Now, don't take offense, Norma, but you know how Jews are good at 'Jewing down ' someone." "No, Mom, I don't and furthermore, I do take offense, personally, at your remark. Please don't do it again." For the most part, she hasn't. But nonetheless, I never quite forgot she said it.

I never classified her as bigoted or Anti-Semitic, just ignorant. I also never thought her remarks were based in anything ugly. But now I think otherwise. That no deprecating remark is justified. No words that hurt another are of any value. And certainly finding excuses for one who speaks them is not, in any way justifiable.

In that same moment that my friend voiced her fateful remark, my friendship, my life and how I perceive myself and my friends, has forever been altered. Perhaps if that had been the full extent of it, I could go back to where we were, to the friendship we once had.

But it wasn't.

When it was unquestionably clear that her calloused remark upset me, stunned me - her husband came to her rescue. In so doing, he made a bad situation irreparable.

"What she meant to say," he proclaimed, "was that her father believes in the revised version of the holocaust."

As I fought the bile in my throat from spewing forth, I asked incredulously, "The revised version?"

"Yes," he said, calmly, as if her were about to espouse a fact, a truth, "the new numbers clearly prove that the number of Jews to have been put to death were closer to one million, not the six million we've been told."

"Put to death" I tossed in my mind. What a quaint expression for gassing to death mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, grandparents, babies, children. As insensitive as they were, they ignored my plea for them to discontinue this discourse. However, it was important to them to make their point.

They did and in so doing, I have remembered who and what I am. I am a Jew. They reminded me of my heritage. Of my birthright. They reminded me of every Anti-Jewish remark or inference I ever heard or ever experienced. I remembered how I was told as a child that when Israel was proclaimed a Jewish state, a homeland for every Jew, that a tree was planted in my name. As a youngster, I envisioned that somewhere in Israel there was a tree inscribed with my name: Norma Sherry Reidler.

My Grandparents, first cousins who escaped the ravages inflicted on many European Jews, migrated to the United States and married at 13 and 14 respectively. They talked little about the Holocaust. But what my Grandmother did say, stayed with me, all these many years. She told me the Jews in Europe got what they deserved, that they tried too hard to assimilate. At eleven, I was shocked by her words. Those words my Grandmother spoke bewildered me and sent me on a self-motivated journey to seek the truth and answers. I quivered at her defining. What could she possibly have meant?

I read a diversity of opinions, from "The Deputy", to "Mein Kampf", then back again to "The Black Book of Poland", "The Diary of Anne Frank", "The Nuremberg Trials", "Auschwitz", and oh, so many, many more. I like to think this was what my Grandmother intended when she said those fateful words to me so long ago. But I think not. I now know, I too, tried too hard to assimilate.

So, I grew up with this mentality of pride in my birthright. In the knowledge that I was born Jewish. I felt all the more pride in the homeland which Israel had turned luscious and green and fruitful. I felt proud and mighty when Israel defeated her enemies; when they won the Six-Day war, when they turned sand into prosper. None of which was my doing, but nonetheless, I was Jewish, therefore I was part and parcel: a Sabra, an Israeli, a Jew.

Over the years, although I still felt proud, I rarely, if ever, divulged my born into religion. Although I argued with my Mother that Anti-Semitism was a rare happenstance, I realized I kept my faith, my Jewish heritage, for the most part, a secret.

I recalled in an instant every distasteful joke I overheard, every neighbor who spouted Anti-Jewish rhetoric, every Christian sentiment that blamed Jews for the ill that befell Christ. In that one evening my world as I had known it, was irrevocably changed.

I have since learned a great deal about the Revisionism movement. Stunningly articulate, if one didn't know better. Learned men stating their spin on the facts. Turning truth into devout disbelief. Revising history and altering the inexplicable truth.

When I was a little girl and I went to synagogue, we'd say phrases like, "Never Again", or "History has a way of repeating itself." The truth of these words were never truly contemplated; never did we consider Jews, or any people, could ever again be annihilated. But that was before Rwanda, and Tienanmen Square, and Kosovo, and frighteningly oh, so many more. It was also before France obliterated and desecrated Jewish temples and Jewish tombstones. It was before a Jewish child could walk the streets of Italy without fear of his Jewishness offending someone unknown to him. It was before the notion of Revisionism, or skinheads, or our knowledge that the then Vatican gave known Nazi's passports to escape and forever hide their true identities.

Never again no longer sounds like some concept unreal. In fact, it no longer rings unlikely. Perhaps not only I, but my brethren have also mistakenly believed we've assimilated. It's not just the dishes we buy, the cars the drive, the utensils we fill our drawers with, or the designer clothing we adorn our bodies in. It's far larger, it's far greater, it's a pervasive, histrionic, deleterious personification of an entire ethnic group.

One would have but to listen to the words of some of our own nation's religious and political leaders to know that Anti-Semitism is alive and well and flourishing in the Christian dogma of the 21st century.

When Reverend Billy Graham said to Richard Milhous Nixon, that "they swarm around me and are friendly to me because they know that I'm friendly with Israel. But they don't know how I really feel about what they are doing to this country. And I have no power, no way to handle them, but I would stand up if under proper circumstances." He was pontificating his true Anti-Semitic belief; privately he thought, never to see the light of day, he was certain. Never, did it occur to him that Richard Nixon was taping the conversation and that it would endure posterity.

When Jerry Falwell declared that "the Anti-Christ may be alive today, and that he must be a Jew", he was not just seeking media attention, he was proliferating hatred toward Jews. Republican candidate, Pat Buchanan's fixation with the not-so-bad side of Hitler (and the not-so-good side of President Roosevelt's opposition to him) is not just long-standing, it's practically lifelong stemming from his father's long-held sympathies with the isolationists. Also to his credit, reportedly, it was Buchanan who scripted Reagan's infamous and shocking remarks when he proclaimed that buried SS soldiers at Bitburg were: " . . victims, just as surely as the victims in the concentration camps."

Pat Robertson, thinks of Jews as "spiritually deaf" and "spiritually blind." In the end times, Robertson believes, Jews will be brought in as "offerings to the Lord." He predicts mass conversions of Jews to Christianity. And in this enlightened age, and in the new movement of followers of Christ, there is the pervasive veiled mutterings of Anti-Semitism. My friends, my ill-spoken friends have said to me, on more occasions than once, the same words spoken by Christian leaders, that unless I accept Jesus as my Lord and Savior, I cannot expect to be welcomed in heaven.

Each time they said this to me, in love they said, I cringed. My inner voice said, "Run Norma, speak up Norma, this is Anti-Semitism at its worst, Norma." But I chose to ignore my voice too many times. This couldn't be true, I said to myself. These are my dear friends, I said. They love me, I reiterated again and again. They mean no harm, I said over and over in my head. But not until that fateful evening of Remembrance of the atrocities that befell my people, did I come face to face with what my Grandmother said to me when I was a little girl. I too, had assimilated.

My tears are nearly dry now. Every once in a while I still have to wipe them from streaming down my cheeks. But I have learned something in this experience. I have learned I am a Jew.

I shall never again forget this is so.


from the September 2002 Edition of the Jewish Magazine




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