Spread the Shalom, for God’s Sake
Reading Time: 4 minutes
After four thousand years of Inquisitions, expulsions, temple sackings, burnings at the stake, and genocides, you’d think the Jews had seen it all. Even more so, you’d think that the rest of the world would have finally moved on from this whole anti-Semitism thing. Isn’t tormenting the Jews a bit of an old pastime by now? Let us all find something better to do with our time.
I have not come here to kvetch, but rather to offer a plain account of what it is like for me being Jewish these days. On most days, it is not directly relevant to me that I am Jewish; it is simply my background. And as the word “background” implies, what’s on stage is far more interesting. The only daily cue for me to remember that I am, in fact, Jewish, is whenever I am asked to write my full name. In this case, the Hebraic force of my surname—Shapiro—mows me over at once. I generally avoid temple except for the occasional bar or bat mitzvah. And though we do own a shofar, the main purpose it serves in the household is not religious, but to act as a dinner bugle that my dad blows to summon my mom and me to the kitchen.
It is Friday evening, and my father is sounding the shofar, the Biblical belch of the ram’s horn swelling through the house. I come running. On the table, there is a beautiful Shabbat repast––a roast chicken, some string beans, and golden challah my father made set between two tall, white candles. First, my mom strikes a match and lifts it to the two long wicks. We mumble the “baruch atah” for the candles and then for the challah, a piece of which we pass around. Last is the blessing for the wine. I have simple reasons for liking Shabbat. It is a happy, peaceful ritual, a way of marking the ebb and flow of one week to the next.
But it’s not always fun here in the Land of the Semites. My great grandma Jean used to say, “It’s HARD to be a Jew.” She is right. Though it is rarely a haven of inclusion for the Jews no matter where or when they exist, Great Grandma Jean was born into a particularly brutal setting—Russia of the early 1900s, a golden age for the pogrom and a bloody age for all the Jewish people hunted and murdered.
Great Grandma Jean passed away a few years ago, but her wisdom is timely as ever—it is still hard to be a Jew. Those who do not like the Jews still abound, yet these days they favor more subtle tactics—humor, for instance, or an attempt at it. Back in freshman year, I was out in the fifth floor hallway pasting a health infographic onto a poster board titled “GONORRHEA” for health class. I was bending close to the poster board, Sharpie-ing in a subtitle (“Painful Urination––What to Know”) when I heard behind me the voice of a classmate. He was discussing in a contemptuous tone some other kid he knew. The major qualm about this kid? “He looks so Jewish, man, like, did you see him?” The others laughed. There seemed to be a consensus––to look Jewish was no doubt a terrible fate.
Nearly did I whirl around and jab them hard in all orifices with the gonorrhea Sharpie. It seemed incredibly unjust to me that saying something like that about a Jewish kid was alright. Would “He looks so Asian, man” or “He looks so Black, man” be acceptable? No. So why should this case be?
Thankfully, I restrained myself. A brawl never does any good when it comes to changing people’s minds. In any case, I understood. It is easy to laugh and nod along. Laughter itself comes in a group––“hahaha.” No ha stands alone. They bunch together, forming a clique of two (haha) or three (hahaha). That is the most natural way.
Laughter is a good thing. Contrary to what my visage of iron might indicate about me, I do like to laugh occasionally. But as I realized on the day of the gonorrhea poster, humor is often a mask that conceals much more sinister prejudices, allowing them to grow unchecked. What starts small and funny quickly spirals into disaster. For a while, Hitler himself was a joke. His contemporaries called him a “man with a beery vocal organ,” a crazy barker with a brick of bad facial hair. These things are funny until, one day, they are not funny at all.
At other times, it is not malice, but simply confusion that perpetuates anti-Semitism. Long ago, in the same year as the gonorrhea poster, I was sitting with a group of friends during a break between the first period of biology and the second. Our snacks? Delicious. Our reparteé? Dynamic. Our subject? Jesus of Nazareth.
“You know,” I said, crunching a carrot, “Jesus was a Jew.”
One friend looked up from his Chex Mix. He frowned. “But didn’t the Jews kill Jesus?” He crunched a few pretzel Os he had been saving in one palm.
“No,” I said flatly, “That was the Romans.”
I understood the confusion and wasn’t offended. There are plenty of cultures and religions in the world I know nothing about, and I would certainly blunder if I tried to talk about them. But I want to clear up even these innocent confusions because the Jews don’t need any more of a villainous rap than has already been foisted upon them over the past millennia, what with all the medieval well poisonings (that caused the Plague) and the murdering of Gentile babies (what matzo meal is made of). There is certainly something to be said for getting educated, as activists often advise, not just about Jewish people but about any group of people historically pushed from the herd. Once this happens, we will all be able to see each other more kindly and more clearly. Jews are Jewish people just as Muslims are Muslim people and Christians are Christian people. Same for matters of race. We are all people. The rest is just an adjective.
I wish for an end to all this tsuris (that’s Yiddish for trouble or aggravation). There are many better things that humanity could be doing rather than mocking each other, defacing houses of worship, and attacking each other in the street. Let’s just do something else. Whoever you may be, I blow my shofar in welcome.