There are thirteen churches and one synagogue in the town where I grew up. It is an anomaly for Bergen County, which is known for, among other things, the heavily Jewish bastions of Fairlawn and Teaneck. My synagogue community is small when compared to communities in the more Jewish towns, though it is larger than others in the county’s northwestern corner. It is not especially tight-knit, but most people seem to know each other well enough to recognize one another on the high holidays and ask about their respective children.
Though my three years of middle school were the only years I spent in my town’s school system, I played recreational sports with the other children in the town for many years prior. I was often placed on teams with the other kids who went to religious schools As far as I could tell, at that age no one seemed to care that I went to Jewish school while they went to Christian or Catholic schools. We would all run down the soccer pitch together, my curlier reddish-brown hair bobbing alongside a squadron of towheads. So when I entered sixth grade—the first time I sat in a class with non-Jews—my fellow classmates were not all complete strangers. They knew my name and I knew theirs. Still, I want to acknowledge that my encounters with the non-Jewish members of the town have been somewhat limited.
I knew most of the other Jewish students at the town’s middle school from the synagogue community. We had gone to the same pre-school, our parents knew each other. In a school that was almost entirely white, the dozen or fewer Jewish students in a grade were easy targets, especially me and some of my friends—we stood out. We missed school because of the holidays. Some of us kept kosher. Many of the boys were, for lack of a better word, a bit eccentric. We were all at that awkward stage in pre-adolescence at which we only barely resemble other normal human beings. Some of us were shorter than the other students, or more nerdy, or more awkward, or a bit over-zealous in class—my enthusiastic hand-raising probably crossed the line of social acceptability. Bad hair, glasses, braces, retainers, pimples, and height deficiency—we had it all. There were, however, those Jewish students who did not fit our mold: the star athletes whose friends and teammates ruthlessly bullied us, and the pretty girls who, to the best of my knowledge, never experienced anti-Semitism to the extent that we did—no one seemed to draw swastikas on their desks or binders.
At my Jewish day school, I did not learn long division until years after most other students, but there are some blessings of a parochial education—I learned what anti-Semitism was and how to recognize it.
In middle school I had a lot of names; I hesitate to call them nicknames because that would imply that there was something endearing about them. Among them were Jew, Jewboy, the Jew, and, less sharp around the edges, Josh-Jew. Anti-Semites tend to drop the suffix, “ish.” “He’s Jewish” becomes “He’s a Jew,” or when spat as a monosyllabic insult, “Jew.” The former maintains some kind of identifying declarative purpose, while with the latter two there is a more sinister connotation, there is a judgment implicit in the act of identifying. It is as if the suffix is less totalizing; the “ish” allows for shades of grey. It does not rule out the possibility of belonging to other communities or groups. But “Jew” is totalizing. You are a Jew and that is it. There’s us, and then there’s Jew.
But the anti-Semitism that I and other Jewish students experienced was far more than verbal abuse. Non-Jewish students would throw coins at me and at some of the other Jewish boys as we walked down the hallways to class. At recess, in the locker room, while waiting for the bus, they would literally pelt us with quarters and pennies. The first time it happened I did not understand what they were doing or why they were doing it. The first shout of, “Pick it up, Jew!” let me know what all of this was about.
One weekend after hockey practice, I went to a teammate’s house for dinner. I stood in the kitchen, watching the biscuits warm-up in the oven, when his brother suddenly approached me and emptied an entire piggy-bank full of coins at my feet. His eyes met mine, staring at me, egging me on to pick up the coins. In sixth grade I requested to have my locker moved because the level of harassment had reached the point that I was sometimes late for class.
There were also those straight-armed salutes, which started at the chest and went as high as their arms could reach, that would occasionally sail across the cafeteria towards me and the other Jewish boys. Sometimes someone would try to scrawl a swastika on my binder or desk. When that failed, they would sketch them on pieces of paper and hold them up to my face. They liked Holocaust jokes, too. Anne Frank, gas chambers, and concentration camps—no topic was taboo.
The first and only physical fight I ever got into in school began because of a Holocaust joke. In eighth grade, a classmate wanted to tell me how many Jews could fit in an ashtray. After hearing this joke for three years, I had no interest in letting him tell me the answer. I instigated a scuffle in a deserted hallway that ended quickly and, for the most part, painlessly. My opponent never made a similar joke again. Violence, it seemed, was the only effective language. My other, peaceful attempts to respond or defend myself rarely worked. If anything, they gave the other students the satisfaction of knowing that what they said and did bothered me.
New Jersey’s state educational requirements include a unit on the Holocaust in middle school. But when my class read The Devil’s Arithmetic, I worried that it would only make things worse—that the Holocaust horror stories would provide them with more ammunition than before. Diversity assemblies on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and anti-bullying talks had a similar effect—they just seemed to backfire. The skits, videos, and books just supplied the pre-pubescent bigots with a wider vocabulary of epithets and slurs.
No one—no teachers, administrators, or guidance counselors—seemed to be able to do anything to stop what was happening. Even after the vice principal agreed to have me write a testimony of what was being done to me and to the other Jewish boys, nothing seemed to change. The only intervention I remember was an incident in the gym locker room. While pelting me with coins, the aggressors shouted something homophobic. The gym teacher yelled at them for the comment and told them to apologize. For some reason, the remark, but not the action, warranted an adult’s attention.
I cannot claim to speak for the other Jewish kids who attended my middle school. Maybe some of them were not as bothered by it as I was; maybe there were some who escaped the abuse. Maybe others dealt with it better than I did—I used to throw the coins back, beaming quarters at my tormenters down the corridors. However, this only started in eighth grade, when I finally worked up the courage to fight back. But what I can be sure of is that anti-Semitism was alive at my middle school and I was far from the only one who had to face it. I have never been back to visit. I wonder if it still lives there now.
This year when I came home for my family’s Passover Seder, my parents admitted that they might have underestimated the severity of the bullying and anti-Semitism that I and the other Jewish boys experienced in middle school. My parents had reconnected with family friends who have a son my age. He and I went to the same middle school. He was bullied even more severely than I was. After enrolling in the town’s public high school, he left for a school outside of the town because the anti-Semitism had become too much to bear. To my surprise, I found out that both he and I had independently insisted, while in middle school, that we needed to move out of the town as soon as possible.
My omission of the town’s name and the school’s name is intentional. I have also intentionally left out all names and other factors that could be used to identify individuals other than myself. This is, in part, because of the seriousness of the incidents that I have described. Last January, the U.S. attorney’s office in upstate New York found that evidence collected in a lawsuit filed by three Jewish families in the town of Pine Bush, New York, “is sufficient for a jury to find that the district failed to respond to pervasive anti-Semitic harassment in its schools.” A New York Times article from early November describes the experiences of students in that school district. “They tell of hearing anti-Semitic epithets and nicknames, and horrific jokes about the Holocaust. They have reported being pelted with coins, told to retrieve money thrown in garbage receptacles, shoved, and even beaten.”
That litany of abuses was immediately familiar to me. I imagine it was familiar to some of my classmates, too. Still, it is long past the time when any kind of recourse would be possible. And I fear attempting to do so would do more harm than good. I have no idea if the situation has improved at my middle school, or if Jewish students still experience what my friends and I experienced. The last thing I want would be for their experiences to be made worse by their fellow students’ retaliation. I have also refrained from geographical and individual specificity because there are students at this university who know the town and school I have referred to. I have no desire to revisit these experiences with them.
The challenge of dealing with anti-Semitism as expressed by middle school students is twofold. First, its initial playfulness presents a problem for assessing its gravity: are these kids just saying words that they do not think about or understand, or are they using hateful words with intent? Like other kinds of bullying, it at first resembles banter or teasing directed at those who are different from the majority. It might not have been the particular quality of Jewishness but the simple fact that being Jewish was a mark of otherness that gave the non-Jewish students reason to single out their Jewish peers. Still, given the vitriol and pervasiveness of anti-Semitism at my middle school, attributing it to students’ inability to accept difference feels inadequate.
Second, where on earth did the twelve-year olds learn that kind of hatred? Was there some secret anti-Semitic cable channel or chat room (remember, this was 2007) where they learned to talk like this? Did they learn it from their parents, who presumably have had more interactions with Jewish people? This last part remains a mystery to me—I will never understand how those thirteen-year old boys learned to throw pennies at Jews.
The only way to fully answer these questions is to confront the perpetrators of abuse and ask them why they did it, to ask them if they harbored deep hatred for Jews as twelve-year olds, or if they were just looking to gang-up on whoever seemed a little different. But I cannot do that. It has been five years since I last saw most of them, and I am uninterested in reestablishing any kind of contact. All I can do is guess. Perhaps the anti-Semitism I experienced in middle school was the result of my peers’ incapacity to deal amiably with people from different creeds and cultures—a simple, common explanation for the bullying that too many students often face. And yet I cannot help but suspect that there was something more sinister behind the anti-Semitism than immaturity and insolence. I find it difficult to believe that the anti-Semitism that other Jewish students and I faced was intuitive or instinctual—that kind of hatred must have been learned. Still, the question remains: who taught it?