This discussion of anti-Semitism is the first of a series of roundtable discussions from We Need Diverse Books, in which we will provide a forum for the various diverse communities we champion.
Anti-Semitism: hostility toward or discrimination against Jews as a religious, ethnic, or racial group. —Merriam-Webster
When I was asked to put together a roundtable discussion on anti-Semitism, I admit I felt like a fraud when I agreed. My Jewish dad “converted” to Catholicism when he married my mom (although the conversion never really stuck), so my three sisters and I were all raised as Catholics. I remember arguing with a Jewish girl in my grade school class about Jesus (not trying to convert her, but in disagreement as to his significance). And I never set foot in a synagogue while I was growing up.
But then there was that time when I was six or seven when the Brownie troop told me that there wasn’t any room for me (although there was for my best friend), and my mom told me it was because my dad was Jewish. There was that day I learned that the care home where my Alzheimer-afflicted dad lived had included him in a church activity despite his records indicating he was Jewish. And then there was the very scary day when Nazi-Twitter attacked me and my friends came to my rescue and got the hateful tweets blocked.
So I may be a stealth Jew, but I’m Jewish. And when I asked seven Jewish authors to write essays on their everyday experiences with anti-Semitism, I was startled by how familiar their stories were to me.
We’re lucky that in the United States anti-Semitism is only rarely expressed violently. But the most recent ADL Global 100 study, a survey commissioned annually by the Anti-Defamation League, found that ten percent, or about 24 million individuals in the US harbor anti-Semitic attitudes. And as you’ll see in the essays below, there are likely many more people who would never consider themselves anti-Semitic, but who confront the Jewish people they meet with micro-aggressions that can be exasperating, heartbreaking, and even frightening.
Here’s the question I asked these seven authors:
How have you seen anti-Semitism expressed, either in the media, on the internet, or in your personal lives?
And this is how they answered.
Karen Sandler is the author of nineteen novels for adults, as well as TANKBORN, AWAKENING, and REBELLION, a YA science fiction trilogy from Lee & Low Books. An enthusiastic advocate of diversity in children’s literature, she is a founding member of We Need Diverse Books.
Elana K. Arnold
In my physical life, I have faced very little anti-Semitism. This is because I “don’t look Jewish,” and because I don’t have a Jewish religious life. Unless I choose to disclose to people that I was largely raised by my Jewish grandparents who moved here with their infant son (my father) after losing their homes, their family, and their faith to the Holocaust, no one thinks of me as “Jewish.”
In my grandparents’ home, it was a good thing that I didn’t “look Jewish.” My grandfather, according to family lore, wanted to see my eyes first thing, and was so pleased that they were blue, like his—because it connected us, sure, but also because his own blue eyes, blond hair, and chameleon-like ability to “pass” had saved his life many times.
In high school, when I heard anti-Semitic jokes, I always spoke up and made sure my classmates knew that I was Jewish, that my grandparents were immigrants and survivors, and that their jokes were not funny. Some of the boys called me “Jew Girl” and made me a target of ridicule, while other boys picked apart my history—“You don’t look Jewish,” they’d say, as if suspicious that I was lying.
When my husband and I decided not to circumcise our son, my grandfather’s response was, “Good. It will make it easier for him to pass when the Holocaust comes again.” My son, who was, mathematically, just one quarter Jewish, was, to my grandfather, still a Jew who should fear for his life, and whose intact penis could be the difference between survival and slaughter.
When I wrote my first novel, Sacred, I wanted to create a world that felt mystically magical and, well, sacred. I began to research Kabbalah as the driving force behind my hero, Will Cohen’s, abilities, and I enrolled in two courses at the Jewish Community Center. The first, Introduction to Judaism, was led by a rabbi of a reform congregation. When I asked him if I was Jewish, he said yes. My other course—Kabbalah Studies—was led by an Orthodox rabbi. When I asked him if I was Jewish, he told me, gently, no.
When Sacred was published, its first professional review ended with a single-word paragraph—“Schlock.” For those of you who don’t know, “schlock” is Yiddish and means something shoddily made. Something of poor quality. Of course, no writer wants her first review—or any review—to be bad. But the use of a Yiddish word to put down a Jewish themed book felt intentionally mean.
On Goodreads, several readers marked Sacred as “Did Not Finish,” explaining that they put it down because, “as Christians,” they “didn’t believe in” the book’s premise and backstory. A Jewish book review site called Sacred “fun, fascinating, and well written,” but didn’t suggest it be added to Jewish school libraries because its non-Jewish protagonist, Scarlett, dates Jewish Will Cohen and no one, not even Will’s rabbi father, protests. The reviewer worried that Scarlett and Will might end up at the Kabbalah Center, becoming “earnest but faux-mystics.”
Too Jewish and not Jewish enough. Sacred, it seems, was its mother’s child.
Elana K. Arnold is a writer of Young Adult and Middle Grade fiction. Her first three novels (SACRED, BURNING, and SPLENDOR) were published by Random House in 2012 and 2013. Her most recent two novels, THE QUESTION OF MIRACLES (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) and INFANDOUS (Lerner/Carolrhoda Lab) have earned starred reviews from Booklist, Publishers Weekly, and Kirkus. Elana has an MA in English/Creative Writing (Fiction) from UC Davis, where she has taught Adolescent Literature and Creative Writing. She lives in Huntington Beach, CA with her family and more than a few pets.
For example: This year, like every year, I was asked to attend a meeting scheduled on Yom Kippur. And this year, like every other year, when I called with regrets, I heard a familiar sound on the other end of the phone. It was part embarrassment, part annoyance, and part impatience. The non-apology. The reaction that makes me feel like I’m the problem.
My mother told me to lighten up. “Why do you expect people to remember a holiday that isn’t theirs?” She has never resented being forgotten, not even when Homecoming fell on the holidays.
She does not call this anti-Semitism. Instead, she asks me: Why can’t you fit in? Why won’t you assimilate?
Growing up in Bethlehem, Pa, I couldn’t have assimilated, even if I’d wanted to, thanks to a nose that was slightly too big for my face (and a propensity to speak out even before it was my turn). My nicknames ranged from matzoh girl, the beak, to that girl who was going to hell. It was not easy.
When I got involved in theater, I was sure I’d found a safe haven. This was a place where everyone was a little different. But when stereotypes sink into a culture, they are hard to excise. Now I was mini-Barbra. I was encouraged to act even more Jewish. Before the senior musical was announced, my director (who knew I was hoping for a romantic lead) asked me which Barbra show I wanted. He couldn’t see me any other way. He wasn’t prepared to challenge his version of Jewish.
Let me make this clear: I loved playing Dolly Levi. But I also understood that it was my only choice.
Now I ask myself: what would 2015-Sarah have done? Demand more three-dimensional roles? Walk out rather than play another over-the-top, comic Jewish woman? By staying, was I inadvertently promoting anti-Semitism? Or was I making way for the next generation? Was this a first step? Was it no big deal? (Is my mother right?)
I was thinking about this when I found these lines in our prayer book:
Who shall be serene and who shall be distraught?
Who shall stand out as a Jew, and who shall fade away and assimilate?
Hillel said: If I am not for myself, who is for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now when?
Yes, I still wish he could have trusted me with a romantic lead. I wish my friends could remember when the High Holidays fall. More important, I’m angry about the publication of For Such a Time, and I can’t believe a Chicago TV station could wish Jews a “happy Yom Kippur” with a Nazi emblem. Most of all, I am uncomfortable with the pressure to simply assimilate. Or accommodate. Not when we should have integration and diversity. This is not just about anti-Semitism. It’s about all voices.
Unfortunately, anti-Semitism/racism/bigotry/hate are still real. We won’t end these problems by fading away.
That was one of the message of this year’s High Holiday worship. Every day, all of us must work together. We must switch places, if just for a moment, and understand each other. We must recognize what hurts, and apologize when we stumble. If we do, we will move beyond stereotypes. And maybe, there won’t be a meeting next year on Yom Kippur.
Sarah Aronson is the author of the middle grade novel, BEYOND LUCKY, and the YA novels, HEAD CASE and BELIEVE. Coming soon is her first nonfiction picture book, JUST LIKE RUBE GOLDBERG (Beach Lane Books), and a chapter book series, THE WORST FAIRY GODMOTHER EVER (Scholastic). Sarah holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is the cofounder and organizer of the Writing Novels for Young People Retreat at VCFA and works with aspiring writers at Highlights as well as writers.com. She reviews books for Jewish Book World. Like tips? Sign up for her weekly newsletter, Monday Motivation, on her website, www.saraharonson.com.
It’s hard to talk about anti-Semitism without feeling that I shouldn’t complain. I grew up in a suburb with a large Jewish community, ethnically diverse, educated and wealthy, before moving to a rural town in New England. And while anti-Semitism doesn’t dominate my life, it’s nevertheless real and present for me—not just something I see on television or hear in political conversations, but active on a macro- and micro-level that affects me, personally, every day.
It’s when I was a kid and a boy cracked my knuckles with a hockey stick, calling me a “dumb kike bitch.”
It’s when a boyfriend’s mother told him to keep dating me because I was Jewish and therefore I’d be rich.
It’s when I went to college and well-meaning classmates asked if I really didn’t believe in Jesus because if so, I was going to hell.
It’s when neo-Nazis marched in our neighboring town under the banner of free speech and my Jewish community was paralyzed, not knowing what to do. (When a friend told me he might not like what people say, but he’d die for their right to say it, and I said it felt different when what’s being said is that you and your family should be rounded up and shot.)
It’s when a neighbor tells me not to get involved in local politics or PTO because “your people aren’t from here.”
It’s when my kid’s principal schedules Picture Day on the High Holidays and claims she didn’t know the date, adding, “Well, you ARE a minority, you know.”
It’s when my dermatologist invites me to her Bible study while I’m lying on her examination table and when I say I’m Jewish, says “Well, you really need it, then.”
It’s when my daughter and her best friend can’t find a school Girl Scout troop to take them in when she’s the only Jew in her class and her best friend is the only Latina.
It’s when well-meaning friends invite us out and we discover it’s a Christian event where we’re asked to welcome Jesus into our hearts.
It’s when the Winter Concert has one “Jewish song” that has nothing to do with Chanukah and the rest are about Christmas.
It’s when a babysitter asks if my kids are “really Jewish” because she’s never met anyone who considers themselves Jewish before.
It’s when my daughter’s teacher brings donuts to the class during Passover.
It’s when concerts, premieres, or parties are scheduled on major Jewish holidays and my husband and I can’t go.
It’s when my kids’ homework sheets feature Santa, Christmas trees and Easter eggs.
It’s when people say they pray for me to find Christ.
It’s when I’m told to write the ‘o’ in G-d.
It’s when someone pats my head, asking where are my horns.
It’s when someone asks if matzoh is made with baby’s blood.
It’s when someone says a salesman “Jewed them.”
It’s when politicians say “f*cking Jews,” when Hollywood claims it’s been hijacked by Hebes, when people say government is run by “Shylocks,” and that nothing will ever be solved in Israel until every Jew is dead.
People say things like this all the time—it’s expected, it’s normal, it’s nothing new. I hear it and I feel it and I know that I have to teach my children to be aware, to have thick skins, to be proud and kind and believe in themselves because we, as a minority, are expected to acquiesce, to be polite, step aside, nod in understanding, apologize for the inconvenience, acknowledging that we are few, that we are outcasts and scapegoats, and there are those who hope that someday we’ll all be gone.
Some believe we are powerful and others believe we are helpless and still others believe we are cursed and yet we have to be brave, stand up for ourselves and one another, for what we believe and for our right to believe, and not allow others to cast aspersions in the dark. “Never again,” still haunts us because it can so easily happen now.
The truth is that most of the anti-Semitism I’ve experienced has not been physically threatening, aimed maliciously at me or my kids, but it is present in a thousand tiny ways and every day I live my life being told that my children and I don’t belong.
And yet, we’re still here.
Dawn Metcalf has no good excuse for the way she writes. She lived in a normal, loving, suburban home, studied hard, went to college, went to graduate school, got married, had babies, and settled down in northern Connecticut. Despite this wholesome lifestyle, she has clearly been corrupted by fairy tales, puppet visionaries, British comedy and graphic novels. As a result, she writes dark, quirky, and sometimes humorous speculative fiction.
My Judaism is rooted in the American immigrant experience—my mother’s family came through Ellis Island from Russia after the turn of the century. My grandparents littered their speech with Yiddish, attended shul, and kept mostly kosher (my grandfather was begrudgingly allowed to eat Kentucky Fried Chicken in the sunroom, but not the kitchen). But my mother married a Christian and we celebrated Christmas, too. Observance of some Christian practices never seemed contradictory to my Jewish identity. You’re Jewish, my mother always told me, and the unspoken conclusion seemed to be: whether you like it or not!
It was certainly true that my upbringing was not quite like most other children in my predominantly Catholic town. They were confirmed, wore smudges of ash on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday, and learned about Catholicism at CCD. The significance of those practices were hazy to me but seemed self-evident to them. My teachers made a pointed effort at inclusion, asking me to talk about Hanukkah at Christmastime and inviting my grandmother to come make latkes for our class. But that was it, really. My Judaism was private and idiosyncratic, something explored at home and on weekends. In truth, I didn’t like how my differences sometimes made me an example. After all, those differences prompted difficult lunch hour questions from my peers, who asked me if I’d killed Jesus, if that was why my nose (inherited from my father, in fact) was so big, and if I knew I was going to hell.
Part of my goal in writing Starglass, a science fiction novel set on a generation spaceship and published by Simon & Schuster in 2013, was to describe a society which was as casually Jewish as the world around me was casually, unthinkingly Christian. The world in which I was raised was one where winter holidays rather than autumn holidays were given automatic predominance in cultural conversation, where Christian practices and modes of thought were intuitively understood, but where the Yiddish and kosher-keeping and candle lighting and so on were foreign and strange.
But I didn’t set out to write a religious novel. Rather, it’s one where religion is part of the fabric of worldbuilding, but is functionally invisible to the characters. For religious readers, some of the deeper meaning behind these practices should be evident. But that knowledge isn’t necessary to understand the book, nor is religious observance necessary to read it. After all, I might be culturally Jewish (whether I like it or not!) but I’m religiously an agnostic.
I do think that the Jewish cultural practices in Starglass have baffled some readers, which has been a reminder of how truly Christian the American nation can be. There are places where my book might be a teenager’s first encounter with Judaism. Some reactions seem almost dismayed—they didn’t expect such a religious book! But of course, my book isn’t religious at all. What it seems to me that they’re saying instead is, “I didn’t expect so many Jews.”
And yet I grew up immersed in Christianity—not necessarily the religion, but a thousand little practices that the practitioners never noticed. I was wished a “Merry Christmas!” My town had blue laws until I was in middle school, closing all business on Sundays. It’s not that I mind Christianity or Christians. But the invisible ubiquity of Christian culture can be striking when your private cultural experience exists outside it.
Christian readers have the option of closing my book if they don’t want to encounter Judaism. They can instead immerse themselves in books—even fantasy and science fiction—that reflect the world in which they live, the world that treats Christian majority culture as the default. They can decide to privilege books about the Jewish experience written by and for Christians, books like Kate Breslin’s For Such a Time, which takes both a painful Jewish cultural memory and an important Jewish religious story and co-opts them to present a conversion romance. Christian readers have the option of never considering Judaism at all—much less considering Buddhism or Islam or Zoroastrianism or Shinto. They need not think of any non-Christians if they don’t want to.
But the rest of us don’t have that option. We will never be able to close the book on Christianity. It’s everywhere in our world, woven into our culture, no matter our own personal belief system.
I’m of the viewpoint that tolerance, understanding, and empathy come from exploring narratives which we would not encounter if we were surrounded by people exactly like us. Acceptance come from the brave act of listening to people talk about their lived experiences, no matter how strange they might initially seem.
Phoebe North writes about intergalactic spaceship rebellions, hot alien kissing, robot consciousness, angry girls, complicated boys, secrets, parents, angst, and psychic powers. She lives two hours north of New York City with her husband Jordan, her daughter Molly, and her cat Sammy. Together, they laugh, go on adventures, debate television, make art, and nap. Her books, STARGLASS and STARBREAK, are available from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.
Erica S. Perl
When I heard recently something that Ann Coulter said, I actually went to her Twitter feed and scrolled through it, naively thinking that she couldn’t have actually said what people said she said. I was wrong. There it was:
How many f—ing Jews do these people think there are in the United States?
— Ann Coulter (@AnnCoulter) September 17, 2015
I felt physically nauseous when I saw those words on my screen. I reminded myself that as awful as the words “f—ing Jews” are, they’re nowhere near as bad as an actual act of anti-Semitic violence, like the murders in Paris and Kansas City last year. But still.
I clicked the browser window shut. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that she was still there, looking at me through the webcam or something and thinking “you f—ing Jew.” What do you do with that? Some might say, make art with it. But how? Do you write something that tells kids that the world is both a beautiful and a terrible place, as full of possibilities as it is of prejudices that don’t seem to go away no matter how hurtful and unjustified they are?
I guess you do, kind of. Which is to say that I think it is important to be honest with kids. But at the same time, I really want them to draw their own conclusions from the evidence we put before them. Even if many smart people would draw the same conclusions (“hmmm, that tweet shows that Ann Coulter is an anti-Semitic a–hole”), I think we do kids a disservice when we tell them how it is rather than laying it out for them and letting them get there themselves.
I’ll give you an example. I grew up in Burlington, Vermont, and I was one of very few Jewish kids at my public high school. For some reason, every spring they made all of us clean out our lockers on the same day. My junior year, a friend who was also Jewish had her locker near mine, so the two of us were hunched down on the floor, digging through papers when it happened. First a sprinkling, then a shower of small objects rained down on us from above. Pennies. We turned and saw a boy we knew standing above us, laughing at what he had done (and laughing at the sight of me, as many of the pennies were stuck in my thick, bushy hair). Someone—a custodian?—asked the boy what he was doing. The boy’s response? He pointed at the two of us on the floor. “Don’t worry. They’ll pick them up.” I didn’t even get it at first, but my friend clued me in. “He meant we’ll pick the pennies up because we’re Jews,” she explained.
That experience came back to me when I was writing When Life Gives You O.J., a novel for 8-12 year olds. In one scene, two Jewish kids, Jeremy and Zelly, are approached by Nicky, a boy who has bullied them in the past. Nicky pressures them to give him money for a soda machine and, when they demure, he gets mad and throws a handful of pennies at them. The first time I wrote this scene, I continued the conversation between Jeremy and Zelly as they argued, after the fact, about Nicky’s intentions. Was this an act of anti-Semitism (as Jeremy contended) or was this an act of pure frustration and spite, having nothing to do with the identity of the victim (as Zelly maintained)? In other words, was it a hate crime or not?
I rewrote this scene many times. As published, the scene still contains pennies, but neither character mentions the word “anti-Semitism” or suggests that they were targeted for being Jewish. What I find interesting is that when I talk to readers, particularly my older readers, they can feel the underlying tension in the scene and they want to talk about it. And so, even though as with Ann Coulter’s tweet, I feel a strong sense of res ipso loquitur (“the thing speaks for itself”, or in kidspeak, “duh!”), I like to listen to what my readers think, and how it relates to their lives, and what they’d do in that situation. I also like to discuss another scene, later in the book, in which Zelly has the chance to turn the tables, and has to decide who she is: a penny-thrower, or something else. It is through these conversations, I believe, that we have the best chance of empowering kids to not just believe in the possibility of a better, fairer, f—ing awesome-r future for Jews and for everyone. It is through these conversations that we have the best chance of empowering kids to actually go out and make it so.
Erica S. Perl is the author of popular and acclaimed picture books, including CHICKEN BUTT! and novels for young readers, including the Sydney Taylor Honor Book, WHEN LIFE GIVES YOU O.J. and ACES WILD, which was selected as a NPR Best Book of 2013. A crowd-pleasing presenter and outspoken advocate for literacy, Erica has done workshops and presentations at schools, libraries, and community organizations nationwide. Erica lives in Washington DC and in addition to writing books, she works for First Book, the groundbreaking non-profit organization that has provided over 130 million brand new books to children in need. Visit her at www.ericaperl.com
- When I was in seventh grade, I moved to a new school, where I was informed by a red-haired boy that ““All Jews are f*cking (unrepeatable slur).”
- My first week of college, I came home to find my roommate had stashed my bible in the back of my closet. She explained that my bible was included in her bible, which was sitting on the coffee table. (“It’s not that I don’t like you,” she said. “I’ve just never met a Jewish person before.”)
- That same year, I was asked by a drunk friend if there was any truth to “that thing about Jews being born with horns.”
- When I was twenty one, I lost my job because I reported on an anti-Semitic co-worker. The manager explained (apologetically, behind closed doors) that they couldn’t fire the other guy, because he was their top seller. I’d need to go, since things had gotten tense.
- When I was twenty five, my boyfriend introduced me to his grandmother. She stared me down over pizza. “You’re a Jew?” she sighed. “Well, at least you’re not a Mexican.”
- I’ve had friends gently explain to me that our kids can’t play together, because my children know the truth about Santa, and might tell everyone.
- I can’t count the times someone has cheerfully informed me that they’re praying for my soul. I can’t count the times someone has said, “Well, you’re a Jew, but not a REAL Jew.” I can’t count the times I’ve had a friend use the phrase “Jewed me down” in front of me.
- When my first picture book was published, it had a Christmas tree painted into the background. This was a surprise, but I felt like it was my fault. I hadn’t explicitly said NOT to include a Christmas tree.
- After my first novel was published, a librarian asked me why I wasn’t writing Jewish characters. I was shocked to realize the question had never occurred to me. “In my head,” I confessed, “kids’ books aren’t about Jews.” This was true. All the books I loved best—from Enright to Eager—were about “regular” kids.
- Once I did an event at a JCC, and an actual Nazi showed up. A very old German man, who stood up during the Q&A and interrogated me about the “Jewish obsession with bloodlines.”
And here’s the thing—when I sat down to make this list (which is by no means complete), I was thinking I didn’t have much to say on the subject of anti-Semitism. Nobody has ever directly limited my education because of my faith, and I’ve always felt free in my movements. So it seems wrong to equate my experience with the experiences of people who have been so much more restricted, who have experienced physical violence, or live daily in fear.
And yet, the more I think about it, the more I realize how much of my life has been shaped by this sense of feeling other. This awareness that in any room, someone might be uncomfortable with me.
This has affected my work in good and bad ways. On the one hand, I now write intentionally for the other, for my own kids, and the kid I once was. I’m very aware of needing to help produce a literature for Jewish readers.
On the other hand, I also tend to lump my books into two categories—Jewish and mainstream. And as hard as it is to admit this, I always feel odd when I introduce the Jewish books to the general population. As though they couldn’t possibly want to read them. That makes me sad, realizing how I’ve internalized the divide, knowing that even as I anticipate disinterest in my culture, I condone it.
In the same way that a dominant gender or race trumps, a dominant religion trumps. Boys aren’t expected to read books about girls. White kids aren’t expected to read books about people of color. And the mainstream secular/Christian world isn’t expected to read books about Jews. Except Anne Frank.
So, yeah… I’m sitting here on Rosh Hashanah, thinking about the new year. I’m making some realizations, and maybe I’m making some resolutions. About how the solution is MORE. More diversity. All kinds of diversity.
I’ve watched WNDB grow this year, swell out of emptiness and lack, and it makes me feel hopeful. It makes me believe that as we’re recognizing that lack, we’re also creating a basic expectation that we will soon see a new range of books, a wealth of diversity that makes our very categories seem too simplistic to accept.
Laurel Snyder is the author of many books for kids, including the middle grade novel BIGGER THAN A BREAD BOX, and a new picture book, SWAN, THE LIFE AND DANCE OF ANNA PAVLOVA. She often explores Jewish themes in her work, perhaps most notably in BAXTER, THE PIG WHO WANTED TO BE KOSHER. Laurel lives in Atlanta and online at http://laurelsnyder.com. She’s @laurelsnyder on Twitter.
I am a Jew by choice, so I think my experiences are different from others on this panel. Obviously, as a child, I never personally experienced anti-Semitism. I honestly don’t remember ever seeing it, though I wouldn’t be surprised if someone told me I was just naive. I grew up in a New Jersey suburb that was diverse – or at least as diverse as NJ suburbs could be back in the 1970s. There was a high concentration of Irish and Italian Catholics, but there was a synagogue in town and I certainly attended a fair share of Bar Mitzvahs. One of my favorite high school memories is the night a bunch of us sat in my friend’s basement during Passover. We drank kosher for Passover Coke and ate matzoh with butter. It wasn’t weird or outrageous. It just was.
In preparation for this writing this, I asked my children, now both grown, if either of them experienced anti-Semitism growing up. My son only reported the idiotic kid in middle school drawing swastikas on the white board before the teacher came into the classroom. And my daughter told me about the boy from Ohio who lived on her dorm floor at George Washington University her freshman year who asked her if she had horns. But both of them felt that those were acts of ignorance rather than anti-Semitism. I tend to agree, though I do wonder what kind of men those boys grew up to become. Will they teach their children that Jews have horns or laugh when their child draws swastikas?
I am not going to say that anti-Semitism doesn’t exist. It does. Hatred is real. Ignorance is real too. And sometimes hatred grows from ignorance. So I’d like to address the anti-Semitism that grows out of ignorance.
Even though we live in the United States, where we are guaranteed the freedom of religion, often that freedom is dampened by the default mentality. Everyone presumes you’re Christian. So, while a lot of schools are closed for a day on Rosh Hashanah and for a day for Yom Kippur, it was not an uncommon occurrence for my daughter (who attended public school) to have a test or an assignment due the day after a holiday. My husband has, on occasion, had to reschedule work meetings or international conference calls that were scheduled for Erev Rosh Hashanah. And I’ll never forget the day my friend’s kindergartener came home from school one day during Passover with a “Spring” basket filled with little chocolate eggs, marshmallow chicks, and pink and green sugar cookies. He wouldn’t come into the house because he knew the cookies weren’t kosher for Passover, so he stood on the front steps calling for his mother.
Does this happen because the teachers or the company my husband works for are anti-Semites, or does it happen because people don’t think? Do they presume everyone’s Christian? Do they not understand that Jewish holidays begin at sundown the night prior to the holiday and that Yom Kippur is a day of fasting and self-reflection, so to study for an Algebra test would be offensive? Do they think that by calling it a “Spring” basket it has suddenly morphed into something that is not an Easter basket? While these “slights” might not be intentional or malicious, they are still hurtful.
#WeNeedDiverseBooks. We need books that include Jewish characters that go beyond the Holocaust. I know that is ironic coming from someone who’s written two Holocaust books, and while I do not think there will EVER be too many Holocaust books, it is true that we need other books as well. We need books with Jewish characters doing normal, everyday kinds of things like characters in every other middle grade and young adult books. We need them not only so that Jewish kids will be able to see themselves in published books, but also so that non-Jewish kids can learn something about a culture and a religion that they don’t understand. If we can teach a child to understand, appreciate, and respect something that is different from what they are accustomed to, then one can only hope that they will carry that understanding, appreciation, and respect into adulthood and that they will teach it to their children — L’dor vador — from generation to generation—thereby ending ignorance and hatred.
Meg Wiviott is the author of the award winning picture book BENNO AND THE NIGHT OF BROKEN GLASS, which tells the story of Kristallnacht through the eyes of a cat. Her young adult novel-in-verse, PAPER HEARTS, based on a true story of friendship and survival in Auschwitz, is published by Margaret K. McElderry Books (Simon & Schuster). She is represented by Janine Le at the Sheldon Fogelman Agency. Meg holds a Masters in Education from Northwestern University and an MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults from The Vermont College of Fine Arts. You can visit her website at MegWiviott.com.