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anti-semitism

That Time My Family Encountered Casual Anti-Semitism at the Ice Rink

skating

The new hockey season was about to begin. But in between juggling new schools and getting through the High Holidays, I had misplaced the game schedule.

So I popped into the rink’s office to grab a new copy. There was no one there, however, so I settled in to wait. After about five minutes, the hockey administrator rushed in, breathless. “Getting a new passport in my town is the worst,” she said, by way of explanation. “I went to the post office and one of those Jews with twenty children was in front of me.”

I listened with a polite smile plastered on my face as I frantically thought of ways to respond. But before I could process her first statement, she moved on to complaining about the Jews in a nearby town who wanted to hang wires from existing electrical poles. At first I wondered if a synagogue was undergoing construction, but then I realized she was speaking about an eruv, a boundary, usually wires, that allow observant Jews to carry things in public on Shabbat.

“Ummm,” I stammered, nearly speechless. “I just wanted to know if the updated hockey schedule was available.”

I couldn’t help but to glance at my 10-year old daughter, who was standing beside me. This was clearly a teaching moment, a time where I could impact her developing brain. She was studying the Holocaust in school and, with the recent reports of swastikas being found in our neighborhood, we had made a conscious effort as parents to talk about it in an age-appropriate way. This happened weeks before the anti-Semitic act of terrorism that would occur in Pittsburgh — so, at the time, making her feel safe and removed from any direct impact of anti-Semitism hadn’t seemed particularly difficult.

Still, I wanted to call out this woman for her casual anti-Semitism and make sure she understood her words were hurtful. I wanted to show my daughter how to practice what we preach about standing up to hate.

But I also know how much my son, 8, loves his hockey team. How this rink, this team, form a fundamental part of his identity. And as angry as I was, I didn’t want to jeopardize that. So I grabbed the new schedule, muttered some excuses, and quickly left the office.

As soon as we were clear of the office, I turned to my daughter. “Did you hear that?” I asked her. She nodded.

“Let me be clear: That was anti-Semitism,” I explained. ”It was casually done, but it was there. And that woman would absolutely tell you that she doesn’t dislike Jews, and she is friends with Mommy. But when it comes down to it, that is not someone who would ever hide you in a situation like Nazi Germany. She is only nice to us because we look assimilated.”

My daughter nodded again. She got it. I hadn’t needed to say a word.

I spend six days a week at the local skating rink. Between my son’s hockey and my daughter’s figure skating, there is a running joke among the staff that I am there more than they are. And because of this schedule, I’ve developed casual friendships with most of the staff: Sharing tips on where to go for a quick manicure, rejoicing over new babies, and enjoying the occasional free coffee from the snack bar.

This had always been a safe space — somewhere I could easily drop off my children and know that dozens of eyes were watching out for them.

But that all changed in the summer of 2017. A little boy punched my daughter and called her an anti-Semitic slur. Luckily, she had never heard it, and asked why someone considered “kite” to be an insulting word. Then, the parents on my son’s hockey team wondered out loud at the commitment of their goalie — my son — when he wouldn’t play on Rosh Hashanah. (The coach, to his credit, was completely supportive of our decision).

I looked for allies. I told a skating-mom friend the story of the woman in the hockey office. She was appalled that someone had uttered those thoughts out loud — not that she thought them, mind you, but that she spoke them out loud. I found another Jewish hockey mom, hoping for some empathy. “Well, you sort of made a big deal about the Rosh Hashanah game,” she said. “You should have realized where your priorities are.”

As it happens, these incidents have done just that: I have realized my priorities, and it’s raising kids who are proud of their Jewish identity. After the horrific shooting at Tree of Life, I showed my kids a draft of this piece. I told my son that publishing this essay may cost him a spot on his team, and asked what he thought.

Without hesitation, the little boy who still calls me “Mama” said: “Being a Jew is the same as being brave. Forever people have been trying to make it so scary that people are afraid to say they are Jewish. And it never works” He doesn’t want to leave this rink or this team but, at 8, he already knows his work is cut out for him.

As it turned out, I didn’t need to teach my kids. They were able to teach me. My kids will continue to skate and play hockey, and when we follow our usual custom to skip playing on holidays, we will be vocal about why we’re missing a competition or game.

I will follow my son’s example bravery. When this story is published, I will post a copy on the rink bulletin board, and I’ll also email it to rink staff. And maybe, when my kids see me speaking out against hate, the teaching moment wasn’t lost after all: They will know I learned something from them.

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