When I logged into Facebook yesterday, I saw that someone had written the word “Jew” on a driveway in a Columbus suburb, with Neo-Nazi literature distributed nearby.
I initially felt shocked. Living in the very blue city center, I am insulated from this stuff. My neighbors have “Black lives matter, water is life and all are welcome” yard signs; and last winter two neighbors and I simultaneously read “The Handmaid’s Tale”, greeting each other jokingly with “Blessed be the fruit.” It’s fair to say that during the winter of Muslim bans and the fear that is now our everyday life, I felt personally safe inside my “liberal bubble.”
But seeing that post yesterday rattled me, because it took me back to a time when I didn’t feel safe. It took me back to a time when I attended public school in a former sundown town—where until the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Jews and Blacks weren’t welcome.
As you can imagine, not a lot of Jews lived in Upper Arlington (I’m not sure how many live there today), and in my grade, there were maybe two other Jewish kids out of approximately 150.
We had moved to Upper Arlington because someone told my New York City-born parents that Bexley was “all Jewish,” and they took it literally; thinking it would be better to live someplace more diverse. But little did they know that “all Jewish” was the Midwestern, unintentionally anti-Semitic way of saying that “some Jews live there.”
Growing up, no one took note of the fact that was Jewish: I had a very German last name, uncharacteristic features and on Christmas, we always put up a tree (even though both of my parents are Jewish). But in the sixth grade, I outed myself. It happened one day when a classmate made an anti-Semitic comment to a Jewish teacher. I came to the teacher’s defense, proclaiming that I was also a Jew. The next day, and for weeks to follow, that same classmate greeted me with “Heil Hitler.” And oftentimes, other classmates pressured me to accept Jesus so I wouldn’t be condemned to hell. “Just say it, Joanne!” They would plead. This made me feel like there was something wrong with me, and ultimately, it solidified my Jewishness.
I don’t feel sorry for myself in any way for having experienced this. Growing up in a secular home, I often wonder if I would have embraced my Jewishness had I not been so aware of it at an early age: Would I have studied the Holocaust as I did, lived in Germany, learned Modern Hebrew? I’m not sure. One might argue that a Jewish soul is always a Jewish soul, but perhaps in my case, it took some good old anti-Semitism to rouse it.
Today, when I explain my run-in with anti-Semitism, I always add that “I’m sure Upper Arlington is totally different today;” because after 28 years, people should be given the benefit of the doubt.
But the word “Jew,” on the driveway in a suburb of my current city in the year of 2017, goes to show that nothing has changed.
This ugly cast of characters has merely emerged from the woodwork. They were always there.