Sunday, November 6, 2022

"Everybody hates the Jews"


Lindsey Liss (Photo courtesy of Robert Chiarito)

     Fish don't feel wet, or moist, or clammy, or any of the other sensations we associate with water. Or so I assume. It isn't as if we can ask them. Though it would make sense. The water surrounds them, they're immersed in it, always. It's what they swim in. Fish can't always be thinking, "Look at me, I'm submerged."
     I feel the same way about antisemitism. My friends are fretting about it being on the rise, and it certainly is. But being alarmed or outraged or offended or even irked — it's kind of the reaction they're going for, no? How about being bored instead? Antisemitism is so dull, always the same plots and libels, the same ooo-scary cabal running the world. I wish. To me, antisemitism is like the price of gas: it goes up, it goes down, but you're always paying something. You're never free of the cost. Sometimes Jews are singled out and hated and harried more than other times. But the pilot light is always burning.
     A friend posted on his Facebook page a cri du coeur by David Telisman called "Anti-Semitism Hurts So Badly That It's Hard To Put It Into Words," and while I understand that people are entitled to their reactions, I also wanted to say, "Really? You're hurt? So badly? By Kyrie Irving?" 
     To me, Kyrie Irving doesn't even register on the antisemitic scale. If you're hurt badly by the various nutteries expressed by a basketball star, then how do you process Dachau? 
     Maybe because I'm of the first post-Holocaust generation that had this stuff really ground into me. At times the religion seemed a death cult; pushing back again antisemitism — and the antisemitism of previous generations at that — was all we did. The religion itself was an afterthought, the way we passed the time, waiting to be killed.
      I was born 15 and a half years after Auschwitz was liberated. That was antisemitism. Kanye and Kyrie is mental illness, focused on Jews, vented freely thanks to the liberation of wealth and fame. Think of all the people who feel the same way but never make a peep. Prejudice is so universal, such an easy high, emotional heroin for the lazy and stupid, that almost everybody shoots up some bigotry at one point or another. And hating Jews is so easy, so consequence free, generally. The shocking thing to me about West and Irving is not that they said what they did, but that they actually had real world repercussions for saying it. That isn't worrisome; that's good. 
      But I also don't think their censure is going to change anything, except maybe make antisemitism worse, by provoking the aggrievement that feeds it in the first place.  The old Louis Farrakhan two-step: say loathsome things about the Jews, then point to the alarmed reaction to what you said as more evidence they're out to get you. Talk about a vicious circle. 
     To me, antisemitism draws not so much fear, as a grin of recognition. There's no need for me to draw attention to it, because either you already understand it too well, or you never will.  Besides, it's a self-own. Anyone who expresses that kind of garbage has already undercut themselves. Who cares what they think? I mean honesty, with Kanye West, you could wipe away every remark he ever made about Jews, and he still seemed crazy, years ago. 
     Maybe I just got in the habit of shrugging it off. I grew up in a completely gentile area. Some years, I was the only Jew in my school. Antisemitism has been rearing up, now and then, since I was 6, and Bobby Koch told me I was going to hell. I wasn't hurt, never mind badly. I was slightly confused. Hell? What's that? And why? You believe that? Really? Gosh.
     It isn't as if Bobby Koch, 6, was an antisemite, just aping whatever his parents or priests or both told him. Can't really blame him for it. Kanye West is emotionally 6 years old. How much mental space do I have to spend on his personal problems? And he's one guy. Think of how many others there are.
     What's the classic Tom Lehrer refrain from "National Brotherhood Week."
               Oh the Protestants, hate the Catholics.
               And the Catholics, hate the Protestants.
              All the Hindus hate all the Muslims.
              And everybody hates the Jews.

     That's funny. Because it's true. More or less. Who can really tell? The guy down the block who's walking his dog and sees me walking mine and bolts in the opposite direction, every time. Antisemitic? Socially awkward? Upset by some column I wrote nine years ago? Could be. Could be because I'm a dick and don't know it — they never do — and am being justly shunned. Some combination? Who can tell? He might not even know himself. Though I do suspect that if we had bonded at Bible camp, we'd be chatting it up while our pooches sniffed each other.
     What to do about it then? I push back by not being ashamed of being Jewish. I've written about every aspect of being Jewish in my column — holidays, bar mitzvahs, brises. The best refutation to those who want to cast Judaism as something malign is to portray it as a benefit, a boon, something wonderful. Which it is. 
     Generally, I sidestep haters and bullies. No need to let the poison in, to react. Too many of them anyway, and they want you down in the gutter with them, where they feel at home. I'm not one for symbolic acts, but I do admire people who take the trouble to try to confront evil, to do something about problems in the living world, feeble though those gestures be. So when a reader sent me photos of Chicago artist Lindsey Liss draping some altered Chicago flags over the Kennedy, as a little push back for the antisemitic displays in Los Angeles, I felt like talking with her.
     "What really made me think I really need to do something was seeing those banners over the freeway in Los Angeles; the white supremacists. Just crazy," she said. "Seeing Kanye, and his number of followers continue to rise, was absolutely shocking."
     Liss doesn't think you can be a bigot and claim to love Chicago.
     "He says he's from Chicago, he even named one of his kids, 'Chicago,'" she said. "We're taking in refugees now. Thinking about the rich history of our city. It's not just about Jewish people and antisemitism. It's about equality. Think about the great migration of Blacks from the South to the North, to our city. It just doesn't jibe with us. It's not who we are."
    Pretty to think so. While the great migration aspect is certainly true, as is the sanctuary city aspect now, Chicago also has a tradition of racism as wide and deep as can be found in any Southern backwater. It might be the most segregated city on the planet. Antisemitism was so strong here that the Standard Club was one of the few Jewish organizations to discriminate against Jews, the Germanic founders turning up their noses at their unwashed Eastern European brethren.  Louis Farrakhan is based in Chicago. Eugene Sawyer had staffers telling the media that AIDS was a plot by Jewish doctors. 
     I asked Liss: isn't hatred as Chicago as deep dish pizza? 
     "That's what we were," she said. "I like to think, with all these refugees coming in now, that's who we are."
     And who she is demands action.
     "If felt like if I don't do something, say something, who will?" she said. "My kids are the great grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. So are my nieces and nephews. If you're not outraged..."
      I'm not outraged. To me, being outraged is like being pregnant. You can't be a little outraged. If I'm outraged that Kyrie Irving tweeted out links to an antisemitic film, what am I going to be when jeering Red Hats make me clean the streets of Northbrook with a toothbrush? Which I can very well see happening in 2026. I'm hoarding outrage for when I truly need it. Hopefully never; maybe soon. I can see the argument that by piling on every slight now, we avoid worse. I'm not sure if that's how it works though.
     One of Liss's signs said "Honk if you believe in equality." There were many honks, much support. And much opposition.
     "Lots of people gave me the finger," she said. "I was shocked."
      I'm not. She's lucky she didn't hang that banner in Mount Greenwood. 
     Liss is 47, lives in Lakeview, has four kids.
     "Raising kids in the city is tough," she said.
      I told her I seldom experience what I consider antisemitism, perhaps because I so thoroughly screen it out. Readers venting outrage doesn't count — they'll say anything mean. I discount it. It's a meaningless buzz.
     Not so her.
     "I can't even tell you , how many times people say things inappropriate to me," she said. "Microaggressions. not knowing I'm Jewish. Saying, 'But you don't look Jewish.' What does that even mean?"
     Maybe that's what insulates me. I look as Jewish as the leering moneychanger on the cover of a copy of Der Sturmer. Maybe people put on their best there's-a-Jew-right-over-there behavior when I'm around. Ix-nay on the ew-Jay atred-hay.
     Maybe I find the whole thing is so ridiculously stupid that I can't believe it's real. Would have a hard time carrying on if I focus too much on its reality. Maybe that's the problem. Because I also know, intellectually, it is indeed very real. All too real. Always has been.



  1. I'm currently reading "Promise Me You'll Shoot Yourself" by Florian Huber. My mom and dad lived through World War II and it's profound affect on them carried over to me - so I've spent a lifetime reading about that era. Huber's book is a gut punch, a visceral history of madness. Because I'm knee deep in the sick lunacy of that time, your remarkably healthy and detached view of antisemites won't work for me today. The human mind is the most complex, fascinating phenomena in the universe - and studies show that 20% of all humans at any given time suffer from a mental illness within that mind. Anti-semitism, indeed all bigotry, is a form of mental illness irrational thought on steroids. So by all means let's arm every man woman and child, give them an unmonitored forum to spew their sickness, and wring our hands when the inevitable occurs. Hopefully, after I finish the book and get back to more mundane ways to occupy my time I'll have a more positive world view. Great article as always.

  2. "The best refutation to those who want to cast Judaism as something malign is to portray it as a benefit, a boon, something wonderful. Which it is."

    Which it is!

    When I was a kid my Chicago neighborhood was so insular I didn't know what Jewish people were. There were Italians, Irish, and Poles, a few Greeks.
    It wasn't until I went to high school that I encountered a Jewish person and it wasn't until I was nearly 30 that I had a strong enough relationship with a Jewish person that I learned anything about their culture and traditions.
    I am very fortunate to have been included in numerous events which have broadened my understanding of what it means to be Jewish and learn about their beliefs and the wide range of how different Jewish people embrace them .

    I've also spent some time with people from the Nation of Islam ,am aquatinted with the Reverend Luis Farrakan, and am aware of his public stance as a vicious antisemite.

    My Jewish friends struggle to discount this and to believe he is different in private. But are more understanding than I would expect. One explained "He is not my oppressor. He and his people have been persecuted just like mine."

    His power and anger conspire to destroy him. Like ye.

    It takes a big person to see commonality instead of returning hatred with hatred. Would that more of us were this way.

  3. I get your logic but am unwilling to let any form of antisemitism roll off my back.
    It’s not okay.
    Never forget.

  4. If you had not included the Tom Lehrer quote, I would have found a way to mention it. A shame he surrendered his gift for biting satire to his true vocation: teaching mathematics.

    1. A shame? I don't know about that. Maybe his style wouldn't have translated into the late 1960s and 1970s and beyond, and he'd have overstayed his welcome, creatively. I think his turning his back on the limelight is an inspirational tale.

    2. I think Tom Lehrer just got tired of doing what he was doing and lost interest. Also, it was simply harder to satirize some things as the times grew worse. And, like everyone else, he simply got older, and it probably became harder for him to see the humorous side of the darkest situations.

      Years ago, he said something like: "I don't see myself writing about George W. Bush. I just want to vaporize him." That's when I knew we wouldn't be hearing from him anymore.

      It's hard to imagine even a Tom Lehrer writing about someone like Trump, because Trump just isn't all that funny. He's frightening as well as ludicrous. And Tom Lehrer is just plain old now...he will turn 95 next spring. I have no idea what kind of shape he's in. Probably not laughing a whole lot.

    3. I've already said my piece about Kanye West, and Kyrie Irving was already a jerk when he played here, in Cleveland. To begin mouthing off about Jews, when he now plays in the biggest Jewish city in America...and for Brooklyn, no less, with its 600,000 Jews, is the apex of brainlessness and lunacy.

      Your images of Lindsey Liss surprised me, Mr. S. I don't think she's as much naive as she is merely young. She's 47 (and looks about 25) and is simply not old enough to have either learned about or lived through so much of Chicago's shameful and hateful history.

      Still, she ought to at least know about Mt. Greenwood, famous for hate since at least 1947. Hell, the last big incident there only happened six years ago, when BLM marchers faced violent opposition on the same night (not a coincidence) that Trump won.

      Racial violence has always been as Chicago as a Chicago hot dog...with everything on it. I've always been a student of Chicago history, but I've also been alive long enough to have witnessed a good deal of that trouble.

      I wasn't around for 1919, but blacks were being pulled from autos and streetcars in the Fernwood Park neighborhood (104th and Halsted), and being beaten, during the week I was born (in August of 1947, also one of Chicago's hottest months ever). There were white riots all through the late Forties and the Fifties and well into the Sixties, including the infamous 1951 Cicero riot that necessitated the use of bayonets (and nearly bullets) by the National Guard. And there were the violent reactions to MLK's 60s marches and Frank Collin's band of 70s Nazis.

      As for antisemitism, I've heard and felt my share. I know the difference between being asked: "Are you Jewish?" and "You a Jew?" Even the Standard Club discriminated against its own kind, if they weren't deemed worthy enough, so the rejected immigrants from eastern Europe formed their own Jewish outfit, the Covenant Club. I went to many a wedding and bar mitzvah there, and found it posh enough and classy enough for the likes of me.

      Maybe I'm just not outraged enough or angry enough yet...or else I only have so much of those emotions to go around. Maybe I'll feel something akin to outrage when the thugs begin pounding on my door because I have a mezuzah on the doorpost. But by then, it'll be a little too late, and it might also be the last thing I feel.

  5. Barbara Maginnis PalmerNovember 7, 2022 at 12:21 PM

    This is why you are my favorite columnist.


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