I’m not used to feeling this scared. My body is stuck in a tug of war. On one hand, it wants to go for a walk. It’s an unseasonably warm winter day out that offers a small reprieve from the arctic chill. I have no excuses. But on the other hand, the streets look so empty. The desolateness haunts me.
I mean, what will happen if a group of young men jump out and beat me? Who will save me? I don’t want to lose the knockout game. According to the police, there were eight attacks this past fall, incidents in which young men preyed on unsuspecting Jews in Brooklyn and then tried to knock them unconscious with a single blow.
But the fear of getting beat up doesn’t bother me that much. Having fear does. It is a confirmation of the fearfulness that I was educated in as a young boy in yeshiva.
In seventh grade, we read the book of Genesis and covered the four words that have since been drilled into our heads: “Esav sonei es Yaakov” or Esau hates Jacob. These words set us up for years of fear. In the teacher’s telling, Esau was the father of Christianity. Historical inaccuracies aside, we were made to believe that all white men descended from him. And so, according to this Old Testament principal, white men throughout history will always hate us.
My 11th grade rabbi gave a Friday morning sermon based around a latter-day midrash that said it was a miracle every time a gentile passed us by and didn’t beat us up. I always rolled my eyes at that. This is what we should expect? It was propaganda straight out of the Malcolm X school of ideology.
I never believed it. My parents gave me a more balanced perspective on life. Existential crises aside, I did okay. The pumped-in fear of the yeshiva was balanced with the skepticism given at home. Gentiles don’t really hate us. Yes, there is anti-Semitism in the world, but there are all types of racism. Playing victim only makes things worse.
Yet here I am at 24, frozen in fear. I left my house a bit after 1 a.m. to go for a post-Sabbath walk. I had too much energy from my Sabbath nap, and the weather was too nice to pass up. It was 50 degrees in December. So, I left my house and made a left turn. I walked up the block and crossed East 5 Street, and I stopped. Ocean Parkway looked so empty. It’s so desolate. No one would ever know if a group of people sneaked up behind me. What will they do to me? What happens to one person when teenagers decide to knock him out? How exactly does one get “knocked out”? I thought of my velour yarmulke. It’s so big. I may be wearing a T-shirt and an Esprit jacket, but my yarmulke and beard make me distinctly Jewish. I’m singled out. They know who I am. They will come after me. It is only a matter of time.
These thoughts lead to other feelings. I’m angry that I’m fearful. I’m angry that people are making me scared. But mostly I’m angry that these kids are confirming unhealthy biases that my teachers implanted in me as a child. Why did they have to be right? The threat of the Holocaust is alive and well in Brooklyn, just as those teachers always said it was. I’m back at home now, safe behind locked doors. But I’m still fearful of the outside. Worse, I’m fearful of where my mind is suddenly going. I didn’t believe in a lot of what I was taught growing up. But if I was wrong about this, what else was I wrong about? Maybe those rabbis knew what they were talking about. Maybe dinosaurs never did exist. Perhaps there was no Big Bang, and being gay is unnatural. I’m caught in this spiral of self-doubt that does not stop. I’ve already been knocked off my feet.
Every step I take into the secular world, I’m pushed two steps back. There is this constant reminder that I am a Jew, that I am the other. The universe is unilaterally rejecting me. The ghosts of Esau past continue to haunt me.
Eli Reiter is a student at Hunter College who produces the monthly long form storytelling show Long Story Long.