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I’m not Jewish. But being called “dirty Jew” shook me like no other insult

While I have always understood where antisemitism can lead, it had never reared its ugly face inches from mine.

It happened four years ago, yet the memory remains fresh. I was waiting for a downtown A train at the West 4th Street subway station in New York. A middle-aged man was panhandling on the not-crowded platform, approaching each person, most of whom nodded “no.”

He reached me, and I declined, too. He did not move on. Instead, he started yelling at me, getting closer with each insult. At first, the comments were unmemorable. Then he shouted: “You dirty Jew!”

The words shook me. I tried to get him to move away, but with little luck. I moved. He followed, all the while yelling, “You dirty Jew!”

I found some protection in a small of group of people on the platform. One woman made a point of suggesting I go into the same car she did when the train arrived. We boarded; the man did not follow and that was the end of it.

Except it wasn’t.

I am not Jewish, but my paternal grandfather, the German novelist Alfred Döblin, was. Born in 1878 in what is now Poland, he moved to Berlin at age 10 and became, along with Tomas Mann, one of the most important writers during the Weimar Republic. Prompted in part by antisemitic pogroms in Berlin in 1923, he spent two months exploring his family and communal roots in what became the 1925 non-fiction book “Journey to Poland.” 

While I have always understood where antisemitism can lead, it had never reared its ugly face inches from mine. I have had other slurs thrown my way. I’m a gay man in my middle 60s; I know what it is like to be walking in a “safe” neighborhood with a date and have a car speed past, windows rolled down, and homophobic epithets pour out.

“Dirty Jew” unsettled me in a different way. It suggested that the panhandler had somewhere, at some time, been indoctrinated with insidious tropes about Jews and money that I will not give more life to here. And it’s clear that these kinds of ugly incidents are only getting more common.

The Anti-Defamation League recently reported that there were more antisemitic incidents of assault, harassment and vandalism reached last year — 2,717 — than in any year since it started keeping  track in 1979. New York and New Jersey topped the list of states where these incidents occurred, and the New York Police Department reported around the same time that there were nearly twice as many anti-Jewish hate crimes in the city this March versus March of 2021.

And while conservative Floridians are up in arms about children “being groomed” – an abhorrent phrase – toward non-heterosexual identities in schools,  they ignore that Florida had the fourth-highest number of antisemitic incidents in the ADL report (California ranked third).

Rather than restricting the way teachers talk about diversity in classrooms, conservatives should be advocating for education that erases dangerous stereotypes. That includes directly addressing antisemitism, racism and homophobia.

Crime is on the rise in New York and people inside the city’s subway system have reason to feel vulnerable. But antisemitism, and more specifically, hate crimes directed at Jews, is not a post-pandemic phenomenon. There has been and there remains a real and present danger to Jews just because they are Jews.

The Holocaust was possible because there was an ingrained antisemitic sentiment in much of Europe. The kindling was there. All it needed was a flame.

The kindling is here, too, now. It was lit in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 when mobs carrying  torches chanted “blood and soil,” a Nazi slogan. It was lit again this month in Buffalo when a white-supremacist gunman allegedly killed 10 people and wounded three more, apparently motivated by the “great replacement” conspiracy theory

This so-called theory  claims Jews are responsible for the immigration of non-white people to the United States. The suspected shooter wanted to kill Blacks in Buffalo this month and he did – 11 of the 13 people shot were Black – but hatred of Jews is part of his screed. It cannot be overlooked.

In the 1966 Broadway production of “Cabaret,” the Emcee dances with a gorilla, singing “if you could see her through my eyes.” The punchline of that lyric was originally,  “She wouldn’t look Jewish at all.” In the pre-Broadway tryout in Boston, though, some Jewish audience members were upset at what they saw as a suggestion that Jews look like gorillas. 

Hal Prince, the show’s director, changed the lyric to “meeskite,” a word described earlier in the musical as Yiddish for “ugly, funny-looking.” (“Jewish” was restored for the 1972 Oscar-winning film adaptation of the stage musical.)

In 2014, I interviewed Prince at William Paterson University in New Jersey and I asked about the mutations of that lyric in our backstage conversation. 

He stood by his decision in removing the word “Jewish” from the 1966 production, saying he did not think audiences were ready for it then in a musical about Nazi Germany. I asked then about his 1998 production of “Parade,” a musical about Leo Frank, a Jew lynched by a mob after being wrongly accused of raping and murdering a young girl in 1913. Did Prince think its closing after fewer than 100 regular performances was due to audiences not being ready to face American antisemitism?

He smiled at me, intrigued by my question. He said he didn’t know.  More than two decades later, we seem ready to hear such truths, but learn from them? I’m not sure.

Just as I’m not sure what made that panhandler on that subway platform four years ago think I looked Jewish at all. Of course, it does not matter. 

“You dirty Jew.” It has stuck with me. It fills me with anger. It also reminds me of my Jewish heritage. For a few minutes on that platform, I understood what it was like to be singled out because of my faith, my race, my very identity as a human being.

The experience was fleeting, but I know that  Jews across the city, the nation and the globe, experience it with great frequency. 

That evening, I boarded an A train home to Brooklyn Heights. Six million Jews who boarded trains not so very long ago were not so fortunate.

To contact the author, email editorial@forward.com

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