My Grocery Aisle Encounter with the New Age of Anti-Semitism

“That’s a big f**king yarmulke,” says a voice coming from behind me.

I’m shopping at a Fairway supermarket in Manhattan and turn around to face a white man in his thirties sporting a blonde crew cut.

“Excuse me?” I ask. I’m holding onto a shopping cart full of groceries for a dinner my community prepares weekly for a homeless shelter at St. Francis Xavier Church.

“That’s a large f**king yarmulke. If you put a visor on that thing, you could fly around the universe.”

“Do you have a problem with it?” I ask.

“It’s just the biggest f**king yarmulke I’ve ever seen.”

As the man walked off, I was left a bit unsettled and unsure why. Truth is, as a rabbi, I love talking about my yarmulke. It’s rainbow colored and definitely large, and I know that I wear my faith in clear sight for all to see. I often enjoy the conversations it sparks. But this exchange felt different.

The day before, I had learned that swastikas were discovered at a dormitory at the New School, just a few blocks from where I live and put my children to bed every night. Another swastika was found at my cousin’s middle school in Maryland. Two swastikas and a “Sieg Heil” were spray painted in Philadelphia on the anniversary of Kristalnakht. And a “No Jews” sign was painted in front of a house in Rockland County.

Just seventy years removed from the liberation of Auschwitz, the swastika has reemerged as a popular graffiti sign. It’s not only anti-Semitic logos which have resurfaced by any means; the Southern Poverty Law Center reports that over 700 hate crimes have potentially been committed since the Nov 8 election against Muslims, LGBTQIA+ individuals, and other minorities.

As a grandchild of Holocaust refugees, I’ve learned how apathetic the world can be. Still, as survivors, my grandparents instilled within their family a sense of compassion and hope, that people were overwhelmingly good even if some were propelled towards prejudice.

I met my friend and colleague Father Sean, one of the priests at St. Francis, the day after I went shopping. We sat at his residence above the church and a colleague of his joined us, a graduate student at the New School, who asked me if I heard the news about the swastikas at his dormitories. We discussed the impact of hate speech as well as a class Father Sean and I co-teach. The class, Spiritual Readings, explores the writings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Elie Wiesel.

Together, we pondered: what would Wiesel have said about the resurgence of anti-Semitic attacks this year and especially the hate crimes since the recent election? Would he have rushed to the defense of a presidential adviser whose website referred to a political commentator as a “renegade Jew”? Would he have understood the sentiment of those Jewish organizations that expressed eagerness at working with the new administration, hoping to protect Jewish causes? Or would he have been compelled by the lack of congratulatory remarks from HIAS, a Jewish group that works for the benefit of refugees, which asked the president-elect to revisit his stance on refugees? Without Wiesel’s voice, we don’t know. I can only imagine Weisel would have counseled us to remain vigilant and empathetic, cautioning us to understand each other.

I strive to be an understanding person. I’m keenly aware of the rabbinic teachings of the Mishna: we’re instructed not to judge our fellow unless we are in their place. But I cannot help but sincerely wonder: how do my fellow Jews and other people of good conscience rationalize defending the same man endorsed by the KKK and notorious Holocaust deniers? These endorsements should bring shame to the president elect and his advocates with no qualifying statements.

Today I find myself in Romania for work, a country where a fascist flag once proudly waved, where hundreds of thousands of Jews once lived and were killed. Today, along with the State Jewish Theatre, there are an estimated 3,500 Jews remaining in the country. Racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism are not politically correct terms used by liberals in safe spaces on college campuses. They are real problems that have destroyed communities, wrought genocides and still affect people everywhere daily. I ask my Orthodox Jewish community who voted for the president elect overwhelmingly as well as my fellow Americans: will we accept the swastika as the newest form of graffiti art? History will judge us.

This story "My Grocery Aisle Encounter with the New Age of Anti-Semitism" was written by Avram Mlotek.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

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