In recent days, as I try to digest news of the brutal massacre of innocent civilians in their beds, at bus stops, at a music festival, I find myself musing on one of my childhood figures. I’m sure we all have them: characters now larger than life, perhaps long passed away, who will always have a place in our psyches, representing something beyond themselves. For me, it’s Mrs. Steinberg.
I grew up in a liberal Jewish family in progressive multicultural Toronto of the 1970s. John Lennon’s “Imagine” had just been released in 1971. Marlo Thomas’s children’s album Free to Be . . . You and Me came out in 1972. Sesame Street was brand new. I was Jewish, sure. But these were far more formative for me than anything in Jewish tradition, including the Bible.
I went to multicultural public schools (we weren’t fanatics), and I was one of only a handful of Jewish kids in schools that were mostly Jamaican, Italian, and Portuguese. We knew that Canadians were better than Americans because our society was based in multiculturalism rather than the American melting pot. We were all going to live together in harmony, with our different cultures, in the post-1960s better society that was unfolding for us.
It was important for my parents that my siblings and I receive a sense of Jewish identity. We were sent to Hebrew school several days a week after public school to learn about our heritage and our culture. And here we encountered a different world with a discordant message. Our teachers were old, they spoke with weird European accents, and they told us very strange, closed-minded things: that we were Jews, that we were different, that we had a responsibility to our people, that anti-Semitism was real.
Many of them had numbers on their arms.
Frankly, we kids thought they were out to lunch. What did they know? We truly felt that those numbers on their arms had made them paranoid. We were part of a new generation. Things were different now. And the kid who called me “kike,” the kids who threw pennies in front of me, and the kid whose parents were never quite comfortable with my being their daughter’s best friend—those things, we insisted, had nothing at all to do with what those old teachers were talking about. We were certain that these were meaningless aberrations, best ignored. We wanted to believe so badly that those old, Holocaust survivor teachers were wrong.
John Lennon had to be right. And wrinkly old Mrs. Steinberg with her scary stories was just stuck living in the bad old past, together with the Holocaust, with anti-Semitism, with parochialism.
I think Mrs. Steinberg—who actually failed me in “Jewish Identity” class—would have been pleased (and surprised) to see me now, living in Israel, mother to a large family, actively and passionately Jewish. But until last week, I was still confident that she was wrong, that “Never Again” had brought us into a new era, that anti-Semitism would never be more than a fringe reflex. I spent decades “puh puhing” right-wing voices who spoke of what “they” would do to us if we ever lost control of the situation in Israel.
On shabbat I pray in our neighborhood synagogue, a tiny little group of old Iraqi men who consistently sing off-key. Some of them are old enough to remember the Farhud of 1941. They aren’t surprised by what Hamas did to Israeli civilians.
I’m like a cartoon character—Ashkenazi, educated, enlightened; a proponent for peace, engagement, and pluralism, now running around clutching my heart, aching and devasted to find out I was wrong. I am shocked not only by the level of depravity, but staggered to know that since this barbaric massacre of innocent civilians, anti-Semitism has run even more rampant in North America and Europe. I’ve seen people debate whether they should take their mezuzot off their doors or remove their Star of David in public. I’ve read about Jewish students singled out and harangued on university campuses, campus clubs praising Hamas attacks on the Jewish people, bomb threats at Jewish day schools.
What can I say to my own Israeli children? Mrs. Steinberg, it turns out you were right.
Faydra Shapiro is a senior fellow at The Philos Project and directs the Israel Center for Jewish-Christian Relations.
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