You probably don’t remember me. We attended Camp Amik together back in the summer of 1968 or 1969. I was working as an au pair and you were a counselor. We became friends and you showed me your sketchbook. Something has bothered me since then.
I didn’t know you were Jewish, and I said some not very nice things to you about Jews. It was ignorant, but, in my defence, I grew up in a blue-collar neighbourhood with no Jews. My mother was very prejudiced, and I took her opinions as my own.
Since then, I have realized what a beautiful religion it can be. So, I wish to apologize with all my heart for those stupid words and to let you know some people can grow up.
I am so glad you did follow your heart and become an artist. It looks like you live in a really lovely part of the U.S.A.
I’m so sorry you’ve carried that memory with you all these years. Your letter reminded me how cruel regret can be. While what you said so long ago continued to stick pins in you, I don’t remember it at all.
Unfortunately, now all those thoughts your gentle letter unleashed in me are getting re-unleashed here. Please understand that, except when I’m addressing you personally, these complaints are not directed at you. They’re just my own musings on how weird we humans are generally.
I’ll bet you and I connected in that summer camp in part because we were both on the fringe of camper reality. I remember your friendliness and kindness.
In truth, I was never a camp-type person (I was traumatized at an early age by the local YMCA) and was there as an “assistant” art teacher only because of my best friend’s mother. In an attempt to separate her daughter from my lower-class influence, the mom got her a job at Camp Amik. In reaction, my BFF and I connived a way to get me a job there, too. Brats.
You write that later in life you found beauty in some of the Jewish traditions. I’m glad. That kind of experience helps soften any stereotype we’ve been handed. I have found beauty there, too, but not enough to draw me in.
Judaism as a spiritual practice was not really part of my life. My parents’ generation after World War II was more secular. The level of Jewishness they embraced was based on ethnic rather than religious identity. That, of course, didn’t protect them from anti-Semitism. But they were satisfied to celebrate one or two of the major holidays and continue to enjoy the kinds of food, language, humor, and community they grew up with in an Eastern European-Russian-New York City-immigrant culture. But Sabbaths? Prayers? Temple? No.
And as far as I could tell, the existence of God wasn’t much on their minds or ingrained in their needs. Not as much as it became, later, in mine, but not the God circumscribed by doctrines.
Judaism, as I perceived it, was an archaic, absurdly male-obsessed set of traditions barely evolved from those of ancient, Semitic desert tribes, and in that context made more sense then than now. Also, like most religions, it seemed oddly dependent on a quagmire of obscure rules and regulations practiced in order to not risk insulting an insultable God. And I wasn’t compelled to delve beyond those impressions.
To me, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam were equally hobbled to the same heavy book. I’m quite sure it was human men and women who conceived and preserved in writing those ancient, often beautiful spiritual teachings, poetic metaphors, and historic stories of the Old and New testaments. Attributing their authorship to a divinity separate from ourselves gives those words too much, and the wrong kind of, power. The books have been too easy for us to misinterpret and misuse.
I’ve traveled to a lot of places and, to my horror, found that the history of Christianity is so rife with unspeakable cruelty practiced “in God’s name” on members and nonmembers alike, never mind the Jews, that sometimes I’d wonder if Jesus was wishing he’d never been born.
Ann, I pray I’m not offending you. I collect devotional art of several cultures. I find so much spiritual power emanating from them because people used these tender images as portals to experience connection with a loving source. Perhaps you may be finding the same higher powers in doctrines that I’m missing.
Though, of course, religion is not really the issue here. For you and me the issue is the outfall from a universal hatred born not necessarily of stupidity but of unexamined ignorance.
Yes, the dangerous and irrational rejection of Jews is an eerie, archetypal fear foisted on Jewish people to this day. Black people, too. But be they orthodox or atheist, it’s not a factor. The fear is not of the religion but of the “Other.”
I think about this so much and have witnessed it firsthand. The moment any one of us agrees to reduce someone else to an “Other,” that “Other” is screwed — though, ironically, the Gospels themselves tells us to do exactly the opposite with a stranger.
Your mother was fed a long tradition of unquestioned hatred for an “Other.” She was taught “Jew” as a concept, not a person, and she had no one in her world to suggest otherwise. A Jewish person has a mind, makes mistakes, remembers loved ones, has a name, a personality, fears, humor, rages, sorrows. Children. A digestive system. A heart.
But a “Jew,” even a contemporary one, was the conniving creep who killed Jesus and could trick you out of your money. The main intention of “the Jews” was to secretly control the world, and even contaminate the purity of one’s bloodline. Such superpowers were assigned to a scattered community of mere humans!
For some, the “Other” is any dark-skinned person. For some, it’s women, or same-sex couples. There are Jews who see Palestinians as the evil “Other,” even though DNA-wise they’re the same. It took a long time for my grandmother to forgive her son for marrying a Christian girl. Where I live now, the Methodists are not buried on the same side of the cemetery as the Congregationalists. Some young people dismiss elders as “Others.”
The recent attacks on Asian Americans for inflicting the Covid virus on us hits bottom because that hatred is not born out of ignorance but of sheer stupidity.
I think, for modern Jewish people in America, direct discrimination has calmed down to a kind of unstable pause. Sure, once a young schoolmate asked me if I had a tail. She was innocent, curious, and I didn’t know what she was talking about. But I didn’t have to change my name to get into college, or be condemned to bear a star on my sleeve like some shameful scarlet letter, or escape alone from a village torched by the folks down the road, because my ancestors did those things for me. Compared to their experiences, your youthful comments were not anywhere as harmful as you believed.
It’s time to confront the possibility that we are hard-wired into this cruel response to difference. Can we Earthlings evolve enough to undo the ancient part of ourselves that accepts the scapegoating of another? How can we wake up to the idea that it’s our duty not to pass our fears and stereotypes on to our young?
Like you, I knew the only way for me to answer those questions was to make them not rhetorical but personal. I have to continually question the validity of my million and one internalized prejudices until I can unplug their power to fool me. I tell you it hasn’t been a pretty picture.
You are the answer, Ann. You were honest enough to recognize that what you remember saying long ago could hurt another person whether I remembered it or not. You were courageous enough to reach out to me and compassionate enough to not condemn your mother for it. Maybe someday no young person will have to bear such an unsettling memory into adulthood as you did.
Do you know what I regret? If it happened as you say, I regret not having had the awareness and insight right then to talk about it with you. We might have arrived at some astonishing and freeing realizations together. And you never would have had that burden to lug around. You didn’t deserve it.
With love and respect,