Ron R. and Bob R. were cousins. The shared a last name. They were the same age as me, so we were all in the same grades growing up. They were Jewish, and they gave me some early experiences of virulent hatred and casual prejudices.
New Yorkers are often surprised that I grew up with Jewish friends [What? They think that Jews don’t live other places besides New York?], but in my grade school classes of twenty-five or thirty, two or three were Jewish. In grade school, the Jewish kids outnumbered the Catholics. My town had Catholic grade schools, and few young Catholics went to the public elementary school that I attended. However, the town did not have a Catholic high school and about half of the students in high school, and my closest friend, were what my Baptist Sunday School teachers called “the papist religion.”
Our friendships, though, did not break down by religious or class distinctions, and I knew of no one who seemed in the least antisemitic. We noticed that the Jewish kids were absent some school days and would hear that it was a holiday for them. We Christians had some understanding of Passover (it was, after all, associated with Easter), but Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, or even Hanukkah were outside our ken. I did not know much about the Jewish faith, but I also knew little about Catholicism. The Jewish kids were just friends and classmates and not nearly as exotic as the few who were Greek Orthodox. (My first kiss, sitting on a hill that overlooked the high school in one direction and a Catholic cemetery in the other, was with who Sir Walter Scott would have called the beautiful Jewess, Miriam. I can remember my heart beating with that kiss, but I don’t remember what happened to Miriam and me.)
Ron was more gregarious than his cousin Bob and a bit of a class clown. Although he did not play it well, he loved baseball and between classes would come running down the hall and launch a hook slide into a second base that only he could see. Almost always he was safe. (You now know how long ago this was; major leaguers don’t hook slide anymore although in those days it was a standard part of a baseball education.) Sometime after we passed puberty, he would regale us boys with dirty jokes he said that he had heard on records, but I don’t remember any explanation of where he listened to these dirty records. I did not always understand the punchlines, but I nervously laughed any way. (I even remember some of them. E.g., I was walking through a field with couples entwined everywhere. In the dark, I accidentally stepped on some guy’s back. A woman thanked me.)
I knew that Ron’s father was a lawyer, and a highly regarded one. Somebody said that he was a labor lawyer. I did not fully understand what that meant. I could only imagine Clarence Darrow-like courtroom advocates, and even today, I can’t imagine how many clients in our small town needed a labor lawyer. I also knew that Ron’s father was important in the Democratic party, and so I was not surprised to learn, when Ron and I were in high school, that his father had been nominated by President Kennedy to be a federal judge. Ron knew that I was an anti-conservative, and while we did not talk much politics (none of the kids in my circles, at least, talked about politics or even mentioned for whom their parents voted), we did talk a bit about his father’s appointment. One day he came to school with a four-page “newspaper,” which he showed me. I knew there was such a thing as hatred of Jewish people, but I probably thought that it had largely disappeared after the WWII atrocities became common knowledge. But no, this paper had ugly articles about Ron’s father and his nomination to the bench. It was filled with kike and Hebe and crude drawings that were supposed to represent Ron’s father. It carried on with dire predictions of what would happen to Kennedy because he had made the nomination.
This publication was shocking. I knew there was hate in this country. How could you not if you had seen the televised images of those girls entering a Little Rock school? But that was far away; it was in the South, and I thought that the South was almost another country fixated on race. I don’t know where Ron’s newspaper was written or published. I doubted that it came from my town, but it was writing about the father of a friend in my town. Its hate had invaded where I lived. Hate, I realized, did not just affect distant places, and I wondered who, and how many, in my town harbored such virulent views. I didn’t want to believe there were any, but I could no longer be so sure.
However, since this hate was so overt and repulsive, I could not imagine that it would cause anyone who was not already an antisemitic bigot to become one. But I also knew there was danger in such hatred because it encouraged the hate-filled to band together in ways making hateful actions more likely. Such views were repulsive to me, but I also realized that their views were unlikely to change if others confronted them. I could not imagine that they would feel even vaguely uncomfortable if they were shunned or mocked. Perhaps their feelings of inferiority would only be fueled by the rejection of “nice” people. Maybe, I thought, it was best simply to avoid these hatemongers.
But I began to doubt if the same was true for casual prejudices when I encountered them.
(Concluded February 16)