It was one of those incidents that catch you completely off guard, leaving you nonplussed in the moment and then annoyed and dissatisfied with yourself afterward.
After a recent day of skiing in Maine, a friend and I were in a large hotel hot tub at Sunday River, while her 11-year-old son splashed about in the adjoining pool. In the sporadic way of hot-tub conversations, we were chatting with a man who looked to be in his mid-40s, there with his wife. We’d talked with them while soaking tired muscles the previous afternoon and now picked up our conversation. He’d had a drink or two but didn’t seem drunk.
Conversation turned to the various New England ski areas we liked and why, and then to a terrible 1999 ski accident at Loon Mountain, in which an accomplished skier accidentally slid onto a closed, roped-off trail and tumbled hundreds of feet down the icy, moguled expert run, suffering injuries that within days proved fatal. His daughter and her fiancé took off their skis and tried to make their way to him, but both lost their footing and ended up in long, uncontrolled falls as well. He struck a tree and was killed; though seriously hurt, she survived. When the matter was adjudicated, the courts ruled that Loon wasn’t liable for the deaths and injuries.
“I would have gotten money from them,” the man declared. How, one of us asked?
“I’ve got a Jew lawyer,” he said. “A crooked Jew lawyer.” He repeated the latter phrase, laughing as though he had offered up something both clever and witty.
The comment was like a lightning bolt from a blue sky, stunning my friend and me. I grimaced at him. My friend put her fingers to her lips in a shhh-ing manner, gesturing toward her son, whose Jewish father, as it happens, is an attorney.
She moved away, toward her son, hoping he hadn’t heard. I talked to the man for a little longer, but without signaling any disapproval beyond my initial deep frown.
The moment took me back to the first time I encountered antisemitism, at a curio shop in Montana more than a half-century ago. Spotting an ornate yo-yo, I asked the proprietor the price. If memory serves, it was three or four dollars. How about one dollar, I asked?
He chuckled at my youthful attempt to bargain.
“Are you trying to Jew me down, kid?” he joked. I was perplexed until my father explained what he’d meant, in a tone that let me know it wasn’t an idiom to emulate.
Now obviously, anyone in middle age has heard their share of cringe-worthy comments, assumptions, and insinuations. I’m not one who thinks that every problematic remark about religion, race, or ethnicity is necessarily indicative of deep-seated bigotry or bias. After all, even decent, well-intentioned people can be pretty clueless at times.
But this wasn’t just clumsy. It was visceral and vile. I was dumbfounded that anyone would give voice to that kind of sentiment. Anyone save an avowed bigot whose very goal was to be obnoxious, that is. And yet we’d been talking and laughing in fun and friendly fashion for at least 20 minutes that afternoon, and for a similar period the previous day. Until that poisonous remark, he had seemed like a good-natured, gregarious guy.
To be honest, I wasn’t just shocked by him. I was disappointed in myself, vexed that I hadn’t had the real-time presence of mind to respond in a way that met the moment, and left feeling that by doing nothing more than grimacing, I had enabled his antisemitism.
But how do you respond when something that raw comes out of seemingly nowhere?
Do you say something sharp and cutting that would immediately put the offender on the defensive and perhaps lead to angry words and even a physical confrontation? Or turn abruptly away in disgust? Or note in an even tone that you find such a sentiment offensive and explain why?
I’ve asked that of a number of acquaintances. Perhaps the best suggestion I’ve heard comes from a friend who, as an educator, has practiced various ways to deal with bigotry. Her recommendation is to inquire, “What do you mean by that?” That puts the author of the offensive utterance on the spot, but without automatically forcing him or her into a pugnacious mode. Of course, it could also open the door for the venting of further poisonous attitudes.
Let me ask you, Globe readers: Have you been in a similar situation, and if so, how did you respond? Was it effective? Please e-mail me at the address below. I’m interested in hearing your thoughts and may devote a future column to the subject.