In late March, when I wrote about an antisemitic incident in a casual hot-tub conversation at a ski resort — another skier’s comment that he had a “crooked Jew lawyer” — I asked readers if they had encountered similar incidents of sudden bigotry and if so, how they dealt with them. My query came in part because all I had done was frown, leaving me disappointed with myself.
The response was eye-opening. A number of older readers emailed that during their youths, antisemitic comments had been a recurring aspect of their lives.
Some incidents remained seared into mind and memory decades later. Linda, a West Newton resident in her 80s, related the sting of being told by a sixth-grade classmate that she couldn’t invite her to a Halloween party because her father hated Jews.
“The sixth grade party must have really hurt because I still remember the event and the names,” she said.
Ninety-eight-year-old Ellsworth “Al” Rosen of Brookline related a formative incident that took place more than three-quarters of a century ago, when he was a 21-year-old fighting in World War II.
“I had joined the 36th ‘Texas’ Infantry Division in the fall of 1944, and by April of 1945, after six months of combat in France and Germany, I had been made a staff sergeant — partially because I was one of the few people in my company who had not been wounded or killed,” he recalled. In April of 1945, while in the chow line in Bavaria, “a big burly Texan” serving up food sneered, ‘Hey Rosen, how come you’re up here and not back there with the rest of your people?’ “ (By that, he meant, why was Rosen up on the front lines of the war, rather than in a less dangerous post?)
“I responded, ‘Oh, they sent me up here to make sure you Texans were doing a good enough job.’ “ The Texan “paused, smiled a bit, and then put another piece of meat onto my mess kit. I took that as an apology. I learned then how important it was to stand up against bigotry.”
But many also mentioned things they had heard much more recently. Sometimes comments were made pugnaciously, by people who knew they were speaking to a Jew and were using offensive language as a form of verbal assault. More often, however, when listeners objected, the other person apologized, sometimes saying this slur or that was something they had grown up hearing and hadn’t realized was offensive. Other times, the speaker said he or she hadn’t known the listener was Jewish. (That’s less akin to apologizing for the offensive term or remark than to saying one has been incautious in its use.)
In my column, I mentioned a boyhood encounter with a curio shop owner who jokingly asked, “Are you trying to Jew me down?” That expression, or variants thereof, came up time and again.
For decades, Joel Kowit, 78, a retired Emmanuel College biology professor, used to spend a couple of summer weeks helping herd cattle at a ranch in Wyoming. One day, a cattleman Kowit knew and liked remarked that a potential customer had “tried to kike me down.” Kowit noted that term was offensive and why. “I didn’t respond in an angry way, I just said it to explain,” he recalled. The man replied that Kowit was one of the few Jews he had met. They put the incident behind them and remained good friends.
A Massachusetts businessman who asked that his name not be used wrote about a commercial meeting less than a decade ago in which one of the participants “used the ‘Jew me down’ language.” He kept silent in the moment, but later sent “an email explaining how hurtful it was to hear him use this term. He was extremely apologetic and said his comment came from ignorance and a lack of understanding” of the antisemitic stereotype. “I accepted his apology, and we have moved on to have a solid relationship.”
But Mark Stewart, a 73-year-old family therapist from Cambridge, got a hostile reaction when he objected to an acquaintance’s use of the antisemitic idiom.
“He then asked me, ‘Would it be better if I said, “Hebrewed” him down?‘ With that question I knew exactly what I was dealing with. . . . Our friendship had already been on the wane; that finished it for us.”
Some correspondents seemed resigned to bigotry, viewing it as part of the human condition. Rather than respond verbally to a slur, they simply walked away.
Others, caught off guard as I was in the hot tub, had also said nothing, but had afterward been frustrated they hadn’t had the presence of mind to reply effectively.
“I have a continuing sense of guilt and being complicit for letting the remark pass,” Brian, a 70-year-old Cambridge resident with Jewish relatives, wrote of one such incident. He has now prepared himself by consulting with a friend whose husband is Jewish. “She says quietly, ‘That seems uncomfortably antisemitic,’ " he said, a response he thinks conveys what’s necessary.
“I came up with an effective rejoinder by accident, when I happened to sneeze after hearing a racist remark,” e-mailed Felicia Nimue Ackerman, a professor of philosophy at Brown University. “So I said, ‘Sorry, I’m allergic to racism.’ Since then I have coughed, which is more convincing than faking a sneeze, before I say this. It gets the point across in a manner less heavy-handed than the usual earnest speech.”
“As a Jewish American, I have been subjected to antisemitism all my life,” wrote Emily Kay, a retired journalist from the Boston area. Her inclination is to try humor first in her response, particularly when it comes to casually clueless comments. “Before I castigate folks who believe they’re complimenting me when they say, ‘Gee, you don’t look Jewish,’ I sometimes respond that I had my horns removed at birth,” she added. “But there’s nothing funny about antisemitism.”
Lisa, 68, from Waltham, noted that in grade school in Massachusetts, “I had kids come up to me and pat me on my head and want to know where my horns were, since everyone knew that Jews were the devil — and this was in Newton in the ‘60s!” she wrote. As an adult, living in Boulder, Colo., in the 1980s, she listened to the invidious “Jew down” idiom in stunned silence. But a few years ago, when another offensive comment occurred in her presence — a reference to “Jewish lightning,” an insinuation that Jews regularly commit arson to defraud insurance companies — she told the speaker she should be ashamed for using that ugly trope.
“She was mortified and apologetic,” Lisa reported.
Rob Sherman, a retired Massachusetts lawyer, makes his late friend Lenny Zakim, a well-known community leader who served as executive director of the New England region of the Anti-Defamation League, his role model.
“He saw it as an obligation to respond to any hateful comment directed at any group,” Sherman wrote. “And this I think is the point and the lesson: It is not just Jews who should respond when an antisemitic comment is made, nor should Black and brown people be the only ones to talk when a racist remark is made, or LGBTQ people when a homophobic remark or comment or ‘joke’ is made.”
Those who have spoken up were almost invariably glad they had. In some cases, it had cost them a friendship, but as they noted, if someone is an unapologetic bigot, who cares?
One takeaway that struck a chord for me was this: You’re more likely to have the presence of mind to respond effectively if you’ve already thought about what you’d do in such a situation.
Many liked my educator friend’s suggested response to bigotry — “What do you mean by that?” — though others thought something along the lines of a simple “I find that comment offensive” was more effective.
“It’s my owning my thoughts and not really attacking the user,” noted Sandy Jacobs, 71, a Swampscott antiques dealer.
“I have found that raising my eyebrows, staring directly at the speaker, and saying ‘Wow!’ satisfies my need to acknowledge the offense both to the perpetrator and anyone else present,” emailed 80-year-old Deanie Johnson, a North Shore resident.
“In response to bigoted remarks about immigrants and people of color, I have gently said something along the lines of, ‘Come on, that’s not really a fair thing to say,’ " wrote Eugene Benson, a retired public-interest lawyer from Arlington.
“I gently ask, ‘What is the significance of saying “Black” kids, “Jew’” lawyer, etc.?’ wrote Katherine Taube, 60, a South Shore resident who works in health-care administration. “My hope is it raises the question and points out the false stereotype/racism.”
Ed McGill, a health-care executive who grew up in Charlestown and now lives in Albany, suggested a firm but friendly approach, tailored for the hot-tub incident: “Or can we just agree you’ve got a good lawyer?”
Although I have only been able to include a fraction of reader responses, I greatly appreciate the time and consideration people devoted to my query. I hope this column provides readers not just food for thought but responses for bigotry as well.