It is well known that in Europe, where there has been a large influx of immigrants from Muslim and Arab countries the level of Antisemitism has spiked dramatically and Jews have been advised against wearing a kippah (skull cap) publicly. Unfortunately, that phenomenon is not new nor is it confined to Muslims and Europeans.

Recently, while discussing the problem of rising Antisemitism with my friend Ben, he said our discussion sparked memories of Brooklyn in the 50’s. It was then when he first encountered overt and aggressive Antisemitism, as an eleven year old.

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The incident occurred while Ben was walking home from grammar school, a modern orthodox yeshiva (school) located in the predominately Jewish neighborhood of Boro Park. As was his practice he wore a kippah (skull cap) while lugging an armful of holy texts home to study that evening. When suddenly he heard five or six boys a few years his senior shouting at him, “Dirty Jew” and other epitaphs not fit for print. He ignored their taunts which, emboldened by their numbers, only served to fuel their anti-Semitic inclinations to a higher level. So that cowardly gang of hoodlums took after him like a pride of lions in pursuit of easy prey. Fortunately Ben managed to find safe haven in a grocery store close by and wait until the hooligans found something else to feed their craven hunger for entertainment.


Another example of overt anti-Semitism was relayed to me by Joyce whose son Eli fell victim to anti-Semitism a quarter of a century ago. At the beginning of the school year her son Eli wore shirts sporting Hebrew letters to his public school, proudly proclaiming he was a Jew. Evidently that offended a group of ne’er-do-wells who had nothing better to entertain themselves other than harass and bully their Jewish schoolmate. So it became their daily ritual to try and block him from walking up a staircase to class to a chorus of, "We don't allow Jews to walk here!"

Those overt examples of intolerance of years gone by still exist today, although I have met Jews who have claimed they never suffered incidents of Antisemitism. Of course all they would have to do today is step foot on many a college campus and I am certain they would not be able to continue to make that claim. What they fail to realize is the venom spewed by the likes of the Far-Left and Far-Right who continue to promote racist and anti-Semitic ideas, is an anti-Semitic assault on all Jews.

Then there is the covert form of Antisemitism that existed in the past and still resides beneath the surface of too many today. It can be found in the politest of company often by what people don’t say as much as by what they do when knowingly in the presence of a Jew.

For example, my wife and I were part of a group of six on a tour when our quite charming and personable tour guide shared one of his favorite jokes with us, “Do you know why Jews have big noses?” There was dead silence. He then delivered the punch line, “Because the air is free”. Our guide had no idea we were all Jewish and had he known I am certain he would have not told us that joke. That’s covert Antisemitism.

I also discovered the Jew is often perceived quite differently than gentiles. For example, I attended a seminar on comparative religion with a small group of twelve. The professor conducting the seminar was a Catholic priest and a casual acquaintance of mine. He opened the discussion by asking each of us to share our ancestry with the group. The group was ethnically diverse. One was Scotch-Irish another French-German a third Ethiopian, and so on. Each participant had identified his or her ancestry except me as I was the last one in line to speak. When it was my turn I shared that I my father came from Poland and my mother from Russia and that I am a first generation American. Whereupon the professor cocked his head slightly and with a perplexed look said, “Oh really? I thought you were Jewish”.

It was at that moment when I recalled what a friend of mine once told me, “I’m an American first and a Jew second”. He may have felt that way but it caused me to wonder how many of his fellow gentile countrymen regard him in the same way.

Although we live in a free country, a democracy; a land where we celebrate diversity, yet when it comes to wearing our religious identity openly there seems to be a reluctance to do so. Granted it is not uncommon to see Jews wearing a Star of David, Mezuzah, Chai or Hamsa in public but it is not the same thing as donning a kippah. Those aforementioned objects are ornaments worn around the neck which discreetely declare your religious identity, while a kippah serves quite another purpose: it broadcasts it. A kippah proclaims that you are not only Jewish but that you are an observant one.

But even Orthodox Jews sometime conceal the sign of their religious devotion by concealing their kippot under a baseball cap or Donegal cap when in the public sphere. My prior congregational rabbi told me he began to wear a rakish Borsalino hat over his kippah to conceal that he was an observant Jew on his weekly Shabbat walk to synagogue because of the invectives that had previously been hurled at him by bigots in passing cars.

Most American Jews, other than some strident atheists and secularists, have no problem wearing their Jewish identity openly when attending synagogue, religious school or participating in any Jewish event such as a Bar Mitzvah, Brit or wedding. But for them to wear a kippah in public, well that’s a different story, and quite a sad one at that.

 

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