This week at after-school, my 7-year-old, Esther (not her real name), perked up her ears when she heard two older boys talking about “the Jews.” We’re Jewish. Not observant, but definitely Jewish. Esther figured they were talking about Hanukkah. They weren’t.
“Did you know,” one boy said to the other, “that the Jews hung Jesus on the cross because they hate Jesus?” The other boy, with whom Esther has been friendly in the past, nodded. “Yeah.”
Esther interrupted. She’s not always brave about climbing and swimming pools and food she suspects is awful, but she stands up for what she thinks is right. “That’s not true,” she told the boys. “And that’s a mean thing to say. Do you know I’m Jewish? That hurts my feelings.”
She said they looked at her—a Jew—for a moment and then looked away. They were older boys. There wasn’t much more she could do.
When I picked up Esther about an hour later, she was drawing a picture of the Statue of Liberty. They’ve been learning lately about the statue, and Ellis Island, and immigration, and she’s been asking a lot about the immigrants—Jewish and Catholic—on both sides of our family. She didn’t tell us what the boys said until later in the evening.
She was upset, but not too upset, because she did not know how bad it was, what the boys had said. I asked questions. I considered. I decided to tell her how bad: “As bad as the n-word.” Then she was a little more upset. I gave the boys the benefit of the doubt: “They may not have known how bad it was.”
About 10 years ago, I found myself at dinner with Christopher Hitchens, by then well into his right-wing phase, and the conservative pundit Michael Barone. They were extolling American exceptionalism, and included in the evidence of U.S. virtue, declared Hitchens, was the nation’s successful abolition of anti-Semitism. I said I disagreed. Hitchens, who had only learned of his own Jewishness later in life, scoffed. I must be “an ADL type,” he said. Not at all, I answered. I don’t care for the ADL, and I don’t like when some Jews use anti-Semitism as a kind of trump card. But I knew firsthand that it’s real. I’d grown up around it. Hitchens asked where. A small town called Scotia, New York, I said, near Schenectady. “Schenectady!” he said. “That’s the home of Union College.” Indeed; it was founded in 1795 without denominational affiliation, one of the first of its kind, and thus proof, said Hitchens, that America had long been averse to anti-Semitism. “So on what basis do you claim such experience?” Hitchens asked.
I might have pointed out that a college founded in a Dutch town more than 200 years ago had little to do with the present-day working-class city of Schenectady and its suburb Scotia. But I was disappointed to discover Hitchens, whom I’d admired, was such a boor. In response, I became one, too. “On the basis,” I answered, “of the bullies who called me ‘kike’ throughout elementary school and the friends who told me Jews were greedy.” On the basis of the time my sister and I, maybe 10 and 8 at the time, were briefly alone in our mother’s house when a group of neighborhood bullies—the police chief’s son, a fireman’s son, and some middle-class boys—surrounded the house and began throwing rocks. They shouted all sorts of things—we were pariahs for multiple reasons—but among them were “kike” and “faggot,” echoes of “kike-dyke,” a term they used for my mother. We called my father; he called the mother of two of the boys, and then he drove over to chase the boys away.
There was more—a swastika drawn on the Jewish teacher’s door, and a swastika spraypainted in the gym, and a couple of fights—but the truth is, it wasn’t so bad. Or rather, it was bad enough, but so are all sorts of childhood encounters with bigotry, and mine paled with those of the town’s few black kids, and probably, in ways I didn’t understand then, with those of the town’s Asian-American kids, and unquestionably with those of the few brave souls who more or less came out in high school. Anti-Semitism rippled around me, but it didn’t shape me. I could ignore it even as other kids could not turn away from the sharper words and heavier fists directed their way.
Or so I thought, until we bought Esther an American Girl doll. She chose Rebecca, who is Jewish. She adores Rebecca; but Rebecca, to my surprise, made me nervous. I worried about Esther taking Rebecca to school. No need to draw attention, a cowardly part of my brain said. I dismissed it. We live in Vermont—it is not a diverse place, but there are Jews. Two of Esther’s babysitters, neighbors, are Jewish—one is the daughter of a firefighter; the other, the daughter of a baker. There’s another Jewish girl in the other second-grade class, and more, I’m sure, in other grades. “Take Rebecca to school,” I said, and she did, and it was wonderful.
Then, this week. These two boys. Just a few remarks. And me, sitting here after Esther has gone to sleep, looking at the school directory, at the email addresses of their parents, wondering what I should do. Whether, as my father did for me, I should chase them away, or whether I should give them and their parents—where do children hear things?—the benefit of the doubt.
There’s a popular assumption that anti-Semitism runs along class lines. You might be thinking that their parents aren’t “educated.” I don’t put much stock in that. One boy is the son of a doctor. The other’s parents work for—I won’t say. It’d be too transparent. They are, though, unquestionably “educated” people.
Did they really teach their children such things? Should I ask? Will that make it worse? I think of what my father taught me—fight—and what my daughter did today: speak truth to the power that is two older boys who are being bullies. But I think, too, of two elementary-school boys, children who likely have even less understanding of how awful what they’d said was than Esther did. Esther, which, as I mentioned, is not her real name. I rarely use it when I write publicly, because she is still becoming who she will be. Just as those boys are.
I got up to look for her drawing of the Statue of Liberty. I thought I’d take a picture of it and let that be the last word for now. But it’s unfinished, and I know she wouldn’t want me to reveal her artwork before it’s complete. Which is maybe a better last word. You see where this is going: Liberty, still becoming.
She is, Esther tells me several times, 305 feet tall. She was built by Mr. Eiffel, who made the Eiffel Tower. She was a present, says Esther, from France. Her book is the Declaration of Independence. Esther would like to visit her the next time we go to New York, and also Ellis Island, and she wants to bring Rebecca.
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Jeff Sharlet is the author or editor of six books, most recently Radiant Truths, and an associate professor of English at Dartmouth College.