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Deep Cuts

A surgery unexpectedly collides with unfathomable hate—and brings about a moment of clarity

Jill Kargman
August 13, 2018
Illustration: Chloe Scheffe
Illustration: Chloe Scheffe
Illustration: Chloe Scheffe
Illustration: Chloe Scheffe

The drains from my double mastectomy were flowing with a heinous Hawaiian Punch-esque blood-and-body-fluid combo, and I was in tremendous pain. Little did I know I was about to be in so much more, but in a shadowed fog of a worse anguish: The amorphous, harder-to-heal ache of emotional pain.

My son came home from school and sat on my bed, looking at me with glassed-over eyes, valiantly trying to hold in tears. I sat up and took his hand, “Honey, I’m going to be fine!” I comforted him. “I did this surgery because I have that gene I told you about, so I know this looks gross but it’s actually making me healthy.”

“It’s not you,” he responded. “Something happened today at school.” He blinked, and one tear from each eye escaped as he recounted what went down at lunch.

A boy in his class blithely said, “I’m a fan of Hitler! God sent Hitler down to kill the Jews because they nailed Jesus to the cross!”

I was surprised by the violence of it all, but not entirely shocked, because last year, after Fletch wrote his third-grade New York Landmark paper on Radio City Music Hall, he concluded his research on art deco by adding that our family was underwhelmed by the Christmas Spectacular, and, parroting his mom and sisters, that he found all the emphasis on women’s legs sexist. The same student had said at the time, “You just didn’t get it because you are a Jew and the show is made for Christians.”

After that incident I emailed the headmaster, who wrote back, “Courage!” I didn’t know what the hell that meant, but thought it was a strange response that basically shrugged it off. So I’m ashamed to say I dropped it. Brushed it under the rug. It wasn’t a threat, just a weird thing to say, and I’m not the squeaky-wheel mom who calls my kids’ schools or other mothers. I grew up with an acute distaste for busybodies or tattletales.

But when is ratting someone out actually whistleblowing? Why was I so scared to not make trouble? After the Fan-O-Hitler incident, I wasn’t. I hate painkillers, so I was running on Tylenol and sheer rage. My husband and I let the school know we were furious, and they emailed back that they were “on it.” A disciplinary committee was empaneled, and we were told the student would miss two field trips as “punishment.” He could have been glued to Nickelodeon that day for all we know. Oh, and as it turns out, he was on the second field trip, so he only had to miss one. We found the whole episode extremely upsetting and I found myself—a generally very happy person—in a dark spiral of anguish for a month. I started talking to other parents. It turns out this was not the first time anti-Semitic comments were taken lightly.

Last fall, another Jewish student, two grades ahead of my son, was describing his summer vacation and said he’d been to sleep-away camp. A classmate responded, “Was it Auschwitz?” Again, zero suspension. However, when a student called a black classmate the N-word, he was expelled. I spoke to my rabbi and asked what the difference was. She responded that the overt racism and violence against the African-American community has provoked so much outrage—police murders in the streets, arrests for no reason—that we need to snuff out this rhetoric immediately and have anyone who uses it shut down (see: Roseanne). And yet, according to my rabbi, anti-Semitic slurs are sharply on the rise. We are falsely perceived as puppeteers of the media. Waspy friends have confessed to being privy to Locust Valley dinner party whispers of how we’re all “Madoff types” and that copper wire was invented when two Jews found the same penny.

My son asked his teacher if he could move desks, because he didn’t want to sit so close to Rolf from The Sound of Music who believes my family belongs in an oven. The teacher obliged, and we all combat-crawled to summer vacation, each drop-off with a lump in my throat.

Naturally, part of me blamed this political hellscape we’re suffering in as an activator of hatred. Trolls have slithered out of their holes and aren’t telling Jew jokes in the corner, they’re telling my child we should be ashes. In New York City!

I went to Mount Sinai to get my drains out, and a doctor friend who works there came to hold my hand. I seemed off. I felt like that Shel Silverstein-esque cartoon blob in the Prozac commercial that is perpetually followed by a storm cloud. So I decided to make my own umbrella. I walked to The Corner Bookstore on 93rd and Madison. And an adorable, tattooed gay guy asked how he could help me. I told him. He selected a pile of books about the Holocaust and gift wrapped them beautifully in paper with watercolors of cooks and a gold ribbon. “I’m glad you’re doing this,” he said, as I thanked him. I can’t carry anything because of my surgery, so my friend dropped it off in the Park Avenue lobby of Rolf’s family. The uniformed doorman with gold epaulets said he’d whisk it upstairs. I had affixed a card to the package that read, “We thought this would prove valuable reading for your family. Best, the Kargmans.” I never heard from them.

My mother, whose family hid in France during World War II, sadly remarked they probably tossed them in the garbage. But I felt better. Because I did something. Now is the time to speak up. We can’t be afraid of “causing trouble.” And institutions need to have protocols for punishment and community healing, as well as a schoolwide discussion on how this will simply not be tolerated. Racism, religious or sexual discrimination, sexism, none of it. In January, the headmaster said to the boys, “some of your mothers and sisters may have attended the Women’s March!” Fletch was perplexed. He had been in the Women’s March. He made signs. He chanted. This just in: Boys can be feminists, too.

As a total Hail Mary, I decided I could not send my child back to his school and quickly filed paperwork to jump ship. In September he will be starting fifth grade in Greenwich Village. There was a rainbow flag in the lobby left over from Pride month, which you would never see at our old school. I knew our family was home. But what if I’d lived in a small town with only one school? I would have nowhere to go, which is why we need to make every child feel protected from this poisonous lava oozing across the nation. Everyone deserves to feel the calm of those Roygbiv colors, a prism of acceptance and love.

Jill Kargman is the creator, writer, producer, and star of Bravo’s Odd Mom Out.