I don’t think anti-Semitism ever derailed my life in any way. But an instance of anti-Semitism definitely affected my father’s life for the worse.
My father never spoke to me about that occurrence. He was singularly uncommunicative at home, perhaps because — as I have come to believe — he never rid himself of a low-level depression sparked by the death of his beloved younger brother. He literally never spoke about his brother in my presence — I didn’t even learn that he had had a brother until I was at least 7.
I believe he never addressed his never-ending grief over losing his brother, whose body (I learned from one of his sisters) was discovered in the woods surrounding a boot camp in Mississippi during World War II, and whose death was never investigated. (His sister always wondered whether he had been killed by a recruit who thought Jews were devils.)
So I learned of the following instance of anti-Semitism from my mother.
My father earned a bachelor’s degree, and then a master’s in education, in the mid-1930s. His master’s thesis focused on the value of filmstrips and other visual aids in the classroom — a form of educational enrichment uncommon in those days.
He also led classes for teenagers in music and other subjects as a member of a Zionist organization in which he was active. He met my mother in that group, and his classes, my mother told me, were very popular.
Yet, when he applied for a job as a teacher in the New York City public school system, he was turned down because, he was told, he had an unacceptable foreign accent. My father was born and raised in Brooklyn and did not have a foreign accent. He did not even have a stereotypical Brooklyn accent — he didn’t say “berl” for “boil,” or “dat” for “that.”
But he did have a prominent hooked nose, and his surname was Levine. Conceivably, he was rejected for another reason, but my mother told me that my father had sensed hostility radiating from the person who interviewed him.
Very unfortunately, my father was not a risk-taker, and he never again tried to get a job in the public school system. Instead, he wound up in a civil service job that I suspect brought him no pleasure — although he literally never spoke about his job in front of me.
He did become a teacher of night classes, whose aim was to prepare adult job-seekers to take various types of civil service exams. He died suddenly, at the age of 47, while still holding the same civil service job.
The most egregious example of anti-Semitism that I witnessed in a personal setting occurred about two decades ago when I took a week-long course in Vipassana meditation in Massachusetts. I gave a lift to the medication center to two male New York City residents who did not own cars. During our conversation on the way up, I mentioned — for reasons I no longer remember — that I am Jewish.
At the meditation center, no participant was permitted to speak, read, write, listen to the radio, or use a cell phone from the moment the formal program began, until it ended a week later, except to ask one of the leaders a question at the end of our twice-daily group meetings, so we knew nothing about anything that had happened in the wider world that week.
I asked the younger of my two passengers to drive my car back to the city. The other man, who was probably about 40 and who had attended programs in that same meditation center several times previously, sat in the passenger seat. I sat in the back.
The older man asked the driver to stop at the first place where he could buy a newspaper. We soon reached a small shop, and the older man ran in and came out with a New York Times. He immediately started reading it.
A minute later, he announced, “Every single piece of bad news is the fault of the Jews.”
“You’re joking, right?” I asked with a smile.
“No,” he answered. “I am not joking. Jews are behind every single bad thing that is going on in the world, and they always have been.”
If this had happened today, I think I would have asked the driver to stop the car, ordered the man out, and then tossed his backpack after him. But I was still a rather timid little mouse then, so I didn’t respond to him. I didn’t say a word the whole rest of the way to New York City.
The older man lived in a boat-like structure parked at a pier along the Hudson River. When he got out of the car, he said to me, “So, do you want me to give you a tour of my boat?” I can still picture that man looking at me through the open window on the passenger side with a pleasant expectant expression on his face.
Needless to say, I did not take him up on his offer.