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Let’s face it.  Probably every ethnicity has its biases and misplaced, exaggerated feelings of superiority.  Growing up Jewish in a small city in western Mass., we certainly got a heavy dose of pro-Jewish propaganda. This word propaganda will undoubtedly raise some hackles, but that’s how I saw it.   I guess for my parents, it counteracted our very Catholic environment. It was all they had control over. Making certain their offspring didn’t stray.  Growing up,  I was surrounded by peers who were “other, ‘ always intended by my family to be kept at a safe distance.  Those daredevils who  broke this law were only whispered about, In ways, you didn’t want to be whispered about!

I learned at any early age what it meant to be in the minority.  Probably good lessons.  It has given me some empathy, I hope.

BLM

Did it take BLM for me to realize that many of the grievances expressed by demonstrators could have been aimed at me?    Was I guilty of racism? Not just against African Americans, but against non -Jews as well. Ok, Some Jews too!  Affirmative, to some degree, I must admit.  Although, closely hidden, even from myself.  But to say, I am free from any racism, is a big step I’m not prepared to take.  Let’s say it’s a Work-in Progress.

The times require us to look inward and be honest with ourselves and each other.  The BLM assertions demand an honest response.  Our long histories are complex and often dark.  Let’s be honest about it.  Assessment could go both ways.

Personal history

I was one of only two Jewish kids in my entire elementary school class. I was automatically excluded from conversations about Saturday catechism classes, about what was being given up for Lent, and from the annual excitement of the family’s Christmas tree’s arrival. Not to mention wearing green on St. Patrick’s day. There were times that I just made up shit, just to be a part of the group.  I tried to bypass the seasonal question,”Did you get your tree yet?” No one ever posed hard questions, and I was just left with the guilt of wanting to be something other than what I was.

There were no African Americans in my schools which meant I had no African American relationships to give me insight into racial issues.  Deep friendships did allow me to penetrate the dissatisfaction some of my Catholic friends felt with the mores and restrictions of their belief system

How about the mantra that Jewish girls don’t encourage pre marital sex while non – Jewish girls put out?  I never could verify that old myth. Maybe my Catholic friends were more free than I supposed.  Maybe they had more fun!  More guilt?  Likely!

Or the myth that  alcoholism is much more prevalent among non Jews? MY very own darling father was most definitely a heavy drinker, but I wouldn’t call him an alcoholic., because that seems unfair and cruel.  He always rose at six and never missed a day of work.  These are most certainly important criteria. I justified his drinking as a way he could cope with the daily stresses he faced, but that’s really beside the point. a bottle of liquor was packed in among the clothing, if and when my parents got away for a few days . May Dad rest in peace.

MY parents told  me of times while vacationing they could not find a place to stay, but were turned away from inns and hotels for what they were sure was their ethnicity. They made sure I knew that anti-semitism existed.This is the reason the Borscht Belt thrived.  No exclusionary policies there.  It was a Jew fest, as far as I could tell.

I had Jewish friends whom I socialized with frequently as I went through adolescence.   Our very small Jewish group created our own little insular social scene. It seemed to satisfy my parents. It was comfortable.  It provided a ready excuse for going out; never questioned.  The two groups of friends stayed separate.

New England influences

I think coming from New England, I’ve absorbed some waspy tendencies. I note that  I take some pride in holding  on to these.  I strongly dislike ostentatiousness.  I have observed the  country club as the seat of power to include or reject. In both Jewish and Christian settings.  I don’t play golf.

I dislike flashiness.

Sequins belong on stage.

My father recalled getting beaten up in grade school for being Jewish.  I think those scars do not fade easily or quickly.  Maybe their clannish lessons made them feel better about such ancient hurts? I too hurt when hearing my parent’s stories of anti-semitism.  How do these tales told to children ultimately affect the adults they become?

Our legacy?

It ultimately becomes impossible to entirely let go of an earlier generation’s pain. Our elders expect, maybe demand that we hold on to their experience and make it right, if possible.  If it clashes with our own experiences, we are encouraged to disregard our own.  I’m always reminded of Rogers  and Hammerstein’s lyrics from South Pacific: You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught.https://youtu.be/RvpyKWvdmWI

What did my predecessors  do with their anger and frustration? My Dad was an avid golfer, but he was not welcome at many of the local country clubs because of his religion.  He always managed to find some club where he could be welcomed.  Jews in my generation tried to blend in, never to make a fuss. They strongly believed a fuss would only lead to more trouble. HIstory seemed to affirm that, for sure.

Assimilation risks loss of identity.  Some Jews crossed the line and had Christmas trees.  Were they happy or secretly miserable? Did I ever dream of creating a full blown Xmas tree?  Disclosure:  It’s almost an annual struggle. The nice Jewish girl always wins.

MY hope is that the history of overt racism will diminish with each generation.  Some of my children have chosen non Jewish partners.  If this ultimately heals some wounds and promotes understanding.  On with it.

 

 

 

 

Dianne Vapnek

Dianne Vapnek

In an attempt to slow life's quickening pace, I'm writing to share my personal perspective on the aging process, its dilemmas, the humorous self-deception, the insights and the adventure of it all. I spent the bulk of my time in beautiful Santa Barbara, CA, but manage to get to NYC a few times times a year. I've been a dancer/dance teacher and dance supporter almost all my life. For the past20years, I help create and produce a month-long creative residency in Santa Barbara for contemporary American choreographers and their dancers. It's been incredibly gratifying. This year, I decided it's time to retire! Big change. I also now spend several weeks a year in Kyoto Japan, residing for several weeks in the spring and the fall. I've been magnetically attracted to Japan for many years. Now I live out a dream to live there part-time.

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