SBS 301 Cultural Diversity         Fall 2001        Personal Memory Ethnographies

Bonnie G.
A Loss of Innocence at the '64 World's Fair
The year was 1964, I was fifteen years old, and was at the World’s Fair in New York City with my parents and twelve-year-old sister, Judy.  The bright, colorful lights of the Fair, combined with the joyful laughter of people of many nationalities and races, wearing exotic foreign costumes and speaking strange languages, are all intertwined in my memory.  There was an air of magic about the warm, sunny day, and the flags of many countries rustling in the refreshing breeze, combined with the great variety of people from many nations enjoying the day together, made me feel that my family was part of something very special.  It was a time of innocence—the quintessential era of the “family of man” in the United States.

I thought that nothing could spoil it, but into my perfect day came what I now have learned to think of as my first encounter with people who saw me, and my group, as "The Other."  I often wonder--could this encounter have cast as dark a shadow on the perfection of their day as it had on mine?

It happened a long time ago, and is now but a distant memory.  In the summer of1964, my sister, Fritzy, and I spent a long weekend in New York visiting the World's Fair.  We were both in our early forties, and had never before traveled so far from the small midwestern town where we had both been born, married, and raised our children.  Now that our kids were over 18 and had families of their own, Fritzy and I worked part time as cashiers at the local Woolworth's.  It had taken us three years to save enough money for the trip, and we were very excited about being in New York.  It had been hard convincing our husbands that we could travel on our own to such a dangerous place, but we promised them we would be careful.

After spending the day visiting endless exhibits, my family was tired and hungry, and the smell of grilling steaks attracted us to something familiar--Tad’s Steakhouse.  To a native New Yorker, Tad’s (a cafeteria-style restaurant) meant a good meal at a great price ($1.99 for a steak, baked potato, and salad), and we joined the long line queuing up to wait for dinner.  While standing on line, we chatted amongst ourselves about the day and all we had seen, as all around us others did the same.  My sister, Judy, and I found it interesting to look around and observe people from other parts of the country and other parts of the world--people who looked, dressed, and sounded quite different from us.  The line moved along slowly, but my family waited patiently.  There was a lull in our conversation, and suddenly we found ourselves listening to the loud discussion of two middle-aged women standing directly behind us.  I did not know it at the time, but what ensued would change the way I viewed the world forever.

"Look Fritzy,” one woman said to the other,  “there are even Jews on this line.”  “Really, what makes you think so?" responded the woman who I assume was Fritzy.  “Look at those people pushing to get ahead; they must be Jews.  Jews are very pushy.”  “I doubt  it,” said Fritzy, “I’ve heard that Jews like to sit down and be served.”  My mother could contain herself no longer.  She whirled around, put her hands on her hips, and stated, “Doesn’t everyone?”  Fritzy and her  companion seemed to become flustered, and switched gears.  Taking a more friendly approach, Fritzy said to my mother, “You’re probably right.   Anyway, if there were Jews here, we would recognize them.”  To this my mother, “moving in for the kill,” stated “Well I’m Jewish, and I’m on this line.”  This was too much for the women.  I remember one of them saying that my mother “didn’t look Jewish,” and my mother asking them, “What does Jewish look like?”  “You know,” they said, “Jews have big noses, wear flashy clothes, and are loud and pushy.”  "Well that goes to show you just how little you know," my mother responded, turning her back on them once more.

I was confused about what had just taken place, but I felt very proud of my mother for standing up for herself, and hoped that she had sufficiently embarrassed those two ignorant women for their ridiculous remarks.  Having been brought up in an ethnically mixed neighborhood of  New York, I had never thought of myself as being different before, and to the best of my recollection this was the first time that I had ever heard anyone make such remarks about the Jewish people.  What could they have been thinking?

On our last night at the Fair, we wanted a steak dinner.  While standing on a line in front of a crowded restaurant, we heard a lot of people yelling and noticed that some were pushing to sneak ahead of others to get into the restaurant.  I was not surprised, since I had been warned that there were a lot of Jews in New York.  My husband, Jimmy, told me that he had seen a Jew once, and advised me to watch out for them.  He told me that Jews were crooked, dressed in flashy clothes, had big noses, and were very loud and pushy.  When I noticed people talking loudly and pushing near us, I assumed they must be Jews.  I was annoyed, and pointed out to Fritzy that there were probably Jews on the line.  Fritzy didn't agree, stating that she had heard that Jews like to sit down and be served.  I guess we were talking loudly, because suddenly a woman in front of me turned around and told us that she was Jewish.  We apologized to the woman, telling her that she didn't look Jewish, but instead of taking this as a compliment, she became very rude and tried to make Fritzy and I look stupid.  I still don't understand why she was upset--how were we supposed to know that she was a Jew?

Looking back at this incident in the wider context of what I have learned about the cultural politics of difference, I can now see the possibility that the stereotype of Jews that was ingrained into those who referred to me as the “Other” was, as pointed out by bell hooks a “substitution, standing in for what is real.”  As bell hooks describes, these stereotypes substitute for what is real, because real knowing of the “Other” (in this case, Jews) is not permitted.  Perhaps like Sarah or Dan in Thandeka’s “Learning to be White,” these women were not permitted to actually know a Jewish person without losing the love of their family or the respect of their community.

I also now realize that this incident held far more importance to me personally that it did to the rest of my family.  They do not remember the details as vividly as I do, and my mother actually had to be reminded of the incident.  I attribute the difference in our memories to the fact that my parents had already become used to dealing with such negative stereotypes of the Jews and my sister was too young to give it much thought, but this was my first encounter with the “borderlands” of difference.

After all these years, thinking about this incident still makes me angry.  It would be very easy (and therapeutic) to blame the behavior of these women on their unwitting ignorance, but there is more to the deployment of stereotypes than simple ignorance.  Looking back on the day that my incident took place, I think that what made the incident most memorable to me, is that it invaded and shattered the perfection of the day and made me see the intolerance that was potentially behind many of the smiling faces around me.

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