My Lesson in Anti-Semitism
I grew up in the city of Chicago during the 1950's. I was raised in an Eastern European neighborhood where everyone spoke either Russian or Ukrainian. Everyone celebrated the same holidays and attended the Eastern Orthodox Church. We all spoke Russian and the children who were born in the United States were taught Russian in the home and were sent to Russian classes taught by our Priest after school. We only listened to Russian radio programs at my house and my family only used Russian speaking doctors, dentists, and lawyers. Russian was spoken in all the neighborhood grocery stores and bakeries.
This was the only way of life I knew until one day a new girl joined our class. Her name was Ruth Mandelstein. Ruthís parents were also from Russia and spoke Russian but they were Jewish.
Ruth was pretty and funny and I liked her instantly. We became good friends. When I brought Ruth home with me after school, my parents, and especially my grandparents, saw many differences in Ruth and pointed them all out to me. My family was cordial to Ruth but after she left they urged me ìto stay with my own kindî. I really didnít understand what that meant at the time, but they went on to tell me. They said that even though Ruthís family were nice people, they were different, not like us. This was my first lesson in anti-Semitism which was taught to me by my family who said repeatedly that they did not discriminate. I remember I was heart broken because I liked her very much and despite all my familyís discouragement, Ruth and I remained good friends.
I wasnít allowed to bring Ruth with me when I went on summer vacations to my Uncleís farm in Algonquin, Illinois and she wasnít allowed to sleep over. My parents gave no reason other than it was not wise, she was Jewish. Ruth was invited to my birthday parties because I insisted that she should be, but some of the other kids and adults ignored her. She was not comfortable in my home.
What was equally surprising to me at that time, was that Ruthís family also discouraged her friendship with me. I found out much later that they told her that it wasnít in her best interest to be good friends with a ìshiksaî. I wasnít allowed to go to summer camp with Ruth because it was for Jews only. I, too, was invited to her birthday parties, but I felt her family wished I wouldnít have accepted the invitations. Her family treated me politely but I never really felt comfortable in her home either.
Ruthís parents escaped persecution in Russia by coming to the United States. Their sponsors in America were their relatives who lived in this land of opportunity. They lived amongst other Jewish people in the newly established ghettos and tenements. They were not liked or treated very well by other Christian Americans. It was not an easy life; and probably not much better than where they came from because they didnít know the language or have any money. The Jews have been persecuted by one group of people or another since the beginning of time and the need to stand united together as Jews against all others, had been ingrained in RuthíS mother by her ancestors. She had no choice but to see the world through these eyes. Her people and her religion were a very deep part of her. This was all she knew.
Ruthís family worked very hard to become educated and prosperous. They made it and moved out of the ghetto, but not out of Jewish life. They were still Jews, they were very religious, and the need to stick together was very strong.
When Ruthís mother saw a friendship between Ruth and me developing, she was not comfortable, for she knew it could lead nowhere. She felt that my gentile family would never accept Ruth as a friend and she had to protect her daughter from hurt. She also knew that Ruth must marry a Jewish man and raise her family in the Jewish religion. No matter what, she would see that Ruth found a Jewish man and it would help things along if she had only Jewish friends. She saw no point in encouraging a friendship which could lead Ruth away from these goals.
This probably wouldnít have occurred in todayís world. But when a girl was born and raised in the 40's and 50's, there was only one thing for her to do whether she was Jewish or gentile, and that was to get married, keep house and raise children. So what good would it do for Ruth to meet gentile boys. Ruthís mother already knew that when a Jewish person married out of the Jewish religion there would be hardship ahead and she would do everything to keep Ruth safe from that, even if it meant controlling her daughterís friends and much of her life from a very early age. Thatís how it was then, the Jewish circle was tight because it had to be that way to stay strong. And, even though I donít agree with this philosophy, I have come to understand it better through the years.
I have now come to realize that the decade of the 1950's began only five years after World War II ended. The Holocaust was very much in the thoughts and memories of all American Jews. Also, Jews were very much discriminated against by non Jews at this time and place. Jews did not like or trust gentiles. Neither Ruth nor I ever experienced any of these horrors, we were just kids together. We had a much more liberal view of life and we were able to enjoy the freedom of a friendship without guilt or without the loss of our own identities. We remained friends despite all the negativity about other religions and our different backgrounds. When I look back now and realize all the things that our parents did to keep us apart, it seems like a miracle that Ruth and I have remained friends for more years than I would like to remember.
Friendships are almost as important to me as family. Someone told me a very long time ago that I would meet many people during my lifetime, but would accumulate only a few real friends. Well, I have lived long enough to realize that this is very true. I know many people but I can count my good friends on one hand. I feel very lucky that Ruth is still a good friend and has remained so even though we have lived many miles apart for many years.
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