BY NICOLE HOLLANDER
I’m in line for the Claes Oldenburg Mouse Museum and two old girls are wondering out loud whether the exhibit is worth waiting for…a perfect opening for me. I live to interfere. I describe the delights I believe await them. They dither and speak in a particularly New York Jewish way that is extremely irritating. I get to the head of the line and yell back: “See, I’m at the head of the line. You can do it!” More whining and they join the line.
I think: “Yes, we are irritating, but did so many of us deserve to be gassed in concentration camps just because we are annoying?”
When I was young, I looked Italian and I lived in an Italian neighborhood. Often, Something Unpleasant was said in my presence, the kind of remark made when you think you are safe among your own kind. It’s happening again. Some guy from the neighborhood, some harmless dork, is opening his mouth to utter a familiar slur. I see it coming. No one else notices. Why should they? They hear it all the time. Okay, he says the phrase and freezes me in place and at the same time I am highly alert. My mind is working at top speed. I am a kid, but the spotlight is on me. No one knows that I have been chosen to champion my people yet again. The idea that I would remain silent is certainly tempting, but not an option.
I have that damn duty to all those dead people. This is a childish belief, yet if pressed I will say I still believe it.
I have to slay the neighborhood dragon, such a tiny dragon, not even evil. He just doesn’t realize that he has trampled an itty-bitty village on his clumsy way home. And that stupid dragon will feel so ashamed when I confront him, so ashamed that I will feel that I have exposed both of us, and injured both of us over a trifle and although I feel I should reassure him that he has not permanently injured me, I know it is not my job to make him feel that everything is just the same as it was before he said what he said.
What was it he said? “Someone ‘jewed’ him down,” I really don’t remember. It was always a variation on the same theme. Jews have all the money. There are no poor Jews. They hang together, and they killed Jesus. No adult would say that the Jews killed Jesus. That was a child’s accusation. I remember going to the corner store for Wonder Bread. A boy from school stands very close me and hisses: “You killed Jesus.” I was, of course frightened of him, his size and intensity, but I had been raised by an atheist and felt no guilt about something that I didn’t think existed. I was too young to say: ”Really? All of us? Did you ever see us in a room together, trying to agree on anything?”
I tell my sister what the old neighborhood was like. Jana is too young to remember, but she says: “I have a strategy for responding to those remarks.” A strategy?
Anti-Semitism is evidently rampant in the corporate world. I asked what remarks her coworkers make. “Well, when a Jew was hired, they would say: ‘Another one…Jews stick together….Jews own everything.'”
Here’s her coping strategy for anti-Semitic remarks from peers:
“I like you and if you want me to continue to like you, you can never say that again, because I’m Jewish.”
A friend surprises me with a story she hasn’t told before. In college she was a waitress at a German restaurant. She was a favorite of the owner. One day he said to her: “You wait on those people over there, you’ll know how to handle them.” And then under his breath: “Jews, scum of the earth.” After she waited on them she said to him: “I’m Jewish.” “No, No! You’re not!” he yelled, horrified, disbelieving. The next day she was fired for breaking a butter dish. She isn’t Jewish, although her husband says that moment counts as her conversion. She is one of my heroes.
I remember another a young man, I can’t remember his face. But I remember his elation, doing a kind of war dance to celebrate the machismo of his Jewish pals, when the Israelis were victorious in their six-day war, the one where we proved we could fight and be as brutal as the next guy.
Rescuing the hostages at the airport in Entebbe cemented our reputation, now we are monsters to some. I understand that. I understand what they see. I despair at Israeli outrages against Palestinians. Still they are my people, not in the same way as women are my people, but still.
*Heroes: The legend is that the King of Denmark wore a yellow star and asked all Danes to do the same. True in spirit but not in fact. In reality, the Danish government did their best to help Jews get to Sweden and because of this, very few Danish Jews were sent to concentration camps from Denmark and many returned after the war.
(maus as historically potent art concept)
Nicole Hollander created the cartoon character Sylvia in 1980. The strip was nationally syndicated for over 30 years. Sylvia, Nicole, and, in fact, all the characters in the strip are blatant feminists and love good food, prepared by others. In 2008 Nicole retired Sylvia and started a 6 day a week blog featuring drawings, opinions, politics and classic Sylvia strips. She welcomes contributions by friends and sometimes mere acquaintances. Nicole teaches the graphic memoir, fiction and non-fiction in Chicago and has an introverted cat named Toots.