by Jessica D. Ursell (Campania, Italy)
I’m a person who likes to understand. I like to go back and unravel events and have them make sense. I mean I’m a Jew. It’s practically part of our DNA. We think, we ponder, we discuss, and we try to figure out the why of things.
I’m not a person who particularly minds feeling angry. It happens. But I’m precise and I value clarity. And I want to understand my emotions — all of them — especially why, after more than three and a half decades, I still have this smoldering anger at what happened and my response to what happened (or should I say my unfortunate, frustrating, and maddening lack of response) when I went to see Superman at the country club in the mid-1980s.
My parents didn’t belong to a country club. Not enough money then and, even if there were, membership in a country club just didn’t fit our European Jewish socialist Bundist ethos. We weren’t elite, even though my parents were elated as they moved us out of the Amalgamated Workmen’s Circle housing in the Bronx to the cushy azalea filled suburbs of Westchester.
Personally, I never expended any brain cells on whether we should try to join one of the several country clubs in our little exclusive enclave edged against the water of the Long Island Sound. These were the same clubs that 50 years earlier had signs saying “no dogs no Jews” or so the talk went. I just didn’t think about it. That is until I heard that Christopher Reeve was going to film a public service announcement for the Special Olympics at one of the country clubs in our town.
I knew this because a friend (and I use the term loosely especially in retrospect) told me about it because her Irish Catholic parents did have a membership at the club. And she asked me if I wanted to join her so that we could see Superman in person. Who knows, maybe we could even talk to him!
Dazzled at the opportunity, and thinking only of Superman with his wavy black hair and chiseled cheekbones, I was thrilled to be her guest. Thinking about it now, I wonder why she chose me and not any of her other friends. She and I weren’t really that close. She never came to my home after school, and I never went to hers. I suppose, despite her family‘s membership at the country club, she didn’t have many close friends. I realize now that she was a bit of a hanger-on and someone who struck me as wanting to impress. Unlike me, she craved approbation whereas I rather rejoiced in the opposite. To be sure I wasn’t a contrarian in the sense that I chose the opposite out of sheer obstinacy. More like I valued the unconventional, and whatever seemed different from the norm automatically held a sort of appeal for me. Conformity was boring, and I never wanted boring.
At home we weren’t religious. Not one bit. I didn’t go to Hebrew school. Nor were there yearly pilgrimages to synagogue on Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah, let alone on any of the other holidays. Most evenings at our dinner table, my brother, my parents, and I (and on weekends my grandparents) discussed ideas. Frequent topics included: books (Art Spiegelman‘s Maus); philosophy (Bertrand Russell, Sun Tzu, Machiavelli); art (Picasso’s Guernica); and politics – lots of politics; music, too. Music was always playing…often classical, sometimes Gregorian chants, many times jazz, and those symphonic tangos beloved by my dad. So often our conversations turned to justice. What was right? Was the outcome fair? The Rosenbergs. The Palestinians. What about the other point of view? How can we make things better? For our family? For our community? For the world? In our home lived the very essence of Tikkun Olam.
Our Jewishness, my Jewishness, was not a fancy fur coat pulled out of the closet to wear on the high holy days. It was not something skimming the edges of our skin but bone deep. Automatic and visceral. My Jewish self was not something I ever questioned then or now.
Every Seder, as I watched my grandmother‘s treasured cousin ladle out the matzoh balls for the chicken soup, I saw the numbers on her arm. A stark, indelible reminder of what we lost, what we had left, and all our hopes for the future.
To paraphrase the brilliant Elie Wiesel, Jews are the only people of antiquity to have survived antiquity as a people. I have always been immensely proud of this, and I feel the sweep of history as I am one part in an unbroken chain going back millennia.
The day finally arrived. Bright and sunny. I don’t remember what I wore, but I know I must have dressed with particular care.
And then it happened. Just as we were about to enter. The commandment. “Don’t act too Jewish.”
Christopher Reeve was inside. Waiting…
Stunned into silence, I failed to respond. Nothing. In that moment I became a bystander in her attempt to have me erase my essence. I was to be an active participant in negating myself.
Rehashing this incident decades later with my husband, he pointed out that as a non-member of the club the only way I could see Christopher Reeve was if I went with her. I didn’t know any other members. I was, therefore, dependent on her “grace” for a once in a lifetime experience. It wasn’t as though she had given me her edict weeks before so I would have the chance to respond and, hopefully, decide that even Superman wasn’t worth compromising my integrity and my sense of self. In fact, had I had any time to think about it, it would’ve been obvious that acquiescing to her demand would be the very antithesis of everything that Superman represents. It is obvious now. And, in truth, I know that it was obvious even then.
But I remained silent. And I can’t explain it. Not adequately, anyway. Never before nor since have I remained silent in the face of injustice or aggressions — micro and macro. But I failed here. And that is where my anger comes in.
I should have refused to enter. I should’ve told her then and there the absurdity and ignorance of her demand. Superman — the Superman of Truth Justice and the American way — was Siegel and Shuster’s uniquely Jewish creation, so how could she demand that I suppress my Jewish self? Did she not see the irony? If she viewed me as “the other,” as different, how could she not see that Superman epitomized the concept of “otherness”?
And what did she mean anyway? How much Jew is too much?
Don’t act too Jewish
The great irony of all of it is that the only thing I remember from this event is that I stayed silent. I’m so ashamed and angry that my silence constituted a negation of my essence. I would not be me without being Jewish.
We entered the club but, amazingly, I don’t remember seeing Christopher Reeve. I must have seen him. He was there. But I have zero memory of it.
The only lesson that I can take from this event that still burns on the walls of my consciousness all these years later, the only lesson that I can draw strength from today, is that one must never be a bystander, nor must one ever participate in self erasure.
And I tell myself: Never again.
Daughter of an immigrant Jewish mother from the foothills of the Himalayas and a South Bronx born Puerto Rican Jewish father, Jessica Ursell is a veteran officer of the United States Air Force, poet, attorney, and progressive political activist. The granddaughter of survivors of the Holocaust, Soviet gulags, and a descendant of a Taíno great-grandma, she understands in her bones what happens when intolerance, indifference, and ignorance take root in society. Jessica lives with her husband in Southern Italy where she writes poetry addressing the complex interplay between trauma, power, love, loss, and madness.
64 responses to “At the Country Club with Superman ”
This is such a relatable and honest piece of writing. I don’t think there are many of us out there who can’t relate to that moment when we suffer a form of injustice and stay silent or we suffer seeing someone else in that position and we look on, helpless to help but having the tools of our mouthpiece to use yet which comes with consequences if you do.
Age brings about wisdom and we look back, using that wisdom to reflect on how we wished we had done things differently but do not be so harsh on yourself as those tender years are the ones in which we seek the most security and approval from others.
Your ” friend”, well, she will have her own memory from that day seeing Superman but she will never possess the feeling, that you so beautifully own, of what being Jewish means to you.
Your memory is far greater than a superfluous one.
Eloquent, thoughtful beautiful and relevant! Our childhood innocence is often unprepared for such ignorance. The sheer fact that this experience lives so vivid today in the author’s memory, gives me an unwavering assurance of the change she’s making to improve our world today!
Prejudice and ignorance sometimes reveal themselves at unexpected times: from the mouth of a stranger, a work associate, or even a “friend.” Thus, we are taken by surprise; ambushed, as it were.
Never one to let such slips go unchallenged, I missed such a cue about six years ago when my wife and I invited a seemingly charming woman we met in her used bookstore to visit us in our home.
During luncheon, the woman began railing against the “dirty” Orthodox Jews who summered in her New Hampshire town of Bethlehem. “They leave their used paper cups everywhere around town,” she said, in addition to other anti-Semitic remarks. This continued even after I revealed that I was Jewish.
After she left, I was astounded that I failed to reprimand her – let alone ask her to leave our home. I confessed to my wife that had she been attacking people of color or any other group, I would have been vehement in my defense. So, why did I fail when it came to defending my own people? I was in my late sixties at the time and had a lifetime of protesting prejudice behind me.
In retrospect I think it boiled down to not wanting to throw a guest out of our home; something to do with the rules of hospitality – though good manners is a two-way street.
Later, I drafted an email chiding our guest, but never sent it, figuring that the lesson was mine to learn. And, of course, we never heard from our guest again.
As we try to forgive others their trespasses, so we must forgive ourselves when we falter…
I really enjoyed your piece. Your writing is so captivating. You pose interesting questions in your writing. I understand your continued anger at remaining silent — I wonder if it’s possible that your silence served a greater purpose – sort of like queen Esther’s silence and hiding of her religion — something to consider. Love you and thanks for sharing.
This piece is so well-written and thought-provoking. I absolutely love the point you make about Siegel and Shuster’s “uniquely Jewish creation” of Superman. How true, and, in this situation, how ironic! But I really wonder what you could have said that would have made this individual realize how ignorant and insulting her words and attitude were. I assume you were around middle-school age; it’s hard enough to come up with an immediate, clever and pointed response to similar comments as an adult. I suppose questioning can often be a good reflex. Perhaps a simple, “What exactly do you mean by that?” might have been enough to throw this girl, who was, I am certain, not as knowledgeable or thoughtful as her guest, off her high horse, and maybe even make her (if not on the spot, possibly later) consider the reductive and prejudiced nature of her comment.
This is a very well written piece. I am filled with sympathy for the younger you. I agree with Sara’s comment above, in middle school it is tough to respond to a situation like that, even as an adult it could be. You might be being a bit hard on your younger self. Also, in a funny way your friend’s casual thoughtless bigotry actually was a gift. You learned a life lesson and were given a perfect memory full of literary device. That is not to say it is alright, but we do learn a lot through pain and adversity. Yasher Koache, Sister!
@tinaoliver I want to thank you for your tender and insightful comment on my essay. Age, hopefully, does bring wisdom and I will never be a bystander in the erasure of my essence as a proud Jewish woman. Thank you again for taking the time to share your thoughts.
@Regina Your comment juxtaposing childhood innocence when it is met by ignorant comments really hits home. The blithe ignorance and the way the edict, “Don’t act too Jewish,” slid so smoothly off her tongue still smolders in my mind to this day. Thank you for taking the time to comment.
@Douglas Shane Reading your comment gave me chills and flashbacks to precisely how I felt standing at the gates to the country club. I’ve been sitting here trying to compose an adequate response to your comment and I’m struck by the idea of “composure.” These comments were meant to discomfit during what should otherwise have been a pleasant comfortable experience. You write that you were in your 60s when this happened to you and that you had a whole lifetime of experience responding to such remarks. And, yet, you didn’t say anything likely because you wanted to be a proper host as she was in your home. I really understand that. It resonated with me so much as did the idea of your writing a letter after the fact and then not sending it because you felt the lesson was yours to learn. Maybe so but I have to think that people so casually ignorant like the woman in your example and the one in mine will never be attuned enough to recognize their ignorance tossed out in a familiar comfortable way as if the remarks were not laden with cruelty couched in a casual offhanded barb. Again, thank you so much for commenting and sharing your experience.
@nuritanderson Dear Nurit, Thank you so much for your comment and understanding my anger. Interesting that you wrote about Queen Esther. Funny story: When I was a second grader and went after school to Yiddish shul we performed a Purim play and for years I always thought I played the role of Queen Esther until decades later when I looked at the photos and saw I was one of her attendants. Moral of the story: Always act as bravely and courageously as Queen Esther.
@Sara Kandler Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments on my piece. You nailed it when you wrote that it’s hard enough for an adult to come up with a quick come back let alone a teenager. And I was absolutely shocked into silence. And as you can read in the essay, the fact that I was silent has been a smoldering fire within me for decades so I’m very glad I was able to release this piece out into the world.
@Billy Cohen I am very touched by the tender and thoughtful nature of your comment. This incident took place when I was a bit older than middle school. As I recall, I was between the ages of 16 and not more than 18 when this happened. It IS tough to respond in the moment and, as I have written, my silence has burned within me for decades since then. I also really love what you wrote about her “casual thoughtless bigotry” being a gift of a life lesson and a “perfect memory full of literary device.” I think that’s a really good reframing of how to think about this incident. And I agree, we do learn a lot from pain and adversity and this is one of those lessons that stuck. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts.
I can’t imagine you staying silent, part of the masses, just moving with the crowd and blending in. But I can see this shaping who you are today. It gave you backbone. You now understand from your own experience, who you are on a much deeper level. It opened a door for you…to all the past struggles of your people. You became one, not part of the many but one. Your blood is Jewish and now every fiber, thought, dream and breath is one. Sorry it took pain to birth this in you but that is how becoming one is birthed.
Thank you for sharing.
It is very well written. I think the way we treat others is very telling of our role models and parental figures in our formative years. Our kids are always watching and as parents we are modeling behaviors that our children will emulate. Jess- I think embarking on your military career was a life of service and seeking justice. You may not have been ready to confront that situation as a young person but you are a fighter today for all that is just. ❤️
I think sometimes we are so shocked (especially at a young age), that we don’t even know how to react and have to process. I do think that (especially girls, shy girls) react by not reacting. I would like to think that if time were able to stand still and you had been able to take a minute or two or however long it took for you to process those words, you WOULD have reacted differently, but the moment had passed. At any rate, it is an inspiring, thoughtful and thought-provoking piece of writing. I did not go to that event, but I vaguely remember him coming to town and the surrounding buzz. I also have experienced burning moments of silence that have stayed with me. Sometimes in relation to not speaking up for myself and sometimes for not speaking up for others. It is funny how for (some) people, those moments are always there. I think their staying power helps us become who we are. One of the things I tell my kids is that we are not defined by our mistakes but by how we move forward from them, how we fix them, how we make them right, how we do better next time. You have lived your life in a way that has fixed this moment many times over. I am proud of who you are and who you have become. I am sorry that this may have been one of the things that contributed to it.
What a powerful and meaningful story. So much can be learned from our own personal history, even if it means experiencing anger and regret when looking back on past situations. This story is a great representation of how young Jews are no stranger to prejudice and ignorance. I really enjoyed reading this, and learning from Jessica’s story.
we start to learn who we are.
Jessica writes with confidence and depth tackling issues that were right in our faces as Jewish kids in the 70s in mostly no. Jewish neighborhoods. Its important that her voice is out there ! Great Essay
This is a piece of real depth. The reader can feel the writer’s emotion and clearly see the disturbing moment erasing not just her personhood, but the joy she expected. Sometimes antisemitic words are thrown around carelessly: “Don’t Jew me down,” “You people are so good with money” but ignorance is no excuse. It must be eradicated either in the moment or, if necessary, years later. This is an essay to read and reread and to share with young people of any faith.
Enjoyed the reading & can relate. Our ancestry & family guide us into who we become in time as we grow. A “friend” asking us to be someone else is not a true friend.
Oh how enlightening Don’t be too hard on yourself as you were a young girl back then and thinking with your heart instead of with your heart, mind and soul. Sometimes in life we forget who we really are for the sake of others and have to fight within ourselves for survival. Thank you for sharing your heartfelt feelings. I’m glad we are friends from across the sea and I hope to meet you one day. Thank you Jessica for this awesome read.
Irony indeed. She was clearly unable to appreciate Siegal and Shuster’s story of Kal-El (Superman’s original name, translated from Hebrew as The Voice of God) the outsider, who, despite all his powers on earth, grew up knowing he was different than everyone around him.
I think those moments that we are silent, or silenced, haunt us as much, if not more than those times we regret our words. Still, while you may have been silent – and I agree with your husband, that was understandable given the context — you did not allow yourself to buy the premise that there was/is such a thing as too Jewish.
And while you maybe have been more Clark Kent than Superman at that moment – unable to reveal your true self – thank you for reminding us to never be bystanders.
Your writing is accomplished and I found your story both moving and fascinating. You provide a gratifying social context that illustrates both the sad reality of innocent young people forced by events to live in an environment of ignorance and prejudice.
Really powerful and moving account of how we’re made to compromise who we are to fit in to a world we never really want to be a part of. Sorry for this experience but it sounds as though, even at such a young age, the impact and repercussions of this one moment helped you coalesce a perspective that was helpful in forming who you’d eventually become. Thanks for sharing this memory.
This is a must read. I thoroughly enjoyed this piece and how the author let her feelings and the moment come to life in such a short essay. I love personal pieces like this and the way she conveyed her feelings brought it all together and gave it life ..
This is a painful memory, but I think you should forgive yourself for not speaking up and asking what your “friend” meant by telling you not to act “too Jewish.” You were young. You were a guest. You were eager for an experience that you would treasure. You did, indeed, wonder why this “friend” invited you to go with her to the country club since you and she weren’t close. That was strange. But what, unfortunately, wasn’t strange was that your “friend” had absorbed, perhaps unconsciously, prejudices against Jews along with warped notions of Jewish behavior. Could your young self have disabused her of those? Probably not. The fact is that because of centuries of pogroms and because of the Holocaust, Jews constitute only a small percentage of the world’s population. That means that many people don’t know any Jews — literally none at all — but have absorbed some of the poisonous allegations that fed genocide. Your friend was “Irish Catholic?” Had she heard or been taught that Jews killed Christ? Most likely. Your poignant and well-written essay references the prejudices that I think most, if not all, Jews have encountered in one way or other. For my birth family, the solution was to move to a community that was predominantly Jewish. This was not an Orthodox enclave but a secular community in suburban Philadelphia where many Jews had settled. And for me, once I was an adult and had children of my own, the solution was to move to New York City, which has a large Jewish population. I wanted never to have to face unconscious prejudices against Jews or to have my children face them. New York City protected us. But I remember some incidents from decades ago when a business trip took me out of my New York cocoon to St. Louis, Missouri and a well-meaning woman at a social affair organized to greet my arrival asked me, “What church do you belong to?” And I remember another incident from around the same time when I got off an airplane in Minneapolis, Minnesota and saw no one who looked like me. Everyone was tall and blonde. I was so unnerved by this that I called my mother. Your essay is truthful and accurate about what you faced and what most Jews have faced in one way or other. Forgive yourself for not speaking up.
I was so moved after reading Jessica’s essay… It really hit home for me. I know so many people, as well as myself, that felt her pain and related to that pivotal moment of being discriminated against and yet, not finding the words to speak out. As we get older, we have the tools and have learned to speak out strongly against anti-semitism. My heart goes out to the younger “you” and what you endured.
I love the way this piece was written. Jessica drew me in at the first sentence and kept me holding my breath until the last word. It was so thought provoking…I can’t stop thinking about it and sharing with others.
I can’t wait to read what Jessica does next.
Thank you for sharing this very personal moment in your life. You have expressed the frustration that many of us have experienced being a Jew.
I am a Jew and no one will ever force me to hide my identity. I will continue to fight for this. A great read! Thanks
Ah… it was a different time. I too remember hanging out and riding bikes in the summer between 7th and 8th grade with a good friend in those same neighborhoods (back when 12 year-olds could ride around all day miles from home with no means of contact). Soon, I realized we weren’t doing that anymore. When I finally biked miles to his house one morning, he couldn’t “hang out” because his dad told him he didn’t want “that Jewish rich kid being seen with his son”. Silence.
Dumbfounded, I just said “oh”, and slowly left.
That was that. I was too young and ignorant to be mad, or sad, or hurt. I dont think he truly understood it either. I was simply confused and so was he. Jewishness was less of my identity than Jessica’s but this same feeling of angst permeated me for weeks (a lifetime for a middle schooler). I mentioned it to my Dad who simply replied with a shrug “Thats the Irish for ya!” (unkowingly teaching me that two can play at that game).
I say this story only to show that 1) it was prevalent and 2) doing absolutely nothing is the go-to solution for middle schoolers…. so don’t feel like you let yourself down. And by the way, I had never thought of myself as “A Jewish rich kid” until that moment. I soon realized that quite a few other parents did see me that way even if they were totally fine with it. I woke up… as they say. It was really different time. That sh*t wouldn’t fly today, so don’t judge yourself too harshly.
@Adam S. Oh my goodness! Wow I just read your comment. I need to clarify that this incident took place after middle school. I was between the ages of 16 and not more than 18. I’m so shocked this type of thing happened to you as well although I suppose I shouldn’t be. It’s awful to know that people we went to school with harbored such prejudice whether born out of ignorance or malevolence. And, in fact, the individual that prompted me to write this essay told me years later that she didn’t understand what was wrong with the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia where Heather Heyer was murdered by neo-Nazis shouting “Jews will not replace us.” She proudly told me over the phone that she herself might have been at that rally and when I tried to explain to her, incredibly still giving her the benefit of the doubt, how wrong and evil those neo-Nazis were, she seemed to get it but as her subsequent social media posts demonstrate she hasn’t learned a thing and has clutched tightly to her prejudices. I’m very glad I was able to release this story into the world and reading all these comments I see its impact and for that I am grateful.
Very well written and thank you for sharing. The insidious nature of anti-Semitism, or any type of hate for that matter, comes through clearly. When will we ever learn?
I very much enjoyed reading this piece. As a reader, I felt like you were talking to me and I was very engaged and eager to continue reading(please write some more). Sometimes you made me laugh but I also felt your pain and disappointment. I would also like to add that as a Gentile, I learned a lot too. Loved your bio.
I like this new image / metaphor that you have created with your story — I will forever think of a country club and Superman when I think of several life experiences that your nice blog post describes — first, being Other and second, being humiliated, confused, torn as to what to do, and having regret for not taking a stand. My grandparents in St. Louis had to belong to a Jewish country club; they were not welcome at a Christian country club. Their sons, born in the 1920s, went to a post private school, but for school dance or whatever, they could only date Jewish girls. It was taboo for the Christian girls to date a Jewish boy. My brother-in-law’s widowed grandmother changed their surname from Israel to a WASP surname so that they would be able to move to a gated community in the East. Being Other. Growing up for me was different than for you. My experience of being Other was from being blond, blue eyed, and not an Italian Catholic in the very small town where we were the only Jewish family. We ended up hanging out mostly with the Protestants or with families who summered in the town, who were more cosmopolitan. I wasn’t really considered Outside just because I was Jewish, it was more because I was not from a conservative Swiss-Italian Catholic family. They were tight knit and although my teachers wanted one of my classmates to be friends with me because we are intellectual peers, her parents soon forbade her from coming to my house. My parents weren’t only not Italian and Catholic. They were Bohemian and liberal. My mother used to sunbathe topless on the back patio of our ten-acre home way out on a country road. I guess the FedEx guy knew about that. Anyway, your blog post was quite successful because it evoked memories and feelings of those two life experiences and your description of your family life resonated and was vivid. Adolescence is awkward enough without being Other and being placed in possibly humiliating situations!
Beautiful writing and very resonant. Thank you Jessica.
Brilliant writing, Jessica. It even had me guessing at the classmate who so wounded you. Trauma distorts our perceptions and recollections, but you captured vividly your feelings in the ensuing decades.
Thank you for sharing this wonderful essay, Jessica. It has touched me deeply. I will go back and sign in to comment there as well. There are always a few times in our young lives when we regret our decisions. that is the norm. What touched me even more deeply was that you can’t remember if you even saw Christopher reeves. Probably, your guilt blocked it out. It reminds me of something that happened when I was about 11 years old. I attended a private summer camp. My mother‘s cousin was part owner, so we had a big discount. I did not come from a religious family, but the rabbi of an Orthodox shul was our neighbor in Astoria. So all the kids nearby attended the orthodox Hebrew school. I didn’t like it at all, but I did learn some things. One of which was Friday night Kaddish. So, in camp, which was Jewish style but not religious, we had an abbreviated Friday night service every week. Each week one boy was chosen to recite Kaddish in Hebrew and one girl would recited in English. When it was my turn, I said I wanted to recite it in Hebrew as I knew it very well, and I didn’t think it was fair not to give a girl a chance. I was sent to ask the head partner of the camp for a decision. I cannot, for the life of me, remember if I got to recite it in Hebrew or if I even decided not to recite it at all. I have a good memory, but I seem to have blocked this out.
Please feel free to share any other writing with me. I also love to write poetry.
What a beautifully written story. Moments before meeting Christopher Reeves and a bomb is dropped. How does one prepare for such micro and macro aggressions? Processing and responding in the moment to such profound ignorance and fear is a challenge. Thank you Jessica for writing this poignant reflection.
This was beautifully written. Jessica provides a beautiful example of how subtle yet impactful hate can be. The damage anti semitism has is proven by her memory so many years later. Thank you sharing and reminding everyone to not be silent.
Confronting your own memory was at least as difficult as confronting a childhood friend’s betrayal. The instantaneous decision you made helped shape your approach to people as you grew older. Sharing such a pivotal moment with the world was not easy, but confronting the actions you took or did not take in such a public way reveals your truest character. I think when you went to see Christopher Reeve, it was actually Wonder Woman meeting Superman.
I’m relatively new to this site, having been referred by a friend in Philadelphia.
Jessica Ursell’s excellent memoir has obviously touched a lot of nerves – and memories. Indeed, 39 posted responses, so far, is much higher than on other posts I’ve read.
This informs me that in addition to being rightly sensitive to attacks – however subtle – we Jews are a thoughtful people who search for Truth and answers. At seventy-five years young, I’m still asking “Why” when I try to understand Evil in its many forms.
That said, some years ago I arrived at the sad conclusion that it’s next to impossible to “educate” those who choose ignorance over enlightenment. But the good revelation is that there are sites like this one which allow us to share and discuss our thoughts.
Thank you Jessica for this beautiful and poignant piece on what it feels like to be a Jew a lot of the time. Unfortunately, the story feels close to the heart and not uncommon. I like that you ended with Never Again because I believe everyone should be reminding themselves of that sentiment everyday. Thank you for sharing your story. It is important to feel like other people understand what you’re going through as well.
Very well written and something many of us can relate to, even if not to the particular form of bigotry (anti Semitism). I agree with what others have said about how hard as a young teen it would have been to know what to say or how to respond in the moment, and even as adults there are times we don’t know how to handle those situations. Too often those in under represented groups stay silent so as to not draw more negative attention to themselves, and it eats away at our souls and humanity. The impact is obvious here where the memory has stayed with the author for decades, and the experience is still as vivid now as it was then. Thank you so much for sharing and making us all more thoughtful about how we can handle those experiences differently in the moment.
Great piece, Jessica. Well told. (I kept wondering who the friend was.)
It would have been funny if you strode up to Christopher Reeve and asked “Do you think it’s appropriate for a non Jewish actor to play a Jewish character?”
Only one note: If Duke Schirmer had read the first three paragraphs he would have suggested “show don’t tell.” Using dialog maybe? With my dad it would have been:
Dad: “A country club?”
Me: “Yes, dad, a country club.”
Dad: “You know what Marx said about country clubs!”
Me: “Karl Marx wrote about country clubs?”
But your dad would have been funnier. And more relevant.
Thank you for sharing this little slice of your life expressed with the unapologetic, viceral immediacy you characterize yourself with. Even though the event happened years ago you still tear off the band-aid to reveal to us a wound unhealed. That’s real and worth telling. I have also had a few similar experiences that I still berate myself over. Even though we were similarly equiped with a laser sharp self-awareness and keen sense of situation, a hallmark of our secular Jewish upbringing, you were still unprepared for the baked in anti-semitism. It hit you like a punch to the solar plexus and you did what we all have done. You learned 😊
The story drew my interest from the start and kept it to the end. I too like to figure out the “why of things”. The story taught me a very important lesson. I wish I would have read it fifty years ago. Often, I am silent in order not to create waves. I need to stand up for injustices and not remain silent for fear of conflict.
Sadly, I’m not surprised to hear this experience. I hope our children’s generation have not had similar ones.
Thanks for sharing – it’s so important!
Very nice use of a memory to make a broader statement. Many that self-servingly believe they have no discriminatory “inclinations” are so insensitive they don’t even notice the slights that they inadvertently hurl at friends and acquaintances. Of course for our own self-survival we must develop protective armor. The trick in life is to learn when to and when not to deploy that armor….. all the while knowing that human failings inevitably mean we cannot get it right 100% of the time.
This story hits home not only because Jessica is my friend and I know the person she writes about, but because it is my story too, just with different characters and details. In fact, can’t most Jews relate in some way to the experience Jess so artfully describes? Isn’t it our shared story of encountering antisemitism directly or indirectly, of finding our voices in adulthood and being more well equipped to confront bigotry and hatred? Jess’s story reminds me of my own first direct encounter with blatant and violent antisemitism growing up in the same community. For a long time I didn’t fully understand what had happened, and out of shame I kept it to myself. Today, stories like Jess’s help me to speak out against bigotry and antisemitism and for that I am grateful. Tikkun olam.
Nice work Jessica, what a thought-provoking piece!
Our experiences as children shape our values as adults. How sad for the person who invited you to that event, that they hadn’t learned to respect all religions, and that they weren’t taught that those words or thoughts of theirs were harmful. I wonder what their home life was really like and am thankful that I grew up in a family with deep roots to the Jewish religion, that denounced any kind of prejudice against anyone. It’s learned, children (and adults) do not naturally come up with that themselves. My children and family experienced antisemitism in school and in our town only 10 years ago. My kids were horrified, and it was a complete shock to me that we were living amongst people who had that impressed upon them, although given the current situation in the US it probably shouldn’t have been.
Although clearly an awful experience for you as would be for anyone, I wonder how much it influenced your ability to stand up for what is right. I often read your posts and find comfort that even though antisemitism is very prevalent today, the adults in the room are trying to stop the hateful rhetoric and educate those who have tainted and dangerous views.
I love that your piece shows what a few words can do to someone, the harm that it can instill and the long-lasting effect it can have. A lesson everyone should learn from.
Jessica. Thank you for sharing this troubling experience. It is extremely well written and utilizes beautifully descriptive allusions and connections that were inspired by the trauma. Your family legacy, replete with tragedy, loss, resilience, heroism and amazing achievement against all odds, more specifically pegs you not only as a Jew, but a Jew with a particular yerushe. The modern terms microaggression and macroaggression are completely inadequate when framed against the backdrop of the world’s most horrific offense. The offense you experienced at the club at the hands of an acquaintance completely oblivious to the historical context of her comment, burned inside you because of your particular brand of Jewish DNA forcibly mutated by fire and ash. Your anger is palpable and understandable. At the same time we cannot kid ourselves that the heroes in our families we admire so much, like you, had their own moments of indecision and missteps. No use in being harsh on oneself in these moments. Your actions or inactions that day did not change or detract from the person you are and were meant to be.
Thank you for so eloquently sharing this searingly honest and heartbreaking experience. It is, at once, deeply personal and universal in nature.
Your words hold a tremendous power to educate … and to heal. Bravo.
Just beautifully written…and does it ever resonate with me! I went to the Yeshiva Academy in Harrisburg, PA from kindergarten till 8th grade…with the same handful of Jewish kids who I’m still friends with to this day. I went to public school in 9th grade…my first encounter with non-jewish kids. Surprisingly, I fit right in. One day Patty Prendergast (wow, I still remember her name from over 60 years ago!), my classmate and friend, turned to me and said, ” Gee, you don’t seem Jewish.” I know she meant it as a compliment but, boy, did that ever sting!
I read Jessica Ursell’s story about Superman at the Country club. I felt something twist in my gut. That’s because I recognized that horrible feeling when your very being is challenged, at the level of your DNA. It brought back many memories, when just for a moment you feel “ less than”. Or you lack the words, or the experience to answer back. You can’t form the thoughts. Your frame of reference doesn’t contain the “oh, this is what I should say or do”… The anger is still there, years later. Sometimes you can find a way to express it, later, sometimes the people, places, events are gone forever. No do-overs. But if you can tell the story to a child or grandchild, it can be a blessing. AFTER you have the maturity and guts to handle it, you know what? It still twists your gut! Bill Shakespeare had it right. To thine own self be true…
I love this essay! I can relate to so many aspects of it! I also remember, with a very uncomfortable feeling, events and situations that I was faced with anti-Semitic/anti-Israel sentiment and my action/reaction was lacking or even non existent…
I passed your essay on to my kids… maybe it will give them a little heads-up or courage or conviction to take positive action and stay true to themselves always
Humble beginnings Jessica, that was beautifully said.Thank you for sharing that.
I throughly enjoyed this essay. Jessica writes with wonderful, bright clarity and optimism. When she says “never again”, you say it with her because her story is our story. I look forward to reading more of Jessica’s work.
I felt frozen in time with you as you experienced the ignorance and prejudice not fit for an adult, at such a tender age. Your innocence ripped from you, your story is now available as a voice for those of us who have felt voiceless, just as you did. I’m quite honored to read your memory as it helps me to rejoice in feeling whole and knowing I’m not alone. And I’m certain I speak for numerous others. Thank you.
A beautifully written, moving, powerful piece.
What a wonderful essay, looking back at childhood memories and decisions with an experienced perspective. I think we all have times like this, where we can’t quite recall the outcome. It is blocked out with emotions. This piece brings the event full circle. It has moved me to tell my own frustrating tale. Thanks, Jessica, for touching us all.
Great reminder that it is hard not to act too Jewish… Whatever that means.
Very beautiful story that encapsulates the age old conundrum regarding how much anti semitism and discrimination Jews in the diaspora are willing to put up with. Why do we have to put up with any? Well because we’re surrounded by it and we don’t necessarily want to live in Israel – plenty of anti semitism in that part of the world as well. As for the story, I do wish you would have told your friend “no” and then gone on to exaggerate your Jewishness as publicly as possible just so that she could have felt embarrassed and betrayed. it would have been a fraction of the embarrassment and betrayal you felt! Am israel chai!
This candid essay resonates with me, evoking (provoking?) many thoughts and memories from youth to adulthood. I can relate to where and how this author was raised by her Jewish family in suburban Westchester County. I grew up in a similar environment in similar circumstances.
I remember having friends who belonged to the country clubs, and though I knew that these places had traditionally denied membership to Jews, I also wanted to be included in my friends’ activities. So I never said anything. It took a while before I fully recognized and accepted that in many ways, they were not my people and I was not theirs. At the time, I couldn’t completely identify that it was in part because of my Jewishness, but I knew I was different.
It’s funny (ironic?) because while I was surrounded by plenty of Jewish people during childhood, it was not until years later that I realized being Jewish is such an intrinsic part of my identity.
After marrying a non-Jew, living in an area where Jews are not abundant, I have been able to more fully appreciate and embrace my Jewishness, and to stand up for what it means to me and to my family, to my children.
The first time I heard the expression “to Jew one down,” was from my former mother-in -law. I was taken aback. I’d already dealt with a few of my husband’s less enlightened acquaintances, and had no problem saying anything. But this was my mother in law!! I’d been married for a couple years already. I didn’t see it coming. I didn’t say a word.
I didn’t know how to respond. I’m ashamed of myself and my inaction.
Both of my children readily identify as Jewish, even my (technically) non-Jewish stepson came home from school one day proudly proclaiming that he and Hannah were the only Jews in his class. My daughter asked for latkes and Chanukah candles. We made them and we lit them. I met other families who had Jewish background.
I reconnected with extended family, attending and planning huge family seders.
I’ve never been more Jewish! Even with my kids far from home, I light candles and celebrate/honor Jewish holidays and life with my friends.
I think this writer should recognize and value all she has held with her, what she passes on, rather than focusing on what she didn’t say during adolescence.
Clearly this incident helped to clarify and solidify things in this author’s mind.
No shame in that!!
What an inspiring example you set. Keep writing and continue sharing your thoughts and feelings.
This story was incredibly relatable. As minorities, we are frequently told to conform, which is a reminder that we aren’t truly accepted. People who make comments like that are the types who have never been told that who they are is “too much” or “too little” for that matter. Folks also say that we should stand up for ourselves but sometimes you are just in so much shock that you don’t know what to say or do. You’re just frozen due to being blindsided in the situation. I am not surprised at all that you don’t remember seeing Christopher Reeve.
My first memory of antisemitism happened when I was a teenager working at a pharmacy. I was an African American girl in the Southeast who had gotten used to elderly people arguing with me about sales and coupons. I told my manager about a customer’s complaint and she responded with “Yeah, be careful because they may try to Jew you down.” My manager and I weren’t from the same part of the South. I often found her thick accent difficult to understand and learned to not bother asking her to clarify. I went home that day and told my parents about my day like I always did. They were in the kitchen preparing kabobs to grill and they both had their backs to me. I said to them, “And then my manager said to me to be careful because they may try to Jew me down. I don’t understand what that means though.” My parents both had a physical reaction to that comment. “My Dad responded, your manager means that man is trying to rip you off. Don’t ever repeat that phrase again. Also, you manager is ignorant and prejudice.” We only had like two Jewish kids in my grade when I was a kid and my parents aren’t antisemitic, so teenaged me didn’t even recognize prejudice when it was right in my face. It made my stomach hurt the more I thought about that phrase. I lost respect for my manager and made my conversations with her even less frequent.