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.