When I finished second grade, my parents moved to the Detroit suburbs. Mom was expecting another baby so we needed a bigger house. This was 1956. Nobody lived in the suburbs yet. The roads weren’t paved and there were plagues of earthworms after it rained.
In September, I took my first school bus ride. As soon as I was seated, I felt a wet spitball sting on my neck.
“You kike,” yelled one girl. “Get off our bus. Get out of our school. We don’t want you dirty Jews here!”
This made no sense. What did I do? I took a bath last night. I was clean. I was only eight. I wasn’t even sure what a Jew was.
When I got to my classroom, the girl who threw the hardest, wettest spitball was sitting at one of the desks. Her name was Marsha. She told all my classmates not to speak to me because I was a Jew. They complied.
I was often tormented throughout elementary school. If I raised my hand in class, I heard whispers of “Smarty-pants Jew.” At recess, I stood alone. The other kids jumped rope or played jacks. If I tried to join them, they twirled the rope at warp speed and made me fall and skin my knees. They stole my jacks,
I finally learned why. Our new house was built in the middle of farmland. My subdivision had expensive new houses that many Jews had purchased. Jealousy probably fueled the hatred.
In high school, Dave asked me to a school dance. He was very cute and very not Jewish. The day before the dance, I saw him speaking with Marsha. That night he called me and said he couldn’t go to the dance with me. I cried.
For most Americans, anti-Semitism is abhorrent, but most likely abstract. Perhaps someone in a college dorm asked to see a Jewish student’s horns. Maybe a fellow vacationer advised bargaining with the natives because, “You can always Jew them down.” But to me, anti-Semitism has always caused mental and physical agony.
Over the years, though, I got stronger. I earned a law degree and worked in social justice organizations.
At my 25th high school reunion, I saw Marsha. She came up to me and said, “It’s great to see you. I have lots of Jewish friends now.”
That sentence finally gave me the power to confront her.
“You tortured and bullied me when I was a kid,” I said. “You might think it’s admirable to tell me you have lots Jewish friends now, but that statement proves you’re still an anti-Semite. A racist. A bigot. You don’t understand how dangerous it is to see people as Jew first, and anything else second. Even a friend.”
Maybe I shouldn’t have confronted Marsha that night. Maybe instead I should have thanked her for motivating me to fight ignorance, bigotry and racism in all the Marsha’s of the world.
Maureen Rubin is an Emeritus Professor of Journalism at California State University, Northridge. In her 30 years on campus, she taught writing and media law , served in a variety of administrative positions, published widely and received numerous teaching and public service awards. Prior to joining the university, Rubin was Director of Public Information for President Carter’s Special Assistant for Consumer Affairs in the White House, and held similar positions for a U.S. Congresswoman and several non-profits. She has a JD from Catholic University School of Law In Washington, D.C., an MA in Public Relations from University of Southern California and a BS in Journalism from Boston University.