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Dealing with Anti-Semitism in School

The school was in a tough neighborhood. All the students were of Italian-Catholic extraction except two of us, who were Jewish.

On my second day, as we were walking through the hallway changing classes, a boy called out, "Hey, Jew bastard!"

At first, I didn’t realize the remark was aimed at me. A moment later, another voice said, "Christ killer! What’re ya doin’ here, Jew boy?"

This bigotry was something I’d never experienced before. I didn’t even know what a Christ killer was. I was confused, and, for some reason that I couldn’t understand, I felt different. I’d done something wrong and I couldn’t put my finger on it. It had to be me, but I had no idea what it was or how to deal with it. I felt ashamed in some way and didn’t know why.

There was an exit at each end of the main-floor hallway. On my third day at the school, I sauntered out of the usual exit that was the shortest way home. I found myself among seven or eight kids who started calling me names, all relating to my Jewish heritage and what I personally had done to Christ. Then a fist hit the side of my head and I was tossed from one to the other. The only thing they didn’t do was kick, but by the time I got home, my nose was bloody, my shirt was bloodstained and torn, and one of my eyes was pretty swollen. I cleaned myself up and changed my clothes. When my mother came home, I thought she was going to faint. She called my father at work. The next day, Dad escorted me to school where we went to the principal’s office.

My folks decided to move closer to Dad’s work in Greenwich Village, at 136 Waverly Place. I transferred to a boys public elementary school on Varick Street. Going there, I found my way through wonderful Bleeker Street. Both sides of the street were loaded from one end to the other with pushcarts, leaving a single aisle for auto traffic to get through. Through the shops, Italian delis and bakeries, with their doors open in the spring, summer, and fall months, wafted the odors of cheeses, sausages, and newly baked breads until you went almost crazy from the wonderful smells. I walked through it on my way to and from school.

But it was there, also, that I got my first taste of bigotry in the form of anti-semitism.

The Christ-Killing Sissy of Greenwich Village

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The principal was a nice man who knew I didn’t belong there, for both economic and religious reasons, but there was little he could do about controlling the behavior of an entire school. Word got around about my father bringing me to school, and that made the situation worse. Now I was not only a Christ killer, but a sissy as well.

At the end of each school day, I got in the habit of looking down the hallway, through the glass doors, to see which one was clear and which one had a group of my "playmates" waiting for me. The insults during class changes kept up. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, this affected my self-esteem. In some way, I wasn’t as good as the other kids, and, more important, I was different. I remember crying in my room at home, not knowing what I’d done wrong or how to fix it. It’s the worst thing that can happen to a child.

Though I’ve come to understand it since, I know it has left scars in me. To this day, I become infuriated at anyone who downgrades someone because of race or religion. Perhaps it was a good lesson I learned at the right time, but I know what it must do to children who are different. It affects each of us for all our lives.

After a month or so of feeling intimidated and inferior, I started getting angry. About two blocks from the school, in the opposite direction from where we lived, there was a vacant lot between two large buildings. I’d noticed that this was the route my "friendly exercise team" traveled. One afternoon, about half an hour after I’d made a successful escape out of the empty hall doorway, I stationed myself on the vacant lot just around the corner from the building. I’d found a one-by-six board, about three feet long, lying there and I was holding it poised in both hands.

I waited what seemed like an hour, but couldn’t have been more than ten minutes, peeking around the corner now and then to see if anyone was coming. Sure enough, along came one of my main tormentors. As he reached the corner of the building, I stepped out and swung the board as hard as I could, hitting him right in the solar plexus. He doubled up and went down on his hands and knees gasping for air. I raised the board and brought it down flat on his back. He collapsed to the sidewalk and rolled over slowly. Seeing it was me, he crossed his hands over his face to protect himself from what he thought would be a third blow. When I saw that he was finished, I tossed the board down.

"If you don’t stop, I’m going to get each of you, one by one. Understand?" I said.

He was too out of breath and surprised to answer, so I picked the board up again. He nodded his head a bunch of times and gasped, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah." I tossed the board down and walked away. When I was about a hundred feet or so past him I heard him yell out at me, "You wait Jew boy, you’ll get yours!"

There’s just no teaching some people.

I was left pretty much alone, from the beatings anyway. The catcalls in the hallways continued. But I paid less and less attention to them. I’d made my point.

What really tore it for me was something that happened one morning in English class. A really tough kid had been paddled by the teacher with a wooden yardstick one day for an infraction. He had an older brother, perhaps seventeen or so, a school dropout who hung around his neighborhood most of the day playing cards and getting into minor scrapes. The "boy" was big and muscular for his age. He came marching into the classroom, called to his brother and asked, "Is this the guy?"

My classmate stood up and said, "Yeah, he’s the one," whereupon the dropout took the yardstick away from the teacher and proceeded to beat the living daylights out of the poor man.

When the teacher finally fell to the floor, the "boy" spat on him and said, "Don’t ever touch my brother again or I’ll come back and really beat the shit out of you." Then he left.

We sat there in shock. Someone went to see if the man was still alive. He was helped to his feet and two boys took him to the infirmary. I got up, gathered my books and went home, where I found my mother just ready to go out. I told her what had happened and she called my father at work.

Several days later, I transferred back to P.S. 108. It was a twenty-minute subway ride, but worth every minute, and I could do my homework en route — when and if I did my homework. I wasn’t much of a student.

Upon graduation from P.S. 108, which was an elementary school up through junior high, I enrolled in De Witt Clinton in the Bronx. It was a nice high school, but the average class size was fifty-five. I was bored to death within a month. It took an hour each way on the subway, which I usually spent reading the latest detective novel.

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