A Rabbi’s Rumination on Racism
Rather than trying to disabuse people of the biases they may coddle, we must charge them to focus on individuals.
Mr. Paskow, now long gone, was a transplant to these shores, an Eastern-European-born Holocaust survivor who, in the 1970s, attended services at the small shul where my late father served as rabbi. Like many of his generation, Mr. Paskow (not his real name) harbored some deep, overt racial prejudices against what he referred to as shvartzes, Yiddish for “blacks.” It was 1969, and race riots in a number of cities provided the elderly shul-goer with ample fodder for his racial railings. He would surely have dismissed as insane anyone who suggested that America might one day have a black president.
Waiting each day for mincha services to begin, congregants would gather in the shul, and Mr. Paskow would pontificate about political and social issues.
I was just a teenager and held my peace. To be sure, I had experienced black anti-Semitism. Like the boy who liked to yell “Heil Hitler!” at my father and me when we walked to the synagogue on the Sabbath, or the public school students who, having been invited by a group of us Jewboys to play a game of softball, lost interest in the ball when they were up to bat and wielded the wood against us. But I had also grown fond of my yeshiva’s black gym teacher and become close friends with a black neighbor. I tried to see people as just people. So I ignored Mr. Paskow’s ravings.
Until, one day, he was praising Lenny, a boy he had employed years earlier in his haberdashery. Another congregant asked Mr. Paskow whether Lenny, whom the elderly man had effectively adopted and whose college education he had actually underwritten, was Jewish. “No,” said the elderly man. “He was a shvartze who just walked into my store one day and asked for a job.”
I was, as the British say, gobsmacked. Old bigoted Mr. Paskow’s protégé was black? And he had given him a job for the asking? And paid his college tuition? Who could have guessed?
I filed that revelation away for future reference.
When my wife and I married and had children, we raised them to respect all people of whatever ethnicity. In the early 1990s, I was privileged to write a biography of a local man of African and Native American ancestry whose determination to become a Jew inspired me, and, if readers’ responses are any indication, many others as well.
None of that erased the hatred for Jews I had experienced from some African Americans. But I knew there’s no dearth of white haters either. And there’s racism among Jews toward blacks as well.
But from what I’ve seen in recent years, and aside from Louis Farrakhan and his tired tirades, I think that blacks and Jews have grown less wary of each other, learned that “the other” isn’t really quite so “other.” Blacks and Orthodox Jews have increasingly interacted in politics, businesses and many professions.
In late April, the leading haredi newspaper Hamodia editorialized about the new museum in Montgomery, Alabama, memorializing those who, over the decades, were lynched because of their race. The editorial asserted “the need for all Americans, even those of us whose forebears were far from American shores when African-Americans were killed and seen as subhuman, to ensure that the tragic history of American racial violence, too, is not forgotten.”
My thoughts cycle back to Mr. Paskow. I suspect that the puzzle of his apparent racism and his real-life colorblindness derived from the fact that, although his attitude toward blacks was influenced by radicals and rioters, deep in his Jewish soul he could see beyond a nebulous group to an individual. And that allowed him to treat Lenny as, in effect, an adopted son.
Most Americans are not true bigots, but we all have prejudices.
Decades of thinking about racism leave me with the conclusion that it will always be with us, in people’s minds if not in their actions. Racism, I fear, may be a fact of life, and its eradication an unattainable goal. “Curing” racism would be a perfect thing, but, as so often, the perfect is the enemy of the good. But there is a way forward. Rather than trying to disabuse people of the biases they may coddle, we must charge them to focus on individuals.
Let people joke and grouse, if they must, about whites, blacks, Jews, Muslims or whoever else, specious though the stereotypes may be. It shouldn’t matter what people think about group X or group Y. It doesn’t matter to me, a visibly Jewish Jew, if someone assumes I possess traits that anti-Semites attribute to my tribe. I am, indeed, rather cliquish, preferring the company of my own people. No apologies there. But I’m neither wealthy, nor do I have business acumen. And I can’t control my weight, much less the world. All I ask is that others see me, whatever their beliefs about Jews, as an individual. Judge me as me.
It might seem radical to abandon the traditional assumption that fighting racism, sexism and anti-Semitism requires hitting some reset button. But what if there is no button, if looking for it is a fool’s errand?
Most Americans are not true bigots; they don’t hate anyone. But we all have prejudices. Maybe the best we can and should do is accept that fact but remind ourselves constantly that whatever we may think about a group of people, each of its members, in the end, is an individual.
Even Mr. Paskow was able to do that.
This article originally appeared in Moment magazine.