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I prodded the chicken with my fork. The rest of the table was heatedly arguing about health care while I wondered how much longer the school fundraiser dinner would last. Then, an idle comment uttered by a boy I didn’t know made my head jerk up.
“…It’s all because of those Jewish bastards in Congress,” he finished.
Silence dropped like a hammer on a nail. I stared.
A friend glanced at me and said, “She’s Jewish, you know.”
I was paralyzed. Questions flickered through my mind. Chief among them was simply: “Why?”
Why intolerance? Why again?
My mouth moved. “You’re the bastard, if you think that saying that is okay,” I said. My calm, forceful words surprised me. I felt like a marionette, lips and limbs moving at the whim of an outside force.
He flushed. “I wasn’t insulting you.”
I went on a brief, terse rant, wondering all the while whose tongue was uttering my words. The boy stared at me, but wouldn’t apologize, and I stood and left the table. The hollow disdain in his eyes haunted me. Later that night, I reflected on his words.
I’ve always known that Jews are rare on the Eastern Shore. In elementary school, someone once asked me what a Jew was. The questions have evolved since then: What’s the story behind Passover? What makes Jews different from Christians? I love such questions. Thanks to my friends’ curiosity, I’ve learned more about Judaism myself than I might have otherwise; it’s the rarity of my religion that has helped make it precious to me. Being Jewish has become a core part of my persona, and I wouldn’t trade that for all the simplicity in the world.
Over the years, I’ve seen prejudice in action and heard occasional insults. But when faced with such instances, my parents carried themselves with pride and self-assurance, and I took my cues from them. I learned how to deal with prejudice and moved on. Sometimes it hurt, especially when I discovered unsavory elements in people I liked. But I learned patience, tolerance, and empathy, and those lessons are easily worth a few bruises.
At the fundraiser dinner, it had been a while since I’d heard such blatant anti-Semitism. I was initially furious. But afterwards, my anger dimmed, to be joined by a sense of pride and gratitude. Yes, the boy was ignorant and spiteful, but he’d revealed some important things. I was proud of my quick response—though perhaps I hadn’t been civil, remaining silent would have been traitorous to myself and my faith. More importantly, I was proud of my companions. The next day, I learned that they’d had words with him, too, and that he’d stalked away after finding no sympathy.
Instances like the one at the school fundraiser dinner are consequences of living in the larger world; fully escaping prejudice is impossible. But more important is the way in which we approach such cases. I chose to focus on the support of my friends, the acceptance I witness every day, and the enrichment that comes from mingling cultures instead of on momentary glimpses of intolerance. My experiences as a minority on the Eastern Shore have taught me that the world is fundamentally a good place, and that it is my duty to continue to make it so. As a proud Jew, I will always promote understanding and denounce ignorance. And most importantly of all, I’ll do it alongside my many friends—Jew and gentile alike.
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