A Jewish Child’s First Encounters With Antisemitism, on New York’s Upper West Side
I wrote this column because my 8-year-old son asked me to.
He felt it was important to let people know about an experience we shared on Sunday afternoon.
We were headed, in miserable weather, to the Barnes & Noble bookstore on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. My other son, 5, was with us — all three conspicuously Jewish, with yarmulkes prominently placed and tzitzis swinging. I was also pushing our 1-year-old daughter in a stroller, while my wife and older daughter, 4, had stopped at a shop window a hundred or so feet behind us.
Seemingly from nowhere, at 80th and Broadway, a man sidled up alongside us. He was about 6 feet tall, in his late 40s, well-built and wearing a gray beanie. His hair was dyed blond and came down past his ears. He wore a plain black face mask and bomber jacket, also black, with white markings. He was walking a mid-sized light brown dog.
“I have a question,” he started innocuously. “Is it true that the Bible says Jews must live in Israel?”
“Not that I know of,” I replied.
“My Jewish friends tell me that according to their rabbi, Jews must live in Israel,” he insisted.
“I don’t think you should talk to him. He’s a stranger,” my son chimed in wisely.
“You’re right,” I responded. “We’ve got to go,” I told the man. He continued to follow us.
“Don’t Jews need to go to Israel?” he pressed further.
“Please leave us alone,” I responded. “There are children here.”
“No, I want to have this conversation,” he said. “Why aren’t you in Israel? Are you not Jewish?”
“We are,” my son responded defensively.
“Go away,” I said more forcefully.
“Go to Israel!” he shouted back. And then, furiously: “Heil Hitler!”
I could see the burning hatred in his eyes. My two young sons could see it too.
I pulled out my cellphone and dialed 911, telling the kids to stay close to the stroller. The man then started south on Broadway, quickening his pace. The operator asked for a description of the antagonist and whether he was armed, and promised that I’d receive a call when police arrived at the scene.
My wife caught up and hurried the kids into the bookstore while I retraced our steps, hoping to be able to provide some more specific guidance to law enforcement personnel, but by then the man was nowhere to be seen. No cops arrived. I received no phone calls.
We spent some time that night talking about the ills of racism, bigotry and antisemitism.
I asked each of the boys if they had been frightened by the encounter. Both replied assuredly that they hadn’t. I was proud of their courage, but regretted the loss of innocence at their young age.
It was, in fact, their second confrontation with prejudice in recent months. In June, in the midst of coronavirus lockdown, one of them, again wearing a kippah and face-mask, inadvertently sat too close to someone on a local park bench. “You guys think you’re above the law,” he was angrily told. “You think you can get all the rest of us sick.”
Growing up in England, encounters along these lines weren’t all that rare, but I didn’t expect to find them in the United States. Certainly not in New York, and certainly not on the Upper West Side.
Was this an aberration? Or the product of a new trend, in which the chaos of recent times has sent ancient prejudices bubbling to the surface? Some data points to the latter; bigots of all stripes, once isolated on the fringes, are thronging to unregulated social media watering holes, amplifying one another and strengthening their resolve. At The Algemeiner we’ve covered these developments extensively, but nothing quite compares to first-hand experience.
I wondered what this man could do next time, a man whose hate is such that he has no qualms aggressively accosting a parent with children in the street.
Have our religious identifiers become inviting targets on our backs in the US, as they have become in France and elsewhere? Are we prepared?
I recalled my grandmothers, both chased from their homes by the Nazis at the very same ages as my own young children, and my great-grandparents, murdered by those doing the bidding of the man saluted by our assailant.
I asked my oldest what he thinks we should do. “Write about it,” he suggested. “So that everyone knows.”
The next night, while listing his favorite things, he placed “being Jewish” in second place (first was Pokémon GO).
And with that, my confidence in the future was restored. True, the hatred may never die, but as long as unflappable Jewish pride burns within our children’s hearts it simply cannot overcome us.