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FIRST PERSON

Trip to Mall Brings Anti-Semitism Too Close to Home

July 11, 1994|ANDREA HEIMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

I've always thought of myself as an enlightened woman. I'm well-traveled and well-read. I watch "Oprah" and "Meet the Press." In an abstract sense, I was aware of the many forms of hate and prejudice in the world.

But I wasn't prepared when I experienced that hate firsthand--not in a "Geraldo!" episode about skinheads, but at a local mall.

It was a busy shopping day, and my friend and I were having coffee outside a store. A paunchy man with curly red hair approached us, hawking discount tickets to a comedy club.

"No, thanks," I said.

Then, thinking I would give the guy a chance, I agreed to look at the red-and-white sheets of tickets.

"Never mind," I said, after a quick glance.

The man squinted down at me.

"Are you from New York?"

"No."

"Are you Jewish?" he queried, a sneer beginning to spread across his face.

"What does that have to do with anything?" I felt my body tense up.

"You Jews never want to pay for anything."

I felt as if I had been punched in the stomach. I stared at him, speechless. He grabbed the tickets and strutted away. I watched him through a haze of passing shoppers until he stood, laughing with his associate and looking at me.

I wanted to do something, to retaliate, to wipe the smirk off his face. But I felt completely impotent. Even as the tears welled up, I found myself trying to downplay the incident to my non-Jewish friend, as if it were no big deal.

I even felt embarrassed--an emotion I didn't understand. I am open about my Judaism and proud of it. But that man's comment made me feel like there was something wrong with me. My friend wanted to confront the perpetrator, but I persuaded him not to. I just wanted to leave.

That night, I told a Jewish friend about the incident. He has recounted many stories of his own anti-Semitic experiences--of being chased down the streets of New York, his pursuers screaming, "Heil Hitler"; of being threatened and even beaten up on subways because he wears a yarmulke identifying him as Jewish.

"You've got to expect this kind of thing," he said. "It's everywhere."

In my head, I've known it's there. I know about the history of persecution of Jews. I know about the Holocaust. I read about the growth of world anti-Semitism, and I've seen the anti-Semitic leaflets that have been distributed at local high schools recently. But it wasn't entirely real to me until that day.

I know what happened to me is minor, that many people are verbally and physically assaulted daily because of their race or religion. But that hate-filled slur, delivered so casually, leveled me.

Maybe I should consider myself lucky that I have lived 26 years free of the effects of anti-Semitism. I maintained a naive, childlike illusion that no one could hate me just because I'm Jewish. I'm a nice person, a contributing member of society. How could anyone hate or judge me without even knowing me?

I now know differently.

Later that week, I decided to phone the comedy club the man represented. I recounted the incident to the manger, who apologized. But something had changed in me. I didn't trust his apology. Maybe he was sincere, or perhaps, I thought, he was just afraid of losing business, of getting a bad reputation. It's not politically correct nowadays to be anti-Semitic--at least not openly.

He gave me the name of the promotional company he said was responsible for the mall vendors. I spoke with the president of that company, who was very nice and equally apologetic. He said the employee had been "bawled out."

But I had the same eerie, mistrustful feeling after speaking with this man. Was he really sorry? Or was he mouthing all the right words, while thinking: "Those Jews always cause so much trouble."

"I should have him come clean your house or wash your car," he said, half-jokingly.

"I don't want him anywhere near my house or my car. Send him to the Museum of Tolerance or to 'Schindler's List,' " I responded.

Unfortunately, I know the man who offended me in the mall is set in his feeling about Jews--and probably about African Americans, Latinos and everyone else who is not like him. We are them . He can blame us for his problems. And he probably has a family and friends who feel the same way. No movie or museum will change their minds.

How many other people harbor similar feelings but never express them, I wondered. For weeks after that incident I walked around looking at co-workers, people I passed on the street, sales clerks at stores, thinking: Who hates me because I'm Jewish? Who thinks I'm cheap, or manipulative, or trying to take over the world because I'm Jewish?

I suddenly felt hyper-aware of my actions, as if any annoying thing that I did might be attributed to the fact that I'm Jewish. I felt a huge responsibility for my behavior, that now everything I do reflects not just me, but a whole race of people.

The intensity of those feelings has passed, and I am no longer overcome with distrust and fear. But I am cynical. And I think it's better that way.

In my head, I've known it's there. I know about the history of persecution of Jews. I know about the Holocaust. I read about the growth of world anti-Semitism, and I've seen the anti-Semitic leaflets that have been distributed at local high schools recently. But it wasn't entirely real to me until that day.

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