In yesterday's story about the senseless slaughter of Jews in Pittsburgh, I quoted Wayne Woodman. He compared Jews like himself to "the canary in the coalmine." When they are vilified, our Constitutional guarantee of religious freedom is threatened.
Some of those reacting to this tragedy attempted to minimize the perceived rise in anti-Semitism, saying it's being confused with criticism of Israeli policies. Here's what I know. As a Lehigh Valley product raised in a Lehigh Valley community, I was taught to be an anti-Semite myself.
I grew up in Hellertown, and at a time when Jews and black people were held in low regard. I was told black people were not allowed to use the pool because they smell very bad in the summer.
If a person felt he made a bad trade or was cheated when buying something, he claimed he had been "jewed." I remember saying that myself.
In the seventh grade, I remember saying at recess that Sister Raymond's nose was as big as a Jew's. One of the girls dimed me. Sister Raymond grabbed me and beat the shit out of me, something that happened often. Was she upset at me for my anti-Semitic remark? Not at all. "My nose is not as big as a Jew's," she shouted as she laid into me, which I kinda' liked.
This prejudice did not come from my mother or father, but the community. My mother was very tolerant. After all, she married my father. As for him, he ridiculed every ethnic group. Jew, black, Pennsylvania Dutch, Italian. It made no difference. I eventually realized, as I grew older, that he was probably more tolerant as my mom, but in his own twisted Irish way.
He once told a story at the dinner table about a farmer who had retained him. At that time,there were only two lawyers in town - my father and Leonard Cohn, a Jew.
This Pennsylvania Dutch farmer did not want to use my dad, who was at least on paper a Catholic. But the other lawyer was a Jew. The farmer concluded Catholics were not as bad as Jews.
It was not until I reached high school that I was enlightened by nuns (from a different order) and brothers who really knew what they were doing. I know my mental programming is to be anti-Semitic. It has diminished as I have aged and have learned that much of what was drummed into me as a child was simply wrong. But it's still there.
I know many in my community, especially older people like myself, were raised exactly like me. I hear the remarks. For years, I let it go. Now I correct these people, unless it's humor. They get very indignant, denying their prejudice.