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When I was in high school, a group of neo-Nazis came to town. They obtained a permit to demonstrate on the steps of the Federal Building in my hometown of Ann Arbor. I remember seeing them on TV and thinking how ridiculous they looked with the various rocks and bottles crashing off of their swastika-emblazoned shields. I also remember thinking that, even though they were idiots and wrong, I was just glad that they were not targeting me, a white Protestant, with their hateful chants. Anti-Semitism was a problem for society, but not necessarily my problem.
Later, at the University of Michigan, I met my future wife, Bonnie, who is Jewish. From that day on, my whole way of thinking changed.
We started dating freshman year. Almost immediately, I learned more about anti-Semitism than I ever could from a history book. It was like I had been living in a room, only looking out one window my whole life. Then, somebody showed me the other side of the house, with its different view of the neighborhood.
Bonnie never spent any time obsessing about hate groups, but as a Jew, she feels, in the back of her mind, that the world has the potential to turn anti-Semitic in a hurry. Take Nazi Germany for example. The lessons of that era have been passed down from generation to generation in her family. My family never talked about the Holocaust in such personal terms. In my family, Nazis were evil characters in spy novels and buffoons on the TV show Hogan's Heroes.
One evening, Bonnie and I were discussing her support for the State of Israel. She had explained that Israel is important to all Jews as a safe haven from anti-Semitism. "What if something terrible happens here in the United States, and the American public suddenly decides that it hates Jews?" she asked. "It happened to Japanese-Americans during World War II. They were all put in internment camps." Although she feels the likelihood of such an event happening again is very low, she also pointed out that, throughout history, various nations have targeted Jews as scapegoats.
After graduating from college, Bonnie and I got engaged. Now I was really committed to the person I loved--a person who was Jewish and would help me raise Jewish children. Not a day after our engagement, I witnessed a minor argument between two strangers over a parking space at a mall in Florida. One man, with a Star of David hanging from his neck, felt that the argument was not worth his time and walked away. The second man, who couldn't have been any older than twenty-five, saw me standing there and said, "Heeb," gesturing to the man walking away. Even more disturbing was that he said it with a wink in his eye, as if to suggest, "Ain't that right, buddy? You're on my side, right?" He then walked away, too.
Dumbfounded, I stood there like a post. By the time I had processed what had been said to me, the guy was gone, and I could not tell him what a pig I thought he was. This jerk had just issued a slur against my people. Check that, my fiancée's people. My future kids' people. No, wait a minute. For all intents and purposes, I guess I had it right the first time--my people.
The following year, I was traveling, without Bonnie, in the Soviet Union. Somehow, our guide and I got on the subject of my marriage to a Jewish woman. "Americans can marry Jews?" she asked incredulously.
"Well, of course. Jews, who are citizens in our country, are Americans (and people), too," I replied, just as incredulous as she.
"But here in the Soviet Union, they have a certain smell about them," the guide said. I could see this was going nowhere, so I dropped the subject, shaking my head.
People like my Soviet guide will always be out there. Like Bonnie, although I feel angry, I can put them in a box in my mind labeled, "Ignorant--Need To Be Educated." But now I have Jewish children. How do I protect them from the dangers of anti-Semitism?
Today Bonnie and I have two lovely daughters. We send them to a Jewish early childhood center. Since the events of September 11 and the recent crisis in Israel, there has been heightened security at the building. We have one friend who has moved her children from our pre-school to a secular school across town. This way, she says, she doesn't have to deal with the added risk of an anti-Semitic attack, on top of the usual pedophiles who prey upon children. I can understand that. As a Protestant, I never thought that hate groups would ever potentially target my children for their religious background. However, my kids are Jewish, and it is now something I grapple with every day. I also refuse to let anyone keep me from doing what I feel is right. If a Jewish early childhood program is important to my family, that's where Bonnie and I will continue to send our children.
Yes, I am Protestant. But my family is Jewish, and I now know a little bit about what it's like to think and feel Jewishly. Back in high school, I never thought much about what it was like to be hated by neo-Nazis. Perhaps that is the real issue. Maybe it had been my problem all along.