Wednesday, March 01, 2006

A Journey of a Thousand Miles Begins With a Single Ethnic "Joke"

I've been reading a lot of blog posts lately that deal with how people have been exploring Judaism - either from the perspective of a non-Jew pursuing conversion or a born-Jew looking into increasing their observance.

I myself was born into a typical American assimilated family - our Jewish observance consisted of attending synagogue three times a year (twice on Rosh Hashana, once on Yom Kippur), lighting Chanukah candles, and holding the Passover seder. Otherwise we saw ourselves as more or less the same as everyone else.

I started to observe the mitzvot (the commandments) at the age of 17, but of course my exploring Orthodoxy started much earlier than that. It was a long process and involved a number of different events - but one stands out in my mind especially.

At 15 I attended a public high school, where the population consisted of about one quarter Jewish kids, but for some reason I found that almost all of my friends were non-Jews. One day we had an unexpected free period, so a bunch of us went to the library and hung out at a back table. The conversation meandered and people started telling jokes. One of the guys looked at me (the only Jew in the group) and asked permission to tell a joke about Jews. Being fifteen and wanting more than anything to belong, I of course assented. "How bad could it be?" I thought to myself - maybe something about big noses or being cheap - nothing I felt I couldn't handle. I didn't know what I was letting myself in for.

I have to explain at this point that I had absolutely no knowledge whatsoever of Jewish history - both ancient or modern - and my grasp of what happened in World War II was rudimentary. Growing up in a middle-class household I was also protected from the knowledge, let alone the experience, of the cruelties of the outside world. So you will understand my reaction to the following "joke" that I was told now.

"How many Jews can you fit into a Volkswagon?"
"50, two in the passenger seats and 48 in the ashtray".

I reacted with neither laughter nor disgust - because I didn't understand the joke. I had never heard of the Holocaust and I had absolutely no idea what possible connection there could be between Jews and ashes.

The other kids wanted to move on quickly to another topic, but I wouldn't let them. I knew I had been insulted in some way, but not how, and I didn't want to let them get off the hook. I insisted that they explain this "joke".

In a scene of exquisite poetic justice, the kid who originally told the joke went on to explain to me the rudiments of the Holocaust, and the more he explained the more uncomfortable he became.

I sat there in stunned silence, trying to assimilate what he was telling me about Nazis, and cattle cars, and gas chambers and crematorium.

I was profoundly shocked on two levels. Obviously I was shocked at the information itself. But being a teenager, I was also shocked that people I counted as friends could tell a "joke" like that. I felt like someone had pulled the rug out from under me - so much so that I couldn't even muster the reaction that most people have when hearing an ethnic slur about themselves - shrugging it off and pretending that it doesn't hurt, even when it does. This of course made my friends even more uncomfortable, and it was with an almost audible sigh of relief that they jumped up at the sound of the bell and hurried to their next class.

I stayed in the library and cut my next class. I don't remember if I had any coherent thoughts then - but I do remember coming away from that experience in the library with one overwhelming feeling. I couldn't pretend anymore that I was just like everyone else. Being Jewish meant being different. How this feeling led to my making various decisions down the road is of course a longer story - but there is no doubt in my mind that the journey started that day.


Blogger Rafi G. said...

wow. That must have seared an impression in your brain for you to be able to pinpoint that that is what started your journey. I am fascinated by the courage and strength you had to not just laugh it off but to actually follow it up by trying to find out what it meant and then acting on it..

1:27 PM, March 01, 2006  
Blogger Yael said...

An incredible story. I appreciate your sharing it. We are all there in that library with you.

2:30 PM, March 01, 2006  
Blogger Jack Steiner said...

It sounds like you have a very interesting story to tell.

5:57 PM, March 01, 2006  
Blogger Irina Tsukerman said...

: ( My awareness of the Holocaust came earlier - but unfortunately, that still didn't change the ignorance of the students around me. When I was in seventh grade, we were discussing the Holocaust in my history class, (also public schools), and when the teacher started enumerating some of the atrocities, some kids started laughing. I hissed at one of the girls: "What's so funny about this?!" and they all turned on me and told me with the infinite airs of condescension "It's a gree country. You're not in Russia anymore." Aside from the fact that I'm not from Russia, that hurt. I can totally empathize with your experience. That must have been really difficult.

11:02 PM, March 01, 2006  
Blogger Regina said...

For someone who is converting to Judaism, that was a powerful story for you to share with us. Thank you, wbm...

Even as a child, I knew of the Holocaust. And as a child with German roots, I grew up feeling acutely responsible for the Holocaust. It did not matter that I wasn't personally responsible, but I believed, even at my young age, that we were all responsible in some way. I did all in my power to read everything I could about it, to take it in to myself and to somehow try and resolve myself to never, ever utter a word of hate against any group of people.

Things like what your school "friend" said aren't jokes- they're hate. If we haven't learned by now what hate can to do to people, we're lost...

11:50 PM, March 01, 2006  
Blogger Jerusalemcop said...

thanks for sharing with us.

i sometimes apprecaite personal stories more than random ones. It also allows us to get to know the members of the blogsphere.


12:00 AM, March 02, 2006  
Blogger Yoel.Ben-Avraham said...

As an adolescent (before I decided to convert) I was facinated by the Hollocaust and the attitude of "good people" to those events. I remind those who don't know me that I grew up in a country who's foreign minister is quoted as saying "One [Jewish refugee from Europe], is too many" - i.e. Canada.

What I wanted to say, it was a growing awareness but I distinctly remember hearing the VW joke. I remember that it was on that day that I decided to NEVER knowingly purchase a German product.

3:42 AM, March 02, 2006  
Blogger Pinchas Floyd said...

the first stirrings of becoming more observant for me, came from thoughts of the holocaust as well.
i like to think that this would piss hitler off.

4:28 AM, March 02, 2006  
Blogger bec said...

while that whole moment must have been really hard and uncomfortable, it's amazing how important it is in your personal history and how it shaped who (and where!) you are today. i would be inclined to think that that moment was supposed to play out just as it did.

7:39 AM, March 02, 2006  
Blogger westbankmama said...

rafi - part of my pursuing it was plain curiosity, and part of it was plain stubborness. I am a very easygoing person in general, but when something is important I dig in my heels. How else would I have become Orthodox and made aliyah?

yael - I think this story unfortunately hits a nerve with far too many people.

jack - everyone's story is interesting, in my opinion.

irina - yes, America is a free country. Which means you could tell them exactly what you thought of them!!

regina - hmmm, feeling guilty for something you had absolutely no responsibility for...are you sure you're not already Jewish? ;)

jerusalemcop - yes, I also enjoy reading these type of stories.

yoelba - yes, we avoid buying German products too. Did you write about your conversion on your blog? I would love to read it if you did.

phishaliya - wow, I never thought of that aspect - pissing Hitler off! Great! ;)

bec - of course - everything that happens in your life happens for a reason.

10:06 AM, March 02, 2006  
Blogger treppenwitz said...

Incredible story! A bigger irony than the joke-teller being the one to begin educating you about the holocaust is the fact that a horrible anti-Semitic joke launched you on a trajectory that would land you here! I look forward to hearing some more stories you picked up along the journey.

12:54 PM, March 02, 2006  
Blogger westbankmama said...

treppenwitz - thank you for the compliment. Little by little I will write more on personal subjects.

7:24 AM, March 03, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, WBM ...

Somehow this post turned up on my Site Meter referrals, so I took a gander. Glad I did.

In some of your posts I've read over the past few months, I've noticed you're so good at pinning down exact turning points in your life, how a particular mnoment or interaction strengthened your connection to Yiddishkeit, Zionism, Israel, etc. ... I, on the other hand, no so good.

It seems that I can't recall the exact moment in 31 years when I first learned of the Holocaust ... I feel like I've always known about it, but I know at some point I must have been told. Perhaps when I was I merely wasn't sophisticated enough in my thinking to understand the enormity of it.

Never one day did I experience the horror of finding out for the first time that my Jewish brothers and sisters were cremated en masse, gassed alive and subject, in general, to the horrors and indignities of genocide.

But even before I became more observant, I do recall spending hours, over the course of years, pouring through books and the Internet, researching the Holocaust, that the shocking, brutal nature of what happened should never be lost on me, that my sensitivities to this subject never be dulled.

Perhaps to make up for my lacking that pivotal moment where I learned something so shocking for the first time in my life.

7:47 AM, December 14, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I call bullshit. A Jewish American teenager that's never heard of the Holocaust?

Americans had that shit rammed down our throats our whole life.

7:51 PM, January 10, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm finding your blog and this post very late, but I could easily imagine feeling incredibly mixed emotions after a "joke" like that. Betrayal, shock, disgust, confusion, hurt. Though I wouldn't know exactly what journey I was on until I was also a teenager, mine started in elementary school when it was "common knowledge" that no one drank out of a specific drinking fountain because N drank from there. When I asked why, because I truly didn't understand it, they said, because N is Jewish (they said more, too, but I can't bring myself to write it). I didn't know what to feel, but I made it my duty to always drink from the same fountain N used, and telling N we were sisters in this together. At the time, I just thought we bonded as two girls who were picked on. I had no clue it ran much deeper.

4:24 AM, January 15, 2007  
Anonymous louis said...

It sounds interesting. I wish I could be there with you in library.

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11:27 AM, November 10, 2009  

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