Some folks argue that the hardest conversation we have with our kids is the one about the birds and the bees.
I know that one was tough on my mother. One fine day, Mom finally worked up the courage to sit her smirking 11-year-old down with a book of anatomically correct drawings. Of course, my buddies, Stanley Beckerman (whom my father always referred to as "Stinky Stanley") and Danny Perlmutter (a/k/a to Dad as "That Little Putz"), had long ago put me straight on "the facts" -- illustrated with a deck of playing cards so anatomically rigorous that they nearly shimmied!
But tough as it is, this peculiar rite of passage is not the most difficult conversation for a parent to enter with a child. As ethnic minorities well know, the hardest question of all is: "Why do people hate us?"
For my money, the most sensitive literary rendering of that heart-wrenching moment was offered by Martin Luther King, Jr. in his brilliant letter from the Birmingham jail. He wrote it in 1963, responding to an ad taken out in the local paper by Birmingham clergy (including one Rabbi Hilton J. Grafman). These men of the cloth counseled King's protestors to avoid breaking the Jim Crow laws in search of justice. In response to the clergy's advice to be patient, Rev. King wrote the following words from his cell:
"Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging dark of segregation to say, 'Wait.' ButÖwhen you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: 'Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?'; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you;Öthen you will understand why we find it difficult to wait."
My mother never had Martin Luther King's eloquence, of course. Who did? So I can't really blame her for what happened when, as a 9-year-old, I presented her with the Jewish version of Rev. King's parental dilemma.
One day, while walking home from school with Schild, Wolinsky, Beckerman and Perlmutter (even then, we used only last names in preparation for law careers), a bunch of older kids from the neighborhood gathered around us. Led by Bobby Ferguson and Richy Rizzuto ("those goyishe hoodlums," Dad called them), they taunted us with a moronic jingle:
"1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7! All good Jews must go to the ovens!"
I got home in tears and confessed to Mom what had happened. She marched with me over to Rizzuto's house. His mother answered the door. Mom retold the story, ending it with, "you should know what your son is up to."
Mrs. Rizzuto's response I recall as clearly as if it were yesterday: "If you kikes weren't so pushy, my Richy wouldn't have to push back!" After she slammed the door, Mom and I walked back home in suffocated silence -- my humiliation compounded by her own. That silence remained between us for years.
And I continue this tradition of parental silence today. I am a professor of Jewish Studies, teaching a course on anti-Semitism, of all things, but I am baffled by the questions from my own child. Aviva, at 10, is beginning to follow the Middle East news, has been exposed to Holocaust education at school, and, at least once, has dreamt that "terrorists came into our house to shoot us."
"Abba, why do people want to kill Jews?" she asks.
How do I explain Jew-hatred to her without scaring her to death? Doesn't she have enough to worry about with the local sexual predator lurking about?
Oddly enough, I'm not so silent about anti-Semitism in my classroom. Emboldened by academic distancing, I somehow fill four lecture hours each week with all sorts of learned displays. One theme I explore with my students was well appreciated by Rev. King -- the unique American obsession with Jews and African-Americans. What is it that links Blacks and Jews together in the twisted worldview of the 19th-century KKK, and contemporary clones such as the Aryan Nations, The Church of the True Israel, and a card-deck of other white supremacist Internet jokers?
There used to be a crucial difference between American racism and European anti-Semitism. Plantation racism in the American South had a stake in preserving the lives of slaves and their descendants so they could be exploited as property or cheap labor. Lynching -- viewed from the bottom line -- was an investment that ensured the supply of docile "product," not an end in itself.
Anti-Semitism, by contrast, is profligate and genocidal, committed to the utopian idea of a Jew-free world at any cost.
Convincing or not, this distinction has long ago been overtaken by reality. Increasingly, the utopian fantasy of white supremacists now includes scenarios for the genocide of all non-"White Americans" along with the Jews. To quote one Web page: "Jew-nalism and Jew-llywood teach Whites to hate themselves and become vulnerable to the Black-Jewish conspiracy for world domination."
Interesting, isn't it? The most powerful coalition of Blacks and Jews left in America exists solely in the fantasies of people who lust for an Armageddon of racial purification. I understand that American Jews and African-Americans can't explain to their kids the utter failure to perceive and unite against a common genocidal enemy. But how do we -- the adults -- explain it to ourselves?