My heart hurt in the midst of the smiles and the laughter. From my place of privilege and optimism I like to think our society and nation are farther away from the days of bigotry, rudeness, and hatred than we actually are. The truth is much different from what my eyes would like to see and my ears would like to hear.
My friend Heather invited me into her kitchen to teach me about the Jewish festival of Shavuot and some of the foods cooked for that holiday. Heather and her family are Jewish and she and her father Pete were telling family stories as we worked in the kitchen. Mostly they made me laugh but at one point the stories turned to personal experiences of discrimination based on their faith.
Heather owns an incredible treasure in the form of a family history book. A relative spent four years traveling the world to record first and second hand stories of family members and assembling a most remarkable family tree. In the pages of the book is a story of relatives who were executed by the Nazis during the Holocaust. The tale is horrific: an entire family had just finished dressing for the day when they were yanked out of their house and lined up on the street to be gunned down by a firing squad.
Some time passed as we chatted in the kitchen and Pete began recollecting some experiences he had as a thirteen-year-old visiting family in Miami. This would have been in the years soon after WWII but before desegregation. He had walked down the road to see a luxury hotel only to find a sign prominently displayed in the yard “No N*****s and Jews Allowed”.
On hearing these stories, I was sad to reflect on the way the world has treated many of its citizens. But these are things of the past, right? We expect them of Nazi Germany and the segregated South. That is the stuff of history books and we have evolved as society enough to recognize bigotry and not spread it, right?
Just as my optimism and naïveté wanted to take hold and redeem our world, Heather said “Oh yeah. I went through it just last year.” I turned to listen to her thinking, Surely she hasn’t been subjected to someone’s prejudices here lately! Again, my place of privilege was getting the better of me.
Last summer Heather went to a local pool for the afternoon. She sat and finished her book as families packed up their pool supplies for the day and started to head home. One family, however, was just arriving with their bikes for a ride around the park. They were getting ready near where Heather was sitting and the husband struck up a conversation with her. It seemed his family had vacationed on the same lake as Heather’s years ago. He said they had enjoyed it until “too many coloreds started coming.”
I was nonplussed by this statement. This was one of my contemporaries using a term that to me was a part of the language of previous generations, not mine. But here was a man likely close to my age using it in regular conversation with a perfect stranger. Of course, if he began his conversation in this vein, you might guess that there was more to come.
Heather had noticed that his wife wore a large crucifix around her neck, not uncommon except for the fact that this pendant was exceptionally large. As Heather and the man spoke he looked down and noticed Heather’s necklace. She regularly wears a pendant that is her name spelled in Hebrew. He saw the Hebrew lettering and said, “You Jewish?”. Heather responded, “Yes.” He smiled and threw a thumb at his wife saying, “She used to be Jewish but I fixed her.”
I FIXED HER.
Even writing about this exchange days after hearing it makes my heart hurt. “I fixed her.” There was something wrong with her that needed changing, repairing, and he was proud of having accomplished the task.
Remarkable to me was the way Heather and Pete shared these stories. They weren’t bitter or enraged. The stories were interspersed with ones that made us smile and laugh. Heather told this story with an air of a shrug and “What are you going to do about it?”. She was smiling as she recounted a man’s ignorant airing of his own bigotry to her. She was gracious in her response to him, said a light “Oh.” and allowed the conversation to end naturally.
But that “Oh” contains world of meaning.
That “Oh” means I’ve been through this before and I refuse to let it make me bitter.
In that “Oh” was the knowledge of You’re an idiot and a bigot and have been rude to me without even recognizing or knowing it.
In that “Oh” was forgiveness, even. It was a refusal to accept the magnitude of hurt that could have come with it.
I have experienced prejudice in my life but nothing compared to centuries and millennia of experienced bigotry by generations of the same family. Would I have the strength to be as graceful and faithful as Heather? Could I smile even while telling my stories?
I don’t know. I do know that I wish the world was different for my friends who experience prejudice every day. I wish our society looked more like how I picture it on my most optimistic of days and less like the reality that lifts a bigot to represent a major party in a presidential election.
I also know that the depth of faithfulness and capability for forgiveness in the hearts of men and women is enormous. It must be because the women and men who constantly experience prejudice widely cast out this faithfulness and forgiveness to include us all, include a system that at times permits bigotry and at times breeds it.
“I fixed her.”