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A Haredi Rabbi’s Rumination on Racism

Mr. Paskow*, now long gone, was a transplant to these shores, an Eastern-European-born Holocaust survivor, and, over the 1970s, he attended services at the small shul where my late father served as rabbi.  And, like many of his generation, Mr. Paskow harbored some deep, overt racial prejudices.

Shvartzes,” Yiddish for “blacks,” is a term that – not unlike “Jews” in English – can be used as a simple descriptive identifier or as a pejorative, depending on context and how the word is spoken.  Likewise with the synonym tunkel, meaning “dark-skinned.” In my parents’ home, the terms were used only the way one might use any other noun or adjective to describe someone.

Someone like Lucille, our once-a-week African-American maid. I was taught to be respectful and appreciative of her; her blackness was a simple matter of fact.

I wish I had been old and savvy enough to ask Lucille about her own childhood and life. What did she know about her ancestry? Did she resent being a domestic? What were her aspirations for her children?

I’ll never know the answers, but what I do know is that she seemed content with her life, and became, at least on Sundays, part of our family. The most vivid memories I have of Lucille are of her greeting me warmly when I came home from yeshiva and of her sitting at the kitchen table being served lunch by my mother, who would then sit down across from her and schmooze (about what, unfortunately, memory fails).

When Lucille grew older and infirm, my parents “employed” her all the same for several years to do very light work. Mama would, as always, serve her lunch and pay her wages, as compensation, not charity. That lesson in kavod habriot, “honoring all people,” remains with me to this day.

Mr. Paskow, though, was of a different mind about blacks. He employed “shvartzes” often, and not as a term of endearment. It was 1969, and race riots in a number of cities the previous year provided the elderly shulgoer with ample fodder for his racial railings.

Waiting each day for Mincha services to begin, Mr. Paskow, often as not, would pontificate about political and social issues.

I was just a teenager, and held my peace.  I had experienced black anti-Semitism.  Like the boy who liked to yell “Heil Hitler!” at my father and me when we walked to the synagogue on the Sabbath, or the public school students who, having been invited by a group of us Jewboys to play a game of softball, lost interest in the ball when they were up to bat, and wielded the wood against us.

But I had also grown fond of my yeshiva’s black gym teacher, a consummate mensch and sportsmanship role model.  And I had also experienced the close friendship of a black neighbor a bit older than I.  I tried to see people as just people.  So I ignored Mr. Paskow’s ravings.

Until, one day, entirely en passant, he mentioned Lenny, a boy he had employed years earlier in his haberdashery, and whom the elderly man had effectively adopted, even paying, he said, for the kid’s college education. One of the other congregants asked Mr. Paskow whether Lenny was Jewish.  “No,” said the elderly man.  “He was a shvartze.”

Old bigoted Mr. Paskow’s protégé was black?  And he had given him a job for the asking?  And paid his college tuition? Who could have guessed?

I filed that oddity away in my head.

When my wife and I married and had children, we raised them to respect all people of whatever ethnicity. When we lived in Providence, Rhode Island, our daughters befriended a black neighborhood girl, Desiree, who was often a guest at our home.

Our children were also particularly fond of Dhanna, the caring black librarian, who was so nice and helpful to them.  Their artwork graced her desk.

And, in the early 1990s, I was privileged to write a biography of a local man of African and Native American ancestry whose determination to become a Jew inspired me.

None of that erased the hatred for Jews I had experienced from blacks. But I knew there’s no dearth of white haters either.

And there’s racism, moreover, among Jews as well. But Farrakhan and followers aside, I think that blacks and Jews have grown less wary of each other, and learned that “the other” isn’t really quite so “other.”  Blacks and haredim have increasingly interacted in politics, businesses and many professions.

In late April, the leading haredi newspaper Hamodia editorialized about the new “lynching museum” in Montgomery, Alabama, and asserted “the need for all Americans, even those of us whose forebears were far from American shores when African-Americans were killed and seen as subhuman, to ensure that the tragic history of American racial violence, too, is not forgotten.”

My thoughts cycle back to Mr. Paskow.  The co-existence of his apparent racism and real-life colorblindness, I suspect, meant that, although his attitude toward blacks was influenced by radicals and rioters, deep in his Jewish soul, he could see, beyond a nebulous group, an individual.

Racism, I fear, may be a fact of life, and its eradication an unattainable goal.

“Curing” racism would be a perfect thing, but, as so often, the perfect is the enemy of the good.  The good here to pursue is, rather than trying to disabuse people of the biases they may coddle, charging them to focus on individuals.

Let people joke and grouse as they wish about whites, blacks, Jews, Muslims or Mexicans, specious though some of the stereotypes may be.  It shouldn’t matter what people think about any group.

It doesn’t matter to me, a visibly Jewish Jew, if someone assumes I possess traits that anti-Semites attribute to my tribe.  I am, indeed, rather cliquish, preferring the company of my own people.  No apologies there.  But I’m neither wealthy, nor do I have business acumen.  And I can’t control my weight, much less the world.  All I ask is that others see me, whatever their beliefs about Jews, as an individual. Judge me as me.

It might seem radical to abandon the traditional assumption that fighting racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism requires hitting some reset button.  But what if there is no button, if looking for it is a fool’s errand?

Most Americans are not true bigots; they don’t hate anyone.  But we all have prejudices. Maybe the best we can, and should, do is accept that fact, but remind ourselves constantly that whatever we may think about a group of people, each of its members, in the end, is an individual.

Even Mr. Paskow was able to do that.

*Not his real name