Bruce Bentzman's
Suburban Soliloquies #


Some of my best friends are Jewish. I, myself, am Jewish, yet I spend very little time conscious of this. On the other hand, I find society and events often try to keep me from forgetting that I'm a Jew.

One day I was flying home from Colorado and the elderly gentleman in the seat next to mine asked me if I was Jewish. I said that would depend. Depend?, depend on what? he exclaimed. It would depend on what you consider a Jew to be. Then he asked, are your parents Jews? Yes, I said. Then you're a Jew. (Actually, by Jewish law, only the mother has to be Jewish.) Okay, I said in my most agreeable tone, I am a Jew. How do you feel about Israel? he next asked me. I don't support them, I said. WHAT!, you don't support Israel? he shot back at me, his eyes wide with shock. I told him how I didn't approve of their treatment of the Palestinians, the lack of separation between the State and the religion, nor am I convinced in the justice by which they came to reoccupy the country. And he said, you can't be Jewish and not support Israel. So then I guess I'm not Jewish after all.

While a young man I worked for the Atlantic Tea Packing Company in Bristol, Pennsylvania. I was a tea packer earning less than three dollars an hour. Raises came every so many months, a nickel or a dime at a time. The people I worked alongside asked me my nationality. I told them I was an American, a name the United States has monopolized; whereas anybody from Tierra de Fuego to Churchill, Manitoba might properly wear the tag. No, no, my fellow workers exclaimed, we mean, you know, where did your parents come from. My mother and father were born in New York City. But of course what they were looking for was something much older. So I told them Russia. Russia?, we thought you were Jewish. I explained to them that Judaism is a religion and not a nationality (and for that matter, I'm an Atheist), but they couldn't understand. When I asked as to their nationality they told me Poland and Italy. Oh, I said, you mean you're Catholics. Well, yes, they informed me, they were Catholics, but our nationalities are Poles and Italians. It was as if, as a Jew, my people are not allowed to be associated with real estate. We're not Gypsies, although not far different, except we're not required to wander.

Safety in numbers. It was a Jew who built Levittown and plenty of Jews live here. A Jewish realtor helped my parents get the financing they needed for the house they wanted because they were Jews. In all my years growing up in Levittown, I think I was only once called a kike, and even then it was for no other purpose than another kid trying to get me to fight. The general belief has been that genocide that is happening elsewhere or in the past can't happen here. That here we are finally safe.

One Monday night in October, here in Levittown, vandals painted anti-Semitic graffiti on Temple Shalom, one of two Levittown synagogues. They painted black swastikas, "Death to Jews," and "Juden Raus."  Thus, I'm reminded that I'm a Jew.

In this country we call these "hate crimes," hurtful acts that are aimed at a specific collection of people grouped racially, ethnically, by gender, religion, et cetera. It doesn't matter what you are, somewhere is a group of people who hate your kind enough to see you tortured and killed. Has any group of people survived history spared from discrimination or genocide? You, regardless who you are, might forget the past today, but if you do, you are likely to get caught in it again, as history is reenacted tomorrow.

The Friday night following the incident, it pleases me to report, members representing twenty-five Levittown church congregations attended the eight o'clock Shabbat services at Temple Shalom to show their support.

A morning soon after the incident, I drove over to Temple Shalom. Two heavy women were gabbing in front of the building and as I pulled into the lot, they leaned and stared hard to see who I was. My guess is first they were trying to figure out if I was someone they knew, but I had not been this close to Temple Shalom in nearly thirty-five years, when I had attended my friend's bar mitzvah. Their hard looking must have identified me as a stranger, but their interest remained as they further identified me as a Jewish male. I parked the car and made small talk as I walked by them. And perhaps they noted that I wasn't wearing a wedding ring. Neither does my lapsed-Catholic wife.

I asked them about the vandalism. The culprits had painted across the pair of front doors and on the adjacent wall. The congregation had already painted over the offenses, but I could get an impression of what it must have been like as the black paint of the vandals had begun to bleed through.

I couldn't read the words, but I knew what it had said from the newspaper account. For a third time the two women invited me to come inside the building, but I had no reason for going inside. And their eagerness to have me go in made me all the more wary. They wanted to know more about me, all about me; they wanted to further observe me, as if to determine my value and decide to what use they could put me.

I asked if the vandals had been caught and was told they had not been. The police believed the vandals were just youngsters. I thought to myself how they were probably old enough to drive, as they had attacked two synagogues a few miles apart. It might have been the mindless prank of one kid who could not begin to grasp the suffering he or she caused others, or is it that the kid is trying to draw attention to his or her own suffering?

Sometimes youth is just not conscious of how deep the devastation, the hurt, they cause. They have so much energy and not yet the sense of how to direct it. They want to exercise that energy and see the extent of their power to affect events. Society demands restraint from them, unless there is a war we can ship them off to.

For youth it is often an insincere game, a fascination with how certain acts or gestures can ignite a chain of reactions. And so they do acts like these. They probably don't even have a thorough investment in any ideology. It isn't as if they are acting from conviction - which is not to say it is impossible for them to act from conviction.

Who among us, while yet very young, has not experimented without caution, or despite warning, just to see what would happen for ourselves. Still, I don't mean to excuse hate crimes. This goes beyond mere restlessness and curiosity. The kids wanted to cause genuine hurt. And I wonder to myself what was it in their upbringing that has robbed them of compassion, made them vindictive and insensitive to the hurt they can cause?

My great-grandmother was murdered for sport by Cossacks. Although my grandparents escaped Eastern Europe before the Second World War, very few of their neighbours had the foresight and luck. The problem is, for any group of people, a safe haven is only temporary. Just as so many Jews were in denial in Berlin just before the Second World War. They could not believe it was happening to them in modern times and the tolerant society of Berlin, until it was too late. Suburbanites fail to realize that any of us exists purely by the consent of a larger society. Whenever I lose sight of being a Jew, there are others who will remind me.

Bruce Bentzman

This is the twelfth in a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr Bentzman. If you've any comments or suggestions, the writer would be pleased to hear from you.