I don’t usually go sniffing around my memories like a CSI on TV after DNA, but every so offers one comes up out of the swamp in a bubble.
It was 1938, New York City in spring, when people come out to smell the flowers and put on riots. This one was hosted by the German-American bund- American Nazis. Their street protest became a swirling mob scene. My parents, sister and I were driving near my father’s law office in the Jewish part of the East side. Suddenly, a mass of shouting people armed with sticks, knives, and baseball bats swelled around us, stopping the car. A man, huge to me then, came to the car. He was holding a bat. He pulled the car door open and tried to drag my father out. At that moment, a small space opened in the middle of the crowd and my father put his foot on the gas. The car shot ahead just enough so that the man was behind us and the crowd closed him off. My father shut the door, angry that he hadn’t though to lock it and we went slowly on to safety away from the crowd. All the while, a policeman had been standing there five feet from what had been happening. It was with this policeman that my thoughts have rested since.
My parents never discussed the moment with me. I was a kid then, seven years old. I wondered why the policeman hadn’t helped us. He has seen the whole thing and had turned away. When I was a teenager, I accused him in my mind of approving of the bat-wielder, whose hate-filled face had been the villain in a score of nightmares. When I was remembering at 40, I realized that the policeman, whatever his feelings, would have been crazy to move in. He would have been alone, surrounded by people high on hate and even the sound of his whistle would have been lost in the roar of the rioters.
The incident had changed me three times over the space of my life. I’m amused now, at the idealism of my adolescence: poor kid, I didn’t see the man, only the uniform. It was much later before I could put myself in that uniform and wonder what I would have done. This signaled my step over idealism’s threshold and into the hallway, the one with all the doors, called reality.
I still haven’t ventured into the body of the rioter. He grew, in those nightmares, to immense size. Thinking about it these days, I realize that if I met him again, he would just be a man-sized man with a prison pallor and bad breath. He must be dead now, haunting other houses.
The nightmares, by the way, were far worse than the incident. More than ever, I need to inhabit the body of that rioter. Because the giant is walking again, and I can’t tell him now, as I couldn’t tell him then, that the changes going on in his world are no more my fault than they were then.
Be comforted, poor giant, white people will still be able to be white. Women won’t take over and leave you behind and some of them might still bake pies. All those black and brown people reporting the evening’s bad news will not take the jobs your children want. The culture is changing, but there are rocks you can still cling to.
You chanted: “the Jews will not replace us.” What a revealing chant that is – how full of fear. Nazis, you need to upgrade your nightmares. There’s probably an app that does that, and if you want to make us unhappy, or frightened, you will fail. Five holidays only render us teary, and two of those are minor ones. Six others keep us dancing, and there are 52 more, one every week to refresh and rejoice us. When we dance with the Torah on a holiday upcoming, one of us might glance at you out of the corner of an eye but it won’t be with fear. Maybe the stupid mess you are making in your mouth will morph into something better. In any case, we won’t allow you to make us afraid. We have our kazoos and out laughter and our singing. Our songs are stronger than your chant, and we sound better too.