To Love and Protect Each Other — From Bigotry

After Jay Deitcher sits silent as his wife is verbally assaulted by his father’s racist friend, he grapples with the ways his family has been muted by trauma.

Jay Deitcher | Longreads | September 2019 | 11 minutes (2,743 words)

After dating Annie for six years, it was no surprise to my family when we stomped the glass and jumped the broom in the same Albany, New York temple my parents were married in. Although we came from different backgrounds — I’m Ashkenazi Jewish, Annie’s Jamaican and Nigerian — my relatives fell for her as hard as I had. She visited my 102-year-old Aunt Marion in the nursing home, could cook a mean brisket (with a dash of jerk seasoning), and chose Judaism, eventually speaking better Hebrew than me. After Annie inspired me to quit smoking, she became my parents’ hero. She upgraded me.

Having witnessed anti-Semitism in the black community and racism coming from Jews, Annie and I made a contract: we’d protect one another. When her African-American friends referred to me as a “good Jew” — as if I were an anomaly — she said something. After the Ashkenazi guy greeted Annie in our temple lobby with a “Welcome, can I help you?” — watching her purse, as if she were going to shoot the place up — I said something, too. I attempted to show wrongdoers their errors, while Annie was an advocate of confrontation followed by ghosting the offender.

Weeks after our wedding, Annie and I went to an Italian spot for lunch with my dad and his friend Bill. Over the decades, Bill was my dad’s go-to fix-it man — initially helping around the house, later becoming one of my father’s closest non-Jewish buddies, one of his confidants. Bill had given us $300 — the most generous gift we received from someone who wasn’t related.

Over lunch, Bill shared his own family milestones, but while waiting for the leftovers to be boxed he dropped the N-bomb, over and over. “They call themselves it, why shouldn’t I?” he asked, smiling, looking directly at my wife. “I call a spade a spade.”

Annie’s eyes slit into tense pockets of rage. Her mouth twisted. Bill didn’t notice or care. Annie wasn’t only mad at Bill, who’d exposed his true self. It was my dad and I who were disappointing failures. A tension began forming between Annie and my father and me. With every word Bill uttered, it grew.

“I’ve worked every day of my life,” Bill continued, “and I can’t call a porch monkey a porch monkey?” Bill rested his elbow on the table, giving a laid-back look, sure of himself.

Having witnessed anti-Semitism in the black community and racism coming from Jews, Annie and I made a contract: we’d protect one another.

Annie pinched my thigh, a sign I needed to do something. I glared at my dad, wanting to pass the pinch. We were his kids to stand up for. He needed to say something since Bill was his friend. Right?

“Y’know,” my dad finally said, “I used to call Asian people Oriental. Then my daughter-in-law told me the term upset her. I didn’t realize it was wrong, but I’ve grown more open-minded.”

“Don’t matter to me,” Bill said. “The name I know them by is the name I’m calling ‘em.”

Nothing else was said. I paid the check and left.

I wasn’t satisfied with my father’s brief, failed intervention. I wanted him to go off on Bill. I realized I should have. I wished I’d protected my wife and was furious at myself. I’d broken our contract.

“Nothing to talk about,” Annie said when I tried to comfort her. Her voice carried resentment. I tried to let it go, to make believe it never happened. But my father still had weekly lunches with Bill. We still had his money. I knew Annie was rightfully wounded.

“Your dad should know Bill’s talking about him, too,” she said. “When your dad’s not around, Bill’s probably going on about ‘those damn Jews.’”

I confronted my dad. “Bill is old, Jay,” my dad said. “People can’t change.”

My dad, at 79, was a flexible guy. He’d been educated by his kids’ lifestyle choices, exposed to new views, and remained open to learning. He watched his children journey into careers that made him uncomfortable and took joy as they succeeded. He tuned in with a smile when they appeared in news clips, marching for feminist and environmentalist causes that at one point seemed revolutionary to him. He walked beside them as they trekked new religious and irreligious paths. When family milestones came, he discovered new ways to celebrate as his children reinvented traditions.

“You’ve changed, dad,” I said. “I’ve changed. Don’t give Bill that copout.”

“Jay,” my dad said. “We have business together.”

There it was. I didn’t realize my father still employed Bill. He was the caretaker for the building my dad owned in Cohoes, NY, in what used to be my family’s decorating business. It was filled with fabrics, frames and wallpaper, until it went out of business over a decade ago. Now, the structure housed my father’s part-time office for his appointment-only consulting. The other half of the building was a rental apartment, which my father, a snowbird, couldn’t maintain without help.

Annie decided that contacting Bill and driving to his house to return the money he gave us as a wedding present would take more effort than he deserved. Annie set a rule: Bill was never to be mentioned in our home. One year later, during a kiddish luncheon after Shabbat services, my father let it slip that Bill would be attending his 80th birthday party.

“What the hell, dad,” I said, realizing people around might have heard, but not caring.

My father explained the invites had already been sent, that I should have told him that we’d banned Bill earlier.

“How do you expect Annie to be in the same room as him?” I asked.

I wondered why Bill gave us a generous wedding gift and then pummeled us with hate? He seemed to want us to sanction his biases. I guessed Bill was probably fearful of what he perceived as a changing America, different than the version he recollected, a future he worried would not include him. Four years before Annie and I were married, we saw Bill and his girlfriend attending a Bill Cosby performance. This was before we knew about Cosby’s terrible actions, but after he began tearing into the black community from his pedestal. We were there hoping to grasp some of Cosby’s legacy, but we worried that Bill and portions of the audience were more interested in his comments about African Americans getting arrested over pound cake. Flash forward only a few years, and Cosby was the one behind bars, and not over pastries.


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Bill helped my family out through the decades, but not confronting his slurs enabled his behavior. I was sure my father ignored a lot over his life, as one of Cohoes’s few Jews. My father had shared stories of his peers returning to school Monday mornings after hearing inflammatory Sunday sermons. They’d laser in on him in the hallway, calling him a kike and Christ-killer. But it was rare that he was willing to speak about anti-Semitism in America. It was always something that occurred in the Soviet Union or the Middle East, not the country that saved his family from the Shoah and allowed his father to rise up from peddling scrap to owning part of the dream. He was of the generation on the family tree closest to the branches of burnt off stubs, relatives who didn’t make it, who were lost in the camps. Aunt Sadie was the first on American soil; she saved money and sent for my grandfather in 1917, when he was 18. His parents kissed him goodbye and he boarded into steerage, leaving his life in Radomsk, Poland behind. In 1924, the United States put a near halt on Jewish immigration. My grandfather never saw his parents again. My father was from the era when Jews were desperate to be patriots. They couldn’t shed their Yiddish skins, but wanted to prove they were worthy of being American. They yearned to be accepted by the boy scouts. Their families planted American flags all over their houses and businesses to deflect the glances of anyone who would accuse them of having dual loyalties.

My father was 29 when the self-proclaimed Nazi Francis Mainville shot dry goods salesman Harry Pearlberg minutes from the family store in 1967. My dad ran in the same circles as Pearlberg. Chances are, he knew him, yet, when I asked him about it, he claimed to not remember the murder. My father denied anything anti-Semitic happening to him in Cohoes after he graduated elementary school, any bigoted incidents that couldn’t be written off as cruel kids. During my adolescent years as the store’s stock boy, I heard about buildings in Cohoes burning down. Furtively, my father’s employees called it “Jewish lightning,” implying the owners were trying to scam insurance agencies. I was thrown by the idea. Sure, I had heard people talk about getting “Jewed,” but I knew in Cohoes there was no way the miniscule sprinkling of us were setting the flames or collecting the money. I asked my father about the term and all he could do was offer an awkward laugh. It was as if he feared admitting the anti-Semitism existed would alienate him from the clients he had fought so hard to be accepted by.

***

When I entered my teenage years, my father moved my sister and me to Voorheesville, NY, where I was one of the only Jews in my grade. The first time I was called a Heeb, I thought my classmate was making up gibberish, so I called him a hoob. I was scrawny, so I learned to run my mouth, too. Always, when a peer came at me, it involved ethnic slurs and pennies flicked. I knew I couldn’t tell my father, knew he couldn’t handle it: he worked 60-hour work weeks in order for my family to thrive; he bought the house, invested in the town. He couldn’t face that the victory may not have been as clean as he believed.

My father taught me to stand up for myself, but he wasn’t a fighter. He never fit into traditional man boxes: he instilled in me a love of arts, not sports, a sensitivity to emotions, and a distaste for aggression. Confronting a good ol’ boy like Bill must have been terrifying for him. I quoted Edmund Burke to him: “All it takes for evil to triumph is for a good man to do nothing.” He apologized — numerous times. He spoke to Bill, who assured him he would talk to us and make amends. At my dad’s birthday party, Annie and I sipped Shirley Temples, Annie’s favorite, expecting Bill to come over to apologize like he’d told my dad he would. There was no apology. After the event, I asked Annie how she wanted me to proceed. She said I should make a call to Bill to discuss her concerns: why his words were offensive, how we were no longer comfortable around him, that it wasn’t our burden to educate him on bigotry, and why he needed to learn not to abuse others.

It took me an entire year, but I finally picked up the phone. Bill answered, and I greeted him calmly, politely. I brought up the slurs he’d used at the long-ago lunch. He began screaming: “Get over it already. You are just like those people on the news.” He hung up.

It could have been so easy. Bill could have said, “I didn’t mean to hurt you.” He could have admitted he was wrong. Instead, he blamed my wife and me for being upset by his hate speech.

After my years in Voorheesville, I had put up fences to protect myself from people like Bill. I moved into the city of Albany and didn’t glance back. The truth was, Bill’s reaction didn’t shock me. Growing up, I would only briefly say hi to Bill and, although he never made bigoted remarks to me, he reminded me of everyone who pelted change in my direction. I knew he had it in him, that the anger was boiling beneath the surface, so I avoided him, only helping him with projects if my father forced me to. I assured myself that I was projecting my own fears upon him, that I was the one stereotyping. I even felt guilty about it, as if I were doing the same thing others had done to me. I figured my father knew what he was doing by letting him into our house. When Bill gave Annie and me the $300, I was shocked. I wanted to believe we weren’t some mixed-relation charity case. I knew he was trying to prove his support to us. I had taken him out to that lunch with Annie and my father as my own form of apology, hoping I had read him wrong.

After Bill’s explosion, I called my father to make sure he was ready for Bill’s further retaliation. Bill’s rage had to go somewhere, I feared it would be towards my dad. My father was calm, not upset. “Is Annie okay?” my dad asked.

“Yes,” I replied, proud that for the first time in a year, my wife felt advocated for.

“Good,” my father said. “That’s what counts.”

The day after the call, we visited my parents for dinner. I was always down for a free meal, but I really wanted to check up on my father. I worried about his stress level because of the Bill incident. My parents supported liberal causes and gave tzedakah to social justice organizations to feel as if they were doing their part in performing tikkun olam, acts to repair the world. Bill had exposed their blindness. My parents saw what Annie dealt with daily.

Over lunch, Bill shared his own family milestones, but while waiting for the leftovers to be boxed he dropped the N-bomb, over and over.

Their house swirled with the aroma of caramelized onions, my father’s specialty. The steak was seasoned, ready to throw on the grill. My mom was baking a family favorite, tater tots from the freezer. As we gathered at the table, I asked if Bill had called. “Nope,” my dad said.

I was still unsure if my father had the strength to continue this battle, if he grasped that Bill was not a one-or-two time racist. Bill was no longer welcome at family events, but I knew that my dad would probably continue to have business dealings with him. Annie accepted this, though it lowered her respect for my father. I wished my dad would amaze us — that he’d make the tough choice, find a new employee, state he could no longer befriend a bigot.

Three months passed, and I never mentioned Bill to my father. I was afraid I’d find out they’d been meeting for weekly lunches. Winter came and my parents, like many New York Jews, left for Florida. The day after they landed, I called to check in.

My father told me there’d been a fire in Cohoes. “It doesn’t look good,” my dad said.

The flames started on the block next to my dad’s building. Then the wind took hold, causing the inferno to spread from structure to structure.

“The worst disaster the city has ever seen,” the Mayor called it.

As the firefighters battled the blaze, I called every few hours to make sure my dad was alright. I worried he was cursed because of his affiliation with Bill. I felt guilty I’d brought on the curse by despising Bill so much. In the end, my father was lucky. The building survived — only damaged by smoke and water. Still, it needed a lot of work. I wanted to jump in my car and rush to help, to be the perfect son. But my father let it slip that Bill was there.

I paused for a moment. As much as I wished I could have been the person to clean up, I made a choice. This was my father’s mess. It was on him to rebuild. I told my father I was sorry for what happened, and that I loved him. Then I hung up.

I texted Annie, telling her what happened. I asked if we could take Bill’s $300 wedding gift from our checking and donate it to charity. I wanted to wash our hands clean.

“Heck no,” she wrote back. “We’re putting it into a savings account towards starting our family.”

It was almost Shabbat, and she would be home from work soon. We had candles to light and prayers to be sung. I set the table with Judaica from all over the world: Israel, Nigeria, Ghana and Brooklyn. I prepared the food and sat, waiting for my bride.

* * *

Jay Deitcher is a writer and clinical social worker from Albany, NY. His writing has been featured in The Washington Post, Tablet, The Lily, and more.

Editor: Sari Botton