ARE YOU A JEW?

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Once upon a time, say in September 1978, a little boy moved with his mother, father and older brother from New York City to a small and pretty town on the south shore of Massachusetts called Duxbury.  It was the first place the Pilgrims had come after spending the winter of their arrival in the New World on the Mayflower, the ship with which they had made the voyage.  As soon as the weather warmed up, they sailed across Massachusetts Bay and called the place they landed “Duke’s Borough.”  [I forget which Duke, but you can be sure he was English and Protestant.] John and Priscilla Alden built a house there, now a tourist attraction. The town also has a monument erected to the memory of Miles Standish.

An executive search lady had steered the little boy’s parents to Duxbury because it was equidistant between Boston and Hyannis, on Cape Cod, where she was hoping the little boy’s father would accept a position as CFO for a privately held corporation. According to the little boy’s mother, who tended to be hoity-toity about such things, public schools in Hyannis were unacceptable, and there were no private ones anywhere near, except Catholic parochial schools, which were also unacceptable because the little boy’s parents, and therefore their children, were nominally Jewish.  Also she felt she might die if she couldn’t get to a big city once in a while, preferably one with a reputation for culture and learning, like Boston.

Thus Duxbury it was.  When the little boy’s older brother first heard where they were moving, he asked, “Is there also a Chickenbury and a Turkeybury?”  But he was already beginning to make sardonic comments about many things, even though he was only eleven, so never mind that.  Duxbury was certainly lovely when the family came up one weekend to look at it before making a commitment — all  green trees, and winding roads, and historic New England houses with plaques bearing dates of construction going back as far as, and occasionally even farther than, the late eighteenth century, and steepled white churches of nearly every Protestant denomination dotted here and there on well kept lawns.  There was also one red brick Catholic church, and a yacht club with its own tennis courts and golf course, and a beautiful expanse of golden beach on the Atlantic Ocean reserved for town residents.

They moved in on the first Saturday in September. School began the following Monday. The little boy’s brother was in a higher grade, in a different building, served by a different school bus. So he would be going alone to his new school. In New York, they had walked with friends from their apartment house to their respective schools. The yellow school buses here were new to them. On the first day, the little boy’s mother therefore walked him the half-block down their street to the corner where the lower school bus would pick him up, and waited until he was safely inside.

She was back on the corner at 3:00, when school let out. The  little boy descended the bus steps, happy to see her, and took her hand as they ambled back to the house. “You don’t have to come anymore,” he declared proudly.  “I can do it myself.”  In the kitchen, she poured him a glass of milk to go with the plate of chocolate chip cookies on the table, and sat down opposite to ask how his first day had gone.  Everything was good, he assured her.  Teacher nice, other kids fine. Except for one thing on the bus in the morning. “What thing?” asked his mother. So he told her, which is what he’d been wanting to do all along.

********

A big kid had got on at the next stop after his and sat down in the empty seat next to him. A very big kid. [As the lower school to which the bus was going only went through fifth grade, the size of this “big kid” must be considered in relation to the size of the little boy, who was about to enter fourth grade. We’re not talking teenagers here.]

The big kid looked the little boy over. “Never saw you before,” he said. “New?” The little boy nodded.  The big kid asked his name and where he lived.  “What kind of name is that?” he wanted to know. “My name,” said the little boy, bravely.

Then the big kid asked which church the little boy went to. The little boy was next to the window or he would have got up and changed his seat, but he couldn’t do that. So he said he didn’t go to any church.  Not even the Catholic one? The little boy shook his head. No.

Right away the big kid demanded, in a not friendly way, “Are you a jew?”

The little boy had already sensed that “jew” might not be a very good thing to be in this new town. Or at least, not on this bus. On the other hand, he also knew one shouldn’t lie.

So after a moment, he said to the big kid, “Which would you rather be?  A jew… or Hitler?

The big kid had to think about that one.  “A jew, I guess,” he said finally.

“Well then,” said the little boy. “You see?”

*******

“Was that a good answer?” he asked his mother that afternoon.

“It was a very good answer,” said his mother, getting up and kissing the top of his curly head as she went to pour more milk.

The big kid never bothered the little boy again. The following weekend, his mother and father took him (and his brother) to Fenway Park in Boston to see the New York Yankees play the Boston Red Sox as a present for his ninth birthday.  It was harder for him to decide which team to root for than it had been to decide what to say on the bus.

His mother is still very proud of him.

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