Remember West Michigan didn’t exist? Sure it was always there. And you knew it was a place — right there on your hand — but unless you were a palm reader there wasn’t much else to know.
I was a college freshman when I finally got a fistful of Michigan.
The year: 1997. The place: Case Hall dorm room. The situation: Lively debate about civil unions, gayness and the right to marry. The context: A semester-long discussion of rights led by the faculty of James Madison College at MSU.
There were four of us.
In the space of a few minutes, it went from friendly parrying between some pretentious freshman into a full-on screaming match.
At one point, someone in the group shouted back at me:
You’re going to hell anyways.
I want to say that I had a reaction that was somehow cinematic. Maybe that I took a swing. Maybe a long pause before launching into a verbal dressing down. Even that I told him or her to “f**k off” and stormed out.
I didn’t do any of those.
I just kept arguing the morality of the subject in what I now know to be a relativistic worldview. If they were going to reject my morality, I would reject theirs. Who were they to tell me that I couldn’t be moral simply because I didn’t believe in Jesus?
It wasn’t until later that I let what was said really sink in.
There were people who I considered friends that believed that me being Jewish meant that I didn’t have a valid code of morals and I was, in their words, “corrupt.”
I had encountered antisemitism before. Swastikas drawn on a desk. Kids thinking it was funny to say, “Heil Hitler.” A neo-Nazi giving my group the finger during the March of a Living. Penny throwing.
But I never felt unsafe. I never felt attacked on a personal level.
This dorm-room “debate” changed that for me.
I began to realize that the phrase “you’re the first Jew I’ve ever met” came with baggage.
By baggage, I mean the huge-camp-duffle-bag-from-Brody’s-baggage.
There were people I met who weren’t really sure whether I had horns. They didn’t come out and ask, but they did make awkward jokes about it. You know what I mean — you laugh because it would make it even more awkward not to. It takes a little bit out of you. Loss of naivety kind of stuff.
In Hebrew school, we learned about antisemitic terms or situations we may encounter in the world; I remember thinking that it was ridiculous.
Who in their right mind would think that a human would have horns?
Who could possibly think that I am part of some global conspiracy? (Especially college me. It was a miracle if I knew what day it was.)
I have come to realize that there are people who think that I might be playing dumb. That I, or “the Jews” were really a cabal of globalists ready to enslave the world. Or that we had space lasers that we used to start forest fires. (If I had a space laser, I would be using it for more productive, if mundane things, starting with cleaning my gutters.)
And that brings us back to West Michigan. In West Michigan, you will not find large Jewish communities. Those that exist are on an island, subject to micro-aggressive antisemitism that many in the broader community don’t feel the need to recognize. “Your kid saw a swastika on a locker? What’s the big deal, the custodian washed it off and we don’t want to make a big deal about it.”
This is the baggage that we carry when we leave the shtetl.
I take how I appear as a Jew to the rest of the world seriously. I made decisions based on what someone might think if I did a thing and they knew I was Jewish.
Didn’t get the discount at checkout? I’ll let it slide – wouldn’t want the cashier to think that I was being a cheap Jew.
I’ve walked past money on the ground.
Haggle? No thank you – I’ll pay sticker price.
As I write these words, I feel my blood pressure rising and my heart break.
My experience with West Michiganders encapsulates, for me, what it may be like to dive into conversations with non-Jews, especially about “Jewishness.”
I believe that most misconceptions are due to ignorance, whether accidental or willful.
I have to put on my best face when being the “first Jew someone has met.” It is likely that all of their encounters with a Jewish person for the rest of their lives will be framed in how I behave. That should be their baggage, but somehow it’s mine.
Bags and bags and bags. We are talking warehouses full of luggage that was left in Auschwitz kind of baggage.
I’ve seen it. I have felt its weight.
But I am also willing to carry it, no matter how difficult.