Three years ago on a bright September morning, my wife Dale phoned me at my office in Roslyn Heights to tell me about something disturbing that had just happened to her. It was a few days before the Jewish New Year when our family comes together.
Dale and I both grew up in New Jersey. We relocated permanently to Long Island after we were married in 1980. We raised our children here. She has been teaching art to high school students at the Hebrew Academy of Five Towns and Rockaway, a Yeshiva in Cedarhurst, for close to 35 years.
This is the story she told to me.
She had been shopping at King Kullen in Island Park, about a mile-and-a-half from our home in Long Beach. She was standing in a checkout line unloading a shopping cart full of groceries on to the conveyer belt.
A large man stepped up to wait in line behind her. He had only a few items in a smaller hand-held basket. He seemed agitated; she said she thought it was because he’d have to wait.
Trying to be helpful, she pointed out to him that a cashier had just opened another register just a few aisles away and that there was no one standing in that line.
The man didn’t react. He just stood there, muttering under his breath, appearing to be dissatisfied with the pace of the transaction in front of him.
In my wife’s basket were a number of items for cooking and baking traditional foods for the holidays: brisket, chicken, soup greens, matzo ball mix, and so forth.
Also in the basket were four Yahrzeit candles that we light each year at this time to remember our parents, three of whom died in the 1990s, all well before their 80thbirthdays. My mother-in-law Ida was the only one who made it past the age of 80.
The man continued mumbling under his breath and, finally, he said out loud: “You know the ovens are still open.”
It was a frozen moment. The checkout girl and Dale just looked at one another. It was one of those surreal moments that can leave one feeling momentarily numb.
There was no physical altercation, no yelling, no overt anger. But, in my view, it was every bit of a violent moment.
As she recounted her experience she said, “I wish you were there with me.” I thought about that. Had I been there I’m not sure what I would have done. Initiated a physical confrontation? Shouted him down? Assessed him as mentally disturbed and ignored him? Calmly asked him, “What do you mean by that?” I’ll never know for sure.
What I do know is that anti-Semitism is alive and well.
My wife’s disturbing experience, on the eve of our High Holy Days, was a fleeting yet indelibly shocking moment and reminder of how close to the surface anti-Semitism is, particularly in the increasingly divided nation our children are inheriting.
Andrew Malekoff is the Executive Director of North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center.