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Shuckin’ and Jivin’  
When faced with the drooling-idiot-in-a-bar, how-did-I-get-myself-into-this kind of Jew hatred, how did I respond?

by David Holzel


Two thousand years of discrimination, persecution, genocide and worse will give a people a pretty healthy sense of paranoia. I, for one, can detect blatant anti-Semitism even in a cineplex’s unwillingness to accept my movie voucher or someone’s placing me on hold for too long and I'm forced to sit through "At The Copacabana."

But when faced with another kind of anti-Semitism, the drooling-idiot-in-a-bar, how-did-I-get-myself-into-this kind of Jew hatred, how did I respond? With a Jewish Defense League "Never Again" fist in the face of the offender? With a nod to the mighty Israel Defense Forces and her hoard of nukes? With any or all of the weapons in my armory of Jewish pride?

Nope. I reacted by shuckin’ and jivin’.

There we were, Steve and I, having a beer after one of those incomparably bad days. We sat awhile, drinking, waiting for the band to play. The waitress came with menus and I knocked mine on the floor.

"You drunk?"

There were two guys at the next table who’d clearly sampled the beer menu. And when we answered them an ugly little three-act play began.

Not my friend Steve "Hey, didn’t I see you yesterday at..." one of them says to me, and names a pricey Atlanta steakery.
"No, not me."

"He looked like you. He was a Jewish guy, celebrating a deal he had just made. You Jewish?"

Yes, I’m Jewish. Steve’s Jewish. No reason to deny it or make anything of it. Especially when these guys have paid their bill and are putting on their coats.

"The Jewish people are great," he continues. "They’re the smartest. They know how to make money." My new buddy was warming to the topic and moving into Act II -- "Empathy."

"Me, I’m Catholic," he says. "Irish Catholic, Italian Catholic. It’s all the same. Jews are great. I love Jews..." Oh, good, I’m thinking. We can end with a besotted all-the-same-under-the-skin handshake.

"...Jews are my lord’s people."

The two of them are at our table side now. "You goin’ to the head?" my new buddy’s companion says.

"Yeah, in a second. You look like Steven Spielberg."

And our scene crossfades into the old Lenny Bruce routine, "How To Relax Your Colored Friends At Parties," in which an apparently well-meaning and drunk white guy tries to bond with an African-American. But the harder he tries, the thinner his veneer of civility becomes.

-- That Bojangles, Christ could he tap dance! --

-- Have you eaten? I don’t know if they have any watermelon at the table. Maybe some fried chicken... --

-- Well, here’s to Joe Louis! The way I figure it, Joe Louis was the kind of guy who could get in and get right out of there which is more than I can say for a lot of you niggers. No offense! --

"No, man, Steven Spielberg is great!" How would he feel if I told him he looked like Steve Buscemi? "Schindler’s List! Did you see Schindler’s List? Spielberg could have made money on that movie, but he gave it away!"

 
 

An immorality play in three indecent acts.

 
  His friend is ready to go. "Aren’t you heading to the can?" Steve says hopefully. But our buddy has found his groove. He’s elbowed down on our table, and is moving into the last act, "Removing the Final Veil."

"So, I don’t understand something. I’m a Catholic. I believe in Jesus Christ. I believe in the pope. I believe that anyone who doesn’t accept Jesus Christ as their savior is going to hell."

  We’re not sure we’re hearing this at first. The place is loud. Buddy is drunk and his speech has lost much of its precision. But he is saying it. We can confirm this because he is repeating himself.

"And I love Jews. Jesus was a Jew. And they rejected him and killed him. So do you believe Jesus Christ is the messiah?"

  Steve and I say no -- with as little provocation as we can muster.

"Well, how come?"

"It’s not a Jewish belief."

And I’m looking at his fist, and its proximity to my face. And I’m wondering if he would use it vis-a-vis my face. And it’s been a really bad day and I didn’t volunteer for this debriefing with Father Coughlin’s grandson.

"Let’s go." The friend is impatient.

"In a minute. So what do you believe?"

In fiction, this would be the moment I realize I don’t know what I believe. In fiction, I either succeed or fail as a protagonist because of how I respond to my doubts.

But at this moment I am clear about what I believe. This is not an epic moment. It’s a small, mean one. This is the moment I decide we won’t be sharing our beliefs in the spirit of all enlightenment seekers. He doesn’t care what I believe. He doesn’t even know what he’s saying.

So I think about the Woody Allen routine in which he’s about to be lynched by the Klan, but he delivers such a moving oration about brotherly love that not only do the klansmen cut him down and let him go, but, Woody exults, "That day I sold $10,000 worth of Israel Bonds."

But that was fiction, too. I wanted to answer Buddy by saying that I believe people have a right to their faith. Simple, true and harmless. But there wasn’t any chance to respond. Buddy was taking his solo.

For five minutes now we had been trying to get this guy off the track to Auschwitz by reminding him that he wanted to answer nature’s call. We didn’t realize he was answering his nature’s call right in front of us.

Like any loss that begins at the thin end of the wedge -- a relationship, a job, or the loss of peace -- it doesn’t really become clear what happened and how you fell short until late in the final act.

So we shucked. We jove.

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In memory of Michael Pousner
Copyright 1998 by David Holzel