Anti-Semitism or pro-Semitism?
(Kveller via JTA)—It’s a truth universally acknowledged that if you have a child, random strangers will talk to you. They will comment on your child’s looks or behavior or on your parenting skills, or they’ll tell you about their own children, or they’ll offer unasked-for advice.
Sometimes the best response is to politely yet briefly engage, then move on. Sometimes the conversation actually is interesting and you want to chat more. Sometimes it’s worth speaking up and pointing out the idiocy/offensiveness of what they’re saying. And sometimes you’re just puzzled by the discussion.
I was confused by one of these interactions recently and left wondering whether the woman was being subtly anti-Semitic. Or perhaps she was being pro-Semitic. It’s still hard to know.
My wife, our daughter and I were in the checkout line of the grocery store. The woman working there smiled at our daughter and asked her name. When we told her, the woman said, “Oh, that’s a good Jewish name!” After a moment, she proceeded to reel off some information she remembered from the Bible, which she referred to as the Old Testament, all related to our daughter’s name. There was a long line behind us, but the woman just sat thoughtfully next to the cash register talking at us and not paying much attention to her work. We nodded and smiled, and wished she’d get going with ringing up our purchases.
After we got back to our car, we agreed it was a bit odd, but no big deal.
However, not long afterward, I was at that grocery store again with our daughter and had the same cashier. She remembered our daughter’s name and called it out. I made a comment about how impressive it was that she remembered the name, considering how many customers she must see.
The woman said, “Oh, but you never see children with dark hair and dark eyes. That’s how I remembered her.” I must have looked surprised because she went on to explain to me that “Most children are fair. Most children have pale hair and light eyes.”
Obviously, we all know that simply isn’t true. Children, like humans in general, have a range of skin tones, hair color, eye color and so on. But this woman was convinced that you simply don’t see children with dark hair. She also told me she recognized me with my dark hair.
We live in a city with a very small Jewish population; I have a suspicion I’ve met most of the Jews by now. But regardless of how many Jews there are, certainly there are other people with dark hair and people from a variety of backgrounds. I doubt my daughter and I are the only customers with dark hair that this cashier has ever seen. I doubt, too, that my daughter was the first dark-eyed toddler this woman had encountered. So what exactly was going on?
Was this woman implying that she knew we were Jewish and therefore foreign? Was she suggesting we didn’t belong because we weren’t fair? Given the current debate about whether the United Kingdom should leave the European Union, I am quite sensitive to the idea that foreign-born folks aren’t welcome or aren’t really British. It can feel as though some British people want to have a drastically limited society that hearkens back to a (false) idea of what being British truly is. Was the cashier saying that only fair-haired people fit into this supposedly Aryan nation?
Or was she admiring our difference? Did she like our thick, dark hair? Was she envious? Lots of people comment on my daughter’s and my own locks and say they wish they had so much hair. Was the cashier acknowledging that we looked different from the norm and that this was interesting?
Or was she just making conversation, prattling on without thinking about what she was saying? We all do that at times, later wondering exactly what we were saying and why. Did the cashier go home that night and ask herself why on earth she’d stated that all babies have fair hair and eyes? Did she slap her forehead and call herself a dummkopf?
I have no real way of knowing what was going on with this woman; or at least I don’t know now. Perhaps she’ll be our cashier another time and her views will become clearer.
But the experience did make me think: Should I have spoken up and reminded her of how diverse this country is? Should I have expressed pride in our dark looks?
Next time something like this happens, I think I will. After all, I don’t want my daughter to feel she doesn’t belong in this country. She has dark hair and dark eyes, sure, but so do lots of other British people, Jewish or not. Her looks and her ancestry don’t make her any less British.
B.J. Epstein is a senior lecturer in literature and public engagement at the University of East Anglia in England. She’s also a writer, editor and Swedish-to-English translator. She lives with her wife and daughter.
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