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Friday, July 25, 2014

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Jew me down

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The comments came out of nowhere, which is why they took us by surprise.

Over the four years we’d known him, our friend, Steve, was well aware we were Jewish. But all of a sudden, this summer, anti-Semitic jokes began spilling into his conversation in the most random ways.

“Everyone knows Jews make all the money,” he deadpanned during a golf game. Was he joking or serious? The Jewish golfers around him wondered. No one said a word, but we talked it over later. Why would he say something like that? It had felt like a slap in the face, a bombshell dropped on an otherwise beautiful day out with friends.

We let it go.

But a few weeks later, there were more comments. And later, even more.

I was angry at our friend, but mostly disappointed. Did he not realize from the stunned silence how offensive he was being? Was he testing the boundaries of humour with his Jewish friends, trying to poke fun, or intentionally voicing anti-Semitic sentiments? My husband and I talked it over late at night and decided it had to be a pathetic attempt at humour that was, at best, inappropriate.

After another Jew-comment over dinner, I tried to address the unfunny jokes anecdotally.

“Can you believe it? A North Vancouver city councillor recently announced at a council meeting that he would not be ‘Jewed down’ on taxes?” I told our group of friends.

Last May, Rod Clark had said the city was “getting Jewed down completely” on the taxes it was owed. When his political blunder was addressed seconds later at the same meeting, the stubborn man refused to retract his comment, believing the phrase was just an ordinary, meaningless part of the lexicon.

It wasn’t until it made the headlines that he could be convinced otherwise and changed tack, swapping indignation for repentance. “A lot of people don’t consider the racial stereotypes behind comments like this,” I declared, making sure Steve was listening carefully.

The conversation moved on. But the anti-Semitic cracks Steve had voiced still weighed heavily on my mind. I wrestled with the prospect of a direct confrontation and decided it was the only way to completely clear the air.

I knocked on his door and with a grave expression and little preamble, started my shpiel. “Those Jew jokes you’ve been making – they’re really not funny,” I told him. “They hit a nerve and make me very uncomfortable. Please, no more.”

Steve apologized for his poor taste in humour, and we moved on. The Jew jokes stopped completely and the friendship continued with barely a hiccup.

Except that comments like the ones he uttered can never be completely eradicated. They get stored somewhere deep in our individual psyche, and when they’re uttered again, they emerge, their arrows sharper and more penetrative than ever.

I like to think that if there’s a next time – a different joker, and different circumstances – there will be no “letting go” or late-night pondering of true meaning.

Next time, I shall say, unequivocally, “That was totally inappropriate.”

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