Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Anti-Semitism on Sesame Street

“Anti-Semite?” The derogative word sounds very different when you hear it coming out of your precious 4 year old girl’s mouth. “What is an anti-Semite?” she insists. I am one for telling the truth to children and helping them make sense of their surroundings. I don’t avoid hard topics, and always try to provide accurate answers in an understandable way. To this morning “Why is this crab dead?” I must have answered something to the liking of “It was the end of his life. Something must have happened and he died. Maybe he was very very old… Why do you think he died?” “Maybe he was sick, or maybe he got cooked”, she suggested. “Maybe so.” I replied. End of the questioning, the answer satisfied her and she went on to the next question… This can go on for hours when you spend time with a young child, and it is intellectually exhausting but I get a sense of accomplishment and pride as it happens. The world unlocks its secrets to my child. She is attentive to her surroundings, attuned to her desire to discover, and as mesmerized by nature as I am. “What is an anti-Semite”, though, caught me by surprise and I felt stuck in an uncomfortable place. Although I am not naïve enough to think that she will never encounter anti-Semitic remarks –for one thing, our last name sounds as if it could be Jewish-, I didn’t expect to hear this question so early.

Now, I have to back up and explain that the word came up as my husband Matthew was telling me at the dinner table that a business contact of his made an anti-Semitic comment in front of him. As Matthew pointed out to the gentleman in question (if he deserves being called a gentleman) that he was shocked by the remark, the other replied “I thought we were both mid-westerners; you have some growing up to do!” insinuating that Midwesterners are expected to be anti-Semitic in private amongst themselves, and that if they do not know that yet, it must be because they are too green. As I am praising Matthew for standing up against prejudices, I hear the dreaded word enunciated clearly by Juliette’s little voice and quiver. “Anti-Semite? What does it mean?” I take a deep breath and starts putting together an answer in my head “It is when a person dislikes another person just because they are Jewish…” but the words don’t come out of my mouth and it hits me: I don’t want her to know the truth. Surely one day, but not just yet. As of now, her only understanding of prejudice comes from many out-loud readings of “Red or Blue I like you.” In that story, as it happens, Elmo –who is red as we all know- befriends a blue monster named Angela in the doctor’s waiting room and their parents agree to have them over at each other’s house. In Angela’s neighborhood, strangely reminiscent of the Italian area of Besonhurst in Brooklyn, everyone is blue and eats spaghetti. But when Angela goes over to Sesame Street, strangely reminiscent of the ethnically diverse neighborhood of Prospect Heights Brooklyn, she is amazed to see monsters of all colors who eat fried chicken and fruit salads. Sesame street even houses grouches and snuffalufaguses, if you can imagine! Now, this would be “just a bedtime story” except for the fact that until a couple of weeks ago, we LIVED on Sesame Street. We encountered and befriended “monsters” of all colors and got to love fried chicken and fruit salads. No grouches and snuffalufagusses obviously, but pit-bulls, poodles and chiwawas. When I recently showed some out-of-town friends a snapshot of Juliette and her best friends taken on the sidewalk after school, she laughed and said “Are you going to submit it to a casting for United Colors of Benetton?” I didn’t occur to me until then, but I realized at that moment that I could have. Of course, as many of us do, I always wanted to raise a “colour-blind” child, but until I moved to New York City and especially to Prospect Heights in Brooklyn, I didn’t realize it was actually possible and easy. A Yemenite-owned deli and an African-American Puerto Rican lesbian-owned restaurant were the closest businesses to us and we felt at home in both establishments. Steps away was the local playground where Juliette asked me one day, “It’s pretty, can my hair do that?” pointing at a little girl’s Afro-do. There she was, my little Goldilocks-looking child, and I had to dry her tears after breaking the news to her that, in fact, her hair “could not do that”.

But I digress, and here I am, far away from Prospect Heights-AKA Sesame Street, I hear her ask me what “Anti-Semite” means and I have to make a decision on whether I want to teach my child that prejudice exists or “soften the truth”. Well, I guess, it is called “lying” but in this case, I am building up my own denial and call it “softening the truth”. So for the first time –of many perhaps- I lie by omission. I say “It is when someone doesn’t like someone else just because of who they are…. Do you want a yogurt for desert?” “Yeah!!!” is the resounding answer.

Two hours later, she is now sound asleep, still color-blind and unaware that anyone else thinks any differently. And I am –albeit proudly- a big fat liar.


Robert said...

Actually, I think your response was brilliant. Your answer laid the foundation for Juliette's future understanding of all prejudice, of which anti-Semitism is but one of many malignant strains.

GambyGirl said...

You are a wonderful mother. Well done! We back here in the United City of Benneton miss you all dearly. xoxoxo