Dear Pop and Zayda, I keep getting reminders from your graves. They’re not exactly letters or e-mails. They’re fleeting thoughts that enter my mind, unannounced, but with plenty of warning, that it’s hard to be a Jew, or as you each sometimes said, “Shver tsu zayn a yid.” As a kid I never really understood what you meant by that. It wasn’t the language, although my Yiddish comprehension was, and remains, very simple. I just didn’t know what was so hard about it. My life was pretty easy.
You both had learned that lesson as boys in Poland and you both, along with a huge number of your cohort, had decided that the Promised Land was America. I think you thought of owning property and being successful in that far off place, across the Atlantic. You fancied New York City as the capital of the Goldena Medina, a place that glittered with gold, where endless generations of poverty and pogroms would be replaced, at last, by owning land and providing your children with secular as well as a religious education. I’m proud to say that you both succeeded.
Zayda, you never learned to speak or read English, but for over 50 years in America you managed to create a business, owning real estate and building houses that your family lived in for many years. At least two of your pseudo Tudors are still standing proudly on Newark’s Aldine Street. Only a very few of the occupants remain, but the houses themselves are erect and aging well. Just for you to know, those survivors can now be counted on one hand: Marty, Rosanne, Janet, and Jody. None of them are youngsters either, but your houses, the fruits of your labor, are doing just fine!
And Pop, you were more literate, reading endlessly in Yiddish and English, plus s’farim, holy books, in Hebrew, and combining languages in often incomprehensible creative expressions of your own. I never knew if some of your idioms were made up. I still don’t. You were inspired by your beautiful wife, Peshka, who knew that being a presser in the garment center was not a lifetime career goal for you. She led you to become a hotelier in the Catskill hamlet of Parksville, and a homeowner in Bedford Stuyvesant, which at long last today has reached its apex of soaring real estate values. If only you still owned the Vernon Avenue brownstone, you’d finally be a real millionaire!
Thus, with all this success in America, you were both still wise enough to fathom that you had met your own personal goals, but life for your progeny could, and would, still be fraught, that it would still be hard to be a Jew.
You could not possibly have foreseen the Shoa, but your adventurous spirits saved you and your many descendants from it. You arrived in America just in time! Thank you both from the bottom of my heart for my life and those of our four children, 14 grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren. We hope there’ll be many more, to redeem you for your courage in packing up your families and leaving your comfort zones.
Nonetheless, contemporary Jewish life still reveals that it remains hard to be a Jew.
Throughout our long and rocky history we Jews have innately understood that the standards for our world were always subject to interpretation by others and that our personal safety was never going to be unchallenged for long.
For example, my own first reaction to the murder of JFK was, surprisingly for the 24-year-old me who had grown up in peaceful Newark, where Jews had reached unparalleled levels of success in every arena, financial, academic, and in the seats of power, was to say, “I hope the assassin wasn’t Jewish.” That seemingly genetic paranoia came from within my soul without real basis. If Lee Harvey Oswald had been Jewish, I still wonder, what would the difference have been? Doubtful that there would have been a pogrom. What was I worrying about?
But it wasn’t just me. We all can acknowledge that. Even at our pinnacles, personal and communal, there’s still a bit of the old country that emerges. We collectively shudder if the sexual pervert or the criminal is a Jew. We are, each of us, dependent on our Jewish community to be free from reproach, an impossible goal for sure.
And our universal drive to see our children attend America’s top universities has witnessed the disturbing trend to antisemitism at those universities. We’ve seen that the ivy growing around some of the top schools is planted amongst weeds and seeds and deeds of hatred.
In today’s world we still have more to concern ourselves with. We have an entire nation, Israel, which often has us tsittering, shaking with fear, as you, Zayda and Pop, would have said, when the world’s haters come down hard on us. We are constantly in need of a national defense attorney to argue our case. Hamas started the violence. Their attack on us was beyond simple brutality. It was evil incarnate. Our response has been necessary and strong but it is they who fomented the war and it is they, harboring our loved ones as hostages, and hiding in uncharted tunnels protected by human shields, their own citizenry, who perpetuate the terror. We must wonder why the world sees unjustifiable evil as righteousness and why they call us out as being the aggressors.
Right here, in West Orange, we are strikingly, and quite unexpectedly, doing verbal battle with many of our neighbors. Our large Jewish community, which pretty much universally staunchly supports Israel, is being challenged by other non-Jewish community members, who demonstrate favor for the Palestinian narrative in the present war in Gaza. Strong opinions, critical of Israel, are voiced on Facebook and at Town Council meetings. Similarly a march was held by students at the local public high school proclaiming “from the river to the sea,” which resonates among Jews as a cry for the destruction of Israel. For now the push to fly a Palestinian flag at the Town Hall has been squelched. No resolution is yet in sight.
Today, our lawn hosts signs to release the hostages, and our car is similarly adorned. We are, so far, physically unscathed. But a large number of our fellow citizens, non-Jews, are continuing to spout support for Palestinians, whom they represent as the war’s victims. In their demonstrations and media posts, there is no nuance. There is no attempt even to define exactly who these victims are. Their movement’s goal is strictly to criticize Israelis and Jews, without any historical support or references. They make unfounded statements against Israel. They do not acknowledge the massive and merciless killing, rape, and destruction which started the war. Their only obvious drive is to excoriate Israel and to censure their neighbors. That’s us!
We are smart enough to understand the sometimes subtle Jew-hatred. So when a former American president told us that there were good people on both sides in Charlottesville, we knew that was a slur. When the demonstrators screamed, “Jews will not replace us,” we knew that what they really were saying was, “We will replace Jews.” And when that same man spoke about vermin and immigrants poisoning blood, it wasn’t a stretch to know that he was using the language of Hitler to make a point that might not end well for our people. And, no, this is not Jewish paranoia. We Jews have never done well when our lives are controlled by dictators. This is reality. And when a friend recently said that at least Trump — that’s this guy’s name in case you’ve forgotten — focused on the border and the illegals, I was blown away! Wasn’t he the one who promised to solve that problem, which Mexico was going to pay for? Just another lie! Truthfully, the truth is that the man has no concept of telling the truth!
From where I sit, I can only hope and pray that we and our community will agreeably disagree and that violence will never darken our lives. May Jewish fear and paranoia disappear from the lives of the coming generations so that our great-grandchildren, Noam, Itay, Lior, and Sophie, and those, hopefully, many more to come, will never hear from me or Sabba Rabba, my husband, that it’s Shver tsu zayn a yid.
May peace reign in our Jewish world!
Rosanne Skopp of West Orange is a wife, mother of four, grandmother of 14, and great-grandmother of four. She is a graduate of Rutgers University and a dual citizen of the United States and Israel. She is a lifelong blogger, writing blogs before anyone knew what a blog was! She welcomes email at firstname.lastname@example.org