1290, 1394, 1492, 1496, and 1619. These are not random numbers. We’ll get back to them in a few minutes.
It is hard to say which was worse, the last act of vengeance of an alcoholic doctor selling his house in a previously restricted neighborhood to a Jewish family or the unscrupulous real estate agent who knowingly guided my trusting father to a house on the “wrong side” of town. We had no idea. The house was beautiful and sat on four city lots a few blocks from the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It had a circular drive! We had been living in a tract house in a Columbus suburb. My father took a job as the manager of a large, downtown jewelry store and moved us to Canton. Technically, we moved to Plain Township, literally a couple of blocks outside of the city.
In September of 1967 I became the first Jewish boy to attend Avondale Elementary. Our previous school, Pinecrest, was so close that we walked home for lunch each day except when the weather was particularly bad. Sometimes your teacher even came with you. Our new adventure began with most of the students transported to school by bus. Lunch was at school and prior to our first day we received a menu for the first month. I begged my parents for the opportunity to buy lunch. One of the first lunches included a bologna sandwich. We didn’t keep Kosher outside out of the house, so that seemed like a good place to start. I was dumbfounded by my first school lunch. Two pieces of white bread, with butter, and a thin piece of meat(?) that could have been anything, anything but baloney. I asked for rye. Nope. I asked for mustard. Nope. I realized that I now lived in a very different place. I ate the buttered bread and brought my lunch from home most days after that.
My biggest shock came in a Social Studies class a few months later. Somehow the text book and curriculum touched on other peoples of the world. And here we made a cameo appearance. The Jewish people were mentioned in passing as nomads, wandering indiscriminately from country to country. I raised my hand. I noted that forty years in the desert hardly qualified us as nomads. Now it was the teacher’s turn to be shocked. I don’t know if I was the first Jew she had ever met but I was certainly the first to question her lesson plan. She pointed out that Jews had migrated from a number of countries. Well, yes, I told her, that was true because we had been kicked out of England (1290), France (1394), Spain (1492), and Portugal (1496). I think I even knew the years of our expulsion from England and Spain. Now she was really off balance. In an effort to get back on track she decided to tell the class a little bit about Jewish culture. Falling back on to her notes she cited an example of Jewish food, the Reuben Sandwich. I had never heard of a Reuben Sandwich and with nothing to lose, I asked her to describe it. When she detailed a corned beef sandwich with Thousand Island Dressing and Swiss Cheese, I stopped her and explained how a food mixing milk with meat could not be considered a “Jewish” food.
It has been over 50 years and I am still surprised by both the teacher’s ignorance and my bravery. Let me put this into perspective for my Irish Catholic friends. Could you imagine a public school teacher talking about the hearty corned beef and cabbage dinners Catholics eat every Friday night in the spring? How about great Hindu brisket recipes? You get the idea.
I don’t expect non-Jews to be experts on either my religion or culture, but dismissing either as irrelevant, or worse, ignorantly teaching and spreading disinformation is offensive. I was lucky. I was sent to a separate Hebrew School three times a week to teach me the Hebrew language, religious practice, and culture. I knew who I was and how I got there. I knew why my grandparents had fled the pogroms of their Eastern European villages to find freedom in the United States.I recently engaged in a little thought experiment. I asked Sally to tell me the first thing she thought of when I said “Egypt”. She said pyramids. Jeff said Cairo. My daughter also said pyramids. I then asked Jennifer what she thought my answer was. Without hesitation she said “Passover”. Of course she was right. Specifically, the first thing I think of is the beginning of the Answer at the Passover Seder, “We were slaves of Pharaoh in the land of Egypt”. It has been over 3000 years and we are still talking about our enslavement. We are told to remember and to understand that had our ancestors not been freed we might still be there. Our freedom, and the fact that we had to take action to be free, is important to me.
And that brings me to another number, 1619, a time when human beings began to be sold as slaves in Jamestown. Technically indentured servants, many of our Black neighbors view this as the start of slavery in the colonies. Others may point to Christopher Columbus, but his focus seems to have been in taking people away from the Western Hemisphere. Many of our neighbors and friends can trace their heritage to a plantation, a slave auction, a slave ship, or even to Western Africa. What they know is that their ancestors didn’t come here by choice. And when they think of American history, many of them see their history as a central part of how the United Sates was formed, the laws that guide us, and the officers that enforce them. It isn’t necessary for you to agree. We haven’t been taught enough about the lives and struggles of the African-American community to have an educated opinion. Need proof? There are documentaries airing this week about the 100 year anniversary of the massacre of Black Wall Street. We weren’t taught about any of this in school. That wasn’t an accident.
A great effort has been made to sanitize the Civil War (white-washing it seems redundant). Why would anyone take offense at the flying of the Confederate Army battle flag? Alexander Hamilton Stephens, the Vice-president of the Confederacy, clearly stated the purpose of the breakaway country in this excerpt from “The Cornerstone Speech” he delivered in Savannah, Georgia on March 21, 1961, weeks before the start of the Civil War.
Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery – subordination to the superior race – is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science.
This could not have been clearer to Mr. Stephens. There was no reference to this in our textbooks.
It is surprising how my school had time to tell me about Thousand Island Dressing but never had a chance to teach me about the pain and suffering of others. We needed a more comprehensive examination of our country’s history. That’s what is important to me.
Picture – Important – David L Cunix