Call Me Blackie

Just call me Ilana please

No. Don’t call me Blackie, because I didn’t like it when I was seven years old and I wouldn’t like it now either. When I was in first grade, living in Cambridge, England, my classroom comprised of winter-white students comfortably sitting against the backdrop of a blackboard, and me. I am a mix between a South African father of Polish and English descent, and a Yemenite mother of San’ani and Heidani descent (northern and central Yemen), and I did not inherit my paternal grandfather’s blue eyes and blond hair though I did inherit the darker Yemenite complexion. Those kids didn’t call me Blackie as a term of endearment but rather because it was a word they associated with a nasty epithet. Black or brown or olive-skinned people are not such a rarity in England, but I think that I was the only dark person in my class. I was hurt by their actions, and it had nothing to do with the actual word “Blackie,” and more to do with the fact that I wanted to be called by my given name, Ilana. I spent my childhood years shuffling between England, Israel, and America and as a result of my dad’s career I was always the new, foreign student in the class. During our Cambridge years, I was also called “Jew-Jew,” how lucky for I had two special names attached to me—Blackie and Jew-Jew—just in case anyone would accidentally forget that I was not one of them. Name-calling seems to be a rite of passage for most of us, and I could think of worse names, but still, I just wanted to be called by my given name, Ilana. Ironically it was my granny Gertrude who suggested that my parents switch my name around, that Karen Ilana Levinsky should be Ilana Karen Levinsky, therefore avoiding “K.I.L” and blessing me with initials that contained the same letters but in a different order that didn’t pose a threat to anyone. “I.K.L,” rhymes with pickle, oh dear granny what did you do?

In any case, after all these years I still don’t understand how my classmates knew my religious background, as though they possessed a special ability to detect a Jew—we were only 7 years old—and even when they learned that my religion differed from theirs, why all the teasing? Why is different deemed bad, or inferior, or a threat? Is the need to feel superior an innate quality in most humans no matter what age or is it learned? I refused to go back to school until I was forced to return. Little did I know that this would be the beginning of my “jewrney.”

“Some children by the time they are six have already had fights with schoolmates who call them ’Yids.’ Others may remain in ignorance for a long time” (Sartre, Anti-Semite And Jew, p. 75).

We moved to Buffalo, NY, in 1977 and our lives mirrored that of American sitcoms—we shopped at the GAP, I read Judy Bloom novels, our palates were indoctrinated once we ate a burger at McDonald’s. For a while burgers produced delectable amnesia, erasing all memories of pita, hummus, and falafel. We were only allowed to watch thirty minutes of television per day (psst, parents had it so easy back then). At first we lived in the suburbs of Buffalo; my dad’s commute to work at the Children’s Hospital wasn’t too long—traffic was never an issue, although we hardly saw him in those years because he worked many hours. When the air turned nippy, and temperatures felt as though we were in the middle of the Alaskan tundra, a thick layer of ice masked the roads and hours of snowfall at night turned a thirty-minute commute into a nightmare for an overworked doctor. So we moved to the corner of Bryant Street and Elmwood Avenue, an arm’s reach away from the hospital at a time when it was not fashionable to live there. But I loved Downtown Buffalo in those years—so freeing to live in close proximity to all the shops, their windows displayed a panoply of novelty items, and we could hop out for ice cream without waiting for a ride, or even to Casa-di-Pizza, the #1 place for a cheese pie. We had many new friends in the area, we saw more of my dad and then it happened again. The Jew thing.

“Antisemitism is something that enters the body from the mind. It is an involvement of the mind, but one so deep-seated and complete that it extends to the physiological realm, as happiness in cases of hysteria.” (Sartre, Anti-Semite and Jew, p. 11)

My head spun when I heard “Dirty f*ck*ng Jew” directed at me and timed with the zing of spitballs fired through a number of straws—where were the teachers I ask myself, it was constant; I was also beaten up in the courtyard, but those kids were suspended for three days. There were no issues with my own classmates; the trouble was students from other classes. A funny memory from School #45 took place on the bus home when a black classmate pronounced that I could not be a “honkey” since my dad was (South) African. I was friends with this kid and the comment was purely naïve with no malice attached to it. However, thinking about his remark today, his need to include me in the black group shows of a type of invisible division in a class where everyone got along. If I were considered black that would be one more for their team, so to speak. As though someone had sent a group memo, the same kids in our neighborhood with whom we played after school and on weekends, decided to start a race war against us. They stared us down when we walked past them in the street, tried to fight us, provoke us, and threw stones into our yard and we were never friends after that. Again, their hate was filled with passion. When I graduated the 8th grade, I received an award for being on the Honor Roll and also for being Israel’s Goodwill Ambassador to Buffalo! Now it was time to return to our Jewland and blend, the only place on earth where I could let my guard down and not think about them against me, and that was another sort of freedom that I happily embraced. It made room for pettiness and anything else that occupied kids of our ages.  At 14 I had experienced life as a student in England and America and honed skills for standing up to racists and understanding my place in the world. My classmates in Israel had no clue.

Sartre explained that ordinary hate and anger are a direct result of provocation, “I hate someone who has made me suffer, someone who condemns or insults me” ( Sartre, Anti-Semite And Jew, p. 17). Anti-Semitism embodies a passion that preceded the facts, all you need to do is mention a Jew and they become irritated.

My dad has stories from his past that were similar to mine. Many Lithuanian and Polish Jews gravitated towards South Africa because it afforded them more freedoms and work opportunities than other countries around the world. Ironically, this was also the birthplace of Apartheid but for once, the Jews were not the main objects of institutionalized hate. Yet, with so much going on at school and arguments about the need for separating sewer pipes between whites and blacks, my dad got into punching matches with his schoolmates for thinking differently. This was the early ‘50s and he received extra punches for killing Jesus. When he worked at Royal Northern Hospital in London he recalls how his boss told everyone that “Levinsky doesn’t feel comfortable among the uncircumcised.” You can laugh at this, I mean it could be funny, I do have a great sense of humor I’m told, but I don‘t know, it doesn’t seem all that funny to me when taken in the context of that collective consciousness of undesirable Jewish markings. One of his English friends at medical school told him the only reason they were friends because he didn’t display the usual Jewish behavior adopted by other English Jews, whatever that meant.

Sartre wrote that “The ‘moderate’ anti-Semite is a courteous man who will tell you quietly: ‘Personally I do not detest the Jew. I simply find it preferable for various reasons, that they play a lesser part in the activity of the nation.’ But a moment later, if you have gained his confidence, he will add with more abandon: ‘You see, there must be something about the Jews; they upset me physically’ ” (Sartre, Anti-Semite And Jew, p. 10).

When I went back to England in the late ‘80s, this time to pursue a law degree at the University of Manchester, being Jewish and an Israeli had transformed into something convoluted and unmanageable at times. The pro-Palestinian movement had galvanized millions across the world to fight their battles and was keen on hijacking any other cause in order to promote their anti-Israel/anti-Jewish agenda. Criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitic necessarily, neither is supporting Palestinians. However, equating IDF soldiers to Nazis and Zionism to racism smacks of modern-day antisemitism. Posting cartoons with exaggerated features of rich Jews dominating the world (time-tested trope) or an IDF soldier torturing a hapless Palestinian evokes memories of persecution even when it promotes a modern subject matter. Violence against us has never disappeared; it’s always lurking in the background, just like anti-Semitism remains latent until summoned back by another person with a very unique way of viewing the world. And this weighs on my mind before I enter a Jewish establishment, I can’t help but wonder whether it’s safe considering the latest climate, will today be the day for another senseless attack?

I found myself a minority of one against the others. The Palestinian lobby had a loud voice in Manchester, posters of martyrs were plastered in dorm rooms and those anti-Israel rallies may have looked like rock concerts to passersby if they ignored the Palestinian flags and cries to wipe Israel off the map. The other Jews, hmm, they walked with their eyes cast to the ground. I was the only Jewish student who dared to enter the Student Union Building during those infernal anti-Israel events. The campus was always a hotbed for anti-Israel activities that invited conversations and speeches from like-minded people and cries for empathy and revenge. The head of the Palestinian Student Body, also a law student, marched to the podium with animus and confidence of someone who had a carefully devised plan. “When I see an IDF soldier rape an Arab woman, I cry,” seethed Ali with a glowering brow and the crowd let out a mournful lament.  Oof, it was horrible inside that room, so confining, I couldn’t breathe. Talking about where I had come from became a burden of sorts. I always felt judged, I was judged. When I graduated law school, I didn’t bother staying for my graduation—I just got the hell out of there and never returned. I guess that even with my newfound confidence and pride, I still felt intimidated by that crowd.

“The Jews will come back from exile with such insolence and hunger for vengeance that I am afraid of a new outburst of anti-Semitism.” (Sartre, Anti-Semite And Jew, p. 58). What Sartre meant here is that persecution in itself may help the Jews better define themselves and thus invite more hate.

You may say that I too have appropriated the current outcry for eradicating racism against black people in America in order to further my own cause. Uh-uh, you don’t get to say it, it’s too late for that because some (plenty for that matter) activists in the Black Lives Matter movement as well as the Women’s March have already hijacked the cause with their anti-Israel and anti-Jewish narrative. They dogmatically repeat the lie of Jews representing moral decay, so thank you Nation of Islam, Farrakhan, for all your hard work and ideas that you’ve been peddling for decades, a lot of people believe you. More thanks to Linda Sarsour, Tamikka Mallory, and Bob Bland even though they’ve been replaced by new leaders, their words and ideas will forever float the net and stick to the movement just like the common green trash fly sticks to shit. The movement continues to suffer from a serious handicap when anyone pro-Israel is deemed a racist and ostracized. “Jewish people bore a special collective responsibility as exploiters of brown and black people,” said Tamikka Mallory, and Linda Sarsour has said that Israel was built on the idea that Jews are supreme to everyone. Ha! Clever woman, she knows just the right myths to propagate, the ones that have always worked whether in  11th century Europe or the 21st century West. Same effect. We have been subjugated, trodden on, expelled, and murdered while Muslims and Crusaders colonialized and left their mark all over the world. Remind me again how many Christian and Muslim nations there are? What, what did you say, I can’t hear you, speak louder please. MORE THAN ONE! That’s right, so do not dare to talk to us about privilege or superiority when we are vilified and stigmatized for supporting the only Jewish country in the world.

“We have forced them to think of themselves as Jews, we have made them conscious of their solidarity with other Jews. Should we be astonished that they now reject that would destroy Israel?” (Sartre, Anti-Semita And Jews, p.145).

The leaders mentioned above are single-handedly responsible for keeping hate alive and reminding us of our Jewishness every day when they blame us for the transatlantic slave trade, colonialism, control of Wall Street, Congress, Hollywood, the World Bank, which means that we are at the helm of oppressing poor American blacks. Jews are also to blame for Corona, just as we were behind the Black Plague, and from the time that American police have engaged in exchange training programs with Israeli police, the percentage of senseless targeting and the killing of black men has risen in many states. I watched a guy in the march on June 7th who made a live threat on TV about burning down Manhattan’s Diamond District. Jewish LA has also been the target of destruction and looting during the riots.

Sartre explains that when Jews are blamed, there must have been a predisposition in place for hating Jews. Their role in society has already been decided!

Privilege is not only about money and opportunities–it’s also about nachat, a peace that envelops your body and soul. Our Jewrney means that we know very well what it feels like to be the “other,” do not invoke intersectionality to cast anti-Semitism to the sidelines as though we don’t understand. Privilege is never having to hear the same age-old stereotypes and rhetoric that make us feel as though we’ve stepped into a time warp.

Sartre wrote that “No external factor can induce antisemitism in the anti-Semite. Anti-Semitism is a free and total choice of oneself, a comprehensive attitude that one adopts not only toward Jews but toward men in general, toward history and society; it is at one and the same time a passion and a conception of the world” (Sartre, Anti-semite And Jew, p. 17).

About the Author
Ilana was born in London, England, and currently resides in Camarillo, California. She graduated from Manchester University with an LL.B in 1991. Her writings include the play “A Recipe for Hummus,” and her novels "The Diary of a Wrinkle" and "East End Dreams." "Age Schmage" is a little book intended to help women in their moments of doubt; "A Cookbook for the Woman Who Hates Cooking" is an honest, yet funny approach to cooking; "What if I Had a Different Name?" is a collaboration with her son Jack and it’s a fun exploration of some of the weird and fantastical names that Jack imagines as his own; "The Cloud That Covered My Head" is a whimsical story about a boy who preferred to stay in bed and dream rather than go to school, and "Rotten Tooth Ruth" brings to life T. Brush, Minty Paste, and Floss who must think of a way to befriend Ruth; "Bobby B. Sprout Meets a Bunch of Rotten Veggies" is an allegory for anyone who's felt like the "other," it's all about racism/antisemitism. Her latest work includes "My Best Friend Shadow," when no one else wants to play with Ash Shadow teaches that life can be bigger, better and fun, available for purchase on Amazon. "Diary of a Wrinkle" is her blog where she muses on the topic of aging and beauty, and @wrinklerevolution is her corresponding Instagram account. You can follow her on Instagram @soletseat for her daily culinary creations and for daily inspirational thoughts scroll through @insanelyfemale. "A Yemenite Bride" (a screenplay) tells the story of Ilana's great-grandmother Saida, and sheds light on the life of Jews in Yemen during the early 20th century.
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