In Search of ‘Jewish Lightning’

It’s the instances of casual anti-Semitism that can sometimes be the most insidious.

Case in point: Years ago, my parents were conversing on the grounds of their country house in upstate New York with “John,” a tall, burly individual who helped mow their lawn, among other services he provided. They were speaking about an initiative they engaged in where they had to swoop in and buy something quickly. John got the idea right away.

“Like Jewish lightning,” he said.

My folks were taken aback—and rightly so. “Jewish lightning”? What in the world was that … and how did it ever become a stereotype? Were Jews somehow reputed for making fast purchases? Or was it another insinuation pertaining to money that anti-Semites had used for ages to connect my tribe to fiscal malfeasance?

In any case, these words were coming from a strange source. John was not a nasty person; in fact, he was quite likable, gregarious and low-key. He got along with my parents well. They even attended his wedding. What caused him to blurt out this offensive comment? What possible reason could he have for saying something anti-Semitic?

Here’s my answer: He didn’t think it was anti-Semitic. He didn’t think it was derogatory. He was just trying to make conversation. And that was the biggest problem. It was evidence of a casual anti-Semitism that was ingrained in his being … so deeply that he didn’t consider how others might feel if he brought it into the light. To John, it was just something you say to other people who are Jewish—something they might even agree with. Yes, we do buy things quickly when we observe a deal; after all, Jews are known for their monetary savvy. We know a bargain when we see one. What’s offensive about that?

This is, of course, a pervasive issue in the world today. Many people of Jewish heritage have experienced, at least once in their lifetimes, a look of disdain from someone who obviously doesn’t approve of them, a dismissive glance or comment … perhaps even something not so blatant as the “Jewish lightning” phrase. We can identify these things; we know them by their inflections, their contexts. Our ancestors had to deal with them (and worse) all the time. We’re familiar with such semi-concealed bigotry.

So we’re also familiar with the more “positive” associations that people have with our culture—the “Jewish lightning” type. They’re meant as compliments, but they also have pejorative connotations. See, Jews care about money more than anyone else. They’re fixated on it. And thinking too much about money is beneath people. If you do so, you’re greedy.

Hence the myth of the greedy Jew.

I’m reflecting on this because my parents’ experience speaks to the fact that anti-Semitism—and, for that matter, any kind of prejudice—can manifest itself in sly, subtle ways that aren’t always virulent. There are other kinds of hatred that people exhibit, and they’re just as disturbing as any espoused by bigots who wear such beliefs on their sleeves … perhaps more so, as such ideas are expressed with informal carelessness. They’re part of casual conversation. They’re among us, absorbed by people we know and trust. They’re not filtered out.

That’s what scares me most about them.

I haven’t seen John in many years; he was always quite pleasant to me, and never did I hear from his lips the words that he conveyed so dismayingly to my folks. Yet I think about this incident every so often, as it bothers me that someone so close to our family could have been so insensitive. Maybe such a thing could happen to anyone … and I certainly wish no one else has to deal with that. For some reason, it feels like a betrayal, a breach of trust, and yet I wonder if it’s something that we, as Jews, should expect, given our historic experience with such affronts. Should we be prepared for such offenses, take umbrage immediately and tell those we care about that what they say is not OK? Or should we try to forget about it, as my parents did, and chalk it up to the vicissitudes of life?

My feeling is that we should never forget about it, and I never have. It’s a different time. We must speak up, call it out, bring attention to its insidiousness. And mitigate the chances of it happening ever again.

If we do that, we’ll find ourselves in a better place, with more understanding of our heritage and a stronger sensitivity to our needs. That’s something I can fully support.

And no inference of “Jewish lightning” will ever cause me to go back on that.

About the Author
Simon Hardy Butler is a writer and editor living in New York City. He has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek and has interviewed innumerable people—including two Auschwitz survivors whose story may be heard at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website. His views and opinions are his own.
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