Steven Teplitsky

On Being a Jew or To Be a Jew in a Non-Jewish World

When I turned 16, I landed any teenager’s dream job. I sold popcorn in the stands of Jarry Park, the home of the Montreal Expos. I was going to work and watch baseball at every home game. This was my first job. At the end of my first day in the stands, I entered the office to hand in my day’s cash receipts, only to overhear my boss and his staff talking about “le maudit juif”, “the Dirty Jew”. I did not return the next day.

Ten years later, I decided to leave academia and enter the business world. For the next 40 years I travelled throughout Canada making sales calls. Not a day went by when someone wouldn’t say to me “so you’re a Jew”.  This was never done to initiate a conversation about religion, or peoplehood, or us and them. This was always done with a sneer, or a sly smile, or to tell me that I shouldn’t bother trying to sell them.  At times it was right in my face and at other times it was just assumed. It was antisemitism.

Before I shuttered my business to make Aliya, I sat before a representative of Canada’s tax authority (CRA in Canada similar to the IRS in the US) who told me that I was a Jew and therefor I certainly had the money to pay a disputed tax bill. This was the last time that I expected to face antisemitism.

A new king arose over Egypt…He said to his people,“Behold, the Children of Israel are more numerous and stronger than we. Come let us outsmart it lest it become more numerous”

We have been facing antisemitism as long as we have been a people, a nation, a religion. For as long as we have been Jewish. But something changed in all of us on October 7, 2023.

The word Jew has been used often enough in a disparaging manner by antisemites that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries it was frequently avoided altogether, and the term Hebrew was substituted instead (e.g. Young Men’s Hebrew Association). The German counterpart Jude was extensively used during the Nazi period as a part of its antisemitic campaign. The word has become more often used in a neutral fashion, as it underwent a process known as reappropriation. Even today some people are wary of its use, and prefer to use “Jewish”. Indeed, when used as an adjective (e.g. “Jew lawyer”) or verb (e.g. “to jew someone”) the term Jew is purely pejorative.The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition (2000)

It is widely recognized that the attributive use of the noun Jew, in phrases such as Jew lawyer or Jew ethics, is both vulgar and highly offensive. In such contexts Jewish is the only acceptable possibility. Some people, however, have become so wary of this construction that they have extended the stigma to any use of Jew as a noun, a practice that carries risks of its own. In a sentence such as There are now several Jews on the council, which is unobjectionable, the substitution of a circumlocution like Jewish people or persons of Jewish background may in itself cause offense for seeming to imply that Jew has a negative connotation when used as a noun.

I recently conducted an informal poll with some friends and relatives as we sat around a table. I asked “how do you identify yourselves? As a Jew or as being Jewish?” The results were evenly mixed.

So what changed on October 7, 2023?

As a new generation found its strength from the ashes of the Holocaust, and the miraculous birth and steady and determined growth of the Jewish State, the term “Never Again” became, not so much as a “battle cry” but the “Weltanschauung” of the Jewish people. Popularized by Rabbi Meir Kanahe and the Jewish Defense League in 1971, in its simplest form it meant that we would never allow ourselves to be victimized.

In 2012, Elie Wiesel wrote: “‘Never again’ becomes more than a slogan: It’s a prayer, a promise, a vow … never again the glorification of base, ugly, dark violence.”

But a decade later that monster reared its ugly head in full force.

There are no words to describe The Massacre. But it’s aftermath is what has shaken us. People who were friends were now uttering antisemitic tropes. Colleagues were calling for termination of Jewish co-workers. Academic fellowships were being terminated. Sports and musical events were being cancelled. And antisemitic social media was exploding. Antisemitism on social media was not just going “viral”, it was going “nuclear”.

The phrase “Never Again”, our slogan, our world view, was now being used against us by antisemites.

We were the generations that grew up after the holocaust and in the shadow of the State of Israel. Antisemitism never really went away. It was just more quiet. And we allowed it to stay there, below the surface, like a dormant viral pandemic. I/we still faced antisemitism on a daily basis. Our children in university witnessed the growth of anti-Israel and antisemitism on campus. Hamas was allowed to survive. All of this, so long as we weren’t scathed too much. We held our heads high, proud of the State of Israel and the tremendous success and wealth of our generation, but refused to admit that there were still times that we had to cower, like weak Jews in the shtetl or ghetto, when antisemitism came our way.

We are to blame for allowing this to continue. We allowed ourselves to believe this could never happen again. We are leaving our children no better off than previous generations left theirs.

So what am I? A Jew or Jewish? I thought it was important to figure this out when I began this post six weeks ago. It doesn’t matter anymore. I just want all of this to end. Finally.

About the Author
Graduated from Brandeis University in Near Eastern and Jewish Studies in 1978 before completion of PhD (ABD) in "Relationship of US to Pre 1948 Yishuv". Active in Toronto Jewish community while pursuing business career. Made Aliyah in 2020. Last person to be admitted into Israel before Covid shutdown. Favorite movie quotes are "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!" and "You can't handle the truth!" and "Whaddya think, I'm dumb or something?"
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