Reindeer and Rabbis

Reindeer display in Long Island public middle school, Credit: Phyllis Reiff, 1971
Reindeer Display at Long Island Public Middle School Photo Credit: Phyllis Reiff, 1971

The chorus of sidestepping explanations espoused by some voices within the American Jewish community to excuse the rampant antisemitism in the United States takes me back fifty years to growing up in Long Island, New York.

Let’s keep our heads low and this will pass”.  “These are useful idiots who really don’t understand the full picture, nothing to be concerned about here”.  “This isn’t pre-war Germany”.  “No one has been physically harmed”. “Kids will be kids”.

I close my eyes and hear these same lame attempts at justifying what should have been called out then – but was elegantly swept under the rug – and what is being explained-away today.

In the 1970’s, Rabbi Rozenberg was the spiritual leader of a reform synagogue founded two decades earlier in an “Old-Gatsby-like” estate nestled along the northern Long Island Sound.  Despite staunch village-board legal objections and crippling restrictions from the “old-money” residents, New York City Jews, among them Holocaust survivors, had begun moving to this suburban hamlet. By 1971, membership reached 450 households, many of whose children were my classmates.

That year, with Christmas/Hanukkah approaching, our public middle-school English teacher gave us an assignment to create artwork about the holidays, which she later displayed on antlers of a reindeer head that spanned almost an entire classroom wall.

The next day, my classmates and I approached this unusual display with curiosity. “It’s Hanukkah Harry”.  “Let’s get him”, read the first drawing’s caption that caught my eye. Drawn by a boy I had attended school with since kindergarten, it was a conversation between two men pointing bows-and-arrows at a man across the room with a Pinocchio-type long nose laden with bagels.

I moved to another drawing and read the words “Jew Canoe”, under a Magen David drawn on the door of a red Cadillac.

Ah, don’t make a big deal of it, they’re only joking”, commented a few Jewish classmates I called over to weigh-in, while nervously and quickly retreating to their desks. I knew, however, that I could not simply dismiss what I had seen.  At the end of the day, I took down a few of the offensive posters, leaving others displayed, and brought them home.

You’re over-reacting”, responded both the school principal and district superintendent, to my mother’s phone calls requesting that the school remove the offensive posters. Many Jewish community members did not agree with their flippant attitude, one Holocaust survivor remarking at a school board meeting, “this rhetoric is reminiscent of the antisemitism we experienced in school as children in Germany”.

Parents and community members demanded that the teacher be reprimanded – and educated – and that programs be incorporated into the district curriculum to explain why such antisemitic rhetoric is dangerous and unacceptable.

Surprisingly, instead of supporting that sensible position, Rabbi Rozenberg wrote a strong letter to the school board supporting the teacher, accompanied by a recommendation that she be promoted to Head of the English Department, claiming, without basis, that the teacher had likely meant for this to be a “lesson in diversity”. In a pulpit sermon shortly after, he convincingly elaborated on his stance saying that the Jewish community was only just beginning to be accepted by the wider local community, and that we should not be too hasty to criticize or “make waves”.

The offensive display remained throughout the holiday season.  Years later, I learned that the teacher had, indeed, been promoted.  The furor passed with the next news cycle, and without any concrete action by the local school board to use what had transpired as a “teaching moment”.

Realization that the Jewish teens who had hurried to distance themselves from what they saw might benefit from some Jewish identity forming, my mother, a life-long Hadassah member, asked the organization to establish a Young Judaea Zionist club in our town.  The Port Washington club soon became one of the largest clubs in the region.  The informal education we received, supplemented by a teen summer trip to Israel and summer camp, ultimately changed the life-journeys of many who grew up in the Movement and eventually made Aliyah.

We and our children became leaders within Israeli civil society in academia, the military, the environmental movement, municipal and national politics, philanthropy, hi-tech, medicine and more.

Almost 53 years after, a former classmate who still resides in the area sent me a CBS newsclip quoting the local police department: “Antisemitic graffiti was found in a Port Washington middle school”.  A Jewish parent, a grandson of Holocaust survivors, is quoted as saying: “It’s incredible to me that this is happening. I never imagined it would be happening here”. Apparently, the Jewish community has a short collective memory.

While the reemergence of antisemitism within a public-school setting saddens me, it also does not surprise me. When the opportunity arose years ago to address the core issue and use it as an opportunity to educate and, hopefully, change attitudes, most Jewish and non-Jewish communal leaders chose to simply move on from the “unpleasant” event, as if nothing happened.

Former Young Judaean friends and I often speculate about what the “secret sauce” was that sparked our enthusiastic embracing of our Jewish and Zionist identities.  Was it, we wonder, the antisemitism we personally experienced during our formative years that led to our realization that even in our affluent diverse community, we did not actually belong?

Was that fundamental understanding peppered with the emotions of the era that we grew up in – the contagious post-fervor of the Vietnam War protests? The passion of the Soviet Jewry Movement? Perhaps the euphoria of the Six Day War that had yet to be shattered a short time later?

Will what’s happening in America today trigger similar “aha moments” for the Jewish community, or will this be yet another “unpleasant” cycle to be replaced with challah-baking and summer break?

About the Author
For the past 20 years, Karen Katzman-Hanan has directed the Israel Office of The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and represents a U.S. philanthropic foundation in Israel. Karen holds a Master of Public Administration from New York University and made Aliyah in 1984. She is a mother of 4 children and lives in Even Yehuda, Israel. She and her husband, Wayne, a figure skating coach, share 6 grandchildren.
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