When I was ten, my family moved into a new neighborhood. It was an upper-class, predominately Christian neighborhood in the northeastern suburbs of Indianapolis, Indiana. It was beautiful then, with forests and fields being the predominant environment and a few new houses encroaching on that natural beauty. I was naive and very excited. I had my own room and my own “princess phone.” That week I would be starting at a new school with the potential of many new and wonderful friends. I could not wait.
I lay on my front lawn, which was a hill overlooking a forest, and felt content and excited.
That night was Halloween, but for the first time in five years, I would not be trick or treating; I would instead be handing out candy. Even that did not dampen my spirits because, as my father pointed out, this way I could get to know the kids in the neighborhood even before going to school on Monday. There weren’t many that showed up which was to be expected, I reasoned, because the neighborhood was new, just being built, and maybe the other parents didn’t want to let their children walk these new streets alone until they knew the neighbors.
Unfortunately, that was not the reason.
It didn’t take me long to discover the real reason. I was an outsider, someone that didn’t belong here. I was a Jew. The prejudice was not overt. After all, this was an upper crust population. But it was obvious, none the less. When I went to the bus stop that first day of school, the other children bunched up as far away from me as they could whispering among themselves, isolating me. In class it was no better. I was stared at, laughed at, and called names. I didn’t understand.
We had moved from a middle-class Catholic neighborhood where no one seemed to care what we were. The only thing I had to deal with occasionally was an angry nun that seemed to think that if I was with the rest of her students that meant she had the right to punish me, too. The neighborhood was her parish and she ruled it with an iron hand. Here I belonged.
What had changed?
What eventually brought home to me the truth of the hypocrisy was when I finally made a friend. The area in which we lived was strange in that this new development of expensive homes was being built right atop one of the poorest streets in northeastern Indianapolis: one small street made up almost entirely of black people. A sweet girl named Sara, seeing how poorly I was being treated and taking pity on me, became my friend. She was black, she was poor, and she understood how I felt. For ten years she had lived this life of hatred and abuse for no reason other than she was black.
I was so excited to tell my family about my new friend and ask them if I could have her over to play the next day. I couldn’t wait! Finally, I would have someone I could show my room, my Basset Hound puppy, and my very own private princess phone to. I never thought to mention that she was black; she was just my friend.
To this day I remember the expression on my mother’s face when she saw her. Although she was pleasant to her—my mother was always a lady—I sensed that something was very wrong here. Being ten, though, I ignored it and had a wonderful time with Sara and couldn’t wait to go visit her home the next day and then, maybe if I was allowed, have her spend the night that weekend.
That night, when my father got home, my parents sat me down and gave me the news. I could never bring my friend home again, nor could I spend time with her at school. My parents explained that it was bad enough that we were Jews, which meant we could not join the country club that was part of these estates, I couldn’t go to the private school that most of the other children attended, and I would not be invited to birthday parties or any other events, but being considered someone who befriended black people would cause us to be persecuted and possibly driven out of the area. Their point was brought home to me that night when a dead rat with a note proclaiming “Nigger loving Kikes don’t deserve to live” was found on our front porch.
Here it is, 2020, and nothing has changed. We’ve learned little from the atrocities of the second World War, of the riots of the 60s, from what happened to Rodney King, from slavery, from the multiple deaths of black, gay, lesbian, and trans people, and from all the injustices that haunt our world. We have an opportunity now to make this world and our country better, cleaner, more loving. Are we going to waste it again and pretend that these injustices aren’t happening or are we going to take back our responsibility and our power and fight for a just America? One small way you can do that is to VOTE. Vote not just for president, but for honest, compassionate, smart people in every branch of the government. Hold accountable those that do harm and raise up those that fight for right. It’s our turn to create a country based on freedom for all. Let’s all do our part.