When I was 17 I got my first major role in a community theater play. I remember the thrill I felt when I ran my finger down the list of names and came to my own. Right there, in fancy script was my frequently mispronounced, always-a-little-out-of-place name beside the character of Margot Frank, looking, for the first time, right where it belonged.
For 17 years I’d been the only Jewish kid anyone in my town had ever known, the only one who brought in chocolate coins on Hannukah, the only one who packed funny “crackers” on Passover, and the only one who hid in the bathroom during the weeks before Christmas so as not to be accused of killing Jesus. Again.
But, there would be no hiding now. Playing Margot would be my opportunity to be Jewish in a public way, to celebrate the beauty of my religion, to enact a performance that encapsulated the bright lights of the young Jews that were extinguished during the Holocaust.
It was worth overcoming my shyness and inexperience on the stage for the opportunity to be part of a story that I’d read over and over, not because of its historical significance, but because it was about a dreamy Jewish girl, like me. A girl who I imagined as someone who would understand me.
Even though the play was in an area with some Jewish community, I didn’t really expect my castmates to be Jewish. But, what I did expect was that they would find a connection to the characters that they were portraying, an empathy for the horrors that this innocent family and millions like them had experienced.
I was wrong.
The next few months were to reveal to me the ugliness, not only of humanity, but of myself.
I remember the feeling of walking into that first script reading. The way my stomach churned as I opened the door, the way the sound of my footsteps soared up to the ceiling and boomed towards the stage… The stage where 10 adults and one girl my age sat together reading out loud.
They smiled when I came in, big warm smiles that eased the fluttering of the butterflies in my stomach.
The man spoke first, the one who was to play my father, Mr. Frank.
“You must be Margot. Welcome! You even look a little Jewish.”
They all laughed when he said it and I laughed too, even though I didn’t really get what was funny.
“You’re not REALLY Jewish though, are you?”
I want to say that I can remember the feeling of my heart beating faster, my throat closing up, the nervous panic of not knowing what to say… but, the truth is, I don’t. What I DO remember is him laughing over my mumbled answer while the rest of the cast joined in.
They continued their laughter that day, and the next… on and on for the next 8 weeks of practice.
What they were laughing about was… Jews. Jews eating weird foods, Jews arguing over money, and, more often than anything else, Jews being shoved into ovens.
Not once over those 8 weeks did I tell them to stop. Not once did I even say that I was Jewish.
I had a whole list of excuses that I would repeat to myself when they started again with the jokes.
They’re just kidding.
They can’t really mean those terrible things.
I’m just a kid, maybe I just don’t get adult jokes.
If I say something, they’ll stop liking me.
That last one is the one that haunted me for years. That’s what it really all came down to in the end. Being afraid to speak up because I didn’t want to get treated differently, because I wanted to be liked.
The experience of that week was so shameful that I almost completely blocked it out until years later, when I was a junior in college. At that point in my life I had formed a community of friends that was very diverse. After years of feeling out-of-place in the white Christian town of my childhood, I’d finally pieced together a group of friends who made me feel at home.
One day I brought one of my guy friends to my apartment. He was very fair skinned, and mostly “passed” as white, but was, in fact, biracial. My roommate, a white girl from a small town similar to the one I’d grown up in, came flying into the apartment in a huff. She threw her purse down and turned to my friend and me.
“What is happening in this town? There are so many black people everywhere. This big group of black guys was right outside our building. They were looking at me like they were going to grab my purse any minute… or worse.”
My friend and I exchanged glances. The kind of guilty, uncomfortable glances that people exchange when they don’t know what to say, when they want to believe it’s a harmless joke, when they are afraid that if they say something, the person won’t like them anymore.
I’d like to say that this is the part of the story where I leapt to my feet and defended my friend, where I shouted at my roommate to stop being racist, where I finally redeemed myself for that horrible theater incident.
But, the truth is, I didn’t. Not that day, at least. Or the day after either. In fact, It wasn’t until the very last day that we lived together that the incident ever even came up again.
What I did do was continue to bring my friends to the apartment. My Black friends and Asian friends, my Latino friends and Middle Eastern friends, my Muslim friends and Jewish friends.
Sometimes I could see that my roommate was uncomfortable, but she never said a word about it… not to my friends or to me. In fact, more and more often, she’d sit with us and talk.
The last conversation I had with her was the day we were packing our bags to move to new, separate apartments.
“I have to confess something to you,” she said. “When we first moved in together, it made me so uncomfortable when you’d bring black people over. But, your friends are so cool. They’re nicer to me than most of the white people I grew up with. It’s really changed how I think about people.”
That’s when I told her about my biracial friend and how she’d spoken so terribly about black people when he was visiting.
She felt badly, of course. But, there was no way to go back and change the past. Just as there was no way for me to go back and change how I handled the theater experience.
Looking back as an adult, I would certainly stand up to those people in the theater and to my roommate. In fact, it still shames me that I didn’t. But, I also think back to what my roommate said. About how what changed her perspective was having the opportunity to build connections with people of color, not any reprimands or speeches made by me.
These are difficult times we are in. It’s not that racism and antisemitism have been newly born, it’s more that the veneer has been pulled back, the masks raised. Those in-the-moment loud displays of strength and unity are necessary to combat these evils. And we should absolutely keep speaking out and standing up for each other. But, I wonder, in the long run, if it’s the quieter, more consistent efforts at connection that will form the real changes.