By TED ROBERTS, the SCRIBBLER ON THE ROOF
Miss Smith, my third grade teacher, stood facing the class with her arm around my shoulders. She looked out to her students, her eyes focused above them. I looked down. I had just finished reciting a poem to the class and before I could return to my desk, Miss Smith was at my side.
“Children, Teddy’s Jewish. And I like Jewish kids. Teddy’s people have made some major contributions to the South. How many of you know of Dr. Joseph Goldberger who cured Pellagra? How many of you know about pellagra?” Not one kid knew of Goldberger or pellagra, whereupon Miss Smith went on to tell her class how the Jewish doctor had deduced that this scourge of the rural South was caused by a dietary deficiency.
She was a good story teller and told the tale of Goldberger’s medical sleuthing with gusto. “But his
people are having a bad time,‘specially in Germany, because of an evil man named Hitler – a fiend in human form. Let’s show Teddy that we’re proud to live in America, where we’d just send the dog catcher to pick up a fleahound like Hitler.”
The Anti-Christ had come to destroy the faithful, she told the class, and naturally, he had started with the Lord’s people, the Jews. It was Armageddon time.
This talk made me nervous. I’d never heard of Joseph Goldberger, either. I was only Teddy Roberts, fourth grader in Vollentine Grammar School; not the visible representative of the Lord’s people or the
Jewish race or even one of the major contestants in the battle of Armageddon.
“I like Jewish kids,” she repeated. “It’s a shame we don’t have more of them here in the deep South.”
The classroom was full of giggles because of Hitler and his fleas, I hoped, and not at me and the fact that in Tennessee Jews like me were as rare as polar bears. Miss Smith’s speeches made me uncomfortable –
like singing Christmas Carols. Why couldn’t she just take me into the cloak room and explain my uniqueness – a Jew in Tennessee?
But I did like the feel of her big hand on my shoulder. And maybe Miss Smith’s praises helped me with Betty Lou McKintosh, whose blue eyes opened wide as she looked at me and his teacher at the head of his class.
Me and Miss Smith and my third grade classroom were lucky enough to be located in that section of the country that lies south of the Tennessee northern border and north of the Gulf of Mexico – namely, Memphis, Tennessee. Now that’s not unusual and as a fact, holds no interest even to obsessed collectors of Jewish population exotica.
But what is interesting is that as I progressed from kindergarten through high school, I never encountered a single word or event that hinted of anti-Semitism (whatever that means, which we’ll explore
later). Where were all those so called hillbilly Southerners – uneducated to the core – who thought Jews were rich, power-hungry, over-influential, and had talons of steel that could move the world.
Where was the Ku Klux Klan? Like all of us I suffered rejection, but never attributed it to my Jewishness.
Of course, it always is a healthy choice to boast of your Jewishness instead of hiding it. That’s a personal choice I believe in. Others may disagree. I don’t mean renting a podium, writing a speech, and
oratorically announcing your ancestral descent from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. One must be a bit more subtle – subtle, not hidden.
Alluding to your ancestry in a relevant conversation. I think it’s morally helpful as a goal to your behavior. I think it constantly reminds you and the peopled world you move in that the spotlight is on
you. You’re not Raymond Greenberg – you’re Raymond Greenberg the Jew. And ringing in your head like a bell is the reminder that in a sense Judaism is on trial, not just Mr. Greenberg. The moral bar should be higher for you – your lies, treacheries, misdeeds not only brand you, but blemish a whole race of your extended Judaic family.
Strange, that only applies to us, not our Christian friends. It is a form of discrimination that I for one don’t regret. It keeps you “on your toes” as the expression goes. Yes, the Jew is still an ethical
target – but you should be a smaller target than your fellow worker, student, club member, whatever. We should so imbue our children.
“Debbie, we’re the Chosen People. Act like it. We carry the flag!” Of course this doctrine of elevated morals is only effective (and rewarding) in your day-to-day meandering through life. It has no
political impact. No relevance to Islamic terrorism that celebrates your decapitation by killing two more like you.
All of this – an obvious thought – no lightning flash of insight – struck me as I first met my fellow soldiers when I served my short stint in the Tennessee National Guard. As I subtly revealed my religious identity, one fellow soldier from a hamlet in Tennessee – with wonder in his eyes – exclaimed, “Gee, I never met a Jew before”. (Like a zoologist might remark of a two-headed elephant.) Remember
these were predominately country boys from small Tennessee towns.
Somehow, that bell rang loud and long. I’m the only Jew he has ever come in contact with and if he stays in non-cosmopolitan Tennessee, he may never meet another. I’m the barometer for millions of my co-
religionists. I better behave.
You say he may have been a wife-beating, burglarizing, child-abusing scum. So what? Makes no matter. He was still a moral stimulant to Teddy Roberts the Jew.