You’ve Got to Sweat the Small Stuff
The other night, my fourteen year old daughter and I, had a fierce argument. Nothing unusual for a teenager to disagree with a parent, however this wasn’t the usual difference of opinion about keeping her room clean, or staying out past curfew. This was about my reaction to her new tenth grade World History textbook which had, what I considered, several negative entries regarding Jews.
I’d read some of it during her back-to-school night, and wanted to have more time to study the text. I’d asked her to bring the book home so I could take a closer look at it. She became very upset and accused me of making too much of it. She told me I should leave it alone, that no one else cared, and I shouldn’t sweat the small stuff. She complained that I was embarrassing her, then she ran into her room and slammed the door.
I thought about her reaction and could see that she might have had a point. She knows from past incidents, that I can be a bit reactive on issues I believe in. A few years ago the school board approved a pamphlet on abstinence that was distributed by a Christian organization. It contained references to highly religious material and created a major confrontation between the school board and the A.D.L. Under threat of a law suit, the material was deleted and the matter was resolved. And I’d only made one phone call.
The week of Rosh Hashannah, my daughter’s band Section Leader called the house to remind her of a special rehearsal he had scheduled that Sunday, which was the second day of Rosh Hashannah. I was a bit less than diplomatic when I told him my daughter would not attend because we were going to be in services that day, and I strongly suggested that he check the calendar first before making any future rehearsal plans.
The next day, she was furious with me. She told me I scared the guy and I should not have made such a big deal about the rehearsal date. She said she wasn’t even planning on going to services anyway, and why didn’t I just mind my own business. So, when her band leader scheduled a rehearsal for the day of Yom Kippur, I didn’t say anything. Nor did I mention it to him at back-to-school night. I didn’t want to further embarrass my child, and besides, maybe she was right. None of the other Jewish parents had said anything. No one made a fuss about the band rehearsal schedule or the “mandatory” participation in the Christmas caroling in December. So, I kept quiet.
Then, I visited her World History class, and began reading through the new text book. Almost every reference to Jews appeared to have a pro-Christian bias. One particularly disturbing line stated that “Jews were despised throughout the world.” As these were new texts, the students weren’t allowed to take them home. (I tried to get a copy before the deadline for this contest, but have not had any luck.) I wondered how many parents read the school texts their children did bring home. With budget cut-backs, many schools are keeping textbooks in the classroom and parents may not have a chance to see them at all. And most, like my daughter said, probably won’t care. After all, it’s only small stuff.
A synagogue in San Francisco is victimized by arson and the entire community comes to their aid. A gunman goes on a shooting rampage at a Southern California Jewish day care center and the newscrews are on the scene almost before the ambulances arrive. Politicians make speeches, organizations raise money, and communities unite to end the hatred and violence. The big stuff is taken care of by huge organizations. Security is tightened around our Temple. They will protect us. We feel safe.
At the smaller level, things are different. Insensitivity, bordering on anti-Semitism continues to flourish, especially in December. During a holiday concert, my older child and another Jewish girl, refused to sing Silent Night because they didn’t want to say “Christ Our Savior”. I was called to the school to discuss the “problem”. It was the first time in that chorus teacher’s experience that any student had chosen not to sing due to religious reasons. She offered to include more “Jewish” songs if I provided them. I told her she missed the point. I felt religious themes songs had no place in a public school and more students had the courage to protest, perhaps the musical elections would have been more of the secular kind. She suggested that my daughter simply not sing during that song, so she didn’t and the concert went on as scheduled. After all, I’ve been told by fellow Jewish parents, there’s nothing we can do to change things. It’s all harmless. It’s all small stuff.
A few years ago, I was conducting a meeting which was attended by several parents and young girls. During the discussion, I mentioned to my team partner that the cost of one of the events was a bit high. Her response was “don’t be such a cheap Jew.” She said it loud enough for some of the girls to hear. I was shocked. She laughed at my objections. I reported the incident to the staff of the organization. We had a meeting. The woman was insulted that she had been required to attend. The staff thought the whole incident was of little importance. I told them that anyone who would use that type of stereotype language should not be in charge of a group of young children. They didn’t agree, saying I was making too much of it. The woman didn’t mean anything by it. It wasn’t a big deal. It was to me. I quit the next day.
Over the years, I’ve belonged to several organizations who have changed their “Christmas Party” to “Holiday Party” at my request. There was never any public objections, some even suggested an addition of Hanukkah music at their next function. Some of these groups never had a Jewish member, and the ones that were never voiced any opposition to the program, so they just didn’t “think” it was an issue. I thought it was.
Sensitivity on every level promotes understanding. It’s comforting to know that organizations like the A.D.L. and others exist to handle the bigger issues, but there are few groups or individuals who have the time, energy or desire to go after the smaller ones. It’s not until a major tragedy, followed by interviews of the victims family and religious leaders making speeches about tighter security, do we all sit around and ask how could this have been prevented.
If we all “sweated the small stuff”, opened communication at the lowest level, stayed aware and involved, we might be able to put an end to the hate at the very beginning, and perhaps it would never get a chance to grow into a major tragedy.
It’s not a popular stand to take, most don’t. But the slogan “Never Again” is not just about six million, and it’s most certainly not a phrase that should be used lightly. The six million Jews were not murdered all at once. The hatred that grew in Germany was not an overnight event. It began with a few minor incidents that went unnoticed. A few laws that went unchallenged, a few books that went unread because people were too busy to sweat the small stuff. But that’s where the big stuff begins to grow.
We must sweat the small stuff. We can’t afford to hide behind a false sense of security that what we see on the news can never happen to us. That somehow, in this country, there is no threat to our religious freedom, or our lives. I’m sure that’s what the congregation in San Francisco thought. I’m sure that’s what the members of the Jewish Day Care Center thought. They were both wrong. It can happen. It does happen. And, if you go onto the Internet, it is continuing to happen all around the world. This is not small stuff.
It starts with a text book, slanted just slightly, but not blatant enough to cross the line, to be accepted in a classroom. It continues with a religious pamphlet, distributed under the guise of abstinence information, and persists on a web site full of lies and hate that a lonely child might be attracted to while their parents are busy doing more “important” things.
And it ends with people taking risks and having the courage to confront schools and organizations who don’t consider small issues to be of any great significance. And it ends with parents arguing with their teenagers about the importance of sweating the small stuff and hoping that in their lifetime, the big stuff truly never happens again.
As it recently did, 20 years after this piece was written, in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
- Posted in: Commentary