By Mark Naison
On January 22, I, along with many others, joined Fordham faculty, Wes Alcenat and Magda Teter, for a tour of an exhibit “Confronting Hate: Antisemitism, Racism, and the Resistance,” which they co-curated with a student Lesley East FCRH’24. It is not often that I encounter scholarship and art with life changing power. But I did that day.
The remarkable exhibit and presentation had a profound effect on everyone who attended, me included. Juxtaposing the language and imagery of antisemitism along with that of anti-Black racism and showing commonalities in the language of resistance from scholars and activists who were not always aware of one another is something that I have ever seen done before.
On a personal level, the presentation by both of my colleagues inspired me to look at my own childhood and youth in a new way. I have written extensively about my own attraction to, and immersion in Black history and culture—an effort that has shaped my entire adult life. I even wrote an entire book about that: White Boy: A Memoir.
However, I never fully interrogated the Jewish dimension of my childhood and youth in terms of the historic dynamics which the exhibition presents, particularly resistance to the imagery as well as lived reality of antisemitism, in the US as well as globally. My parents’ generation not only lived through Hitler and the Holocaust, but they also faced fierce antisemitism on the streets of New York City and, if they chose to travel, throughout the country. My generation grew up with a completely different experience. We grew up believing that there was nothing that could stop us from achieving any position we sought in American life and we were determined to turn that into a reality. In my own scholarship, that journey has often been described as “Jews becoming white.”
But in the context of what the exhibit explores, there was something else going on: a concerted effort to create a generation that defied historic stereotypes of Jews that my parents’ generation was bombarded with. Some of this, interestingly enough, was done through diet; some of it through sports, often in a highly gendered way. My cousins and I, who grew up together in Crown Heights, were deluged with food by everyone around us—Jewish food, Chinese food, TV Dinners—at every meal, constantly told in Yiddish “es mein Kind” (eat my child). The results were visible in physical terms. I grew to be six full inches taller than my father, something quite common in my Brooklyn neighborhood. We were also taught to fight and were exposed to sports at an early age.
My father, a 5’5″ teacher with dark hair, glasses and a hooked nose, almost a walking image of the Jewish stereotype, bought me boxing gloves and football equipment before I was 5 years and taught me wrestling holds that I could use in a fight. With me, who was 6’ tall and 180 pounds by the time I was 14 and ironically had reddish blond hair, he ended up creating someone who (from the vantage point of the exhibition) could avenge the insults, attacks and antisemitic imagery that haunted him his entire life. I grew up being afraid of NO ONE, and kicked the butts of many people who made fun of me for doing well in school, and in one or two instances, who made antisemitic remarks.
However, what the exhibition made me realize was that my experience was not idiosyncratic, but generational. I never thought of this before. But, when I graduated Columbia in 1966, I was one of three captains of Columbia teams who were Jewish—me in tennis, Stan Felsinger in basketball, Steve Richmond in baseball. Harvey Rubin, a captain in football, had graduated a year prior. What’s more, EVERY SINGLE ONE OF US GREW UP IN BROOKLYN and attended a local public high school.
From the perspective that the exhibit and the presentation by Wes Alcenat and Magda Teter have provided me with, we were a collective example of resistance to antisemitism, something never fully articulated by those around us, but perhaps all the more powerful because it was unspoken!
I never saw myself as fighting antisemitism when I was growing up. Rather, I saw myself as attaining the heights of achievement in a country open to my efforts. But was it an accident that when the Civil Rights movement exploded to the fore during my years in college, I became deeply immersed in fighting anti-Black racism, with my civil rights activism, and emerging studies of race in America, becoming as important a part of my identity as being a star athlete? After all, wasn’t my becoming a star athlete part of an unacknowledged, but collective mission, to resist and ultimately defeat antisemitism?
I grateful to Wes and Magda for inspiring me to take a new look at all these issues, to understand the trauma of being constantly bombarded with negative images, as well as very real threats, which shaped the outlook of my parents and everyone else in my parents’ generation in my Crown Heights neighborhood where the vast majority of people over 20 were first and second generation Jews and Italians. One of the big takeaways from the Exhibition was realizing that my emergence as a star athlete was more than a personal journey—an entire community was invested in training and mentoring me and so many other Jewish athletes so that we would shatter the widely disseminated stereotypes about Jewish weakness and fragility.
Mark Naison is Professor of African American Studies and History at Fordham University and the author of seven books and over 300 articles on African American politics, labor history, popular culture and education policy.