By Richard Stellar.
I remember my first experience with anti-Semitism. It was at the hands of a dumpy little 10th grader named Stanley Sophia. He stood all of 5’4” tall with a pockmarked face that displayed the sheen of recently popped pimples, and wore traces of whatever was served in the high school cafeteria smeared on his gym shirt. Mr. Balzerett, our rather oafish physical education teacher who could have passed as a military drill sergeant, selected Stan and another one of our classmates as team captains. He instructed the rest of our class to line up on the blacktop while Stanley and the boy called out names for their teams for a pick-up basketball game. As names were called and the teams grew larger and larger, I began wondering why I had not been picked.
There I was, 14 years old and practically 6’4” tall and I had a better hook shot than most. Although Mr. Balzarett would comment on my running saying, “Stellar, if you were a race horse, I’d shoot you,” everyone knew I was an asset to the team because I could overpower pretty much anyone on the court. As Stan’s new team mates began to urge “pick Stellar…pick Stellar”, Stan leveled his gaze at me and retorted “I ain’t having no Jew on my team.”
I was mortally wounded and the feeling of ostracism at the hands of this little prick never left me. On that day, in 5th period PE class, a new realization swept over me and as much as I tried to deny it, an overwhelming awareness would resurface time and time again. Later that day, I was fortunate enough to meet up with Stan outside of Winchell’s Donuts on Nordhoff Ave; and before he could finish his Apple Fritter I kicked his behind. It wasn’t as much of an ambush as it was a revenge pas de deux that at the time felt very satisfying.
What was so great about Stan was that through him I became aware of my Judaism. Through my awareness of Judaism I began to pay attention to Israel. Through my new found interest, I became a Zionist – but not in the traditional sense.
In Yiddish and Hebrew it’s called ‘seychel’ – an almost spiritual knowledge or wisdom. If you understand the drive that the early Zionists had to create Israel – an oasis out of nothing, and then use that understanding as the basis to protect what they created, then you are in fact a Zionist. You occupy and protect the edifice that is Israel. You need not be the architect; however as a tenant in body or mind, the affinity that you have to hold sacred the homeland of your people is as important as those politicians, soldiers and visionaries had in creating Israel. That’s where I am. I am a proud Zionist. I do not live in Israel, and in late March I’ll be visiting Israel for the first time. Nonetheless, Israel is my homeland – and I can thank Stan Sophia for waking me up and allowing me to find the ‘seychel’ in me.
The new Zionism demands that we not rest on our laurels in our cushy homes and German cars. The new Zionism demands that we defend and protect the existence of Israel. While brave Israeli men and women in the IDF sacrifice their lives and while Israeli families take their children by the hand and disappear into bomb shelters, our responsibility becomes apparent. As Jews, we understand why so much of the world hates us. We persevere, we esteem education, and we sacrifice our lives for our children. We do not send them into cafes with bombs strapped under bulky sweaters. What we don’t understand are the ancient beliefs and myths that have been passed on from generation to generation.
Of course they hate us. Their hate is born from jealousy and fueled by ignorance, biased media and governments who live by their own rules of corruption. They hate us because it is easier to hate than to understand. We have become, as Jews, scapegoats because we will not sink to the level of doing to them, what they do to us. At their own peril they perceive that as weakness. Israel has shown them that weakness is not in our credo. For that reason alone I love Israel and will defend her.
And as Jews, we love our children more than we hate our enemy. We laugh in the face of our oppressors almost as much as we laugh at ourselves. We entertain, we publish and we mend the broken limbs and treat the diseases of our enemy’s wives and babies. And although we may be called out in the street, or our homes and Temples marked with midnight swastikas spray-painted by cowards, or are gunned down by religious extremists in the name of Allah, we rise up with purpose: to exist, to thrive, and to mark our place in the world. We are the light and Israel is the socket that we plug into.
We all have experienced our own Stanley Sophias. Whether they are schoolyard bullies, bald-headed youths who preach hate, or armed and masked gunmen who rob us of our loved ones – this is our cross to bear. It always has been, and it always will be.
Richard Stellar is an award winning journalist, blogger and social media strategist. He is also co-founder along with Israeli born film, television and concert music composer Sharon Farber of The Bestemming Project.
The Bestemming Project fights anti-Semitism and oppression through music and the arts, creating musical and artistic programs that inspire and celebrate the power of the individual while fostering remembrance, awareness, tolerance and understanding for all people. Website coming soon to www.bestemmingproject.org.