Back in junior high school, the girls had to participate in an extracurricular sports team, and my friend Sheila and I played junior-varsity outfield. Sheila was slightly less awful an athlete than I was, and we shared a mutual strategy: since most of our classmates couldn’t hit the ball too far, playing outfield meant that all you had to do was stand around and pretend you were interested in the game. The Phys Ed teachers only paid attention to the athletic girls, which meant Sheila and I could stand near each other and talk about important things, like boys and that cute new social-studies teacher.
There was a small Jewish community in our suburb. In the first community my family had lived in, on the other hand, we were the only Jewish family on the block. And it was a very long block. My parents were quiet about our faith, and told me when I was still a little girl that some people didn’t like Jews and that sometimes I might hear mean comments directed to me. Both my mother and father suffered terrible anti-Semitism in their youth—my father in particular was the object of hideous physical violence that left his face scarred forever—not in Nazi Germany, but right here in America. So they did not deny being Jewish, but were quiet about it, although the mezuzah proudly hanging on our front door might have given things away to our neighbors.
Sheila was Jewish too, and we talked about it sometimes, especially about The Diary of Anne Frank, which staggered us both. We knew about the Holocaust, which took place just before we were born, and we knew that, although Judaism had to go underground at certain times—much in the way the Franks and the Van Daans and Dr. Dussel were hidden in the attic—it was a religion and a people of survival. So we smiled with pleasure when we found out that the young actress who played the Norwegian-American Dagmar Hansen in the television series “Mama” was really Robin Morgenstern, not Robin Morgan. And on the ball field one day, waiting for fly balls that never came our way, Sheila asked if I was still a Girl Scout.
“Yes, I am.”
“Do you read The American Girl?” The Girl Scouts’ monthly magazine featured articles about young women who earned merit badges by picking up neighborhood trash and knitting socks for the poor. It also featured short stories about slender, blonde-haired, blue-eyed girls named Krissy and Gwen and Mary. My friends and I hated our dark, curly hair and dumpy body types and longed to look like them.
“Yes, I do.”
“Did you see it? The name?” We smiled at each other. One of the stories featured a heroine named Shayna, which we knew meant pretty girl. Shayna Punim, the name our grandmothers called us. And this Shayna was more than just a pretty girl; she was a clever girl who sneaked into a story about bland, conforming Middle America.
A few years later, being Jewish became fashionable. Girls flaunted Stars of David to let the Jewish boys know we were available. We bragged that all the best doctors and lawyers were Members of the Tribe, and although the lives of people in books by Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud and Saul Bellow bore only superficial resemblance to our own, they came to define Jewish society in America. We celebrated our leadership in arts and culture, science and medicine, moral righteousness and the quest for social justice. It was an extended moment and lasted many years, but I suspect I’m not alone in thinking that things are changing now. The newspaper columnists and talking heads on television, the young physicians who treated me during a recent hospitalization, the authors of newly-published fiction about coming of age in America are less often Jewish than they are African American, Latinx, or Asian.
That’s as it should be in a country that is increasingly diverse and conscious of different experiences and opinions. Nevertheless, friends who are leaders in the Jewish community worry about the global rise of anti-Semitism, a turning away from Israel, and a general erosion of the centrality of the American Jewish community in the lives of many American Jews. I’m aware of this too, of course, but what gives me confidence in our people’s endurance is that, as my friend Sheila and I recognized as young girls, Jews don’t always have to make a bold fuss about who we are. Like Shayna, we come through.
After retiring from a career in public relations, Kathryn Bloom went back to school and received a PhD in literature from Northeastern University in 2018. She now teaches at several Boston-area institutions and writes critical articles and essays for a variety of publications.