Back in the late 1960s, I hired myself out as a substitute teacher in the large city where I was a graduate student in English literature. The pay was good and provided a supplement to my meager fellowship. In addition, it gave me an opportunity to explore neighborhoods I wouldn’t have otherwise discovered. About 7:00 each morning, my phone would ring with assistant principals calling to line up replacements for the day and, if I didn’t have classes (and sometimes even if I did), I soon found myself on a bus or subway heading for work. My “specialties” soon expanded from English to history and then to physics, chemistry, and art. I drew the line at phys ed.
A substitute’s lot is not an easy one, and more than one day I stomped home after school trying to work out my frustrations and reminding myself about the generous stipend I was earning. But most days, I enjoyed my work.
To my great surprise and disappointment, the only school I disliked teaching at was in an affluent Jewish neighborhood. The Jewish students I encountered in other schools were fine, but many of the students at this school were spoiled, coming from a particularly privileged enclave. I taught at this school only occasionally, but when I did I was particularly aware of one of the history teachers. His accent identified him as German, his name identified him as gentile, and his age clearly indicated he would have been subjected to the draft during World War II. Since I didn’t know when he’d emigrated, every time I saw him I tried to figure out where he’d been—here? or there?—during the war.
On a long break in the teachers’ lounge one rainy afternoon, I turned to him and said simply, “You were there.” He was not surprised by my question. Nor did he try to evade it. “Yes,” he said. “I was there and I took part in it.” Then he told me his story.
He grew up in a small town somewhere in Germany. Although he’d never met a Jew, he proudly served his Führer as a teenage foot soldier. He was heartbroken when Hitler died and Germany surrendered.
Then he learned about the Shoah, about the camps and the crematoria and the Six Million, and he could not reconcile it with his devotion to Hitler and his own behavior. He returned to school, studied history at university, and emigrated during the early 1950s, determined to devote his adult life to learning about Judaism and teaching about the Holocaust, teaching tolerance to anyone who would listen so that it would not happen again. He admitted it had taken him a long time to overcome the attitudes of his youth but felt he could honestly say he was no longer antisemitic, had Jewish friends with whom he celebrated Chanukah and Passover, and acknowledged that only Jews would have hired a former Nazi to teach European history to their children.
Then I asked him the question I’d been struggling with as I dealt with these adolescents: How could he deal with these students, with their arrogance and attitude of entitlement? We’re not all like this,I said, both too hastily and defensively. And there are lots of stuck-up gentile kids, but if this is all someone knew about Jews, how would they feel about us? He nodded in agreement and said he knew we were not all like these students. It does not come from the religion, he said. The problem is in the relationships between Jewish men and Jewish women, a tension and an anger that creates a toxicity within the family that spills into the outer world.
I listened in silence, wrestling with my horror at actually encountering a man who had fought to destroy the Jewish people. What could a former Nazi soldier would understand about Judaism? Did he still harbor unresolved prejudice?
I was also wrestling with the recognition that, prejudice or not, I agreed with something in he was saying. I was in my early 20s and single. I thought of all the young Jewish guys I dated in college, nice guys, decent guys, but too many of them with an inner anger that—whatever its origin—was directed against Jewish women.
Whose resentment about being forced into standards of behavior that demanded constant striving and excellence—to get the best grades, get into the finest medical and law schools, be an outstanding provider—came out in endless angry jokes about controlling and interfering Jewish mothers. Who didn’t want to date you because you were too Jappy—or not Jappy enough. Who didn’t understand why they were angry (internalized oppression wasn’t a well-known concept back then and neither was inherited trauma), but were comfortable in blaming it on Jewish women.
I understood the frustration that comes from external pressure, from feeling that Jewish men had to do better—to be better—than gentile men in order to make their way in the world. But I often wondered in those days, what was it that made them take it out on Jewish women?
What my colleague said next shook me the most profoundly: “Jews will always have enemies—and you will always overcome them. What can destroy the Jewish people are the relationships within the Jewish family, the conflict between Jewish men and Jewish women.” I still could not respond; I didn’t want to hear this from a man who had once been a proud enemy of my people.
I took heart from his belief that we would always overcome our enemies. And yet. His other words have stayed with me for decades, surfacing again during incidents like the blind date with a young Jewish man who began the evening by demanding to know “why are Jewish women such bitches?” Or years later, when a gentile colleague told me that Jewish women were notorious for being bad in bed. I told him that was not an acceptable statement—and that, moreover, he knew nothing about Jewish women sexually. Taken aback, he apologized and explained that the Jewish men he knew were always making fun of Jewish women so he
assumed it was acceptable.
I suggested he not make this kind of Jewish joke again and my mind went back to the conversation in the teachers’ lounge so many years ago. I still think about that interaction and continue to wrestle with my ambivalence.
I got paid that day for my service as a substitute teacher, but I was the one who was the student. And I’m still studying our interaction today.
photograph by Abhinav Thakur