I Say, “I’m Jewish.”
Hollander, beloved creator of the “Sylvia” cartoon strip, tells her own story in this new book (above). Her irony-laden, cigarette-smoking Sylvia is replaced here with autobiographical vignettes and pungent images from the cartoonist’s Jewish girlhood in Chicago.
I remember going to the corner store for Wonder Bread. We were always admonished by our mothers not to squeeze the bread. If you squeezed it, it became a tiny wad and could not be used to make sandwiches or anything but spitballs.
A boy I recognize vaguely from school stands very close to me and hisses: “You killed Jesus.” I was of course frightened of him, his size and intensity, but I had been raised by an atheist and felt no guilt about something I didn’t think existed, like God. I was too young to say: “Really, the Jews killed Jesus, all of us? Did you ever see us in a room together trying to agree on anything?”
My experience of anti-Semitism was very limited as a child. We lived in a mainly Italian neighborhood, but the building we lived in was completely Jewish.
But I did hear slurs at neighborhood parties. I was a kid. I looked like all the other dark-haired kids and occasionally someone in the group would say someone “jewed” him down. “Jews have all the money, there are no poor Jews, Jews stick together.” I could feel the remark coming. I was on the alert. Here is a group of people who are among their own kind. Why should they be careful about what they say? Suddenly the remark is made and I feel the spotlight on me. I am frozen and yet highly alert, my mind is working at top speed.
The idea that I might let the remark pass is certainly tempting, but not an option. I have a duty to all those Jews who died in the camps.
I say: “I’m Jewish.” There is a terrible silence. These are nice
people. I know them all. They are ashamed. They apologize. They say they didn’t know. They didn’t mean it.
I feel the urge to reassure them that I will forgive them and that I am not permanently injured.
The moment passes, everyone starts laughing and talking again, but I could ruin it all in a minute.