2016-07-06 / Editorial

Did I encounter subtle anti-Semitism in the grocery store?

By B.J. EPSTEIN Kveller via JTA

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that if you have a child, random strangers will talk to you. They will comment on your child’s looks or behavior or on your parenting skills, or they’ll tell you about their own children, or they’ll offer unasked-for advice.

Sometimes the best response is to politely yet briefly engage, then move on. Sometimes the conversation actually is interesting and you want to chat more. Sometimes it’s worth speaking up and pointing out the idiocy/offensiveness of what they’re saying. And sometimes you’re just puzzled by the discussion.

I was confused by one of these interactions recently and left wondering whether the woman was being subtly anti-Semitic. Or perhaps she was being pro-Semitic. It’s still hard to know.

My wife, our daughter and I were in the checkout line of the grocery store. The woman working there smiled at our daughter and asked her name. When we told her, the woman said, “Oh, that’s a good Jewish name!” After a moment, she proceeded to reel off some information she remembered from the Bible, which she referred to as the Old Testament, all related to our daughter’s name. There was a long line behind us, but the woman just sat thoughtfully next to the cash register talking at us and not paying much attention to her work. We nodded and smiled, and wished she’d get going with ringing up our purchases.

After we got back to our car, we agreed it was a bit odd, but no big deal.

However, not long afterward, I was at that grocery store again with our daughter and had the same cashier. She remembered our daughter’s name and called it out. I made a comment about how impressive it was that she remembered the name, considering how many customers she must see.

The woman said, “Oh, but you never see children with dark hair and dark eyes. That’s how I remembered her.” I must have looked surprised because she went on to explain to me that “Most children are fair. Most children have pale hair and light eyes.”

Obviously, we all know that simply isn’t true. Children, like humans in general, have a range of skin tones, hair color, eye color and so on.

We live in a city with a very small Jewish population; I have a suspicion I’ve met most of the Jews by now. But regardless of how many Jews there are, certainly there are other people with dark hair and people from a variety of backgrounds.

Was this woman implying that she knew we were Jewish and therefore foreign? Was she suggesting we didn’t belong because we weren’t fair? Given the recent debate about whether the United Kingdom should leave the European Union, I am quite sensitive to the idea that foreign-born folks aren’t welcome or aren’t really British.

Or was she admiring our difference? Did she like our thick, dark hair? Was she envious?

I have no real way of knowing what was going on with this woman; or at least I don’t know now. Perhaps she’ll be our cashier another time and her views will become clearer. s

B. J. Epstein is a senior lecturer in literature and public engagement at the University of East Anglia in England. She’s also a writer, editor and Swedish- to- English translator. She lives with her wife and daughter. Kveller is a thriving community of women and parents who convene online to share, celebrate and commiserate their experiences of raising kids through a Jewish lens. Visit Kveller.com

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