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Our mandated moment of silence may harm some of those who must keep silent.

How It Feels to Be "Different"


With a mandatory moment of silence about to be instituted as the new school year begins, I thought it might be instructive to relive the time when schools mandated prayers and offered early release to attend religious worship on Friday afternoons - a time when prejudice, in particular anti-Semitism, was much more freely expressed. You see, while I am not in favor of, or against a moment of silence, I do have problems with the state mandating such activity.

In the 1950s, as many may remember, the United States was not as "tolerant" of difference as it appears today. Segregation was the rule, poverty was hidden and pervasive, and anti-Semitism remained a visible part of the landscape. Even though there were few Jews and no African Americans in the small town in Northeastern Pennsylvania where I grew up, every so often the good citizens had to remind those of us who belonged to one of these groups of the differences between us and them.

There were subtle and not-so-subtle ways to accomplish this necessity.

One of the most interesting at the time, soon to be declared unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court, was released time for religious study on Friday afternoons. This was a fascinating practice where students were allowed to leave school early on Friday afternoon to attend religious study. If, for one or another reason you were not so inclined, you were made to stay in school, usually by yourself, sometimes with one or two other "heathens." This was a very persuasive instrument provoking many non-Christians to consider, especially in elementary school, conversion. I would have converted to any religion to get out of school early on Friday afternoon. The main point, however, is that while sitting in school, with only one or two other "pagans" in a virtually empty classroom, the Jewish students began to feel different and left out and to ultimately believe that there was something wrong with them since they were not accorded the privilege of early release.

Another technique was reading the Bible and reciting the "Lord's Prayer" before the start of school — also soon to be outlawed by the court. My parents always told me to go along and say the prayer but never kneel down or acknowledge Jesus as God. What did I know? I just felt out of place and different so I sort of looked down and tried to hide the fact that I was not really part of the activity. Again the result involved vague feelings of inferiority and difference.

Less subtle means also came into play. These often occurred on Friday and Saturday nights after some of the good citizens, usually younger males, had indulged in their primary evening activity of consuming vast amounts of alcoholic beverages. On some occasions at the early hours of the morning, they might be moved to drive up and down past the homes of these almost-accepted apparently white Jews and yell things like: "Dirty Jew," or "Hitler was Right," or other well-known epithets from the thousand years old tradition of anti-Semitism. Luckily for the few Jews in this small town, the local law enforcement did not look kindly upon that activity, apparently because my father, who was one of those Jews, fixed all of their instruments and watches for free. They would show up, usually after the brave nightriders had disappeared into their morning hangovers, but no bodily harm was ever done to the Jews — unlike African Americans in the South. Pennsylvania, after all, was more "civilized."

In addition to the night driving alcoholics, there was the usual school bully who delighted in provoking Jews with the same anti-Semitic vocabulary. Sometimes these bullies made us a little afraid to go to school. We usually dealt with this by either beating the crap out of the offending bigot or getting it beat out of us by that same offending bigot. In fact, this is how we were taught to deal with threats. My Dad used the old-fashioned rhetoric of earlier times: "Don't start a fight but if anyone messes with you beat the stuffing out of them." And he added, "don't wait for them to hit you first." We did not wait for legislation to tell us what to do or what to say or not to say. But it was a different time.

There you have it. Released time, prayer before class, prejudice 1950s style — a microcosm of American society today? While all this seems so long ago and to be so very different from today, we have to ask if these feelings of prejudice are submerged somewhere beneath the veneer covering American culture, and we have to ask what it might take to bring them to the surface. As a nation, we do not, I hope, want that to happen.

Herbert Hirsch is a professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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