I did not know that Anita Kaplan was a Jewish name when I was in ninth grade and she showed up at our first AAU practice. I had overhead that she was Jewish, but I was not sure what that meant. I can’t remember the context or the source. I’m guessing it was because I was simply thrilled to have a 6’4” soul sister.
Yet I do remember where I was when I heard “kike” for the first time. The word, the tone, the smirk on his face – all of it seared me as I sat in my new desk in my new dorm surrounded by new students and potential friends during freshman initiation week at Northwestern University.
I assumed what kike meant, but I was too embarrassed to confirm it until later when I asked my roommate in private.
She sort of laughed at me.
“It’s a Jew, Mo.”
Dean, my roommate’s new boyfriend, and his roommate, Sean, used this word and other ethnic slurs I’d never heard of, and even combinations of slurs based on the names written on our dorm room doors. They said them while sober, while buzzed, and amplified them when they were in a drunken stupor, which was often the case. They belittled and bashed Jewish students more than all of the others.
As my new floor mates passed, they yelled out or coughed up or sneezed a “kike” or “Jew” or odd nicknames, codes or combos. If they dared to do this while in our room, I glared at them with shock and disgust. They laughed at my reactions. They’d then call me a “mick,” or deflect by calling me, “lily white” and even at times said, “such a virgin,” which embarrassed me enough to stop looking at them.
I learned through my roommate that Dean had grown up quite comfortably in Wisconsin. He even shortened his Arabic name to the more American version of “Dean.” Sean, an Indiana native, was a blonde, blue-eyed tiny guy with acne scars and a chicken-chest.
I wanted to ask them what exactly were Jewish students on campus at Northwestern University doing to them that was so horrible?
The disappointing part is that I did not throw them out at the first offense. I deferred to my roommate since it was her boyfriend and his guest. I also was afraid to ask two guys with higher SAT scores than me because they would clobber me in world history and all I didn’t know about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I’d witnessed similar epithets at select family gatherings (not all) regarding African-Americans, and it had always devastated me (story to be written next week). I didn’t want them in our room, and there was no way in hell I’d step into their room, yet I was stuck between my roommate and her new boyfriend. When Dean wasn’t being a racist, I tried to be civil and respectful. My roommate sort of shrugged it off when he began his name-calling, or she assumed they would dial it down over time, or we could navigate around it. All of this made me question my new world of higher education.
You can only imagine the potential jam I was in when my AAU teammate, the Kodak-All American, Anita Kaplan, was scheduled to visit Northwestern. Protocol was for recruits to stay in our dorm room. I told my roommate Anita’s name and how tall she was so that hopefully she would not act so surprised when she saw her. Dean was in the background.
He said, “A six-foot-five kike chick?”
“If you come near her,” I said. “I will kill you.”
He smiled and laughed at me.
“So lily white,” he said.
I looked at my roommate. “He does not come in here when Anita is here,” I told her with no hesitation.
My roommate nodded her head and assured me of her support.
Anita arrived at campus and we had a great time. On the first evening, we walked into my dorm room while Dean and my roommate were there. There was no need for him to be there, and my look clearly told him I knew what he was doing. He just had to get a look like all the workers behind the Burger King on Route 4 in Troy when Anita and my friends would stop in after basketball practice. They all stopped, stared and said stupid things. I tried to talk to her or distract because it was tough being so tall and strong as a girl, but Anita always knew.
Dean looked at Anita, and mumbled a hello. He smirked at me and left the room.
Dean continued doing what he and Sean did best, which was be vile racists both while drunk and sober. By spring of our freshman year, my roommate, finally woke up and broke up with Dean. Yet he was still going strong. Our residential assistant, Brent, who happened to be Jewish, not only caught them doing what they majored in – screaming and spewing their hatred at night into the courtyard – but he wrote them up. I believe he may have even been caught writing swastikas on his door. Apparently Dean’s dad had some money, so it ended up being a slap on the wrist, dirt swept under the rug.
What hurt me even worse than this situation was at the end of my college days at Northwestern when I was telling a guy I had a crush on how I was going to my first bat mitzvah that night. He was a near perfect person and dream guy to me because up until that moment, he rarely said anything negative. He always kept his cool. He went to church and was involved in evangelical groups on campus, which prompted me to consider a change from my misery as a Catholic. I tried and tried, but it did not work for me. It was a complicated struggle to figure out who I was religiously, but I can say without a doubt that I was momentarily leveled when my perfect guy responded to my telling him that I was going to a bat mitvah that night.
He said, “How can you be around them?”
“What?” I said. “What do you mean?”
I’m not going to go on and on about my friendship with Anita who was with me when my career started and when it ended years later at the ABL try-out at Emory University. I won’t go into detail right now about what it felt like to be not sure what to say around Christmas time or if it was okay for me to go to the JCC the first time she asked me to go play hoops there with her. I won’t tell the story of what it felt like to be sitting next to her in a dark movie theatre and hearing her sob when she saw the railroad tracks in Schindler’s List, or what it meant for me, the lost, lapsed Irish Catholic girl, to be in her Jewish wedding.
What is most important right now is to admit that I lacked backbone. I let my self-doubt or fear of rocking the status quo or my relationship with my roommate outweigh what I really wanted to do and say. I cannot speak to where my roommate, Dean and Sean are in their lives. All I can do is look back and know that I sat there when they bashed a Jewish girl passing by on her way back from chemistry class without kicking them out or turning them in, yet I gave them hell when my friend was due to arrive and I wanted to ensure her protection.
I can only hope that young students understand that my silence equated to support of their immature, insecure and racist behavior. Their excuse may be they were just trying to impress everyone by being funny, and that I’m just way too serious and no fun at all. Yet the truth may be that they in fact were and still are racist, bigoted assholes.
By not speaking up and shutting them down, I ran the great risk of being associated with people who made me uncomfortable, and of people who were not a reflection of who I thought I was or who I wanted to be.
And this memo is not just for college kids.
It’s to everyone, including me.
I am disappointed in myself because I don’t think I did enough.
But here is the good news:
I have today.
Post-script: Within five minutes of posting, the first person to like the story and send me a message was my former roommate. Keep in mind I had sent the rough draft to Anita for her okay, but I had not sent it to my anonymous former roommate because I was afraid I’d balk (lapsed Catholic guilt). I also felt that if I knew her as well as I think I do, she would not back down from owning the truth as hard as it is to read and reflect upon.
I was correct.
I said this is a story we must tell so that her children and other children and young adults know better. We were both small-town girls who were swept away by the attention we were getting from the boys and a common desire to just fit in and not rock the boat. We as women need to make sure that we are sending a message about not compromising to please others. And we would tell any people in this situation that if you are uncomfortable, talk to someone about how to handle, weigh your options, and do what is right.
I told my old roommate that I had to run to dinner for I am on vacation with friends, but that I’d include her thoughts and words as soon as I returned home on a Friday night.
Here they are:
“Over time, and especially once we broke up in early spring, I began to realize the sheer offensiveness of their words and actions. It was after we broke up that they began putting swastikas on the RA’s door. But, by then, it was too late to do or say anything. I was already complicit and wanted nothing to do with them. What a horrible portrait painted in your story of your naive complicit roommate. Unfortunately, it’s also true. Mainly because of ignorance than because of any intent. But, true, nonetheless.”
[And after I wrote to her and said I think we should tell the story on how we got through it on our own:]
“I think it was partly a matter of being stronger. But it was also a matter of being informed and educated. I had no predisposition toward or against Jewish people (or any race or culture for that mattered) because I had no idea coming from a small town with no cultural or racial diversity. I had no true idea what anti-semitism was or why it existed. It wasn’t until later that I realized how horrible their actions were and how I inadvertently reinforced their ideals by not doing or saying anything.”
Thank you to all who have read the story, liked it or loved it, and shared it.