My Friend the Jew

"The system had been operating all around me from the day I came to college, and I had never seen it. I was a non-Jewish freshman pledged to a Jewish fraternity."

The role of Lucy in this affair was a most ungrateful one, and earned for her my bitter dislike.  It was all I could do to make myself talk to her when we met in the campus quadrangle after that.  She had plunged me, with conscious brutality, into a world of hatreds and meannesses which I might easily have escaped for another two or three years.  And yet I suppose her intention was eminently friendly; she certainly took great pains to teach me the way of the world; and it was not her fault that I was such a sentimental and ignorant fool as to dislike that way even when I conformed to it.  The whole business was of enormous consequence to a sixteen-year-old boy.  It was a thoroughly unwelcome revelation; it showed ugliness, barbarity, and unfathomable meanness where everything had been serene before.

I can no longer discover in my memory, no matter how hard I search, just what was my idea of a Jew at that time – exactly what I thought Jews were.  It seems to me that the word had not significance at all, except the dubious significance given it in the historical romances I had spent my childhood reading.  But the word must have set up some kind of reverberation in my mind, because I distinctly remember that all my friends began to seem a little mysterious to me the moment I knew they were Jewish.

The ideas that Jews are ‘Oriental,’ that they deal in dark magic, that they belong to an especially gifted and especially tragic race, are scattered so widely through all the literature of Christian Europe that I suppose one takes them in unconsciously, more or less as one absorbs air and moisture, without troubling to notice the process.  It is this unconscious anti-Semitism that makes the problem so extraordinarily difficult, and encourages such desperate fabrications as the ‘Aryan’ doctrine in Germany.  One is not knowingly anti-Jewish; one may never have spoken to a Jew or thought about the problem he presents; and yet the accumulated prejudices of two thousand years have so subtly and insensibly poisoned one’s mind that it comes as a surprise to learn that a particular friend, an admired acquaintance, is a Jew.  Again and again I have seen grown men embarrassed by this very thing.  I can think of a certain distinguished person who friends all fiercely assert that he is not Jewish, while his enemies and those who are indifferent declare that he is.  If there did not exist, in the minds of the people who talk about such things, a remnant of the anti-Semitism of our forefathers, the question could never arise.  We are all victims of chance bits of morality or prejudice scattered about in the literature of the centuries.

Such vague prejudices, absorbed before one knows what they are, vanish with the years.  We learn in time that fat men are not necessarily jolly, or thin ones unkind; that spaghetti and garlic and snails and other weird foreign foods, regarded in childhood with horror, are actually very good to eat.  Along with such oddments of superstition, the origins of which we cannot always trace, there disappears the notion that the Jews are a particular sort of people, gifted in the black arts or banded together in sorcery; we learn that they do not greatly differ from anybody else. But to dispel any of these ancestral fancies, clinging like vague vapors in the mind, we require the light and air of experience. And it was precisely experience which was most conspicuously lacking in the equipment of the sixteen-year-old freshman who ploughed through the snow that night, going home, for the first time in his life, with a Problem.


'Lemmy,' I said, coming into my room, 'I've got to talk to you. Do you think that A. B. is Jewish?'

'Of course,' he said. 'What's the matter with you?'

I told him as much as I could of the afternoon's discoveries, but there was little time. The dinner bell was ringing and freshmen could not be late.

'It's all true enough,' he said. 'I've known it all the time. Haven't you?'

His glum face was glummer than ever; he frowned intently, scratched his close-cropped black head.

'After dinner,' he said, 'we can lock the door and talk it out. Let's eat.'

Lemmy completed the education Lucy had begun. After dinner, which was a nervous meal under the circumstances, we made for our room at once to 'study.' With the door locked, we sat there and talked in the quiet voices of conspirators. He had learned—from his father, probably – a great deal about the world we lived in. Our fraternity, he told me, had been exclusively Jewish until the year before; in that year a national convention had voted to open its membership to Gentiles; and he and I were the first Gentiles to be taken in under these rules. I remember my feeling of relief when I learned that he, too, was a Gentile; at least one other freshman was in my own position.

Presented by

The Horrors of Rat Hole Mining

"The river was our source of water. Now, the people won't touch it. They are repulsed by it."

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


The Horrors of Rat Hole Mining

"The river was our source of water. Now, the people won't touch it."


What's Your Favorite Slang Word?

From "swag" to "on fleek," tweens choose.


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In