The Freedman Archives: Part II

The following is a collection of letters written by Gary Freedman to his imagined friend.

Monday, December 31, 2007

Relying on the Kindness of a Friend

Growing Up Jewish in the South

by Jesse Raben, Founder and President of

Mr. Raben and I were friends and coworkers at a local law firm during the Reagan Administration, late in the last century.

Mr. Raben--now a practicing attorney--was intelligent, inner-directed, idealistic, and independent in thought and action.

Twenty years later, I still remember one incident vividly. I was in 8th grade at Aycock Junior High School. A boy named Darryl Massey had been bothering me everyday in class, calling me names, sometimes making reference to the fact that I was Jewish. I asked him to stop, but he continued.

I didn’t know what to do about it. I brought the issue up around the dinner table one night. My older brothers quickly talked of opening up a major can of whoop-ass on Darryl. Unfortunately, they were in high school already and were offering only moral support. In any event, I wasn’t looking for a fight. Aycock was a school that paddled, yes, paddled, kids for fighting. All the same, I warned my parents that there was a chance I was going to get into a fight with Darryl next time he insulted me.

In gym class a few days later, Darryl started in, calling me names, calling me wimpy, that sort of thing. I knew that his taunts were not worth fighting over. A couple of the other guys broke us apart as we circled each other, shoulder to shoulder (this was the common middle school, pre-fight ritual, just to show that you were ready to go at anytime). I picked up my books and started to walk off, angry, but fine with my decision to leave. As I was walking away though, Darryl yelled out to me “He’s just a damn Jew anyway.” I lost control when I heard his words. I turned quickly, dropping my books, adrenaline shooting through my veins, tears welling up in my eyes, and rushed toward him as fast as I could move.

I grabbed his shirt with both of my hands, staring into his surprised eyes. I pushed him hard against the wall and then swung blindly at his face. Three fists seemed to land in the space of two seconds. As I started to launch another blow, a hand caught my fist in mid-air. Coach Medley, the gym teacher, had heard the commotion and ran out of his office. As I looked at him, I heard the rest of the locker room cheering in my favor. I looked at Darryl, who was now being restrained by another coach but struggling to get free to come after me. I struggled as well, but wasn’t going anywhere under Coach Medley’s grip.

I faintly heard Coach Medley tell me to go along my way -- that he would take care of things. I walked out of the locker room, shaking, scared, but so proud of myself. I had done it – I shut Darryl Massey up. For me it did not matter whether he ever called me a name again or not. I had this victory for today and that was what mattered. As I walked along to my next class, he came running after me, yelling and screaming more names. I stood my ground and told him I would fight him anytime. Darryl’s friends laughed at him, came up to me, and told me not to worry about Darryl anymore.

I think about that fight every now and then and wonder whatever happened to Darryl Massey. I remember that his mother died the next year – someone ran out to tell him while he was in the middle of football practice. I saw him when he came back to school after some time off. I approached him and said I was sorry about his mom. He wouldn’t shake my hand, pride, I guess, but I took no offense. He just stared at me.

I was born in Durham, North Carolina, and while my family moved around, we finally settled in Greensboro, North Carolina after brief stops in Miami, Winston-Salem, and Israel. All of this was before my seventh birthday. My dad worked at teaching hospitals in Durham and Winston-Salem. We moved as he found more interesting opportunities.

Living in Washington, D.C. for the past ten years, I can reflect on what it was like to grow up in the South with some perspective. There were not many Jews where I grew up. I was one of five Jewish kids – three of whom were my two brothers and sister – in junior high. There were about 3,000 Jewish families altogether in Greensboro, with a much more significant population in Charlotte. But we had a strong community. We participated heavily in BBYO and USY – two organizations that we could really identify with and find other Jewish kids our age who had the same interests. Greensboro had (and still has) synagogues and youth groups. While larger Jewish populations are much more common in the South now than when I was growing up, there are still nowhere near the numbers of Jews in major cities of the East Coast, Midwest, or West Coast.

Most of my contemporaries’ parents seemed to have moved from the Northeast at some point . Everyone had their own reasons for moving to North Carolina. Growing up Jewish in the South -- to answer the first question you may have on your mind right about now, yes, there are Jews in the South, even in places like Greensboro. And, to answer your second question, we had a real Jewish existence, with matzah, apples and honey, and even a sukkah. No hamhocks, collard greens, or fatback.

To me, growing up Jewish in the South meant putting up with overt anti-Semitism. It wasn’t just being called dirty Jew or Jew boy. It was also a reminder from a 200 pound sweaty fifth grader, chasing me down a hall at camp to tell me that unless I found Jesus, I was going to burn in hell. It was the Ernest Angley Faith Healing Hour and the fifteen Baptist preacher channels (when we finally got cable). I even heard people suggest that we should have to go to school on Christmas because we did not celebrate it. And there were the KKK and even the Nazi party – which, as you can imagine, made life fun.

Anti-Semitism came in two forms –hatred and ignorance. By ignorance, I mean not just a lack of knowledge, but a lack of willingness to learn and understand. It came in the form of always asking about Hanukkah, or why do you have matzah in your lunch box, or how come we don’t get off for the Jewish New Year when you got off for Christmas? Although it could get tiresome, I didn’t mind answering the questions especially if I felt like it might have some positive effect and maybe change a person’s feelings towards Jews.

While I harbor no ill feelings regarding the ignorance, I still feel pangs of resentment and a little fear regarding the hatred, even though I learned that the hatred also stemmed from ignorance. I don’t know what to say about the hatred I experienced. It is what it is. I doubt it will ever disappear. (And this, we all know, does not restrict itself to the South.)

Looking back, I do believe that a lot of the anti-Semitism that came from kids my age was largely a result of ignorance and stupidity, although there certainly were some very smart kids who used anti-Semitic and racist slurs freely. Who knows, maybe they learned from their parents. It would not surprise me given that I constantly heard my friends’ parents using derogatory names for blacks as part of their everyday language.

I remember another boy who used to tease my brothers and me after I got to high school. Walter something or other. I think he was my brothers’ age, but in any event, older than me and bigger and stronger. I remember him not because of the teasing and the anti-Semitic remarks, but for something he said to me one day. I was standing by my locker one morning, getting my books together. This was about the time Walter would typically give me a hard time. This day was different, though. He walked up to me and I looked at him, bracing myself for some remark. He looked back at me and said he was sorry for saying the things he’d been saying. He’d watched the television miniseries “Holocaust” and told me that he never knew about the suffering Jews had had to endure. He apologized again and walked off. I stood there somewhat shocked. I had no idea what to make of what he said.

I don’t think I ever said another word to him after that day, but I know that when I did see him, there was a good feeling in my gut and a smile would usually come over my face.


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Thursday, May 25, 2006  

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