Nausea After Charlottesville: A Reflection on Anti-Semitism

An incident in 1967 in a small town in New Jersey shows how difficult it is to heal the deep wounds of hatred.

Jonathan Kalb

Thousands gather with candles to march along the path that White Supremacists took the prior Friday with torches on the University of Virginia Campus in Charlottesville, United States on August 16, 2017. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

I’m hav­ing a déjà vu all over again. Fifty years ago, the town I grew up in — Wayne, New Jer­sey — went through a sear­ing episode in which a brash and blunt pub­lic fig­ure used anti-Semit­ic com­ments as a dog-whis­tle in a local elec­tion. The episode, briefly nation­al news, pre­sent­ed the town with a per­fect oppor­tu­ni­ty to own and purge the ugli­ness in its midst. Instead it decid­ed to do the opposite.

In the back of my mind, I suppose I want to believe we still have a chance to do better as a nation than Wayne did as a small community, even horribly burdened as we are with Trump.

I was in sec­ond grade then, obliv­i­ous to every­thing but the emo­tions of the moment. But my moth­er, Saun­dra Segan (Kalb), was a beau­ti­ful, ide­al­is­tic, young Eng­lish teacher in Wayne ready to turn the world on its head with lit­er­a­ture. She knew all the key play­ers and end­ed up resign­ing in protest over the affair — a cost­ly deci­sion that had major ram­i­fi­ca­tions for my family.

This inci­dent could have been a mere scratch. Instead it swelled into a fes­ter­ing social wound and endur­ing stain. In the wake of Char­lottesville and the nau­sea every­one I know feels about it, I’m moved to tell this sto­ry now in the spir­it of the road not tak­en.” In the back of my mind, I sup­pose I want to believe we still have a chance to do bet­ter as a nation than Wayne did as a small com­mu­ni­ty, even hor­ri­bly bur­dened as we are with Trump.

Like many sub­ur­ban towns in 1967, Wayne was fac­ing bal­loon­ing pub­lic school costs due to a mush­room­ing pop­u­la­tion. Its school bud­get had become a dri­ver of annu­al dis­cord because of stiff resis­tance to tax hikes.

In this atmos­phere, the vice pres­i­dent of the Board of Edu­ca­tion — a cocky, flam­boy­ant, Trump­ish ego­ma­ni­ac named New­ton Miller, prone to reck­less, offen­sive remarks — deliv­ered a state­ment to the local news­pa­per declar­ing that two can­di­dates for the Board were too lib­er­al because they were Jews. If Jews won a Board major­i­ty, he wrote, Wayne could be in real finan­cial trou­ble.” He added for good mea­sure: Two more votes and we lose what is left of Christ in our Christ­mas cel­e­bra­tions in our schools. Think about it.”

These remarks are mild by the stan­dards of Char­lottesville, but they were painful and shock­ing at the time. The delib­er­ate use of big­otry in elec­tion appeals had then become taboo, at least in the North­east, and lots of peo­ple were proud of that.

Miller was wide­ly con­demned by the pow­ers that were, includ­ing New Jersey’s gov­er­nor and Sen­a­tors and the edi­to­r­i­al page of the New York Times. He was cen­sured and asked to resign at a nation­al­ly tele­vised school board meet­ing. The smart mon­ey saw him as a polit­i­cal sui­cide and assumed that the town would duly elect the high­ly qual­i­fied Jew­ish can­di­dates it had seemed poised to elect.

Instead, those can­di­dates were defeat­ed in a land­slide in favor of less qual­i­fied gen­tiles, one of whom hadn’t both­ered to cam­paign. The sham­ing nation­al pub­lic­i­ty had back­fired as the towns­peo­ple used their votes to prove they couldn’t be bul­lied by elites.

It was an extra­or­di­nar­i­ly ugly moment that divid­ed the town for decades. The area around Wayne did have a big­ot­ed past: KKK and Ger­man-Amer­i­can Bund activ­i­ty before WW II, restric­tive hous­ing covenants that exclud­ed any­one not north­ern-Euro­pean white from two desir­able lake neigh­bor­hoods. But things had been har­mo­nious for decades, even as the town grew by a fac­tor of three and attract­ed about 2,000 Jews.

Peo­ple were cour­te­ous, neigh­bor­ly. There was no open intol­er­ance. I don’t remem­ber a sin­gle inci­dent of dirty Jew” bul­ly­ing on the street like those Nathan Eng­lan­der painful­ly describes on Long Island in the same period.

Then came the Miller inci­dent and, as my par­ents tell it, every­thing changed. Neigh­bor mis­trust­ed neigh­bor. Stony silences pre­vailed in encoun­ters in super­mar­ket aisles. Peo­ple no longer dis­cussed local issues with one anoth­er at bar­be­cues or PTA meet­ings — not, that is, with­out fore­knowl­edge of which side” the oth­er per­son was on. You were either for Miller or against him, and the major­i­ty was evi­dent­ly for him because he went on to be elect­ed May­or of Wayne three times.

My moth­er said the anti-Semi­tism of that moment was nev­er the main point. It had been a deflec­tion, a cyn­i­cal hail-Mary pass by a mild big­ot bent on keep­ing the school bud­get and tax­es low. The social wound fes­tered, because so many peo­ple were ready to wink the cyn­i­cism away as an innocu­ous gaffe while their neigh­bors were deeply offend­ed. For them, the move had crossed a bright-red line of decency.

The inci­dent trans­formed Wayne. In my mother’s eyes, it changed the place from an enti­ty that could fair­ly be called a com­mu­ni­ty into a soul­less, atom­ized patch­work of sin­gle-fam­i­ly hous­es. When we moved there from New York City in 1963, she felt it had a nascent but man­i­fest social and eth­i­cal cen­ter, an unmis­tak­able soul. After this it became per­ma­nent­ly the quin­tes­sen­tial, desert­ed-side­walk social waste­land. No one min­gled any­more. They kept to them­selves, mix­ing only with those who they knew shared their assumptions.

And this is the griev­ous social dam­age inflict­ed by politi­cians like Miller and Trump — the break­down of trust and faith in a com­mu­nal ground they leave in their wake. For the sake of their self­ish, short-term goals, they are pre­pared to destroy the painstak­ing­ly woven human fab­ric of whole towns, cities and now the nation.

My par­ents stuck it out in Wayne for anoth­er eight years, occa­sion­al­ly doing sub­ver­sive things like tak­ing strolls down the block and strik­ing up con­ver­sa­tions about Nixon in people’s dri­ve­ways, cir­cu­lat­ing a neigh­bor­hood peti­tion against fences oth­er than for swim­ming pools and reach­ing out social­ly to one of the town’s only black families.

None of it took root. They felt unap­pre­ci­at­ed and more and more alien. Mon­ey grew short. My par­ents’ mar­riage crum­bled. I’ll refrain from blam­ing all of that on New­ton Miller. As the hor­ri­fy­ing images from Char­lottesville flash on the screen, though, I find myself curs­ing his mem­o­ry while hon­or­ing my mother’s, and hop­ing that some rare, brave peo­ple arise in all towns like Wayne to knock on their neighbor’s doors and put their heads togeth­er about what the hell to do now.

Jonathan Kalb is a Pro­fes­sor of The­ater at Hunter Col­lege, CUNY. He is the author of five books on the­ater and has recent­ly been writ­ing per­son­al essays. His writ­ing has appeared in The New York­er, The New York Times, The Nation and many oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. His blog, Some­thing the Dust Said,” can be found at www​.jonathankalb​.com.
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