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Facing anti-Semitism at a Chicago coffee shop

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For many of us that were born and raised in America, particularly in areas that have significant Jewish populations, we aren’t readily faced with overt, in-your-face anti-Semitism. So you can imagine how taken aback I was the other day when the following took place:

I was enjoying a hot caramel apple cider with a friend of mine at well known coffee chain the Monday before Chanukah. He is Jewish, like me, but unlike me he wears a kippah all the time. We were sitting near a window and were spotted by a heavyset man that looked to be in his 50s, grey hair, and oversized, thick, black-rimmed glasses. He was wearing a blue coat, sweat suit and knit cap. He walked into the establishment and approached our table. Judging by his appearance, I thought he had come in to ask people for money. I quickly learned his intentions were quite different as he sauntered up to our table, specifically to talk to my friend.

The man mumbled when he spoke and the restaurant was loud, so I didn’t catch all that he said. It sounded like he was saying something about Israelis, bombs, women being raped, and people getting killed. He was saying all of this directly to my kippah-toting friend. My friend looked at him and said, “I’m sorry I have no idea what you are talking about.” The man glared at him and responded, “You know exactly what I’m talking about, you filthy Jew.”

There was a pause. I think I heard someone gasp, but I’m not sure if that was just my imagination. I could have sworn for a split second it seemed like the whole establishment froze, like a dramatic moment in a movie. Then the man walked away and there was another pause. My friend spoke first, “Wow. I haven’t wanted to just punt someone in a very long time, until just now.” My response was “Clearly this man is having a really horrible day.” It was all I could think of to say. I felt like I should have said more—maybe I should have said something to the man while he was there. But I didn’t.

What was the right thing to do? Was it better to say nothing as we did? Should we have stood up and made it clear to this guy that he was an idiot and was making an ass of himself? My friend wondered aloud if we should call the cops and get him kicked out of the coffee shop. It’s not my nature to make a scene, to give in to antagonizers and instigators. I wondered if this situation called for it. Any person with half a brain would know that this guy was not all there and was just spewing nonsense and hate; however a part of me felt like we let him win. We didn’t stand up for ourselves.

The most ironic part of all this was it happened the Monday before Chanukah, during the time of year where we celebrate a moment in our history where we as Jews stood up and fought. We fought not only for the right to be Jews, but to be public about being Jewish. The Rabbis tell us that reading Torah, performing circumcision, announcing the new month were among the first things that the Greeks outlawed. Wearing a kippah was not a custom back then, but I’m sure it would have been on the list of banned practices—another public display of Jewish identity.

I was bothered for several minutes that I did not attempt to respond in a more Judah Maccabee like fashion. On the other hand I was reminded that the Rabbis focused this holiday on the miracle of the oil precisely to move our attention away from the military victory. Their intention was to keep us focused on God’s miracles and not so much our own military strength and might.
After the man left, we went back to where we left off in our conversation prior to the incident, and finished our drinks. As we were leaving the coffee shop, an African American man in a wheel chair, probably homeless and looking hungry, was on the corner holding a cup, quietly soliciting handouts. My friend with the kippah took out his wallet, pulled out a dollar and handed it to the homeless man, wishing him a very sincere “happy holidays.” I don’t know if I could have asked for a better response to anti-Semitism than that.

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