Short, sweet and to the point. I’ll let this one speak for itself.
Our families spent a good deal of time together when I was a kid, so much so that, although we were not related to them, my sister and I referred to them as Aunt Carrie and Uncle Mike, and their kids were like extra cousins to us, which was important because we lived hundreds of miles away from our actual cousins. We were two families with shared geographic roots—my Dad and Uncle Mike had been childhood friends—who had coincidentally relocated to the same area, and we had a tradition of spending holidays together.
During one such occasion—it was New Year’s Eve—we were watching the Countdown on television. I don’t remember the year, but it was most likely the early ‘80’s, as I had to be less than 10 at the time. Willie Nelson was seated at a piano, playing and singing, and they showed a close-up profile of him. Out of nowhere, I jumped up, pointing and exclaiming, “Wow, look at that nose! He looks like a Jew!” I distinctly remember thinking that this would be a funny thing to say, and as a kid who loved positive feedback, I thrived on making people laugh.
Only this time, it didn’t work.
All of the adults became silent and still, like when a party comes to a screeching halt in a movie, with the accompanying record scratch sound effect. I remember being bewildered by this. Within minutes, our family friends had bundled themselves up and said hasty goodbyes, bustling out the door.
The moment the door had closed, my father rounded on me. “What the hell is wrong with you!? Why did you say that?!”
Still utterly befuddled, but hastily realizing I had done something terribly wrong, something that might earn me The Belt, I stammered weakly, “What did I say?”
“Aunt Carrie is Jewish! Why did you say that about his nose!?”
“You say stuff like that about Jews all the time…”
“Well, not in front of them, dummy!”
Nothing was ever the same after that. We still occasionally spent time together, but gone were the shared holidays, summer playdates and regular visits.
That one statement, that one remark meant to be funny, changed my life. And I don’t just mean a lost friendship.
Children learn by example, and I certainly learned from my parents’ “private” words and actions. But I also learned from this experience. I learned that it’s not enough to simply watch what you say, you have to walk the walk.
For a variety of reasons, it took a long time for me to truly understand this and apply it to all areas of my life, and I still find myself occasionally struggling to overcome the biases ingrained in me from my youth, but I can trace my personal voyage of self-discovery back to that single moment, on the eve of more than just a new year.