There is an old anecdote in the poorest of taste, telling about an American Jew walking into a Chinese restaurant and asking the waiter if the specialty dish “Sum Dum Goy” was on the menu.
The anecdote came to mind a few days ago, when I learned of a (visibly Jewish) driver making an illegal right turn in mid-town Manhattan, during rush hour, right in front of a traffic policeman. “Can’t you see that there is no right turn? You stupid Jew!” exclaimed the policeman, who then immediately apologized for his uncalled for and rude remark. The driver was stunned. He immediately pulled over, got out of the car, turned on his camcorder, went up to the police officer who called him a “stupid Jew” and demanded to see his badge number. The officer refused and explained that he had already offered his apology (which he had.)
Unlike others who weighed in on the incident, (I scrolled down to the various comments) I have an entirely different take on what took place. Clearly, I come from another era, where Jews were afraid of causing any ruckus. The very fact that the driver – albeit guilty of making an illegal right turn – did not hesitate to confront the police officer, made me realize we Jews are no longer in the shtetl. As such, our mentality must no longer be shtetl mentality, a mentality that restrained us from speaking up and speaking out. A Jew demanding to see the badge number of a police officer? Unheard of! And the officer immediately apologizing for his unacceptable remark? Officers never apologized in the world in which I was raised. In the world in which I was raised, the officer would have yelled at the driver to get back in his car,otherwise he would risk receiving not one, but two citations: one for failing to follow posted traffic signs; one for leaving his car illegally parked. I was also amazed at how the policeman reacted to being recorded. “Takkeh a neieh velt” (truly a new world) as they say in Yiddish. I would have expected the officer to have demanded that the camcorder be shut off; I would have expected the officer to have confiscated the camcorder, when the driver refused to follow that order. Instead, after protesting that he had already apologized, the officer turned his back and walked off.
I shudder to think how I would have reacted, had I been the driver who made an illegal turn only to have a police officer call out to me: “Can’t you see that there is no right turn? You stupid Jew!” In all likelihood, I would have written a letter to either the mid-town precinct or the New York Times, or both, excoriating such an unacceptable as well as uncalled for comment. In my fantasy however, I would have borrowed from the following anecdote: Those with knowledge of post-World War II American history are in all likelihood aware of the acrimony that existed between Jimmy Hoffa, president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Union and Senator Bobby Kennedy. Story has it, that Senator Kennedy received word that Jimmy Hoffa had just referred to him, as a “ruthless little bas*ard.”
Upon hearing Hoffa’s remark, Senator Kennedy smiled and immediately retorted: “I’m not that little.” In my fantasy, I would have gone up to the offensive police officer, looked him in the eye and told him: “I’m not that stupid!”