My mother grew up in a tiny Canadian town north of Toronto, and hers was the only Jewish family for miles around. A visiting rabbi made sure the meat my grandmother put on the dinner table was kosher, and when the family slaughtered a cow she gave the best parts of the beef to her neighbors.
But all was not happy and serene. My mother told a story to me years ago, when I was a child, that still brings tears to my eyes. She was about to dig into a piece of chocolate cake at a town picnic when the father of a friend, seeing her with fork in hand, told her gleefully: "You can't eat that, it's made with pork lard. Ha, ha, ha."
Anti-Semitism to a little Jewish girl is never an abstraction, and an anecdote like this stings more than cold statistics. Mom always thought the story of the picnic and the chocolate cake was her mother's "aha!" moment. Not long afterward, the family decided to move on. My grandparents, after all, had left their native Poland to escape such prejudice.
They packed up and joined relatives in Washington, where Jews were beginning to flourish with their neighborhood delicatessens, bakeries and mom-and-pop grocery stores. Theirs was a hardscrabble life for a while, but they had found their American dream, and Mom told me shortly before she died, at the end of a long and happy life, that she never felt another anti-Semitic slight. (But for that thoughtless neighbor's cruel remark she might never have become an American citizen.)
I thought of Mom's story the other day when I read about Mona Dobrich, whose family moved to Georgetown, Del., 30 years ago. She grew up as the only Jew in her school. She eventually married, stayed in Georgetown and raised her daughter Samantha and her son Alex there, where they, too, were the only Jews in school. Samantha and Alex listened to Christian prayers at award ceremonies, potluck suppers and PTA meetings, she told The New York Times, and one day, like my grandmother, she had an "aha!" moment. A Christian minister told the Class of '04 that the only way to heavenly salvation was through faith in Jesus Christ. She saw the hurt in her children, and asked the Indian River School Board to consider more generic prayers for public occasions.
The Founding Fathers, most of whom were men of faith, bequeathed a government that separates church and state, protecting each of us in his or her faith (or in no faith at all). The minister at Samantha's graduation ceremony confused a commencement ceremony with a Sunday morning worship service. "Ultimately, [Jesus Christ] is the one I have to please," the Rev. Jerry Fike of Mount Olivet Brethren Church says. "If doing that places me at odds with the law of the land, I still have to follow Him."
Differences and misunderstandings become bigotry when an inflamed majority abuses the weak in its midst. Intolerance never lurks far beneath the surface, and snubs and slights can activate prejudice and intolerance, public and personal, and it becomes particularly insidious when a religious leader plays to the mob. Tolerance requires vigilance.
My mother was proud to become an American, in a place where she never again felt isolated for being Jewish. She often joked that in America she could have her chocolate cake and eat it, too. So should we all.