I was one of the only Jewish students in my middle school. No one really cared that much; in fact, I’m not sure if anyone really knew. I didn’t have a noticeably large nose, I didn’t have a traditionally Jewish name, and I never wore the Chai necklace that I was given for my Bar Mitzvah. For the most part, I looked like everyone else.
Our school was right on the edge of a town known for its church with large, beautiful stained glass windows. I had never been inside, and I remember asking my parents when I was younger why we didn’t go there instead of our synagogue that was thirty minutes away. That’s when I learned that there were different religions, just like there were different races, different ethnicities. I was different, they told me.
I secretly envied the people that went to the church. On some Sundays when I would go with my parents on errands, I would put my face up to the car window when we passed the church to watch all the people leave the morning service. The stained glass windows would sparkle above them as they walked out.
There was another church on the opposite side of town, more so on the outskirts. I asked my parents why there were two churches. That’s when I learned that the second one was a historically black church, and most of the black people in our town went there. It clicked in my mind then that I had only seen white people at the church with stained glass windows. The black church didn’t have any stained glass windows visible to the street, but they had a large bronze and polished cross displayed above the door. James went to that church.
James was one of the few black students in my grade. I never really knew him. We sat near each other in science class. One time I borrowed a pencil from him. He kept to himself a lot, and I always found myself wanting to ask him if he also envied the white church with the stained glass windows. I never did.
In history class one day, we were all learning about Pearl Harbor and how a lot of Japanese Americans experienced great racism at the time. They were even forced into internment camps. One student spoke up: “but weren’t the Japanese responsible for the bombing?” He didn’t understand the point our teacher was trying to make. I guess I could have explained it to him, but I said nothing. It wasn’t like there were any Japanese students in the room either; no one said anything to him.
Halfway through the year, we had a new girl move to our town. She dressed a little differently than the rest of us and cut her hair short. A lot of the guys found her attractive. One day, she sat at the lunch table next to mine, and I heard some girls asking her if the boys at her old school were cute or not. She shrugged, then told them that she didn’t really pay much attention to them. “I had dated a girl,” she said. The other girls’ eyes widened, and they didn’t talk to her for the rest of the lunch period. I looked at her briefly. I had never met a person that wasn’t straight. She didn’t eat at that lunch table again; the next day, those girls had moved all their bookbags onto the bench so that there wasn’t an empty seat for her. I said nothing, didn’t even offer the spot at my table. I could’ve, I suppose, but I wasn’t sure if it was the right thing to do. Or if people would be mad at me for doing it.
It was the Friday before spring break when someone called James the n-word. I was shocked when it happened, not so much because it was racist, but because I had never heard the word spoken out loud before. It was right after the final bell rang. We were all laughing and shouting and running outside to celebrate the week-long break. I guess somehow James accidentally tripped someone when we were leaving the building. His name was Connor; he was tall and tanned and blond. Sometimes I found myself jealous of his looks. Connor fell to the ground, and immediately, James began to help him up. “I’m so sorry,” I heard him say. “Sorry?” Connor repeated scornfully. And then he said it. I can’t remember how he used it; all I remember is the way it rang and lingered in the air after he said it. He didn’t shout it, but it sounded like the loudest thing I had ever heard.
I felt numbed by it, and I stood there off to the side as Connor walked away. A couple other black students who saw what happened came over to comfort James. After a minute or so, I walked away just as everyone else had. I didn’t look back.
When we all came back from break, it seemed as though everyone that knew what happened had forgotten about it. Everything seemed normal.
When Passover rolled around, I had to give the front office a note from my parents to explain why I was absent that day. None of my teachers cared to ask why I was gone; they just handed me the work I missed and that was that. Except for my science teacher - apparently, I had missed a major quiz. “You’ll have to make it up at lunch,” he said loudly. His face would always get really red whenever he was annoyed or angry, and all of us would snicker at him when he turned his back.
“Did you skip?” a boy in front of me turned around and asked me in between laughs. His name was Will.
“No,” I said while also laughing, “yesterday was Passover.”
“What’s Passover?” he asked, not laughing anymore.
“A Jewish holiday,” I answered casually.
“You’re Jewish? You don’t look Jewish.”
He studied me for a moment. “My dad says he doesn’t trust Jews. He says they’re shady and disloyal.”
My mouth fell open. It felt as though someone had stuck a knife in my heart and left it there, hanging out. I didn’t know what antisemitism was at the time, and it didn’t necessarily feel like the boy was being hateful toward me. After all, it was his dad who had said those things, not him. I didn’t even really understand what he was trying to say; I wanted to ask him, but I couldn’t find the words.
Suddenly, someone spoke up. It was James. “Those are outdated stereotypes, Will. Don’t listen to your dad. He’s wrong.” It seemed so simple, the way he said it. His voice had no annoyance in it nor anger. He spoke calmly and surely. Will stared at him and then turned back around silently.
I turned to James. “Thank you,” I said.
He shrugged. “No problem. He was wrong.”
And that was it.
I’m twenty-five now. I moved away from my small town with the stained glass windowed church. I don’t often think about what happened in my youth, but when I do, I always look back with regret. I regret not saying anything when my classmate saw nothing wrong with Japanese internment camps, not saying anything when the new student was excluded because she liked girls, not saying anything when a white boy called James that word.
I understand now why he stood up for me. It took me a long time to figure it out. I interned at a company in D.C. while in college. One weekend, I decided to visit the Holocaust Memorial Museum. There was this quote largely displayed on a wall:
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
It took me till age twenty-one to fully realize what James had done for me back then. When people ask me now why I spend so much time protesting and speaking out even though I am not black, I tell them about that quote and about James. I tell them that I don’t want to make the same mistakes that I made long ago, that when they came for me, I didn’t deserve anyone speaking for me. And most importantly, I tell them that silence might just be the worst weapon of all.