Conquering hate, one meal at a time

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“We’ve worked hard to push back against anti-Semitism, and succeeded in improving hate crime laws, and yet we continue to experience an alarmingly high number of anti-Semitic acts.” – ADL’s national director Jonathan Greenblatt, reacting to an ADL report stating that 2018 had the third-highest number of anti-Semitic incidents since 1979

The good news is that the 1,879 anti-Semitic incidents reported last year in the United States was down from the 1,986 incidents reported the previous year. The bad news is that the number of anti-Semitic assaults more than doubled, from 17 to 39.

The sad news is that, as both the Oct. 27 assault on Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh (11 dead, six wounded) and the April 27 attack on the Chabad synagogue in Poway, California (one dead, three wounded) painfully showed, the growth of all forms of anti-Semitism is real and not to be ignored.

The frustrating news is that with the nation bitterly divided – more than we’ve been since the Vietnam War – people are increasingly worried that we’re headed down a path to permanent polarization.

It’s understandable that we feel that way, because the constant negativity, combined with the rise in shootings and the attacks on houses of worship, have made even the strongest among us feel vulnerable – being attacked for simply exercising your constitutional right to the freedom of religion will do that to even the most optimistic among us.

But amid the despair of the hate speech that seems to dominate social media and is increasingly creeping into mainstream society, there’s a possible response to all that anger that could help: encourage people to break bread with those whom we don’t know well.

Over the years, I’ve been on both the giving and receiving ends of such kindnesses, and the experiences were always rewarding and left me feeling more upbeat.

My first such experience came in 1974, when, while working in a small French-Canadian town in northern Quebec, the French family I rented a room from invited me to join them for their Christmas Eve “midnight supper,” a feast that featured many delicious French-Canadian specialties.  That meal not only satisfied the appetite of someone who was living on a very limited income (hard-boiled eggs and toast were a staple), but it also left me with a better understanding of the French-Canadian culture.

The kindnesses didn’t end there, as the next day I was invited to a traditional Christmas dinner at the home of an older English-speaking couple who knew me through the weekly paper I was editing. Their graciousness was appreciated and left me humbled.

A similar nicety was extended to me on Christmas Day in 1975 when, while living in Ontario, Canada, an older reporter and his wife insisted that I join them at their home for Christmas dinner.

 Years later, while living in Florida, I enjoyed eating ethnic foods at social outings. Two experiences in particular stand out. The first was during a holiday office party in the late ’70s, when my publisher at the weekly newspaper accepted the can of gefilte fish that my mother had sent me in one of her care packages as my contribution to the potluck lunch The surprise came when his wife seasoned it so that it tasted like a Southern version of the Jewish food staple, and it made for a very tasty appetizer.

The second instance happened a few years later, when my father was visiting me in St. Petersburg, and I threw a party on a day when Purim and St. Patrick’s Day overlapped. That inspired me to ask at a bakery about dyeing a couple of dozen bagels green. The owner not only agreed, but also dyed and sold a lot more of them.

Reaching out to others over the years has also meant sharing Passover and Hanukkah with non-Jewish friends, experiences that led to more people understanding Jewish holiday rituals. That’s important, because part of the point of breaking bread with non-Jews is to demystify those traditions.

That’s always been important to me, especially when people would ask me illogical questions such as since I’m Jewish, would I be celebrating Thanksgiving? Whenever that daffy question would come up, I was never shy about setting them straight. And given the number of misconceptions circulating in today’s society about minorities in America, such lessons are still sorely needed.

Granted, sharing food with people of different faiths and backgrounds is no guarantee of promoting a strife-free society. But people sitting across the dinner table from one another do seem less likely to espouse hatred than those who choose to judge others only by what they think they know about them.

LARRY KESSLER (lkessler1@comcast.net) is a freelance writer based in North Attleboro.