Getting To The Root of Anti Semitism

by Denise Sherer Jacobson

As one of the few Jewish kids among my Christian classmates growing up, I always had the feeling I was suspect. After all, there were Christmas and Easter and Holy Communions that my family never celebrated. And when I was questioned about Jewish practices, observances and holidays, I felt a little lost. I knew about our traditions, but little about their historic or religious context—not that I didn’t try to find out. “Why aren’t you supposed to use the phone or ride in a car on Shabbos?” (My Jewish Orthodox grandparents followed those rules.)  “Saturday’s a day of rest,” my mother said, “using electricity is considered work.” I was baffled; my father usually went to work on Saturdays, though we lit our Shabbos candles on Friday nights, and my mother recited the Shabbat prayer in Hebrew she had learned from her mother, passing it down to the next generation of daughters—mispronounced words and all. How could I explain that not all Jews believed the same thing to my school friends who probably went to church every Sunday and knew more about the teachings of Jesus and the New Testament than I knew about the Jewish Bible (the Tanakh, as I learned it was called much later in my life)? They certainly knew—before the Pope and Christian leadership decreed otherwise—that “The Jews killed Jesus Christ” (something I had always felt guilty about even though it happened way before I was born!).

Then there were those stereotypes and old wives tales—Shakespeare's Shylock, The Jew, wanting his pound of flesh; rumors stemming back before the Dark Ages that Jews drank human blood and worshiped Satan.  I didn't give much thought to why or how or where these racial innuendos and slurs got started. I just chalked it up to good old anti-Semitic propaganda, troubled by the suffering those lies have caused the people of my heritage throughout the ages... That is, until I began studying for my adult Bat Mitzvah at the age of fifty-two, which included having to learn Hebrew.

From the very beginning, the language itself fascinated me. I'd listened as my teacher, that first  day, explained that all Hebrew words are based on three-letter roots, dependent on the vowels of dots and dashes to define the meaning of each word. I was intrigued how the placement of those symbols could changed the whole meaning of a word even though it had the same letter order. It was an eye opener when I discovered that the letters such as qoph, resh, and nun, not only could make up the root word for ray (as in a beam of light), but also made up the word for horn as well. Thus, in one of the earliest translations of the Tanakh into the vernacular of the day, the transcriber described Moses’ descent from Mount Sinai carrying the Ten Commandments with horns coming out of his head instead of radiant beams of light, all because of a misreading of vowels.

I learned my lesson well that day. Suddenly, I understood the urgent necessity of going back to the source; the importance of getting to the root of the problem!