Sidney Gross (1941-2016)
Purim is a joyous holiday, commemorating a story with a happy ending. Ironically, the story of Esther, Mordecai, and Haman deals with anti-Semitism, and I myself have the same kind of personal associations with it. The only anti-Semitic experience I ever had while living in Brooklyn occurred when I was on the way to a Purim party at the Hebrew school. Anti-Semitism was for the most part beyond the pale of my existence. Everyone I knew, except for a few kids at the elementary school, was Jewish. We were the norm, always the good ones and the smart ones. How could anybody not like us? I was so naive that after my direct experience of anti-Semitism, it took me a long time to realize what had happened.
On Twenty-First Avenue and Sixty-Fourth Street, a block from the Hebrew school, stood an abandoned gray stucco house. It had always seemed sinister to me because of the high grass surrounding it. For as long as I could remember, there had been a chain link fence about head high surrounding the place. I had to pass this structure on the way to and from the Hebrew each day, and I always did double time.
Our class was putting on a play that memorable evening, recounting the tribulations of the Jews in Shushan. Like everyone else, I looked forward to it. There was triumph at the end, and we all had carte blanche to shout and twirl our metal groggers whenever Haman appeared. We would celebrate the victory of the Jews by devouring unlimited supplies of hamantaschen washed down with a peculiar kind of cherry soda that always left red stains on our lips.
So, there I was a block from the Hebrew, carrying a blue and red grogger and a siddur with my rayon yarmulke crushed between the front cover and the title page. I was so absorbed by thoughts of the party that I failed to see two other boys, slightly older and taller, coming directly toward me. By the time I woke up to what was going on, I found myself sandwiched between them and unable to move. The only clear remembrance I have is that they grabbed my prayer book and threw it over the fence. Before running off, one of them panted “Sorry, kid. We have nothing against you personally, but you’re a Jew.” They certainly shouldn’t have had anything against me, as I’d never seen them before, or since. Now they have a kind of specious immortality on these pages, and maybe that’s what they deserve.