What Does Charlottesville Mean to a Jew?

My father, Charles Brett, in France, c1944

What does Charlottesville mean to a Jew? It means they’re coming to get us. I was born in 1951, part of the first generation born after the Holocaust. Being a Jew, that is being myself, always meant knowing that in the recent past there were people who would have burned me in an oven or showered me in poisonous gas if they could have gotten a hold of me. Then when I had children it meant they would have done the same to my beautiful children.

As a young OSS intelligence officer my 24-year-old father liberated a concentration camp. It wasn’t one of the famous camps, and I didn’t recognize the name when he told me about it. He explained that as a young Jewish man he shook when he saw piles of skeletons and then a list the Nazis had kept of Jewish officers in the American Army whom they’d kill first when they beat the Yanks.

My parents, who had very different upbringings, were always proud of being Jewish; they were even chauvinistic. Their chauvinism turned me against Judaism. I couldn’t bear their smugness of thinking Jews were better than other people, smarter, more compassionate. I took to writing religion: none on forms. I dated a Bengali Buddhist. I married a Protestant. I wanted my children to be safe. I wanted my children to be tall, to have the “good hair,” to assimilate, to fit into America.

I shuddered when I read in the US Congressional Record that the House of Representatives had floor debate on accepting Jewish refugee boats during the Holocaust and that American elected officials declared that Jews were too ugly, going so far as saying that even cute Jewish children grow into ugly adults. Instead of getting angry, I became ashamed. Oppression does that to people.

I felt ambivalent about Israel. As a young child my mother had blue cans in our kitchen catching coins to save to send to plant trees as part of a Hadassah (a Jewish woman’s group) initiative. I felt loathing and love. This was before the ’67 war, but it was still a place that reminded me of vulnerability and victimhood. And things didn’t get better for me as a young leftist as the actions of Israel were condemned. They were rightly condemned but sometimes out of proportion to the egregious actions of other countries. I had a Christian friend who would call me to rant about Israel only; all other national aggression was exempt.

If I ruled the world all the land on the West Bank and Gaza would be given back to Palestinians, and Palestinians would have their own state. But people would also know that 1.5 million Arabs are citizens of Israel and many of them self-identify as Palestinian. If I ruled the world people could answer the question of where these Jews would be safe if not in Israel or where Jewish refugees, too ugly for the US, should have gone in 1945. To Alaska like in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union? Even in Chabon’s novel, we can’t stay there forever.

When I watched Spielberg’s movie Munich I knew I was a Jew. So were my children. The Protestant divorced me before we had kids. I’ll never know if my ethnicity was part of his decision, but I often suspect it was. My children’s father is Jewish. The US has been a country in which I had the luxury of avoiding my Jewishness. I have always had a Christmas tree and Easter eggs because these rituals were fun. What does Charlottesville mean to a Jew? That I’m not sure I will this year.

Jews voted against Trump; over 70% of us voted for Hillary Clinton. We recognized his brand of hatred. We tried to warn people.

I remember cowering under my desk during the Cuban Missile Crisis. All people my age do. I feel like doing that now. 45 is talking war with North Korea. Nukes have been mentioned. Congress, 91% Christian when the country is only 71% Christian, is watching as the world watched in the 1930’s. I feel that President Obama and Democratic leadership before 11/9 acted as if they were having tea in a Jane Austen novel. You need to act when you can. You may not get another chance.

The anti-Semitism of the march got less coverage than its other racist assertions. This isn’t surprising. The left is ambivalent about Jews because of Israel. I feel a kinship with other targeted populations, Muslims, Mexicans, people of color, and the marginalized ethnic populations that have been singled out. But we are used to being on our own. How do Jews feel about Charlottesville? Are we even surprised? Or have we been bracing for Nazi marches in the United States since the day each of us first learned about the Holocaust?

For another view of my family’s history, here is my daughter’s piece:





Laurel Brett, PhD. teaches English, Women’s Studies, and Mythology. She is the author The Schrödinger Girl, and Disquiet on the Western Front.

Love podcasts or audiobooks? Learn on the go with our new app.

Recommended from Medium

Tower Duty

Stereotypes, Archetypes, Myths, and Jewish Mothers — Part 3

Love Doesn’t Die When Your Child Dies

Close-up of a tumbled opal with light hitting it

Happy Birthday, Grandma

There’s a Ring Around The Moon

Get Up and be Done with it! De-clutter your home and de-clutter your mind, for free!!

A clean home

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Laurel Brett

Laurel Brett

Laurel Brett, PhD. teaches English, Women’s Studies, and Mythology. She is the author The Schrödinger Girl, and Disquiet on the Western Front.

More from Medium


Leaving the Mother Land

Crow Boy*

Should all Christians fight for justice?