Ignorance is like a rash . . .
It spreads. It is often contagious. And it can be hereditary.
I grew up in a middle-income world. We had quiet suburban streets with average, single family homes, modest backyards, one or two car driveways, and the occasional flagpoles on front lawns with the American Flag waving in an otherwise safe environment.
Mail carriers drove their small postal trucks through the streets and delivered mail into mailboxes on average doorsteps. Trees lined the sidewalks and telephone poles connected cables and electrical service to regular homes, with regular people, living regular lives, and living together with their regular problems.
My town was an example of Middle America. No one was overly wealthy or desperately poor. We were average in wealth and average in population.
But we were far from diverse.
Most of the families were white and English speaking. Most were Roman Catholic or Irish Catholic. There was a small Jewish population, but most of the Jewish families lived in the same part of town known as Jew-Ville or Jew-Town.
There was a small influence of African-American and Latino families. However, most of these families lived in the military housing, and there was definitely an unspoken segregation between the races.
When I was around six years-old, someone placed a cross on my neighbor’s front lawn and then they lit the cross on fire. They did this because a black man lived in the home. He was not the homeowner; he was only a tenant, but I knew him as Mr. Praus.
Mr. Praus spoke with a thick Brazilian accent. His skin was very dark and the whites of his eyes looked watery and bright with red, branch-like veins around his dark colored pupils.
He was thin with a bony face. The inside of his lips and mouth were almost pink. His hands were that of an old man’s, his palms were bronze, and his bald head showed the scattered proof of silvery gray hair.
Mr. Praus worked hard. He was respectful and caring, but apparently, he was not welcomed by everyone.
Other than the swirling lights on top of the fire trucks and police cars, what I remember most about the night of the burning cross was the expression on The Old Man’s face.
I stood next to him at our front door as he watched the fireman put out the flaming cross. I was wearing blue pajamas with the feet on the bottom.
I remember that . . .
The Old Man took me by the hand and said, “Let’s go.”
Then The Old Man and I walked from out front doorstep, passed the police officers and fireman, and together, we approached Mr. Praus.
The Old Man extended his hand to Mr. Praus and said, “I just want you to know, not everybody feels that way about you.”
Mr. Praus smiled. His sad watery eyes squinted as he shook The Old Man’s hand.
“Thank you,” he said.
I was too young to understand racism. But I was old enough to understand the cross was a symbol of God—and I could not understand why anyone would set a symbol of God on fire.
I could not understand why anyone would hate Mr. Praus because of the color of his skin.
Didn’t they know he was a good person?
When I asked The Old Man about this, he told me, “It’s because some people are ignorant.”
Again, I say I was too young to understand racism. But as I grew in age, I also grew in understanding. I understood the different stereotypes and the difference between races and backgrounds. I understood that I too was different because I grew up in a Jewish household. Only, we did not live in Jew-Ville or Jew-Town.
I admit that I submitted to the ignorance. I bought into the hate and anger. I listened to the lies and believed them as if it were truth.
When remembering Mr. Praus in a conversation, a old neighbor of mine told me, “Who cares about that Carne Bruciata,” which in Italian, means “Burnt meat.”
He called Mr. Praus “Carne Bruciata” because his skin was so dark—just like the color of burnt meat.
Ignorance like this was given to me, and I suppose I held it well. I held it when I was handcuffed inside of a cage and waiting for my name to be called.
Across from me, a young man of color, who was also handcuffed began to laugh at me.
Referring to the color of my skin, the inmate teased, “Hey yellow-boy,” with a Jamaican accent.
“I see you decided to give slavery a chance . . . well just remember one thing; you are the minority in here. Not me.”
This was not the way I was raised, but I learned how to hate through others—and when I hated, I hated without flaw. I hated thoroughly and perfectly. And why not?
I was raised to learn, “Everyone hates the Jews,” so I figured I would respond and hate everyone back.
I remember my teenage years and the Swastika on the side of the local bowling alley. This was probably spray-painted by someone who has never seen actual footage of the death camps.
The swastika was perhaps placed by someone close to my own age, and I could only assume his family did not lose an entire generation to places like Auschwitz and Mauthausen.
But mine did . . .
Over the red spray-painted symbol of hatred was the word, “SKINS”
I’ll never forget that.
This was my lesson in ignorance. But I held that lesson for too long. Instead of speaking out against it, I hid behind my own hatred and traded my own beliefs for a sense of social comfort.
However, there was nothing comfortable about being called “A good Jew,” and hearing someone say, “He’s not like the rest of them.”
Over the years, I have learned to let go of this ignorance. I learned to let go of my prejudice as well as my hate. I have changed, and over the years, the diversity of my neighborhood has also changed.
Two of the homes sold on my block this past month. One of the homes was purchased by a family with three children. The husband works hard. He works long hours, but he does this because he wants to make a better life for his family. He has dreams of taking his children to the elementary school, which is within walking distance from our homes
We live in angry times. Our country is at war and our enemy is clear only in name alone. We have troops fighting in countries that harbor terrorists and Islamic extremists, but yet, we are not necessarily at war with any specific country. Our enemy is camouflaged in deserts and war-torn countries. They fight in the name of Jihad, or Holy War.
I have been exposed to hatred. I have memories of the attacks on September 11th.
I have fears of my country swirling into failure.
I have fears of outsourcing domestic jobs to foreign countries.
I have fears about our economy, and of course, I have fears of another terror attack.
I have listened to many arguments about the Muslim population. I have listened to the hatred and the ignorance.
“They are the enemy!”
Meanwhile, my new neighbor is painting the rooms in his new house. He sat on his front step the other night and I walked over to introduce myself.
As a welcoming gesture, I extended my hand and said, “Hello, my name is Ben and I live across the street from you.”
“I am Thomas,” responded my neighbor.
“Welcome to the neighborhood,” I said.
Thomas thanked me.
He explained what he went through to close on the house. He told me about the efforts he was making to paint the rooms for his children and his wife. He asked about the school and he asked about the teachers. He asked about the others on the block and then he thanked me again for stopping by.
I went over for more than one reason . . .
First, I went over because I believe in the idea of community.
I believe in the term “Neighborhood.”
I went over to introduce myself because it’s the right thing to do.
But secondly, if I did not go over and welcome Thomas to the neighborhood because he and his family is Muslim, then I would be no better than the ones that burnt a cross on my neighbor’s lawn.
If I refused to welcome Thomas to my community because of the color of his skin, his accent, and his religion, then I would be as ignorant as the person that spray-painted a Swastika on the side of the East Meadow bowling alley.
It is true. Our country does have enemies. True, we are a war, and yes, our enemies in this war are Muslim.
But not every Muslim is our enemy.
There are some too that have slithered within our gates with hopes to destroy, and there are terror cells currently planning the devastation of our country.
But Thomas . . . He’s not a soldier. He’s not an extremist.
He’s just a homeowner. He’s just a guy that’s happy to live in a house instead of an apartment.
I can understand that.
He’s happy to live around the block from the school with a playground, and he’s happy that someone walked across the street and took the time to say, “Hello,” and “Welcome to the neighborhood.”