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“The Jewish Problem”

By Harry Markowicz

During the summer of 1970, I moved into a group house on the main street of Port Moody, British Columbia, Canada. The stylish house overlooked the end of a Pacific inlet from the side of a small hill. It had been designed and built for the wealthy owner of a nearby sawmill. Based on appearance, some of our neighbors might have thought of us as hippies; however, the six residents were graduate students and teaching assistants at Simon Fraser University, located nearby on top of Mt. Burnaby.

One night in August, a carelessly discarded cigarette started a fire on a living room couch. The flames spread rapidly to the curtains and from there to the beautiful pine wood paneling on the ground-floor rooms and the stairway leading to the upstairs bedrooms. By the time the Port Moody volunteer fire department put out the fire, most of the house had burned down to the ground. The next day, the fire chief showed me where the fire had started, and he told me the cigarette had smoldered for several hours before starting the blaze. 

Just days earlier, I had handed in my thesis to my department to complete my MA degree in Psycholinguistics. My former wife, Tilda, whom I had met in Israel, was visiting me from Los Angeles, where she had moved after we separated amicably. 

Two dogs died in the fire. One of the human residents, Dieter, a German graduate student, suffered burns on his hands and cuts on his face when he dove headfirst through a closed window on the second floor. Another housemate, Dorothy, twisted her ankle when she jumped from a different, second-floor window. 

Awakened by cries of “fire, fire” and seeing smoke in the stairway, Tilda and I retreated from my second-floor room into an adjacent storage room located in the rear of the house. There, a short door gave access to an outside platform from which trunks and suitcases could be hoisted by a pulley into the luggage room. We were sitting on the edge of the platform waiting for help, when a powerful blast of hot air caused Tilda to lose her balance and drop down from our perch. Unfortunately, she also inhaled some of the hot air. The other housemates escaped without injuries.

Our next-door neighbors, William and Peter, Simon Fraser graduate students from Britain, joined by Richard, a graduate student from New York who had just arrived in town a day earlier, came to our rescue before the volunteer firemen arrived. Richard broke Tilda’s fall by partially catching her mid-air, softening her landing on the ground. He then propped up a short ladder on top of a picnic table that he and others had dragged close to the house, allowing me to climb down. 

Dieter, Dorothy, and Tilda were taken by ambulance to the local hospital where their injuries were treated. A few days later, Tilda flew back to Los Angeles on a flight arranged by Pan Am, her employer.

For the next few days after the fire, my housemates and I stayed with the next-door neighbors who had come to our rescue during the fire. Several members of our original household soon found lodging elsewhere, their move facilitated by the sad fact that practically all their possessions had been destroyed. In the end, only Richard, Rosalie (also a native New Yorker), and I remained with William and Peter. Despite the close quarters—it was a modestly sized house—we all got along well, sharing in the cooking, food shopping, and whatever domestic cleaning was deemed essential.

Richard, whose assimilated Jewish family had left Vienna before the Second World War, and I became close friends. Several months later, Richard’s girlfriend and future wife, Amy, came to visit him during her winter break at the University of Wisconsin. Amy—a native of Brooklyn where her father owned a delicatessen—and I discovered that we shared a Jewish sense of humor. In our conversations with each other, we enjoyed throwing in a Yiddish word or two, and the same kinds of things made us laugh.

One day as he was leaving the house, Peter told Amy and me we would be having a house meeting that evening. We had never had a meeting before, so I inquired why we needed one. He hesitated slightly before saying, “We need to discuss something.” I asked him, “Who is the ‘we’ and what did ‘we’ want to talk about?” Peter replied that he, William, and Rosalie, wanted the meeting so we could talk about a problem. He hesitated again before blurting out, “the Jewish problem,” as he drove off in his car.

Peter and William, leaders in the radical student movement of the late 1960s, were used to debating and giving stirring speeches in front of large crowds of protesters. I was puzzled by the subject of the upcoming meeting and Peter’s reticence to describe what he meant by “the Jewish problem.” What was to follow gave me a unique insight that I had never experienced before.

That evening after supper, we all met in the living room. Peter and William exposed what they considered to be “the Jewish problem.” In brief, until Amy appeared, they had considered me to be someone to whom they could easily relate to, but in her presence, I had metamorphosed into a different person, apparently one with whom they found it difficult to have a rapport.

According to them, the problem was that Amy and I were being exclusive. When we used a Yiddish word or expression, they felt excluded. I pointed out that Amy and Richard, and also Rosalie and William who had developed a romantic relationship, were also being exclusive. They argued that it was not the same. 

I admitted it was impolite for Amy and me to use Yiddish words and expressions, or laugh at a joke that they didn’t understand in their company, but our object was not to exclude them. We were just being ourselves. All along I suspected their objections went beyond a lack of politeness. Since Peter had labeled it “the Jewish problem,” their concern had to be related to our Jewishness. 

I confronted them with the idea that as long as I appeared “culturally” assimilated, my being Jewish was not an issue for them. They strongly objected to my suggestion that they were rejecting my Jewish identity, which manifested itself in Amy’s presence. They objected, declaring that they were not antisemitic—a prejudice that was incompatible with their left-wing and liberal worldview. [How the world has changed in the last 50 years!]

The intense discussion went on unresolved late into the night, and we were exhausted; we decided to adjourn until the next evening.

The next evening we took up where we had left off and continued for several more hours. The more I thought about their attitude, the more my feelings were in accord with my thinking. I felt powerful and ready to challenge these experienced debaters. 

I don’t remember all that was said, but at some point, William, Peter, and Rosalie each made unexpected and remarkable confessions that confirmed what I had been thinking and feeling.

It started when William, a product of an upper-class British family and education, stated that he had never met a Jew before attending university. In his family, he said they spoke of Jews and dogs in the same breath. After William finished telling us about his background, Peter spoke about his own experience growing up. He came from a blue-collar family, and the students in the schools he attended shared similar working-class backgrounds; however, the top students in all his courses tended to be the Jewish kids. 

Rosalie spoke next. Like Richard, she had attended the Bronx High School of Science, one of the New York elite public schools, where the large majority of students were Jewish. Through her tears, Rosalie admitted that attending Bronx Science had been a painful experience for her, in part because she was resentful of the Jewish girls who could afford to wear different color cashmere sweaters every day.

Following these disclosures of past negative experiences with Jews, there was a long period of silence. Exhausted, we all agreed that it was time to go to bed. I imagine that those of us who participated in these emotionally charged discussions recognized, probably for the first time, that antisemitism may be present in an unconscious or latent form.

“The Jewish problem” never came up again in our household. However, by a strange coincidence, it wasn’t the last time antisemitism made an appearance among us! One afternoon early that fall, one of us called the gas company after noticing the smell of gas in the house. Not long afterwards, a gas company inspector arrived to check for leaks while we were having dinner in the large eat-in kitchen. After testing the gas cooking stove, he checked the gas furnace and the clothes dryer in the basement. He returned to the kitchen to report that there was no evidence of a gas leak in the house. 

By this time, we had finished our dinner, and we were sitting around the table chatting. Without regard to our conversation, the inspector then launched into a monologue in which he kept referring to “these men in New York.” None of us seemed to understand the point he was trying to make until, to our surprise, he asserted that: “This group of men with long beards in New York control the banking system everywhere.” His meaning was now perfectly obvious! 

We thanked the gas company inspector for making sure that we were safe while showing him the door. Afterwards, I wondered why none of us challenged his claim. Perhaps mindful of our recent painful discussion, we chose to avoid the topic?

© 2020, Harry Markowicz. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.