by Leslie Snow
I long for the days when I had no problem using my sharp tongue to let everyone know I was offended.
When I was younger, the difference between right and wrong seemed very clear. I could easily describe the characteristics of a good or bad person, and I wasn't shy about pointing out the differences between the two, even if it meant offending someone. I was proud of myself for openly standing up for my beliefs. In my mind I was a better person for speaking out against the injustices I saw around me. I stood up to the bully on the bus who picked on little kids. When I saw an able man park in a handicapped space, I let him know he was acting selfishly. And when someone uttered an ethnic or racial slur in my presence, I proclaimed that my mother was of the very same group being derided. You've never heard such horrified gasps or fervent apologies.
But as I've gotten older I've "mellowed." Now, when I hear someone make an offensive remark, I keep my mouth shut and go about my business.
Somewhere along the way I started to believe my remarks didn't change anything. My comments seemed to make people angry rather than introspective, and never appeared to prompt a change in behavior.
The other night, however, I was put in a situation that made me wonder if keeping silent is really the best response.
I was at a business dinner with my husband and about twenty other people. The restaurant was crowded, the wine was flowing freely, and everyone was having a good time. Between the appetizers and the main course, a man I didn't know very well started talking about people who eat out a lot. In a loud voice he called out, "Look at me, I'm a Jew, I can make reservations."
I felt my stomach lurch and heard my husband gasp quietly. The man obviously didn't know I was Jewish. Given my last name, Snow, people hardly ever do. My husband put his arm around me and whispered, "What do you want to do?" I said, "The guy's a jerk; let's not let him ruin our good time." So we stayed and tried to put the ugliness behind us.
But just before we finished dinner, a woman I've known for several years started telling me a story about her husband. She laughed as she relayed how incredibly tightfisted he is, how she can't get a dime out of him. She went on to say, "He's so cheap that sometimes I call him Mr. Mike-n-Baum." By adding "Baum," a Jewish surname, she was insinuating that Jews are cheap.
I didn't say a word. I just gave a fake little laugh and whispered to my husband that I was ready to go. We made excuses for leaving early and politely said our goodbyes.
I haven't been able to stop thinking about that evening and wondering if I had done the right thing by staying silent. What could I have said? Had I told her I was Jewish, she would have felt embarrassed and apologized. We both would have felt awkward. And, of course, she would have said she was just kidding. That's what people always say. She would then have gone on to tell me how many Jewish friends she has, and I would have ended up having to comfort her by professing that her remark did not hurt my feelings. So I kept quiet, went back home, and let my husband tuck me into bed with a cup of hot chocolate.
But these people did hurt my feelings, and they made me long for the days when I had no problem letting everyone know I was offended. The next time ugliness and bad manners are served up at a dinner party, or anywhere else, I would not be surprised if that outspoken kid I used to be rises up and teaches the initiator a lesson.
Leslie Snow lives in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Copyright © 2004, Union for Reform Judaism