Above: a sunset in La Jolla, California where I grew up. Before my family moved there, realtors redlined Jews until it became apparent that community wouldn’t thrive without them.
It’s widely known that La Jolla, the beautiful oceanside neighborhood in San Diego where I grew up, was off-limits to Jews until the 1960s when the University of California began to build a campus there.
“They didn’t let Jews in until they built a university and they needed Jews.” That’s what my father used to say. He was a Chicago-based psychoanalyst who moved there with our family in 1971. We were part of an early wave of midwest professionals who migrated west toward the Pacific.
He was echoing words spoken loudly by the founder of U.C.S.D., Roger Revelle (for whom one of the university’s colleges is named).
“You can’t have a university without having Jewish professors,” said Revelle in a now famous speech. “The Real Estate Broker’s Association and their supporters in La Jolla had to make up their minds whether they wanted a university or an anti-Semitic covenant. You couldn’t have both.”
I had my first bitter taste of anti-Semitism when a seven-year-old playmate and neighbor of mine told me that his parents had forbidden him from interacting with me. “Because you’re a Jew,” he said.
Throughout junior high (as it was called then) and high school, it was a normal occurrence for other students to taunt me and my Jewish friends with anti-Semitic epithets. My two best and inseparable friends throughout my teens were Jews. One of our classmates dubbed us — with insouciant but innocuous malice common in our age group — the “Jew Crew.” (He’s still a good friend. A few years ago he remarked off-handedly, “I don’t know why all of my best friends are Jews.”)
But aside from the stress caused by heckling, being a Semite has never impeded me or my brothers from achieving everything we wanted in life. I feel it’s important to note, as my younger brother once wisely pointed out, that the only suffering inflicted on us by anti-Semites in our early years was solely emotional and superficial.
That all changed for me when the white supremacists openly chanted “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville in 2017. That’s when I began to realize that anti-Semitic violence was no longer a far-fetched notion in our country.
The 2019 shooting at a San Diego-area synagogue really and quite literally brought it home: a close childhood friend of mine was a member there and my older brother and his wife have worshipped there. They knew the 60-year-old woman who was killed by the shooter.
Seeing images of white supremacists chanting, raising their arms in Nazi salutes, and displaying anti-Semitic messages over the 405 freeway in Los Angeles brought a chill to my spine. When I lived, studied, and worked in LA as an undergrad and grad student, I used to drive on that stretch of road nearly every single day. The overpass where their rally took place is not far from the Getty Museum (where I used to work, although not at that location) and the Skirball Cultural Center, a Jewish community hub. I used to attend the nearby Stephen Wise Temple on the high holy days when I lived on campus at U.C.L.A.
During my last years in New York City, I used to wait on the entertainer who unleashed a chorus of anti-Semitic rhetoric with his own inflammatory remarks over the last few weeks. He lived in a SoHo building where a high-profile Italian restaurant was located on the ground floor. I was the restaurant’s marketing director and I often worked the dining room as a sommelier.
His overtly racist comments have made anti-Semitism a dinner table topic of conversation in our home.
Our children, ages nine and 10, are not considered Jews by most of my conreligionists. That’s because Jewish law holds that the mother must be a Jew for the kids to be Jews. Tracie is a gentile. I like to call them “semi-Semites.”
But Jewish culture and Jewish language are a big part of our daily banter. And we happen to live in the historic Jewish neighborhood of Houston. Many of their classmates are Jews and we often attend Jewish observances with other families.
Our girls have been tight-lipped about this episode. They are aware of it because it’s been unavoidable on the news. And there’s no doubt that they are affected by it, in part because Tracie and I have been outwardly upset by it.
Where I grew up thinking that a few nasty words about my ethnicity were all I would have to tolerate throughout my life, they are living in a world where verbal and physical violence are threats that self-identifying Jews have to live with every day. Anti-Semitism is no longer a sad joke that we can brush off as anachronistic. Even a living former president of the U.S. has been known to make anti-Semitic comments. It’s no surprise that his political mentor was a rabid anti-Semite.
When Tracie and I first talked about starting a family together 13 years ago, I never would have imagined that our kids would grow up with this cultural pressure and stress. Yet here we are.
In our everyday interactions, people around us often use racist language about Jews without even realizing how harmful it is. I only wish they would stop to reflect about how it’s going to shape our children’s self-perceptions and their perceptions of the world around them. In today’s world, that verbal violence seems closer than ever to the physical violence that my ancestors fled.
Thanks for letting me share this personal history with you. Parzen family friends, please consider following the Anti-Defamation League and their newsletter. Their reporting will give you a better sense of how pervasive anti-Semitism is in our country today.