Warren Blumenfeld recalls a visit to a shop in Poland where the owner kept a painting of a “rich Jew” to bring good luck. That same type of hypocrisy, misappropriation and racial stereotyping is similar to the debate about the Washington Redskins today.
Controversy is swirling around a long-overdue public debate whether to change the name of the Washington Redskins football franchise. On one side, some news outlets, like the San Francisco Chronicle, have announced they will no longer use the word “Redskins” when referring to the team. Recently, the D.C. City Council voted overwhelmingly to change what the original form of the resolution termed as the team’s “racist and derogatory” moniker.
The team originally took the name “Boston Braves” at its inception in 1932, but changed it one year later to “Boston Redskins.”
At the center of this maelstrom, team owner Daniel Snyder is holding firm by announcing he has no intention of changing the name, referring to it as a “tradition” and as a “badge of honor.” In fact, on the wall of the organization’s Ashburn, Virginia, offices hangs a commemorative plaque given to the team’s former coach, George Allen announcing: “Washington Redskins is more than a name we have called our football team for over eight decades. It is a symbol of everything we stand for: strength, courage, pride, and respect — the same values we know guide Native Americans and which are embedded throughout their rich history as the original Americans.”
As a Jew like myself, I ask Daniel Snyder to turn the tables on himself by imagining the name of his team as the “Washington Hebrews” under the team symbol of an old orthodox Jewish man, elongated full-nostriled nose, long white beard, and side locks streaming from his tired face, head covered with a black hat. In his right hand he has gently lifted a gold coin from a full leather pouch clenched in his left hand.
Well, Mr. Snyder, this is exactly the image I encounter when I visit my ancestral town of Krosno, Poland and throughout the country when I conduct Holocaust and genealogy research.
On my last day in Krosno when there in 2011, I walked casually around the town. On one of the main streets, I recognized a small jewelry shop where I had purchased an amber pendent for my mother in 2008. This time I went into the shop to look for an amber ring for myself. (Poland is renowned for its silver and amber jewelry.) As I perused the glass cabinet at the back of the store, I looked upward and saw a picture hanging on the wall of what appeared to be a Hassidic Jew.
Taking me by complete surprise, I asked the owner, “Is that a Jew?” He responded, “Yes, it is.” The young women employee standing beside him, with a broad smile suddenly appearing on her face, looking my way said, “Yes, money, money,” rubbing together the thumb and index finger of her right hand. I then noticed in the picture that the Jewish man held a large coin in his right hand.
I bought the ring, but I left the shop with a tense uneasiness in my stomach. That evening at dinner, I asked my friend Kasia, a Polish native, what this image in the shop meant. She expressed to me what I had anticipated, that the image represented and exemplified the stereotypical notion of the “rich Jew.” I later learned that one can find similar pictures in non-Jewish Polish homes, banks, businesses large and small, work offices, and studios as supposed “good luck” symbols to bring wealth to those who own and enter the space. Some of the pictures contain the caption: “Żyd w sieni pieniadze w kieszeni” (“A Jew in the room, a coin in the pocket”). Either one day per week (usually on the Jewish sabbath between Friday at sunset and Saturdayat sunset), or on January 1 of each year, the pictures’ owners hang the Jew upside down for a while to assure them greater wealth during the week or in the new year.
In Europe, by the late 19th century CE, Jews had come to be viewed by the scientific community as a distinct “racial” type with essential immutable biological characteristics — a trend that increased markedly into the early 20th century CE. Once seen as largely a religious, ethnic, or political group, Jews were increasingly socially constructed as members of a “mixed race” (a so-called “mongrel” or “bastard race”), a people who had crossed racial barriers by interbreeding with black Africans during the Jewish Diaspora. Many thought that if Jews were evil, then this evilness was genetic and could not be purged or cured. Therefore, converting Jews to Christianity, as once believed by many Christian leaders, could no longer answer “the Jewish question.”
According to Jewish historian Sander Gilman (1991), Jews were not considered as white during much of U.S. history as well, but rather they were often seen as being Asian or “Mongoloid” and were considered primitive and tribal. Gilman also found prevailing dominant discourses constructed Jews as the “white Negroes” in European society: “In the eyes of the non-Jew who defined them in Western [European] society the Jews became the blacks” (Gilman in Thandeka, 1999, p. 37). Thandeka added that “the male Jew and the male African were conceived of as equivalent threats to the white race” (p. 37).
When I traveled to Poland in 2011 with my cousins, Gary and Bert, after checking into our hotel in Krakow, we explored the area around the hotel. Within one block, we found disturbing graffiti spray painted on an apartment building, which was obviously anti-Jewish in tone, especially the words spelled out in English “Hitler Rules,” and the words “Jebac Żydów” (“F*** the Jews”), and a Star of David enclosed within a circle, written in red and later spray painted over in black.
During our bus ride to Krosno, we engaged in some very intensive discussions including what we were feeling as Jews in Poland. A young Polish man seated in front of us named Pawel asked if he could join in our conversation. He provided us with a very interesting and informative snapshot of contemporary Polish/Jewish relations.
He informed us that while Polish anti-Jewish attitudes most certainly endure in the larger Polish society, some Poles see their homeland culture as diminished, currently not as rich and vibrant with so few Jews remaining in Poland, from approximately three million before the Nazi invasion to about only ten thousand today. Pawel explained to us that while this graffiti has a very complicated explanation (coming somewhat from a sports team rivalry), it can be seen as a visible example of the tensions currently underway in Polish society in coming to terms with its past and how it moves forward.
Some young people of the current generation like himself are working to ensure a brighter future for Jews in Poland. Pawel, who stated that he is not Jewish himself, worked for a few years at the Jewish Museum in Krakow because he is motivated to learn as much as he can about Polish Jewish history and culture.
No Jews have resided in Krosno or in the surrounding Subcarpathian region of southeastern Poland since the 1940s. Since then, a dynamic tension has developed between those, especially in many of the older generations, who bask in the monoculturalism evidenced by the longstanding Polish Catholic cultural heritage. Others, though, many in the younger generations born during the past few decades, yearn for an earlier time in Polish history, one where many cultural traditions enriched the overall national culture.
Ever since that day I first noticed the Jew hanging on the wall of the jewelry shop, a gnawing sensation has overtaken my consciousness because I failed to speak up to the shop owner. While back in Krosno this past October, I walked into the shop and expressed to the owner, while I donned a rather friendly though assertive tone, that I considered the picture to be offensive to myself as a Jew. “Oh no,” he replied, “Not offensive. My Jew is my talisman bringing me money.” At this point he removed the picture from its hanging spot, and turning it upside down, placed his hand beneath to symbolically catch the coins pouring from the Jews leather pouch.”
I repeated my initial statement, though he simply smiled and actually laughed at me. Though I knew he would probably never understand, at least in the short term, I walked from the shop with my head held erect, with my dignity and integrity fully intact, an ease coming over my soul once again.
The few Jews who currently reside in Poland comprise a virtually invisible minority to most Poles, and while literally millions of First Nations people inhabit the United States today, they as a group remain largely invisible to most other U.S.-Americans. The image of the rich Jew in Poland and the brave savage “Redskins” and “Braves” in baseball, and countless others sports teams, were constructed through a historically revisionist and romanticized lens, back to some fairy-tale time and place where the Pole treated the Jew as an equal and respected member of Polish society, and where the European “settler” (a.k.a. “invader”) broke bread in some mythological first Thanksgiving, which set up conditions for peaceful coexistence and trade up to this very day.
I believe this so-called “honoring,” taking “pride” in, and “respecting” Native Americans by the cultural descendants of those who engaged in forced evacuations, deculturalization, and genocide of native peoples, and those hanging pictures of Jews in places where Jews had been shunned, scapegoated, and slaughtered previously strikes me as hypocrisy at best, and more like justification for further colonization and misappropriation of cultural symbols, in addition to racist stereotyping.
As a genuine step in the direction of truly honoring and respecting other people, the cultural imperialism must end.
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Gilman, S. L. (1991). The Jew’s body. New York: Routledge.
Thandeka. (1999). The cost of whiteness. Tikkun, 14(3), 33-38.