I was about seven or eight years old, playing outside on the street in my hometown of Brooklyn NY, when a couple of slightly older kids came up to me.
“You go to Immacalat Hawtamary?” they asked. (Much later, I learned that the name of the school they were referring to was The Immaculate Heart of Mary. Later still, I discovered what immaculate meant.)
“No,” I answered. “I go to PS 130.”
“So you’re a Jew! The Jews killed Christ.”
I didn’t know who Christ was, and I didn’t know what a Jew was, so I had nothing to say.
Back home, I asked my parents, and they provided some information, but I found it very confusing. They explained that yes, we were Jewish in the ethnic or national sense, like some people are Italian or Irish, but not in the religious sense, because there is no such thing as God, and religion is an evil invention of capitalists to oppress and control the working class. That’s why they sometimes spoke Yiddish to my grandparents (all immigrants from Russia), but why I had never been to a synagogue and didn’t go to Hebrew school like other Jewish kids. It was also the reason why we exchanged gifts on New Year’s Day (as in the Soviet Union) and not at Christmas or Chanukah.
The kids around my age on my block were mostly Irish, but there were also a few Italians, and one other Jewish kid, who was even “less Jewish” than me according to one of the Irish kids. He explained that Jews generally were rich like me (I was “rich” because my family lived in a private house rather than an apartment building), but Jesse lived in a run-down walk-up apartment with his mother, and they were very poor.
Jesse was a bit older than me and stayed aloof from all of us. But he sought me out—Jewish kid to Jewish kid—one time to warn me to stay indoors on Good Friday, and even Easter, because Irish gangs would roam the streets looking for Jewish kids to beat up for being Christ-killers. I came to learn from experience that racism and intolerance of all kinds are not just about calling people names; the eventual result of hatred is inflicting violence.
In 1965, the Second Vatican Council called by Pope John XXIII issued Nostra Aetate, an exoneration of the Jews in the death of Christ. Many other statements and apologies followed, from Catholic and Protestant church bodies alike, but the role of Nostra Aetate cannot be overstated. On its fiftieth anniversary, Rabbi David Sandmel emphasized the importance of this document: “For Jews of a certain generation, being called ‘Christ killers’ was simply a part of growing up. Today, that is no longer the case.”
That “certain generation” includes me. But since then, I have myself become a Christian and now celebrate Easter as the most joyous day of the year. But Good Friday? Not a “good” day at all, at least in the modern sense, for anybody, and especially me. At a recent Good Friday service at my church we were handed long steel nails, and at one point in the service, told to write on a piece of paper a sin or regret that we wanted to get rid of, and nail it to the wooden cross with a hammer. Most of the congregation went up, took a hammer, and nailed their prayers or statements to the cross.
I couldn’t imagine doing it. I found the thought of it revolting and distressing.
As I sat in my disdain at the thought of joining my fellow Christians with notes and nails in hand, I recalled the ghost of an ancient memory, long suppressed. I remembered being taunted about how I, the Jewish kid, had hammered nails into the hands of our savior, followed by the threat that I would find out how that felt. Events conflate now, especially ones that happened over and again, and I can’t remember exactly how old I was, when exactly this happened, or what happened later—this particular taunt and threat was just part of the routine Easter period in lovely 1950s Brooklyn.
But, just as it does every year, the Friday of the crucifixion passed and with it the hurtful memory, all to be replaced by the joy, hope, and love of Easter Sunday’s resurrection. As it did for Mary Magdalene, Peter, and the other (Jewish) apostles, on Easter Sunday the real meaning of that terrible cross becomes apparent to us. Without death and suffering, there is no possibility of resurrection and the birth of hope. Jesus suffered and died, as do we all. And Jesus rose from death, as will we all.
I remained bitter and angry about my childhood for many decades into my adult life. I remember the moment I told a Christian friend who had brought me to church about my childhood experiences with Christians. She expressed only a small degree of sympathy, which exacerbated my anger. And then she said: “You need to forgive them.”
“Never!” I told her.
Even as I displayed my resolve to harbor my bitterness, I remembered the words I had read from the gospels a few days earlier: “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” I felt a strong emotion followed by a sense of relief that was overwhelming. I began to cry and responded again to my friend’s statement through my tears: “I do . . . I forgive them.”
At my baptism, I was told that I had been washed clean of my sins, and the joy I felt has never left me. I have devoted my life to Christ, and I learn every day more about the miraculous nature of faith and forgiveness. So, I am hopeful that on some coming Good Friday, despite the haunting of my childhood memories of Easter in the 1950s, I will be able to take a nail and a hammer and a piece of paper on which I have written “Lord, forgive them as you have forgiven me,” and without shame, guilt, or anger I will hammer it onto the cross.