Cultural disconnect

Very unsettling experience today.

Stopped in to a little consignment shop I’d never noticed before in Brooklyn. After a few minutes in the store, I spotted an oil painting, high on the wall, of a stereotypical old Jewish man, smiling as he counted gold coins. It felt extremely anti-Semitic, but not like Nazi propaganda, exactly. Regardless, I was super weirded out. I continued browsing casually and moved back to the front of the shop. The proprietor, an elderly Eastern European, lady had been very chatty, and had mentioned she had been in business in that location 17 years. This shop is on 5th Avenue in Park Slope … a very family-oriented and Jewish-friendly neighborhood (though it was neither when she arrived).

Casually, I said, “if I may ask a personal question, are you Jewish?” No. From Poland. (To understate things, Poland is probably one of the least Jew-friendly countries on earth, historically. I don’t hold all Polish people today responsible for the sins of their elders, but this woman is at least 70 years old, so I instantly got even more uncomfortable.) I said, “Ah. My grandmother’s family is from a village in Poland.” (Note, I did not say they were Polish… not the same in the least.) “And I am Jewish. I noticed your painting there. It’s very odd to see it in a shop like this.” She smiled, and said, “yes, it comes with me everywhere for many years. It is from before World War II” (I bet it is!) “and that is not the original frame, my sister… [blah blah blah]”. She was very proud of it, and I was just gobsmacked. I left within a couple minutes and it took me a few minutes to calm down, and all I knew was that I was NEVER going back to that store — Allure on 5th — and I couldn’t wait to tell everyone about it!

But here’s a twist: As I was searching up a similar image to post as illustration, I found a potential explanation. This image is kind of close to the spirit of her painting, though not exactly the same. It’s something between that one and this one. Note that the caption on both of those reads:

“Many people from Europe said that you can attract money if you have a picture of a Jewish man counting gold coins in your home or office.”

I also found a very long travelogue blog post about Poland that included two of this kind of painting, with this comment:

“This painting was for sale in the square. It depicts a stereotypical Jewish man counting his gold coins. We view it as anti-Semitic. Everyone in Poland who knows about these tells us that Poles buy these images for good luck, i.e. they want to be rich just like the Jews. They claim there is no ill will or bad intent. They also sell little dolls with the Jewish man holding a coin. I bought one to use as an example of anti-Semitism in my seminar at SFSU.”

So, MAYBE it’s not as awful as I thought. But still, SURELY in 17 years, SOMEONE would have pointed out how creepy it is and how uncomfortable it would make Jewish customers? Maybe she doesn’t care? Or I’m just oversensitive? (I’m not, and don’t tell me I am.)

It’s an extremely interesting experience for me to get slapped in the face with old-school anti-Semitism, even if it is benign, accidental, unintended, ignorant, etc etc. … In other words, kind of like the “harmless” ethnic costume shenanigans many of us were discussing just a couple months ago. And hey, guess what? IT SUCKS.

Thank you, universe, for teaching me, reminding me, and giving me the empathy that will help me be a better ally.

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About amywinns

Semi-snarky, semi-sincere, occasionally ranting, always paying attention. Feminist who can work a skirt and crack a joke. Grammar nerd who is also fun at parties. Mid-career writer/editor with 15 years’ experience in newspapers & magazines who now helps developers at a major media corporation communicate with the suits who write the checks. Pro-women, pro-family, pro-choice, pro-workingclass, pro-entrepreneur, pro-farmer. Like every other bourgeois Brooklynite, I choose local/organic/raw food — mostly vegetables — whenever possible/reasonable/affordable but I’m not a smug asshole about it. Hometown: Atlanta. Weird hobby: lindy hop. No pets, no kids, no thanks.
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