Sunday, November 04, 2007

Halloween, then and now

Then - the '60s, '70s and early '80s -
Halloween provides an excuse for all sorts of anti-Semitic rowdies to make life miserable for us. Jews (and others to be sure) venturing outside after dark could expect to have eggs thrown at them, at a minimum. Jewish cemeteries were likely to be vandalized. The Jewish Defense League patrolled Brooklyn's Washington Cemetery every year to deter the hooligans, whom the police were unable or unwilling to stop. Volunteers, including myself, patrolled the perimeter of Kingsway Jewish Center in shifts all night long, with nary a cop to be seen. Public school classrooms had only a handful of students, the rest either playing hooky to make mischief or being kept at home by their parents, who feared violence. In fact, children were always safer in school than on the street, but we couldn't convince parents of that.

Now - Rowdyism is down to tolerable levels, and specifically anti-Semitic rowdyism is almost nonexistent in my part of Brooklyn. No more private patrols at cemeteries and shuls; the police are out in sufficient force to deter crime. Absenteeism in school is still higher than normal, but teachers can count on at least one-third to one-half of their students being in class.

Why the difference? Several reasons:
1. Demographic shifts - Gentiles fleeing to suburbia and Jews having lots of babies (bli ayin hara) cause Jews to make up a higher percentage of the population in our neighborhoods; there is safety in numbers.
2. What might be called the Giuliani effect - The former mayor showed us that New York was never ungovernable, as had been assumed until then. It was merely ungoverned. The mayor cleaned up the town, and New Yorkers no longer throw up their hands in despair and allow the criminal element to run rampant. Crime is at its lowest levels in living memory, not only on Halloween but all year.
3. The Second Vatican Council - Much of the trouble had come from Irish and Italian Catholic kids harboring traditional hatred of Jews. Two generations have passed since the sea change in official Catholic teaching in the mid-60s. Catholic kids today are likely to be third and fourth generation Americans. They are not taught anti-Semitism in their parochial schools any more, and neither were their parents. My next door neighbors are Italian-American. They have a son the same age as mine. To the best of my knowledge, there has been not one fistfight between my son and theirs. When I was growing up fights between Jewish and Italian kids were an almost daily occurrence.
4. The very presence of Jewish patrols, and a perceived willingness on the part of Jews to fight to protect themselves and their property, deters anti-Semitic hooliganism and keeps the police on the ball.

Whatever the reasons, we have to thank God that what was once a dangerous time to be a Jew in Brooklyn is now just another night.

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