To laugh, or to cry? That is the question. Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous harmful stereotypes, or to take arms against a sea of hatred, and, by opposing, end it?
This brilliantly paraphrased take on Shakespeare’s classic Hamlet, sums up my feelings about this lucky Jew, pictured above.
I couldn’t help but be a bit shocked when walking into a regular souvenir shop on the main square in the old city of Krakow, Poland, to see little Jewish figurines. While being deliciously cute, like this little guy pictured above, who from henceforth will be referred to as “Shmulik,” I couldn’t help but notice that these little Jews fit all of the classic stereotypes. Massive noses, and an obsession with money. I would add, that even for someone like myself who often doesn’t notice nuance in people’s appearances, it is hard to miss the size of his nose, and the fact he is not only holding a bag of money, but is also holding a coin. The stereotypes are, to be frank, downright egregious.
When seeing this, I wasn’t sure if I should laugh, or cry.
We got an explanation from a Polish fellow, who explained that Poles will often buy figurines such as these as good luck charms. They have observed that throughout history Jews have had a lot of financial success (though ironically, in Poland there were many, many impoverished Jews over the years,) and therefore, owning these figurines would be, as we say, a segula for parnassah, (good luck for financial success.)
After hearing this, I was unsure if I should feel enraged at the perpetuation of the anti-semitic imagery and tropes that have been repeated generation after generation, or if I should follow my own advice and be JLIG (just let it go).
Should I be infuriated by this, or should I not put too much thought into it?
I saw a tweet tonight by a fellow named Avi Mayer that resonated: “This needs to be said: Not everything you don’t like is anti-semitism.”
I thought about this line, when thinking about my dear little friend Shmulik, the Jewish figurine. I don’t like the way he is portrayed– but should I feel deeply offended by it?
This might be a hot take, but I believe the answer is no. Sometimes people use offensive language and say something like, “I was bargaining with the shop keeper, and I was able to Jew him down.” Sometimes they might have ill intent, and sometimes they might not. It might come from a place of malice, or it might come from sheer ignorance. It depends on how they say it.
Growing up I had heard, and used phrases that are equally offensive. “Don’t take back something you gave to someone and be an Indian Giver!” “Don’t rip me off and Gyp me!” For a time I used those hurtful phrases having absolutely no clue that they were offensive to Native Americans and Gypsies. As soon as I learned that they were, I immediately expunged them from my vocabulary.
I think that sometimes this phenomenon can be seen in our community as well. People might say things that are insensitive or hurtful, but they migt have no intent whatsoever to offend us. It might be coming from a place of sheer ignorance.
I think this is what was going on in Krakow. I think the Polish people view these figurines as complimentary towards us, even though we find them repulsive and offensive. In that shop, as I was wearing my yarmulka, openly Jewish, as we were talking to the storekeeper, I got no sense that she was trying to hide anything, or ashamed of having those figurines. It didn’t seem like she had any clue how offensive those figurines were.
I didn’t perceive any prejudice or ill will from her, or any other of the Poles who frequent these shops and purchase these items.
This doesn’t mean that it would be a bad idea to educate shopkeepers like her about how offensive they are– but I didn’t walk out of there infuriated, feeling like a victim of blatant anti-Semitism.
I didn’t get the same feeling I get when the good folks on TikTok comment hateful things on my posts. I didn’t feel the same way from these figurines as when I was called a dirty Jew when playing basketball in high school. This just felt a bit different. Ignorance, not hate, seemed to be at play.
Like many experiences I had in Poland, and hope to elaborate on in future posts, this was just another example of confusing situations and feelings, filled with mixed emotions that I experienced in Poland.