Friday, November 26, 2004 | return to: opinions


Soul-searching in a bike shop: a local voice

by scott doniger

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While discussing the price of a new set of wheels, one of my customers dropped a line I'd heard many times over the years but never overtly reacted to. Rather casually, he responded to my price quote (which was pretty low, as he was a loyal customer) with the following quip: "I don't want to Jew you down or anything, but I can get it cheaper elsewhere."

For the past two years, I've owned a small, high-end bicycle shop: Prior to this first retail endeavor I had spent most of my professional life as a marketing specialist and analyst. My customer base has been, for the most part, a joy to deal with. Educated, middle- and upper-middle-class cycling aficionados hang out and debate Lance Armstrong's astounding aerobic output, the benefits of carbon fiber over titanium bicycle frames, and the challenges of low-carbohydrate diets like Norm's and Cliff's on "Cheers" (without the alcohol, of course). I've become close personal friends with many of them, which has made this experience more rewarding than I had imagined.

While I'm not an Orthodox Jew, and only attend official prayer services on the High Holy Days, I have always felt culturally Jewish. I steadfastly respect and admire my Jewish heritage, and aspire to meet its lofty cultural, social and political standards. The foundation of my identity is Jewish.

Fortunately or unfortunately, every Jew is sensitive to anti-Semitism. Like bloodhounds, we can smell it: We know it when we see it, even when innocuously disguised as good-natured banter. Living near San Francisco, arguably the most socially tolerant enclave since Babel, I hadn't come across anything that could qualify as anti-Semitic for several years.

But there was no debating this comment: It was nauseatingly anti-Semitic. What to do?

I needed his business. I needed business from every customer. But I didn't need it so badly that it meant I'd have to bite my tongue, and I felt compelled to stamp out anti-Semitism as the insidious disease it is. Rather than silently conduct the transaction as though the customer had never made the comment (which I had done previously in "corporate" surroundings), I jettisoned the urge to make money and capitalized on the freedom of owning my own business. Mystified by the ease with which this vulgarity slipped so effortlessly out of his seemingly innocent mouth, I asked him if he really said "Jew me down."

He replied that he did, but that "it didn't mean anything; it was just a phrase everyone uses."

I couldn't tell if he knew what it meant or was just avoiding an embarrassing gaffe. It didn't matter, and it didn't matter if he knew I were Jewish or not. This was not a kid who didn't know better. This was an adult, a parent with a high-paying job who should know better even if he indeed were an anti-Semite. I just couldn't let him get away with it just because "everyone says it."

"That's a bunch of crap," I responded. "Do you know what it really means?" I asked, "because if you don't, you will now. It's an offensive, baseless stereotype. It means that you are an idiot for actually using it. And it means that you are an anti-Semite."

I did use profanity when I asked him less than politely to leave, but I didn't explode. "Not only will I not sell you

anything," I continued, "I will never allow you back here. Please get the hell out of my shop."

Was I out of line? Was this bad business? Was I right to ask him to leave? No, maybe, yes. That's how I see it.

Long ago Jews survived by defending themselves against all manner of anti-Semitic abuse. Unfortunately, only the mechanisms for expressing anti-Semitism have changed, not the volume. Anti-Semitism will be our curse forever, I mulled a few hours later, which made it easier to accept the existence of anti-Semitism in this guy.

But I then became distraught about another dynamic. This encounter was not really about "Jewish survival." It was about uncivil behavior. I began to reflect on how clearly my mother and older brother taught me to treat people with civility, even when they didn't deserve it. These lessons, ingrained decades ago, kept me from losing control.

I couldn't deconstruct this guy's opinion; maybe he was completely unaware of how offensive the stereotype is. But thinking before you speak is a rare commodity these days. How could anyone say something like that without at least thinking someone Jewish might be around to hear it? There's a difference between being dumb and stupid: People are born dumb; they have to try to be stupid.

During the Yom Kippur service I attended the week earlier, the rabbi's sermon bemoaned the low standards of civility that seem to engulf us today, how the lack of civility now pervades every discourse, plagues every community in America. He cited three recent events: the callous treatment of Abu Ghraib prisoners; a despicable account of farm workers in California accused of mutilating chickens — smashing them against walls to watch them explode — just for fun; and how "reality" TV shows glamorize our most embarrassing and childish behaviors.

We all see it every day: polluters who throw garbage out of car windows, teens who blatantly disrespect teachers as a badge of "peer honor," telemarketers who call during dinner hours to ensure someone's home.

"What is happening to us?" the rabbi asked the silent congregation. It will take me some time to develop my own understanding about what's really happening to us. For now, I do know this: Think before you speak in my shop.

Scott Doniger owns Cyclepath of San Mateo. A native New Yorker, he's lived in Burlingame for the past five years.

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