Gas Chamber, Gas Chamber, what do we have to pay?
Seeing as antisemitism is back in fashion, I thought I’d make some money out of it. My being Jewish means I am something of an expert on the subject of Jew-hatred, so I wanted to share with you some of my experiences dealing with antisemitism in Glasgow. For the antisemites amongst you this should come as no surprise: Jews are shamelessly opportunistic.
I want to begin with a confession: the stories below are strewn together from my own shaky memories. Subsequently, some of the details may be inaccurate in places, and exaggerated in others. For the antisemites amongst you this should come as no surprise: Jews are famously duplicitous.
Honestly though, I am a shit Jew. I don’t keep Kosher, I don’t do the holidays, I don’t do Friday night dinners, I don’t speak Hebrew, I don’t do Israel, and I’m completely shit with money (although I did once get funding from the Rothschild Foundation).
In-fact, my entire family are a (wonderful) cluster-fuck of assimilated, secular, non-believing, pork-eating, multicultural hybrids. I guess I am the worst of the bunch because I do nothing but talk about how shit we are at being Jewish. I am the worst kind of Jew—the self-loathing, self-depreciating, Philip Roth-reading, de-Jewed-Jew. I’m telling you this so that you’re clear on one thing: I am not Jewish; I am Jewish. More ish than Jew, I’d say (but of course I’d fucking say that!). Nevertheless, when my mother sent me off to a private secondary school in the well-off suburbs of the west end of Glasgow, I became very fucking Jewish. I was Joshua Mordecei Rothstein Lander; I was nothing but a nose.
In my fourth/fifth year of school some classmates created a song for this nose which they called, ‘Grandpa was in the Hitler Youth’. This dubiously tilted tune begins pleasantly enough with a violin playing Klezmer music until Hitler’s voice takes over, as a crowd bellows with adoration. All of this melts into silence, however, as the cacophony of sounds is replaced with the hiss of gas. In case anyone is tempted to consider this a sympathetic appraisal of the Holocaust, my sixteen-year old classmate then counts to three in German, and launches into a rollicking machinegun fire chorus accompanied by screeching guitars and the following lyrics:
Shekel shekel money money
shekel shekel money money
shekel shekel money money,
I remember finding this hilarious. It was so ridiculously comical. This was antisemitism at its most banal, unthreatening, hollow, and absurd. However, in the second verse the two budding musicians up the ante. The singer puts on a strange accent that is supposed to mimic a shtetl Jew, and sings the following:
Gas chamber gas chamber
do we have to pay?
Gas chamber gas chamber
Gas chamber gas chamber
do we have to pay?
Gas chamber gas chamber
Listening to the song now, I am struck by the curious combination of insidious antisemitism and ignorant ‘banter’ (a key word I shall return to). Whilst the chorus is idiotic and innocuous enough, this second verse is a bit more weighted and venomous. Nevertheless, I find it difficult to decry the song for being antisemitic; it was, and sort of still is, a joke to me. The song felt more like an homage than an assault on my personage, particularly as we all listened together and laughed. Antisemitism can be a very amicable affair.
I began to wonder if I was a little too close to offer an objective viewpoint, so decided to play the song to my friends and work colleagues, most of whom are not Jewish. The results were fascinating: both colleagues and friends were shocked, horrified, and flabbergasted; some didn’t want to hear it, and some became incensed, outraged, and almost offended at my own cavalier indifference towards this clear and disgusting performance of antisemitism. I was amused not because of how racist the song is, but at how surprised my non-Jewish friends were at how blatant the antisemitism is. I was surprised by their surprise, and confused by their outrage, apologies, and discomfort.
Being Jewish is an uncomfortable affair. To be Jewish in Scotland required me to develop a strong sense of humour, especially when faced with antisemitism that purported to be a ‘joke’ free from any form of malicious intent. Looking back, I remain sympathetic to the antisemite’s plight. After all, I used to laugh along. When I was at school I wouldn’t have dreamt of calling my classmates antisemitic or racist; I would have defended them and their right to freely express themselves. I was that guy.
However, after spending five years researching anti-Jewish stereotypes I’ve come to realize that I’d internalized antisemitism’s insidious logic. My secondary school education taught me that my Jewish identity was a joke, it was hideous, ridiculous, undesirable, and my role as the performing ‘Jew’ was to laugh along in order to validate and make acceptable their antisemitism.
Antisemitism was an everyday occurrence in my secondary school life. My nicknames were ‘Jewboy’ and ‘half knob’—two appellations I found offensive, but not devastating. It helped that my family and I were so secular and divorced from Judaism. I hate to think how I’d have coped if I had been a ‘proper’ Jew. Indeed, the jokes were so ridiculous, relentless, and constant that I became quite numb to them. I had no idea if I had half a penis or not; nobody had ever bothered asking me this before I arrived in the west end of Glasgow.
There was only one other Jewish boy in the entire school when I joined. I know this because a history teacher singled me out in front of the class before watching a Holocaust documentary to ask if I was able to handle the contents, and not cry like the other Jewish student had. A content warning that split class in terms of what to watch: the spectacle of six million dead Jewish bodies piled up in impossible heaps, or me, now the archetype token Jew, whom Mr Smith promised would cry. I wanted to be stoic and brave, but not for myself; I wanted to impress Mr Smith, and show him I was better than that weak-willed other Jew. I didn’t cry.
The word ‘Jew’ was hurled at me every day, but I only remember one teacher ever asking if I felt like I was being bullied. She was the Religious Studies teacher. I told her, very sincerely and honestly, that I did not feel as though I was being bullied. It was, after all, just a joke. Sadly, she was eventually driven out by the relentless bullying she herself suffered from the students.
I was never physically bullied for being Jewish, but it could have been a factor in some of the violence I experienced. In my third year we had double English classes that were wedged between lunch. One of my classmates placed a metal ruler on the storage heater at the start of first period. These heaters reached an unbearable heat, and never turned off. Just as we were packing up to leave class, the boy, covering his hand with his jumper, lifted the burning hot ruler and plonked it on my left cheek. I screamed in agony, much to the boy’s delight/horror and my English teacher, who was talking with another student, shushed us for making such a racket, and carried on chatting, oblivious to the massive ruler-shaped indent on my face. I ran to the nurse’s office for treatment, who sought out the deputy rector, who brought in the rector, who brought in the unaware (and possibly drunk) English teacher, who was understandably horrified. The boy got one day’s suspension. They weren’t going to punish him until my poor old mother intervened.
Having told this story to other Jews, they have suggested to me that the boy was motivated by antisemitism. I am unsure of this: I doubt he sought to hurt me directly because I was a Jew, but he undoubtedly did target me because I was small, weak, and Jewish. The combination meant I was vulnerable. My Jewishness probably did influence his target selection.
On my final day at school, as is tradition, we wrote farewell messages on our shirts, mostly from students in the years below. Mine was covered in antisemitic scribbles, including a massive swastika drawn on the back of my shirt. This was seen as a rather hilarious joke by my peers. Elsewhere, the teachers were indifferent. In-fact, they were probably relieved that I was leaving so they wouldn’t have to deal with this nonsense anymore. Antisemitism is a pain in the ass when you’re not Jewish.
Even at the time that swastika unnerved me. It’s one thing being demonized by boys that are bigger and older than you, but there’s something deeply unsettling about being belittled by children several years younger. I kept the shirt for a year or so, but eventually threw it out; looking at it was a painful reminder of what I did not want to be: A Jew.
I went on to study at Aberdeen University and was free to do with my Jewishness as I wished. I learnt how to joke about my religious identity freely, and would often cite it as an excuse for my lack of physical prowess or strength. I learnt how to be funny by being self-deprecating, and would eventually learn that this was basically essential to every Jewish person’s survival.
However, school was not quite done with me yet. One day, a boy from a few years below sent me the most peculiar message on Facebook: ‘Nazi Hunter’. This senseless message completely paralysed me. I grew anxious and afraid. But why? There was nothing within these words that should inspire fear, and yet there I was stuck in terror. I blocked him and frantically Googled how to secure my Facebook page. Recently, I met this boy in Chunky Chicken. He was with his school friends. They recognized me, and as we were leaving they called out my name. Politely, I went over and said hello. We discussed how a boy a couple of years below me recently took his own life. They, in turn, revealed that someone in their year died of a drug overdose, before one of them added, ‘But you wouldn’t care about that; he was Muslim.’
Once again I froze. The remark was pointedly antisemitic, but its insidiousness was tucked away under the joke of my alleged indifference. I guess this is what we’d call a micro aggression. I told them to have a good night and left. I couldn’t tell my friends what had happened. How could they have understood? Maybe I should have said something, but that’s the power of racism: it robs its victims of agency, it rips language from you, and leaves you powerless to explain what happened.
My aim here is not to demonize or shame these young men. Can I blame them for their antisemitism when it was not called out, punished, or explained to us? Whose responsibility is it to teach young people how to behave to minorities? Let’s return to ‘Grandpa was in the Hitler Youth’. My classmates wrote that song: I listened and laughed in order to try to fit in and play my part. No adults intervened to explain what else to do or how else to behave. It took me years to learn that you and I write the racism our children sing. I am writing this now to rewrite that song, to explain why jokes matter. How we speak and treat one another matters; indeed, language and how we use it, matters. If we fail to recognise each other’s humanity through language, we collapse into jeering crowds. Ultimately this is the price we pay: gas chamber gas chamber, we cannot run away.
This essay appears in the latest issue of Gutter Magazine. You can subscribe here.