Season's greetings took on a somewhat sour note when I heard a certain salutation amid the jingle bells and paper horns touting a happy new year.
"Where's my husband? He's at the store, trying to Jew down the owner for a better price."
I happened to be in the lovely resort of Aruba, sifting through children's clothing along with my wife at a chic upscale tot shop when I overheard that part of a conversation between what appeared to be two well-dressed, well-educated women, but one with a garbage mouth that would give a football player's trash talk a kinder, gentler meaning.
Feeling up to the challenge of dressing down someone talking about a "Jew down"? Always.
"Excuse me," I interrupted the woman's nice shopping trip in which she was buying into old stereotypes of Jews as cheap, not shy about perpetuating a Shylock mentality.
"Did I really hear you say 'Jew down' before?"
She shrank into the ground.
"Oh, I'm so sorry. I didn't mean that."
So just what did she mean? Did she intend to say instead her husband was shopping for a kike discount?
"That was inappropriate of me to say. I am so sorry."
"In this day and age … " I admonished her with the deepest of furrowed brows and an octave drop in my voice, meaning, of course, that this day and age hasn't aged since anti-Semitism first flourished eons ago.
"You're right. I should never have said that."
Right. She didn't know a Jew was around.
Yet she looked so … normal. What else ya got in that hidden heart of yours, that treasure chest of tried-and-not-true biases and bashes? Anything for African-Americans? Native Americans got your goat?
"Jew him down" … what better way to cheapen the human experience. Interaction on the most atavistic level.
But I didn't need to travel to Aruba — the woman was American, by the way — to hear such hate-mongering while shopping. Several years ago, while attending a convention of the Television Critics Association, of which I am a 30-year-member, a business meeting devolved into a denigrating moment when, discussing a new Martha Stewart show, a critic from a Florida paper — Florida, of all places! — made what I deemed seemed an anti-Semitic remark focusing on my paper's specific target of Jewish/Israel issues.
I nearly jumped over the table to confront him on the slur in full view of fellow critics. "I was joking, it was funny," he said in defense.
Yellow flag, my friend, penalty for prejudice: Fifteen yards for holding hate in your heart. Or, at least, a disguised view masked by the smiles you otherwise offer.
Now I have never been one to overreact to such comments — I am friends with Abe Foxman, national director of ADL, but I don't exactly have his number on speed-dial — and when I saw this critic later in an elevator, he, like the tourist in Aruba, apologized.
"I shouldn't have said that," he eked out the small-minded mea culpa. "It was insensitive of me. I'm sorry."
Both instances and their comments recalled another use of the word "sorry," a Temptations song that best described the meaning of giving in to the temptation of harbored hate.
"Sorry," sang the Temps, "is a sorry word."