In the opening act of Tom Stoppard’s new semi-autobiographical play, “Leopoldstadt,” a Jewish man, Hermann, and his brother-in-law, Ludwig, debate the fate of Jews in 1899 Vienna. Ludwig presciently challenges Hermann’s look-on-the-bright-side dismissal of antisemitism in Austria.

The play is timely. With antisemitism’s exponential rise in America, some American Jews are considering emigration. Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League (which combats hate in the United States and beyond), reportedly said that he’s frequently asked where Jews might move. I’ve been party to such questions, too.

A cousin recently asked where in Romania our Jewish great-grandparents emigrated to New York City from, a decade before the Great War. He says he might move there if a white supremacist is elected president in 2024, in what would amount to a reverse “exodus” in our family. Though I’m hardly religious, even I have felt some pull toward a Plan B.

My husband, David Chandler Bellows, whose ancestry is northern European Protestant, seems more worried than I am. David’s ancestor, John Bellows, emigrated here from England in 1635, and another ancestor, Daniel Chandler, fought in the Revolutionary War. Yet David has reassured me (and himself) that he’ll “get me to Canada in his sailboat, if it comes down to that.”

A friend recently wrote in an email, “My response to the hateful resurgence of antisemitism has been a degree of revulsion and horror that I never expected to experience in my lifetime. In their lifetime, my first-generation American parents believed, with their Russian-Jewish immigrant parents, that antisemitism was endemic in the world. They only socialized with their extended families or other Jews. I thought them frozen in the past and out of touch with contemporary American culture, but they were, in essence, correct.”

My own parents took a different road than his. They were also first-generation Americans, but trusted people on an individual basis, regardless of their ethnicity. My great grandfather, Osias (Shiah) Goldenberg, was determined not to leave one Jewish “ghetto” in Romania for another in New York City. He kept moving his family uptown, away from Manhattan’s heavily Eastern-European Jewish-populated Lower East Side of the early 1900s, settling in the Bronx, where I was born.


Grandpa Shiah’s wife died when I was a year old, at which point he adopted me as his tiny protégé. Embracing both Jewish and mainstream American culture, he gave me chocolate Santas for Christmas and pink popcorn bunnies for Easter. He told me to work hard on my studies in public school. A Bowdoin College professor of psychology emerita in Maine, I evidently paid attention.

Perhaps my liberal upbringing granted me no pause in marrying David, whom my parents embraced heartily. Kindness and caring took precedence over Jewish ethnicity. Of course, they couldn’t have imagined then — as I couldn’t have imagined even a decade ago — the scourge of racism (including antisemitism) that has divided our country in recent years.

And yet — interactions with minorities have been scientifically demonstrated to break down sinister stereotypes. Writing in Slatebeat in 2019 about the effects of mandated school desegregation, Matt Barnum cited research in 2008 by social psychologists Thomas Pettigrew and Linda Tropp, which robustly showed that intergroup contact can reduce racial prejudice by means of perspective taking and empathy, among other factors. Another study by social psychologist Andrew Todd and colleagues in 2011 found that “perspective taking combats automatic expressions of racial bias.”

Then again, in a 2011 study psychologist Matteo Forgiarini and colleagues found that “Caucasian observers reacted to pain suffered by African people significantly less than to pain of Caucasian people.” The picture is therefore admittedly complex: We can mandate desegregation by law; we can’t mandate empathy.

I nonetheless believe that what I consider “self-ghettoizing,” though understandable from a Holocaust standpoint, cannot be the answer in a country that has aspired to equality of all peoples under the law — or at least used to so aspire.

I think about this as we decorate our Christmas trees and light the menorah my grandmother gave me when I was two. My husband says the prayer with me in Hebrew, though neither of us actually adheres to any religious belief.

Whatever lights are lit this holiday season, may they be lit in the spirit of stamping out the darkness that has descended on our nation. Let us begin by seeking out constructive interactions with those who do not share our ancestry, by whatever means we can—and with all the empathy we can muster.

Barbara S. Held is the Barry N. Wish Professor of Psychology and Social Studies Emerita at Bowdoin College.

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