A child’s question: I am riding an early morning bus in New York City with my son Zayd, five years old and just beginning to read. The bus is packed with commuters, the mood a resigned grumpiness. Only Zayd is bright-eyed and chirpy as we groan down the avenue toward school and work. “Poppy,” Zayd says in his large outside voice, turning to me expectantly, “What’s a kike?” A hush falls as two hundred eyes lift and, in the sudden silence begin to sizzle, laser-like, into my head.
“A kike. What’s a kike?”
I freeze. I seize up. I buy time: “Where did you hear that word, Zayd?”
“I read it,” he replies proudly. “See?” He points to a stab of red graffiti slashed across a rear window. “I HATE KIKES,” it reads—all upper case—and it is punctuated with a swastika.
“A kike,” I stammer. “A kike…” I search my erratic mind. I pursue my elusive courage. And then, miraculously, the crowd recedes, and there is Zayd with his basic trust intact, his childish hope undiminished, alive, his deeply human sense-making engine firing on all cylinders, and I know I must respond simply but honestly, for his sake and for my own.
“Kike,” I begin in a clear voice,” is a word full of hatred. It is a word full of violence, a word used by people who want to hurt Jews, like the word ‘nigger’ is meant to hurt black people. It’s a lying word, because it says that some people are more human than others, that some groups are superior to others, that some are less than human. Some people, filled up with hate, might call you a ‘kike.” It’s the kind of word we should never use, the kind of word we must always object to and oppose.”
Zayd’s face never loses its open and intent concentration. “OK,” he says simply. “Should you cross it out?”
What a thought! I drag a magic marker from my backpack, walk over and obliterate the stain. “OK,” he says again as I turn to face a smiling crowd, a few thumbs up, and an audible collective sigh.