China Boat

Chapter 50


I do not understand anti-Semitism.

On some deep level, I simply fail to comprehend it.

Oh, I certainly know it exists. One can't go through Germany under Nazi Party rule, without seeing the sickening evidence of it, everywhere. Austria, and Vienna in particular, is not much better; although when I was there anti-Semitism was not yet official State policy.

But seeing anti-Semitism played out in the streets of Europe is not the same as understanding it.

And then, when I returned to the United States, I was shocked at how wide-spread and virulent the American brand of anti-Semitism truly was; particularly in Society, among wealthy, prominent white Protestants. And whenever I encounter it, the question I always want to ask, is why — ? Why are these people, who look and sound and act so much like us, so disliked, so reviled, so discriminated against — ?


I suppose, in the end, that my failure to understand anti-Semitism is accidental. The result of a series of interconnected accidents, actually.

I left the United States when I was very young; too young, I think, to have been exposed to the relatively-quiet, but pervasive prejudice against Jews that is typical of my class. I was privately tutored, all by myself, after all; and I certainly didn't pick up even a whiff of anti-Semitism from Father, or from my grandparents. All three of them are very well-educated and well-travelled; and Grandfather and Grandmother in particular, have always taught me to afford every person I met with equal respect and dignity, regardless of race or color or religion.

Then, too, I ended up at the School In The Sky, in Switzerland; among boys from any number of different countries, and faiths, and even races. I did not appreciate how rare such an arrangement truly was, until I had already moved home … 

I had, after all, shared a House with a Hindu, whose skin was almost as dark as that of an American Negro, and who kept a miniature shrine to several Hindu Deities under his bed; and an Egyptian Mohammedan, who spread out a small and beautiful rug, and knelt on it, and prayed facing Mecca several times a day. Given all that, then, to me European Jewish people were far from exotic. And having a friend of Jewish origin was nothing out of the ordinary.


A friend of Jewish origin.

The last accident was the best. Emile and I befriended each other, in the first week of my second year at school. I am much richer for the experience; and I miss him, and I need to visit him, soon. When I can.

We became Best Friends, in point of fact. And I stayed as a guest of his family, more than once, over short school vacations when Father was away; and Emile stayed with Father and me more than once, in return.

Emile's family — his mother and father, and his three sisters — were all as gentle and kind as Emile himself, and they made me feel very welcome, although it was a difficult and stressful time for them. And I grew very fond of them all, in return; and it was altogether a look at the kind of warm, large family which I did not have, which made them all the more fascinating, and dear, to me.

There is a great deal to be said, for getting to know people in person, before realizing that one is supposed to hold them in disregard, and discriminate against them.


And so it was, that when I came home to the States and started at the ______ School, I was completely unprepared for the pervasive anti-Semitic feeling I encountered.

I reacted to it very poorly, in fact.

Oh, it was a prejudice that wasn't directed against any student, of course; as I've said, our school is sectarian, it is for boys who are members of the Episcopalian Church, the American branch of the Anglican Communion, only. No-one was directly hurt by the jokes and the slurs.

I should say, no-one else was directly hurt. I took it all quite personally. I felt as if the prejudice was directed at me.

Slurs against one's closest, most intimate friend, will do that.

At first, I did not respond. I was new at school, new to America, in fact, and struggling to express myself properly in English again, after so many years away … I kept my silence. For a time.

For far too long, of a time.

Jack, bless him — even before we had became a couple, even before I told him about my experiences in Germany and Austria, and all about Emile — even before Jack really knew me, he did react. That is just the sort of person he is.

He did it with glee and laughter, of course; typically, for him. He adopted the complete fiction of having had a Jewish grandmother, one Sara Weisberg, and at odd moments when anti-Semitism manifested itself, he'd start referring to her, and quoting from her, usually jokes, all in an exaggerated, cultivated English accent … And he managed, throughout, to keep a straight face about it; which left anybody in hearing distance laughing, and then wondering if it might, possibly be true, and then laughing again … 

And wondering.

And watching their tongues. Whenever Jack was asked directly about his true ancestry, he would just smile, enigmatically, and change the subject.


Some boys in our Form, however, would not take the hint.


There was one boy in particular. His name was Schwartz; which was hardly the usual kind of Anglo-Saxon name represented at our school.

Perhaps that fact was the source of his unusually vocal anti-Semitism. Perhaps he felt he had to go farther, in order to fit in. If so, it is no excuse; in my view, it is all the more odious.

Schwartz simply would not let the subject go; he expressed his anti-Semitism quite clearly, and quite often, to all of us. He trotted out the usual, tired stereotypes, at length. He even used the word, 'Jew', as a verb; when playing chess, for example, he would laughingly accuse his opponent of attempting to 'Jew' him, by supposedly moving a piece when he was not looking.

I found it disgusting.

Oddly enough, he was otherwise a pleasant enough person; very tall, for his age, very thin, which I had to admit was oddly attractive on him, and quite blond, in contrast to his surname. He was easy enough to get along with. He even fell into the group of us who played with one another, sexually; he once actually visited my bed — at his own hesitant, and hopeful request — and that had gone well enough.

I did not pursue a friendship with him, though, and neither did Jack. For obvious reasons. I tended to avoid him, when I could.


Matters between us came to a head one day in February, in our second term.


A group of us were out walking the Oval, just for the sake of exercise; trying to convince ourselves that the weather was just a little warmer, perhaps, and that Spring had almost, almost arrived … the usual wishful thinking, after a long and cold Fall, and Winter.

Schwartz soon enough fell upon his favorite topic. Jack and I were not the only ones who found it tedious.

"Oh, come on, Schwartz. Enough is enough. Do you even know any Jews?" This, from Ralston, one of our closer friends, and a boy with a very good heart. "I'll bet not."

"Well … " from Schwartz; hesitating. "That's not really the point. I mean, why would I want to know any Jews? I'd really rather not. But one sees them, everywhere. Doesn't that disturb you — ?"

"No," from Ralston, as we trudged along. "It doesn't. Why should it — ?"

"Well, it disturbs me. I mean, they're just so, so … I don't know."

He turned, then, to me. Probably because I had never yet engaged him on the topic.

"You've lived in Europe before, Rhys. There are lots of Jews there. And your father is in banking, he must deal with plenty of them. Wouldn't you agree that there's something just a little, say, oily, about a Jew — ?"

His face was open, and honest, and innocent, as he said it. In complete contrast to his vile words.

I felt myself flushing, deeply, with a savage anger. The first words that came to me were French; I got myself under control, and put them away, since they would not be properly understood. I smoothed my face into a mask, instead.

"Oh, I don't know," I said instead; mildly. "My best friend in Switzerland was a Jew; and I always found that his cock tasted perfectly clean." I paused, for just a heartbeat, and looked at him, pointedly. "Cleaner than yours."

Shock, all around.

In the unwritten code of our School, one may play, sexually, with one's peers … but it is never, ever, ever, talked about openly. Ever. Not in company.

And then, of course, there was the specific, physically-intimate, and insulting reference to hygiene … which was well-merited, in this case … 

Silence, then, for four or five heartbeats; a quickly-smothered snigger of laughter, from somebody — 

"Well, would you look at the time!" from Jack, cheerfully. "You know, you promised to help me with my Latin, old man; and it's much later than I'd realized. Come on, we'd better get back!" He linked his arm to mine, and propelled me around, to face the opposite direction. "See you all at dinner!" he called out, waving his hand, and walking us downhill, rapidly — 

To dissolve into quiet fits of laughter of his own, holding on to me, leaning against me, stumbling against me, as we walked, as soon as we were out of earshot of the others.

* * *

Much later that night.

Jack's breathing, growing ragged, above the single sheet.

Me, beneath the sheet; in the approved fashion. Working him over. Trying not to make too much noise. Enjoying it all, very much.

His hand came down, to still me, for a moment; and I stopped. He sat up and leaned forward, until his lips were at my ear, separated only by the thin cotton.

"Am I clean enough for you, then, Rhys?"

He barely breathed it; but I could hear the laughter underneath, regardless.

It was a rhetorical question; we keep ourselves very clean, for each other.

"Ummmph-Hummmph!" from me, enthusiastically.

It was the best I could do. My mouth was full, after all.

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