Saturday, September 5, 2020

Bieganski Interview #1: "To Chew Someone Down"


Twenty years ago, in Bloomington, Indiana, I conducted informant interviews with Jews and Poles* for my book Bieganski: The Brute Polak Stereotype.

My goal was to discover how "the folk," that is, average Jews and Poles, thought and felt about their own identities and the identities of ethnic others.

I solicited informants by hanging signs in public places in Bloomington. IU Bloomington is a major research university and informants came from across the US and Canada. Informants ranged in age from the teens to the sixties.

I told informants that I was working on my dissertation and would eventually publish, and include some of their quotes. They signed a form permitting this.

Informants mostly came to my house and sat across from me on a couch. I served tea and homemade cookies. I audio-recorded the interviews and transcribed them by hand at the same time. I later typed up these transcripts while listening to the tapes.

My questions were mostly open-ended. For example, I asked, "Have you ever looked across a room and thought to yourself, 'That person is Polish' or 'That person is Jewish,' and, if so, why?"

At the end of the interview, I asked more directed questions, such as, "You need brain surgery. You have a choice between two brain surgeons, both of whom have comparable resumes. One is named Dr. Smith. The other is named Dr. Kowalski. Which do you choose, and why?"

And I also asked, "You are on a TV game show. You have just won an all-expenses paid trip to Poland. How do you feel?"

I ended up having much more material than I could use in the book. I'll be posting some of the material on the blog. Informants will remain anonymous. Names are changed and some locations will be changed (to nearby locations) or removed.

The reader should understand that I offer these interview excerpts as reflections of how average people think and feel in a given moment. Nothing here is carved in stone. Informants told me that they could change their mind about the topics, or debate either side.

Sometimes informants told Jewish jokes, Polak jokes, or made other racist comments. I don't share this material to endorse it, but to offer insight into what one person was thinking on one day in 2000 in Bloomington, Indiana.

* Regarding the terms "Jews" and "Poles." I conform to standard usage in scholarly and popular discussion of Polish-Jewish relations. "Jew" means someone whose ancestors were Jewish, even if the person self-identifies as an atheist. "Poles" refers to someone whose ancestors were Polish but not Jewish. I do not use these terms to be exclusionary, and neither do most scholars. Of course we recognize and honor Jews who identify as Polish as well as Jewish.



I was in college the first time I ever heard the expression to "Jew someone down." And, I don't mean to sound like an idiot, but I didn't know what it meant because I kept thinking they were saying, "chew." Which kinda made sense, no? Oy.

Oh, I know who I should tell you about. He made a big impression on me, and really damaged my positive Jewish identity for a long, long time. My mother met, started dating, and moved in with a man named Harry. Well, rather, he moved in with her. He was good-looking, smart, and charming in a way, I suppose. They lived together for about 6 years, and though he's changed a lot (and not for the better), they are still friends. He and I aren't friends anymore, but we were for quite a while. I think it must have been because, somehow, he believed in me when it didn't feel like anyone else did.

I don't mean to get into stupid family crap – that isn't the point of what you are doing – but I think it's important to understand why he was able to have such a strong influence on a part of me I now think of as unshakable. And, also, quite frankly, I'm ashamed of how much I allowed myself to be influenced by his hateful views.

As I say, he was charming, and funny. He was selling cars in Ft. Lauderdale. Many of his clients, or potential clients, were Jewish and he despised them. They were "beaters." Whom they were supposed to be beating, I'm not really sure. He would do impressions of them, individuals, couples, whatever. The thing is, for a while, we (my mother and I) laughed. After a point, though, the comments, the put-downs just got tiresome. He used to tell us that my mother and I were the only Jews he liked. But then, according to him, we weren't really Jewish – whatever that meant. Probably that we didn't do or buy things just because they were cheap.

I don't feel like I'm doing his influence justice. It's so difficult to explain now. Or rather, it seems like we – my mother – shouldn't have stood for it. Yet we did. The point is, it took me years to get back a sense that being Jewish was a positive thing, that it should be cherished, celebrated. The part that makes me ashamed is that I let someone make me believe that my people really were just ugly.

It's amazing how different I feel now. I still don't believe in god, but I sometimes think I would like to join a temple and go to services. How can I explain it? You know how, when you meet someone who comes from a similar cultural background, you just understand certain things about each other without having to explain them or even say them out loud? I have a friend at work like that and we joke about stuff all the time, not realizing that others who are with us don't understand what we are talking about. We don't mean to be rude – we just get it.

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