Discovering a “JEM” in an Arizona Cave

By Amy Hirshberg Lederman

I was ecstatic when our dear friends Barry and Bonnie called to tell us they were coming for a visit. Like most people, my husband and I rarely make time to do the wonderful “touristy” things in Tucson that others travel thousands of miles to see. So I immediately rushed to the phone to reserve a spot for the four of us for a tour at the world-renown caves located in southern Arizona.

It was a glorious day and as we waited on the patio for the tour group to gather, our guide asked each of us where we were from.

“I live in San Diego now but I grew up in Oak Park, Michigan,” Barry answered with a smile.

“Isn’t that the place they call Jewtown? You know, the place where all the Jews live?” our guide asked nonchalantly.

I stood frozen in my disbelief, but without missing a beat, Barry answered him with the kind of clarity and calmness found only in an operating room.

“I’m one of them and I am offended by your comment.”

Our guide was truly bewildered. “But why?” he asked in earnest. “I had lots of Jewish friends when I lived in Detroit and when we would drive past Oak Park, they told me that’s what it’s called.”

“Well, they were very wrong to say that,” Barry answered, and we walked towards the tram that would take us to the cave.

Despite this unsettling beginning, the caves were magnificent and the tour guide did a good job describing the wonders within. At the end of the tour, Barry went to find the guide and thank him for the time he spent with us. I’ll admit it; the word mensch did cross my mind.

Like children on the playground, we huddled around Barry to find out what had happened.

“What did he say, what did he say?” we all wanted to know.

“He really felt badly about what he said, but had no idea that it was offensive. And he thanked me for telling him,” Barry concluded as we entered the gift shop.

We saw amazing natural beauty that day, rooms with icicle-like stalactites 20 feet long and sheets of translucent rock formations that looked like giant shields. But the one JEM I didn’t expect that afternoon was the one Barry me discover.

What is a JEM?, you might be wondering. It’s a term I use to describe a “Jewish Educational Moment.” Like an epiphany, a JEM is a novel insight or awareness that emerges from everyday living. It most often appears when you are confronted with a dilemma or issue and have absolutely no idea how to react but suddenly, someone says or does something that gives you more wisdom than you would get from an hour of therapy.

Barry did not know it but he taught all of us many things that day. He taught our guide that using references like Jewtown is de facto offensive; it is a racial slur regardless of whether it is spoken by a Jew or a non-Jew. He taught me how effective it is to respond calmly when you are the subject of a racial slur. The simple but incontrovertible statement: “I am one of them and I am offended by that” will forever be etched in my mind as a mantra to use when I find myself in a similar situation.

And he showed us how important it is to be a mensch. That once we make it clear that words like Jewtown, Indian-giver and fag are inappropriate and hurtful, we can also be compassionate, forgiving and decent enough not to shame a person more than is necessary to make the point.

I also realized something very important: That as Jews, we must be careful not to use derogatory comments about ourselves, even in jest. Words like Jewtown, when spoken by a Jew, give the appearance of legitimizing expressions that are disparaging and can lead to negative stereotyping and other hateful expressions and feelings.

I know our guide felt badly about what he said but appreciated Barry for his candor and courtesy. The respect Barry gave him was also an indication of what it means to be a Jew. For in refraining from humiliating others and from not unfairly retaliating or bearing a grudge, we show the world a great deal about what is important to us as people and as Jews.