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My brother: An example of handling bias with grace

By Sammy NickallsJune 22, 2015

Sammy Nickalls and her brother Jake
Sammy Nickalls and her brother Jake

“So I said, ‘Is there anything else you need assistance with, sir?’ And he said, ‘Not from a kike like you.’ ”

The words made my stomach lurch, but my brother’s tone was what broke me. He seemed so casual, relaxed, unfeathered: as if strangers spewing hate speech in his face was just a day in the life; as if customers refusing his service because he’s Jewish is totally the norm.

If he noticed my shock, Jake didn’t let on. “So I smiled and said, ‘Have a nice day, sir,’ ” he said. And then, he laughed, as if he had just delivered one of the many clever punchlines he has stored away in his head. Jake continued talking about his work shift, but the rest of what he said that night was lost on me. I felt like I was going to be sick. 

That was the day I discovered something I had never before known: At 21 years old, my younger brother has been called a “kike” so many times it rolls off his back like a drop of water.

Judaism is passed down through the maternal line: My mother is Jewish, which, by extension, means Jake and I are as well. My mother is one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen in my life, inside and out; my brother looks just like her. I, on the other hand, look just like my father, who is from England and comes from an Episcopal family — though my father, as he likes to say, places his faith in the sciences. In fact, in terms of religious belief, our whole family doesn’t subscribe to a particular faith. That said, we used to celebrate Hanukkah, Rosh Hashanah, Passover and other Jewish holidays when my maternal grandparents were alive. 

I remember sitting at the dining room table next to Jake during the first night of Hanukkah, watching my uncle light the menorah while my grandmother filled the bowl in front of me with matzah-ball soup — my favorite as a kid. After dinner, full-to-bursting, Jake and I would open Hanukkah presents, then play hide-and-seek with our young cousin. (At age 3, he didn't comprehend that standing in the middle of the living room with a blanket over his head did not qualify as “hiding.”) While I still hold these memories dear to me, all of that faded when we lost both my grandparents to cancer in just a few short years, followed by my uncle last summer.

How do you maintain such beautiful traditions when all of the people you once shared them with are gone?

But when that man looked at my brother in that T-Mobile store, he saw none of that. Nor did he see Jake’s big, wide smile that crinkles up his eyes a bit. He only saw what he wanted to see: that he “looks Jewish.”

That was all he needed to hate him on sight.

I have experienced anti-Semitism only once in my life: A girl I knew in elementary school told all of the other girls that “Sammy’s going to hell to be with Satan where she belongs.” (She wasn’t particularly charming, that one.) 

Never have I experienced such fury and vitriol from a complete stranger. Never have I been predisposed to automatic hatred. Yet for Jake, the hatred is so commonplace it doesn’t even phase him. My brother and I share the same heritage, the same blood — but just because of his gene expression, he automatically suffers in a way I will never comprehend.

A roll of the dice, a dose of anti-Semitism; a sick game I won simply by being born.

After my brother told me about the rest of his day — still in his disturbing-yet-genuine casual tone — I ducked into the other room, certain I couldn’t hold back my tears any longer. My father noticed and followed me into the kitchen. I braced myself for awkwardness: A stoic man, my father normally doesn’t handle emotional situations very well.

“I’m being stupid,” I said, trying to wipe my tears away. 

He put his hands on my shoulders. “No,” he said firmly. “No, you’re not.”

He explained that he went through this same shock when he married my mother. His co-workers made fun of him for his choice of wife, calling my wonderful, strong, beautiful mother the same cruel names. “What your mother and brother deal with is something we will never truly know,” he said. “It’s something that never left me.”

Maybe it’s naïve, but I still hope one day, no one will have to worry about the outcome of the dice at all. 

I hope when that day comes, the first thing everyone notices about my brother is his beautiful smile.