The world knows me as Amy Guttmann. It’s the name I use professionally as a neurodevelopmental therapist. It’s the name that appears in papers, articles and journals. While I’ve built a successful, thriving business as Amy, I’m writing this article as Friedy — my Jewish name — the one I go by personally. I’m a Jewish soul who was taught to love and understand, not hate. It’s a message I want to scream from the rooftops — especially after the antisemitism I’ve personally experienced in the last 48 hours.
Two days ago, my sister and I went to upstate New York to drop my son off at sleepaway camp. It was a beautiful day. We work quite hard during the school year and this was supposed to be our first taste of freedom in a while. Nowadays, in my own personal spiritual journey, I’ve been wearing hair coverings when I am out and about. I don’t think much of it though — on the trip we were comfortable and carefree.
When we arrived at camp, we realized we needed a few more things for my son to get settled so my sister and I took a break from unpacking and went to Walmart to pick them up. Our trip was brief — we just had four items so decided to go through self-checkout since we thought it would be the quickest option. As we approached the line though, we saw a cashier in the next aisle seemingly getting ready to open her lane.
My sister went up to the woman and asked, “Will you be opening soon?” The woman replied promptly, “No. I won’t be opening up.” We thanked her, and went back to self-check out where the lines were still the shortest. Once we walked away and were back at the self-check out area, we noticed that the cashier we spoke with did indeed open her register and began taking customers. We weren’t the only ones that noticed how jarring the situation was. Right away, two customers headed directly toward us — both on their own. They separately shared with us that they each had watched us walk away from the line and once we did, saw her turn on her lights.
These were strangers to us, but each of them recognized the blatant antisemitism that was at play. We felt strongly that such a situation should be reported so we shared our pain with the store manager. He apologized and assured us that this would be dealt with, but it was hard to shake what just happened.
The next day, almost 24 hours later, I came back to Brooklyn, and was driving to pick up my daughters at day camp. I received a call with some emotional news, so I pulled over towards the curb to speak. Once my call ended, I needed to inch my way back out into the street. I signaled, opened my window and gestured to the driver next to me to ask if I could pull out in front of him. Upon seeing my request, the man proceeded to give me the finger. That was his response. I was shocked. All I could do was nod in understanding that he would clearly not be letting me through. I tried to judge him favorably. He didn’t know me so it couldn’t be personal — maybe he was just having a bad day. It happens to all of us, right? But then, as we both waited for the red light to change, he rolled down his passenger window to shout, “You f’in Jews! You should all go back to the gas chambers!”
With that, I froze. The blood drained from my body and my face turned white. I became numb. It’s one thing to hear about the rising numbers of antisemitic reports these days. It’s disturbing of course, but then, when it directly happens to you it’s eerily frightening. In an Anti-Defamation League audit that came out earlier this year, it was reported that antisemitic incidents reached an all-time high in 2021 since the organization began reporting in 1979. In the United States there were 2,717 incidents reported, which is more than seven a day on average and a 34 percent increase from the previous year. Of course, these are just the incidents actually reported so the number is likely to be much higher.
Let’s also backtrack a little to really explain how that comment made me feel. I grew up as a religious Orthodox Jew in Boro Park. I worked on Wall Street as the first Orthodox woman on the New York Commodities Exchange. My life was spared during 9/11. I’ve had meetings with world leaders. My sister and I are trail-blazers in the science of anxiety and processing delays. I’ve lectured to thousands. I’ve seen open miracles in my life. I’ve never let anything stop me, but in that moment, I suddenly felt lost. I was scared, helpless and deeply confused. In one instant I was brought down to nothing.
That being said, I’ve seen antisemitism out and about before. It’s nothing new, I’ve heard about it my whole life. My grandfather, A”H, was a survivor of the Holocaust. Only one sister and one of his brothers survived. His other 9 brothers and sisters, and 22 nieces and nephews were all killed in Auschwitz. My father, A”H, grew up in Communist Hungary. He was beaten for being a Jew. My grandfather encouraged him to learn how to box so that he could defend himself.
I have had swastikas sprayed in our local playground and on our driveway. My mother’s wig was pulled off in Europe on a Friday night, walking home from a Shabbos meal. My college classmate from Wisconsin — a grandchild of a German soldier — apologized to me and my friend (also an Orthodox Jew) for having had ideas about what she thought a Jew was (think horns on their head, cheap and cruel). She shared that after having known us for two and a half years, hanging out and studying together and seeing the kindness we had towards everyone, she was ashamed of her assumptions.
I have heard the story of antisemitism and seen it up close. But why is it still happening? In this moment of fear and later reflection, I became inspired to change.
Now that I’ve had a little time to process the incidents of the last couple of days, here are my takeaways.
1) We always have more to understand. Why is hatred so open and prevalent? Why is there a need to spend energy expressing it? Why not try to delve internally and question the hatred if we grew up with it? What are we afraid of? What’s important to know, even if you feel like you are a calm, understanding and curious person, is that we don’t know everything. As long as we breathe, we will always have more to understand, learn and appreciate.
Despite the pain we’ve personally felt and seen around us, my sister and I were raised with a belief that all humans deserve respect and honor regardless of skin, religion or beliefs. Together we have worked with individuals from every continent (besides Antarctica) and most religions. Some of my good friends are Muslim and black. We laugh and argue about the same things. We have treated prisoners, drug addicts, and those with mental health challenges. There are no judgements in those cases — we actively focus on recognizing that we are dealing with humans, as unique as ourselves. Each person has had a story that has led them to where they are and every single person has the potential to shine brightly. This incident pushed me to want to understand even further.
2) I can do more to spread light. Initially, I racked my brain to figure out what to do so I don’t feel so helpless. I realized that as a Jew and human being, it’s my job to spread light. While I try to do that daily, I can always do more. I can actively reach out to someone who is different than I am — someone whom I know is going through something difficult — and offer my support. I can go out of my way to do things for others of different religions, cultures and backgrounds and work hard, even just as one person to show the world that Jews are kind and loving and respectful of all — not just toward others of the same faith.
3) We need to create balance. Where are the voices? Where are the outcries? Are my children growing up in a world where their Jewish pride must be shielded?
We need to create more discussions in whatever way we can about diversity and inclusion.
I know that I’m not alone in the pain and fear that I feel. I recall an incident where my classmate, a tall, large African-American man, and I would travel via subway to do an inservice in the Bronx. Once, while on the train, there had been a shooting in one of the other subway cars. When the cops came into our car, my smart, witty, confident friend quickly took off his back pack and threw it onto my lap. He whispered to me, “Amy — say this is yours.” I saw deep fear and trepidation in his eyes. It was humbling. We all are judged.
We could be judged by our weight, our clothing, our shoes, our head scarves, our skin color, our peyos (side curls), our nose rings, our tattoos, our wealth or our poverty, just to name a few things. But we are so much more than any of those things — we are walking on this earth as souls. It sounds obvious, but in reality, it’s often not treated as such. We all need to work to stop it.
Whether it’s at home, in schools, lecture halls or great stages, we need to show others that diversity is supported and encouraged. I’ve seen that those of all races and religions are feeling this — Christians and Muslims too. People from all different backgrounds are afraid to share their beliefs. We need to work to create safe spaces for all.
To the woman in Walmart and the gentleman on the road: I am sorry you judged me without knowing me. I may have helped your brother, sister, child, etc. and even if I didn’t, I exist. I am a Jew, but more than that, I am human — just like you. I care for you, knowing that you must be in pain if you are filled with hate. After all, hate is wasteful — it will only hurt the hater.
G-d willing, with each tiny step toward spreading more light, we will work together to create a better world.