Every time I drive past the pedestrian tunnel in Monroe — the big cement portal that says “1940” on it — the science fiction fan in me wonders what it would be like to step through it and emerge in our town’s past.
When I saw that tunnel a few days ago, I found myself transported back to 1966 - the year my family moved up here from Newark, N.J. Monroe was different then. There were a lot fewer houses and a lot more cows. A lot fewer stores and a lot more places to play.
No cell phones.
No fancy coffee places.
And not many Jews.
I was one of two Jewish kids in my fifth-grade class at Pine Tree Elementary. There were maybe a dozen or so of us in the whole school. We all dressed, acted and looked like every other kid in America. No yarmulkes. No forelocks. No tsitsis hanging past the edges of our shirts.
We were just like everybody else.
Or so I thought.
One day on the bus ride home, I felt something hit the back of my head and fall with a soft “clink” to the floor. It was a penny. I scanned the seats behind me. All the kids back there were either engaged in conversation or looking out their windows.
I turned around and went back to thinking about girls.
Then came a second penny. And a third. Then, all at once, four-five-six.
This time, when I turned around, I saw Finn, another fifth-grader, grinning at me from the back seat. He pitched penny number seven right at my forehead.
“What the heck, Finn?” I yelled.
He stopped smiling. He actually seemed surprised at my surprise.
“Penny for the Jew,” he said, as if that explained everything.
I’d never heard the expression before, and my face must have told him that further clarification was required.
“Y’know. Penny for the Jew? You’re supposed to throw pennies at Jews and say that. And you’re a Jew, so....”
Newark may not have been the most enlightened place in the world, but nobody there had ever made me feel what I was feeling right then. I did my best to explain to Finn that it wasn’t okay to throw pennies at people, Jewish or not. That what he had done made me feel badly. That it wasn’t right to treat people in a way that would make them feel like they didn’t belong.
Amazingly, Finn got it. Although we never became best of friends, our acquaintanceship lasted into high school, and after the penny incident, he never treated me disrespectfully on account of my Jewishness again.
Finn learned his lesson in 1966. Fifty-three years later, have we learned ours?
From what I’ve observed, the answer is no.
I understand that many are upset about the impact our Hasidic neighbors have had on the community.
What I don’t understand is the need that some folks have to yell racist epithets at them, to spread unfounded rumors about them or to treat them as less than human.
Sadly, the racism I’ve witnessed in our town does not end there.
Monroe is significantly more diverse than it was when I arrived. We have more African American people, more Latinos, more Asians, more Eastern Europeans.
I celebrate the arrival of these newcomers, at least in part because they remind me that we were all newcomers, once.
But not everybody is rejoicing. The intolerance, ill will and outright malice I’ve seen and heard leaves me deeply discouraged.
We’re not all going to agree on everything, and that’s just fine.
But there’s no rule that says our disagreements have to devolve into hatred. In fact, conflict, responded to skillfully, can lead to changes that benefit all parties.
Sci-fi guy that I am, I think about the future a lot. Right now, I’m wondering what it would be like to saunter into that tunnel in Monroe and come out not in 1966, but in 2066. Is it overly optimistic to dream that by then, we will have learned to love one another? Perhaps a more fitting question is this:
What can we do today to help create the world I’m dreaming of?
Note: The name of Bob’s schoolmate has been changed to protect his privacy.
Bob Barlow has won awards as a writer, an educator and a musician. He has been a Monroe resident since 1966.
Editor's note: This is the first of an occasional series of columns.