by Shoshana Tehila Surek
Rascal was a small horse with club feet, rescued from a slaughterhouse feedlot where he had learned how to fight for every meal. At feeding time, he would chase off horses twice his size. I was helping out at a local riding stable for the privilege of riding when I overheard the barn manager say to Diego, who she called Dago, but whose actual name was Jesus, “Dago, throw a couple extra flakes over by the second feeder. That damn Rascal will kike all the good stuff before Dolly gets any.”
The first time I had heard the k-word, I was in sixth grade. It was my first year attending a public school, the first time I thought about changing my name, and the first time a derogatory word was used to call me what I supposed I was: Jewish.
Up until then, being Jewish was not a title or an adjective.
It’s not that Jewish kids don’t ridicule each other. Bullying doesn’t pause or balk or stop altogether at geographic, economic, or religious barriers the way that people do. In Hebrew school, second grade, Allana told Dalia that I was poor and not from the East side. The latter was the deepest-level insult available to us at that time. It meant we were not as Jewish as we could be. And while hindsight tells me the former is relative, both things were true.
And true things hurt the worst.
All the girls, even my current best friend Sarah, laughed when Allana had said it. I ran away and hid inside the large concrete tube they had installed as part of our playground. With my back pressed against one side and my feet high on the other, I studied my Mary Janes. They had been my sister’s, but the worn area on the right shoe was from the curve in my big toe; so, in that way, they were newly mine.
“You are lucky to have shoes at all,” my father would have told me if he were there.
“He’s right,” my mother would have agreed.
“I’m lucky,” I whispered to the scuffed toes.
Later, when Allana smirked at me, I did my best to smile sweetly. After all, lashon hara was a sin. “You can’t talk badly about other people,” our Hebrew teacher said. “If it is true and you do it to make them less of a person, it was pure evil.”
After the barn manager’s comments that morning, I felt a kinship to Rascal. At every visit, I would slip him a flake or two of hay. I would watch him when other horses came near: his shoulder and flank twitching, his nostrils flaring, his breath fast and nervous. Even if they were on the other side of the fence, he could not enjoy his meal. Rascal would run in angry circles, unwilling to go too far from his food and too uneasy to eat. In his angst, he had ground uneven circles and semicircles all around his feeder.
When Ashkanazi Jews arrived at Ellis Island, immigration officers asked those who were illiterate or could only read or write Hebrew to sign by making their mark. When the officers illustrated the X, it reminded the Jews of a cross, so they refused.
Instead, they would sign using a circle.
The Yiddish word for circle is kikel (pronounced KY-kel).
Like many other racial slurs which originated during the immigration process, the officers referred to the incoming population as Kikels or Circles.
Circles symbolize eternity in Judaism. Circles have no end. There is an ancient Jewish custom to dance in a circle on Simchat Torah, the festival during which Jews celebrate the completion of the yearly Torah reading.
The circle symbolizes the eternity of the word of God.
Rascal had arrived at the kill-lot with a gash across his forehead, wounds from fetlock to elbow, and several lacerations across his body, neck, and back. Nancy said she rescued him for $500 so he could retire to the barn “in peace.”
Nancy was a retired school teacher who treated Rascal like one of her students- with treats, smiles, and ‘atta boys. She loved his “passion for chow time.” She would sit near the fence and tell him stories of her son who had joined the Marines when he was 17 years old. She would tell Rascal how her son had fought, and a part of him died in the Gulf War. Nancy said, “John could eat and eat and eat, just like you, my little Rascal.”
Her son came home afraid of wide-open spaces.
“He didn’t die in the war, you see,” Nancy said, unwrapping star mints and feeding them to an impatient Rascal. “But he may as well have. He came back sick. Agoraphobia,” she said in her teacher’s voice. “It is a fear of open spaces.”
Open spaces like you might find in Iraq or Kuwait or in Wyoming where the barn manager was born and raised and where she learned to use the k-word as a synonym of steal.
“We love our horses in Wyoming,” the barn manager always used to say.
A quick search shows that Wyoming claims to have 99,000 domestic horses in the state and 6,000 wild horses, so I suppose she must be right. She talked a lot about horses. She talked about her parent’s ranch- wildflowers, a river, and mountains in the background. She talked about mountains cutting the sky with two ragged peaks.
The Wyoming she described was idyllic, and I told her so once.
“Yes,” she said. “I grew up in a beautiful bubble.”
Growing up, I was in a sort of bubble for the first ten years of my life. A bubble where lights stayed off from Shabbos candles on Friday night until Havdalah on Saturday night. A bubble where Saturday afternoons were as slow as the sun’s path to sunset. A bubble where we faced East and said prayers before we said The Pledge of Allegiance.
When we ventured out of the bubble -skied in long skirts or went on field trips, and the boys walked around in tzitzits and yarmulkes- we knew we were different. We stayed close together like the emperor penguins so carefully stuffed and positioned in the diorama of Antarctica. We took turns standing outside of the group, taking the blast from Normals. Then, we would come to the center for warmth and acceptance—all of us suffering from cultural agoraphobia.
Jews have often been compared to animals.
Not penguins, but rats. Pigs.
A sculpture named “Judensau” is carved into the cornerstone of a Wittenburg church. Martin Luther, the founder of the Protestant faith in Germany, called it “Vom Schem Hamphoras,” a further insult to Jews by using a corrupted form of God. This image of Jews, suckling from the sow’s teats, has lasted for over 600 years.
In 2020, a group of people petitioned the court to remove the sculpture. The court denied the request again. The image of Jews as unclean, disgusting, money-hungry swine is, it turns out, something historical. Something important.
There are over 100,000 pigs in Wyoming. That equals the number of horses, except every year the population is grown and slaughtered. In Wyoming, pigs are called crops, as in a cultivated plant. A grain. A fruit. A vegetable. A pig.
During the Holocaust, 1.5 million children were rounded up and slaughtered.
It would take 15 years to grow that large of a crop of pigs.
When I first attended public school, both teacher and student questioned my name.
Shoshana. Tehila. Surek.
With the curl of lip often accompanied by an intentional insult and by someone who had never heard of lashon hara, they asked toward the paper, “What is that?” as though the name could respond. “Is it Jewish?” These questions were asked by someone who could not have tried to make me feel like less of a person.
I did not call the teachers evil when they would not call me by my name. I changed my name at age eleven, and it remained so until I was nineteen. I have signed my real name ever since. Yet, I was taken aback when I heard the barn manager use the K-word five years ago, halfway through my forties. I headed back through the barn to the office whiteboard where my name was written as a volunteer for the day. I wiped my name clean with my sleeve; and in its place, I drew a
Shoshana Tehila Surek is a first-generation American and the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. She received her MA and MFA Creative Writing from Regis University. Her essays, stories, and poetry can be read in Chicago Quarterly, Blue Mesa Review, Carve Magazine, SmokeLong Quarterly, Malahat Review, Vestal Review, 3Elements Review, and others. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2017 and 2020, and she is a 2019 Curt Johnson Prose Award finalist. Read more: www.ShoshanaSurek.com.