Nudnikerie: My Album of Antisemites

Studio Interior with ‘The Steeplechase’
Edgar Degas, 1881

Nudnikerie: My Album of Antisemites

Nudnik: “A nudnik is not just a nuisance; to merit the status of nudnik, a nuisance must be the most persistent, talkative, obnoxious, indomitable, and indefatigable nag.”  The Joys of Yiddish, by Leo Rosten.

As for “Nudnikerie,” the coinage is mine.  I hope and trust it will pass into general usage.

Conceivably, readers might be hoping that they won’t be reading any more columns about antisemitism.  Maybe they won’t because the world suddenly cures itself of its Oldest Hatred problem.  Or because Abigail died and came back Swedish (a hope she sometimes expresses).

Sorry. As it happens, I’m currently going through an immense manuscript on the subject of antisemitism, written by a first-rate British philosopher.  I’m not reading it for fun.  It’s been sent me as a referee.  I’m one of those peers who are asked to contribute what is called “peer review.”

As I read, certain scenes pass quite naturally before my mind.  Darkened corners of memory are lit up.  I relive my own encounters with real-life antisemites.  They didn’t try to kill me, so I use “nudnik,” which is a comical term.  The scenes are painful nonetheless, because, in many cases, I am remembering people I knew well and liked or loved, before they assumed that character.

Antisemitism is wrongly defined as a rejection of The Other.  In some cases, the remembered individuals and I had been close for years, shared personal stories and faced the storms of life together, as friends do.  In such cases, the change in outlook toward me was heralded by changed attitudes toward themselves.  Here are three stories from the Album.

One friend was a German woman.  She had come to this country as a G.I. bride, but was divorced with kids when I knew her.  If she hadn’t changed in that particular way, she’s a woman I might have included in that charmed number of European women in midlife whom I sometimes cite as possessing — in their very being and carriage, in their way of setting a cup of tea, or moving with slow grace from one room to another – a whole encyclopedia of womanly arts.  When we got a chance to sit down over tea, we would talk in the way women sometimes can, with nothing held back.

So what happened?  Well, I’m not sure.  All I do know for a fact is that she read the chapters on the Holocaust in the first edition of A Good Look at Evil.  It includes a discussion of German complicity.

Everything functioned as if this was indeed, as it was self-styled at the time, an act of the national will….  Orders did not have to be given.  Far-reaching interpretations and creative implementations welled up from every stratum of national life.

I didn’t write that out of bigotry.  It was based on my reading of the evidence.  But I can understand why, if it appeared to misrepresent her family or personal circle, she would feel affronted.  She’d been an athletic teenager when Hitler was in power.  She probably won swimming contests where you had to say “Heil Hitler.”

However, that doesn’t explain why she started reading books like The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, citing it to me as a reliable source.  When I saw it on her table, I picked it up and said to her,

“That’s Hitler’s bedtime reading!  It’s like reading pornography!  Would you have pornography in the house with your children?”

Perhaps, as a local friend has suggested, it was a kind of breakdown, or early onset of dementia — as a delayed reaction to war-time trauma.

That might be.  The human soul is mysterious.  The only thing I can cite was a cumulative, darkening pessimism in her that had begun to worry me as it accelerated in the years preceding her transformation.

In another case, the man had been a friend of my husband’s since graduate school.  As it happens, he was a priest.  There was also some reason to think that he’d made a wrong career choice way back when.

Anyway, when Jerry and I married, one of the changes that Jerry experienced was the profound religious turn described in his book, God: An Autobiography, as told to a philosopher.   Before that, Jerry had held a high-minded naturalistic worldview: what you see is what you get, but you should try to live up to a high standard all the same.  Once his outlook was so dramatically expanded, Jerry, as a newcomer to the world of religious experience, confided in his old friend the priest.  Who turned out to have little to offer, aside from detached comments and deflection.

It may be that Jerry’s spiritual encounter reminded his friend that he was in the wrong business.  He’d never had a vocation for the priesthood.  If he wanted to break with Jerry to avoid the discomforts of this realization, what better way than to pick a quarrel with Jerry’s wife?

One afternoon, the three of us met at a nice restaurant for what Jerry and I expected would be a convivial lunch.  Instead of a natural flow of conversation, the friend force-marched it to the topic of Israel and insisted I respond to a loaded question from him.  My reluctant words triggered his interrupting to lay it down that, on these matters (which he had brought up) he “couldn’t talk to an American Jew!”

Now the word “Jew,” flung in one’s face as a one-syllable epithet, is meant to be insulting.

In three ways, ladies:

(1) A man talking to a woman ought to acknowledge her as a woman.  To erase the sex difference in that way is ungallant and therefore threatening.  (Sorry if this is not the current view.  The current view does not help women protect themselves or recognize when a social protection has been removed.)

(2) I didn’t hold whatever view I expressed because I was “an American Jew.”  I held it because I thought it was true.  The ad hominem attack demeaned me in a second way: as a thinking being.

(3) To autocratically terminate the discussion you yourself began is to violate collegiality, friendship and civility.

What do I really think was going on?  Jerry’s friend did not care to face the possibility that he had chosen the wrong path for his life.  His sudden antisemitism was a distraction, sadly provided by the current culture and therefore ready-to-hand.  It had the purpose of aiding his project of evasion and self-deception.  Hey, good luck with that!

My third case was a group phenomenon, which I have written about before in these pages.  It concerns the group of let-us-say peaceniks who, for some years, disfigured the central square in our town by meeting there once a week for two hours, rain and shine, to hold up placards denouncing Israel as deserving of more scorn and vilification than any other country on this planet.

I considered them a menace to the social – and possibly physical – safety of their Jewish neighbors in the town, who include me.   I had pressed our then rabbi to undertake a succession of initiatives whose aim was to persuade them to cease and desist their Nudnikerie.  Nothing worked.

WHY WHY WHY? I complained to Christian friends.  I’ve tried everything I can think of.  All that’s happened is that I’m the one who’s lost standing.  And they are still feeling like the good guys, while they hold up signs in the middle of the town square that express the latest update on the Oldest Hatred.

One of these Christian friends had a suggestion.  Why not meet at an outdoor café adjacent to the town square, Jerry and me and two sympathetic Christian women friends, to pray and discuss our own religious experiences, within sight of the Vigilantes, but not trying to engage them?

So we did that.  We had a nice, confiding discussion though it didn’t seem to have any effect on the Nudniks.  We were about to fold it up when I had the sudden impulse to join hands in a circle and address some quiet but audible words to God:

Lord, I’ve tried everything I know to touch their minds and open their hearts.  Nothing’s worked.  Could You please show them what they need to see and know? Could You show them how to stop menacing their neighbors?

When I looked up again — so help me! — they had disappeared.  I guess they’d concluded their Vigil and just closed it up, but gee – so quickly!  And so help me, whether because I stopped driving by the town square at the Vigil hour, or because eventually they shut it down –

I never saw them again.


About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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