I was a young guy, so you know this happened a very long time ago.
I was working as a security guard in a big building in New Jersey, and I got to be fairly friendly with the head of the custodial crew that cleaned the place.
He was a decent blue-collar guy, so one night I was surprised to hear him say something blatantly anti-Semitic. When I called him on it, he said he had only known one Jew, and he was a horrible so-and-so.
I asked him if that meant that all Jews are terrible people.
He reiterated what a blot on humankind this fellow was, so it stood to reason that all Jews were like that.
"Let's assume," I said to him, "that everything you say about this Jew is true. He's a complete S.O.B."
He nodded, pleased that I conceded his initial point.
"OK," I asked, "have you ever known a Christian who was a rotten person?"
He said "Sure."
"Well," I said, "does that mean all Christians are lousy people?"
I can still see the surprise in his eyes as they got wider. He was honestly re-examining his prejudice. He saw how unfair it was to judge an entire people by one miserable character.
"You know," he said, "I never thought of it that way. But I damn sure will from now on."
I believed him. Like I said, he was a decent guy.
That long-ago conversation served to feed into what I'm certain is an irrational practice prevalent in most ethnic groups but developed into an art form by somewhat neurotic Jews like me.
If I hear about someone doing something particularly awful or _ for that matter _ splendid, I check.
Is he or she Jewish?
When a former Penn State assistant football coach named Jerry Sandusky was recently accused of molesting young boys, I hurriedly looked him up on the Internet.
Whew! Not Jewish.
Then, came similar credible accusations against Bernie Fine, a longtime Syracuse University assistant basketball coach. Bernie Fine? Can there be a more Jewish-sounding name? Hoping against hope, I did a Google search on Bernie Fine+Jewish.
Damn! The S.O.B. is Jewish.
Making matters worse, if that's possible, when I did the Google search, one of the first websites to come up was connected with white supremacist neo-Nazi David Duke.
The headline was: "Jew Basketball coach Bernie Fine fired for child molestation." A comment on the site read: "Jews are such sick perverts. This is one of several articles I've read about in the past few days about Jews molesting kids."
In Yiddish/English _ or as author Leo Rosten called it, Yinglish _ it's "a shonda for the goyim," which means doing something shameful that is noticed by non-Jews, thereby disgracing all Jews.
Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff is Jewish, and the fact that many of his financial victims were Jews, Jewish organizations and charities doesn't do much to mitigate how much his crimes reinforce unfair anti-Semitic stereotypes.
I was 13 when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and I remember in the immediate aftermath my relatives hoping and praying that whoever did it wasn't Jewish. Lee Harvey Oswald wasn't Jewish, thank G-d, but the guy who shot Oswald _ Jack Ruby _ was.
Of course, the opposite extreme also comes into play when someone is a mensch _ a person to be admired. A Steven Spielberg, a Sandy Koufax, an Albert Einstein.
"See," a Jewish mother will point out to her child, "he's one of our boys."
As David Brooks wrote in a New York Times column last year, Jews make up only 0.2 percent of the world population, but 54 percent of the world chess champions, 27 percent of the Nobel physics laureates, 31 percent of the medicine laureates and 51 percent of the Pulitzer Prize winners for nonfiction.
"If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one quarter of one percent of the human race," wrote Mark Twain in 1897. "It suggests a nebulous puff of star dust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. ... (The Jew's) contributions to the world's list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine and abstruse learning are also very out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers."
I guess it's that "nebulous puff of star dust" thing that gives some of us the heebie-jeebies when "a member of the tribe" behaves badly. Pogroms, inquisitions and the Holocaust seem to be wired into our DNA.
So, I'm reading the news the other day and see that yet another woman has accused Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain of sexual impropriety.
Cain isn't Jewish.
Sam Pollak is the editor of The Daily Star. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (607) 432-100, ext. 208. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/sampollak.