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Three years later: Remembering Hi Lariff, the Lilly businessman who taught me about Judaism

Pittsburgh Tree of Life Synagogue shooting: Where does hatred originate in people? — Richard Rodgers in South Pacific, 1949: “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught”

… I was never taught that lesson — fortunately

You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught

Richard Rodgers

You've got to be taught to hate and fear

You've got to be taught from year to year

It's got to be drummed in your dear little ear

You've got to be carefully taught

You've got to be taught to be afraid

Of people whose eyes are oddly made

And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade

You've got to be carefully taught

You've got to be taught before it's too late

Before you are six or seven or eight

To hate all the people your relatives hate

You've got to be carefully taught

... “South Pacific”

As a young boy, I grew up in an all-white, primarily Catholic community in Western Pennsylvania; we had no blacks and just two Jewish families. Yet, somehow, I was not taught to become a racist or anti-semitic.

In fact, I came to respect one Jewish businessman and his family who operated a store in my small town of about 2,000 people. I never learned any anti-Semitism in my life.

As Richard Rodgers wrote in the classic musical “South Pacific,” hatred has to be taught to people. It is not innate.

That is so important to remember after the horrific massacre of eleven Jewish members of a Pittsburgh Jewish congregation in Squirrel Hill on Saturday. The man who brutally massacred these people in a domestic terrorist incident was consumed with hatred based on his writings on Social Media.

Where did he, along with the man who sent pipe bombs to Democrats last week, Cesar Soyac, learn that hatred? The Pittsburgh terrorist, Robert Bower, wrote this on Twitter prior to entering Tree of Life Synagogue, “jews are the children of satan (John: 8:44.) The lord jesus christ is come in the flesh.”

All of these purveyors of hatred claim to be Christians, lovers of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, they do not understand the message that Christ was trying to convey many years ago.

My introduction to a Jewish man

In our small town, we had what we called a “Five and Ten.” It was a Ben Franklin store that had a little of everything in it. I started going in there as a child, and then continued as a high school student and then as an adult.

It was owned by Jewish man and his wife, Hi and Dorothy Lariff. As I grew older and entered high school, I started talking with Mr. Lariff. I might have known that he was Jewish at some point, but probably not then. It did not matter. He was a classy, personable man with a nice family and a nice business.

I would often shop there for Christmas decorations and gifts and birthday gifts and all kinds of items. It was a nice store. Hi would ask me about how school was going, and complimented me at times, particularly in college, when he said that he read my name on the dean’s list at Penn State.

We talked about all kinds of things. I enjoyed our discussions. I never thought of him as Jewish man, but when in college, I made a friend of a Jewish student from New York City who was on the same floor in a dorm with me. Rich was a bright guy who explained much about the history of Judaism and Israel, so I was able to learn a little more about the Jewish people.

During this time, no one ever taught me that Jewish people were evil, yet that is what so many of the paranoid right fringe are saying online today. Hatred is taught, and Robert Bower and Cesar Sayoc have learned that in recent years. They certainly did not learn that commandment that Jesus said was second in importance, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Discovering prejudice as a young boy

While my life growing up in the 1950s was not exactly like that of Beaver Cleaver in “Leave it to Beaver,” it was a relatively close-knit community in most ways. Though we had no blacks in our community, I met one at a summer camp and we became good friends for a short time. I realized that blacks and Jews were just like we were in most ways.

However, the community was papering over a horrible act of hatred that had occurred on its streets decades earlier. In 1924, the Ku Klux Klan had invaded the community and burned two of its crosses. After that, they started shooting up the town, with three people dying in the process and about 20 being injured. One of those killed was my uncle, Phil Conrad.

I am not certain when my mother told me about the KKK killed Phil. However, she also said something like this, “Whatever you do, never ask your father about that night.” I am actually paraphrasing, but essentially, my dad never talked about that night until late in his life. Nor did most people in the town.

These KKK people claimed to be “true Christians,” “100 percent Americans.” Yet, they brought their hatred of Catholics to our small community decades before I was born.

Hi Lariff was not in Lilly at the time, but he must have thought about prejudice. His business did well from what I could tell, but there were probably people in the community who did not shop there because he was Jewish. However, it was understated. I never heard an anti-semitic remark directed against him or his family, though that may have taken place.

I learned of the reason for the KKK invasion when one of our Catholic nuns told us during a history lesson that the Klan not only hated blacks, but “they hated Catholics, too.” She could have added Jews to those two groups.

Squirrel Hill and the victims of terrorism

They ranged in age from 54 to 97, with four in their 80s. Why would anyone unleash their hatred on people who were distinguished physicians, professors, accountants, dentists — and most important, parents and grandparents?

The eleven who were killed, eight men and three women, and some of those injured simply came to worship on their Sabbath in Squirrel Hill, which has been called the most diverse community in the United States. These were good people, distinguished, accomplished individuals, and their only problem for many was that they were Jewish.

Four of those who were injured were police officers who were met with gunfire from Bowers’ AR-15 style assault weapon and three handguns. He had 21 guns registered to him, and was indeed a loner. According to the New York Times, “… he had no guests. He lived alone. He watched television late into the night sometimes. He used a post office box instead of the mailboxes at the apartment complex.”

He was called bland by most. What frightens some of his fellow residents of the McAnulty Acres apartment building in Baldwin Borough is that he appeared to be so ordinary. “It’s very unsettling knowing all that stuff that was used to hurt those people was on the other side of the wall,” a neighbor said. “I didn’t see any signs. I can’t even comprehend that he had that much hate and seemed so normal.”

Attacks on Jewish surge

Over the past two years, attacks on the Jewish have increased significantly, according to the Anti-Defamation League. According to their CEO, “in 2016, we saw a 34 percent increase in acts of harassment, vandalism, and violence against the Jewish community. But last year, a 57 percent increase, the single largest surge that we’ve ever seen in anti-Semitic acts in the United States.”

A criminal complaint that was filed by authorities said that Bowers commented that he “wanted all Jews to die,” according to the Tribune-Review. He added, “(Jews) were committing genocide to his people.” This is how paranoid people are. Even the most paranoid cannot point to any instance in which Jews are in any way committing genocide in the U.S.

Bowers, 46. made anti-Semitic comments on a Social Media platform called GAB, which is a favorite of conservatives and especially the alt-right, who have often been banned from Facebook and Twitter for their hate-filled commentary. According to numbers from Social Media, attacks on Jews online have increased more than 50 percent, with many of them coming from Bots, possibly Russian but more likely American. They are often attacking Holocaust survivor George Soros, an 87-year-old man who has become a target of everyone from Donald Trump to his violent right-wing minions.

What is frightening is that this may be just the first step in attacks from these right-wing purveyors of hatred. Cesar Sayoc’s bombs never exploded and hurt anyone, but there are plenty of people like Bowers, who had no criminal record, out there.

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