February 26, 2020

When is Santa Monica, CA like Jackson, MS?

While my Jewish friends were ringing in the new year 5775 this week, it was disturbing to see anti-Jewish bigotry from the year 1775 on display in the South. A pulpit rabbi who had previously served in Southern California was thrown out of a restaurant in Jackson, Mississippi earlier this week by its anti-Semitic owner, who claimed that he was “disrespecting” his establishment by taking too long to order. I suppose that Jews are used to hearing things like this, but this incident disturbed me greatly, perhaps because I happen to know the victim.

Rabbi Ted Riter, the former senior rabbi at Adat Elohim in Thousand Oaks, is a mensch. I met him years ago at an interfaith event in Thousand Oaks, and he w as kind enough to invite me to discuss LDS beliefs at his synagogue. He is currently serving as an interim pulpit rabbi for a synagogue in Jackson. In short, he’s hardly the kind of guy who would intentionally “disrespect” a restaurant owner.

The good rabbi went to a Greek restaurant for lunch last Tuesday. After asking what the salad portions were, he was told by owner Yanni Allis that “full” and “Jewish” sizes were available. When Rabbi Riter asked for clarification, Allis replied that the Jewish size was “cheap and small.” When he found out that the rabbi was Jewish, he threw him out of the restaurant in a profanity-laced tirade. Eyewitness accounts supported Rabbi Riter’s version of events, and the two men were to meet yesterday to discuss their unfortunate encounter.

Just as I was about to hit “send” on an email that would have reminded Rabbi Riter that he wasn’t in Southern California anymore, I recalled a similar incident in Santa Monica, which is hardly a haven for bigots. I was working for the American Jewish Congress at the time.

One day I went to see a soccer game over lunch at Britannia, my favorite British pub in town. After sitting down on a barside stool and ordering chicken tikka masala, I was startled to hear a nearby Eastern European man loudly curse Jews in an expletive-filled rant, claiming that they had ruined his country. As far as I could tell, he was talking to himself; everyone else was watching the game. As I prepared to leave, I felt compelled to ask him what Jews had done to run his country into the ground. His reply was short on specifics and long on the usual anti-Semitic tropes. As a parting shot I showed him my business card and told him to contact me in case he ever needed help from a Jewish organization. I’ve never seen anyone stare so intently at a business card. To his credit, he did apologize for offending me, though not for holding odious opinions of Jews.

I wish Rabbi Riter and all of my Jewish friends and readers a Shana Tova free of intolerance and bigotry, though I suspect the Messiah will come (again?) before that happens. If Jew-hatred can rear its ugly head in Santa Monica, it can appear anywhere.