Anti-Semitism left father with psychic scars

My father had no scars on his knuckles. That was columnist Joel Stein's father. My father had scars on his psyche, but for a reason oddly related to the scars on Mr. Stein's knuckles.

What's all this about? Last Saturday's comment column in this newspaper bore the same photo of me that you see above this one. The only problem was that I did not write that piece about whether a father should teach his son how to fight in today's world. Joel Stein did. But an erroneous "Joel Stiener" byline somehow led to a photo of me --from a stint as an ADN "community voice" -- smiling out from above a column I had nothing to do with. The column was personal, provocative, and well-written -- but not mine.

Yet my photo turned "Joel Stiener" into my name for a number of my friends. Readers more familiar with my face than my name from my years on the School Board may not have noticed that Mr. Stein, correctly identified at the end of the column, was not me at all. I received congratulations on my writing, surprise that I now had a three-year-old son, and chagrin that I was determined to teach him to fight. But I have no son; I have three adult daughters. I do have a one-year-old grandson, but no plan to teach him how to fight.

As for my dad, he was not a scrappy Bronx Jew who grew up picking fights with supposed anti-Semitic Italians. That was Joel Stein's dad. My dad was a mild-mannered Ohio Lutheran who grew up getting good grades alongside the sons and daughters of a thriving local Jewish community.

But the chip on senior Mr. Stein's shoulder that got him into the fights that scarred his knuckles also perched on my father's shoulder. You see, my dad, the Lutheran, was also scarred by anti-Semitism. Please bear with me; this gets a little complicated.

Born before 1930, my father was surely guilty of stereotyping, but I never considered him anti-Semitic. Many, if not most, of his very closest friends and colleagues were Jews.

But people sometimes mistook him for a Jew, as well. They thought Steiner sounded "Jewish." They thought his so-called "Christian name," Donald, was, well, not particularly Christian. At least that's what he thought they thought. He disliked that not because he disliked Jews, but because he disliked being treated like Jews were treated. He never lived down the embarrassment of being turned away from a classy resort in the Rockies on his honeymoon because -- so the story goes -- the hotel did not accept Jews.

This was the early 1950s and I don't know how many other incidents there may have been. But I do know those psychic scars and that chip on his shoulder affected my father deeply. He virtually disowned my evangelical Christian brother for cursing the only Steiner male in the next generation with a "Jewish-sounding" name from the "Old Testament." Even in his will, my father insisted that my brother change that grandson's name to something "non-Jewish."

Was it anti-Semitic for my father so desperately to try to protect his grandson from the anti-Semitism he had experienced? Was it, as my dad would have argued, just common sense not to invite being mistaken for a member of a group to which you do not actually belong, especially if that may subject you to discrimination neither they nor you deserve? Or is it demeaning even to care about such misidentification? Is it discriminatory even to think it matters?

My father and brother are both gone now. His son, name unchanged, is a married adult in what I would like to think is a less anti-Semitic society than 1950s America. Me? I spent part of Father's Day writing about how scars on the knuckles of Joel Stein's scrappy father relate to those on my late father's psyche.

Publishing this may clear up any credit or blame I got for Mr. Stein's column due to its appearance beneath my photo, while correcting any misimpression that his history -- any of it -- is mine. The photo gave me a chuckle and was no big deal. The issues the column dredged up were more painful. My dad thought the truth about himself would avoid having people think less highly of him. Well, now that I've told you the truth, did it work?

John Steiner is a former member of the Anchorage School Board. He lives in Eagle River.