In historic Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the tourists never see the racism and antisemitism I grew up with.
It is tourist season in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Currently, the town is preparing for the yearly Reenactment, during which (at last count) almost 400 people will reenact the Battle of Gettysburg on the same dates as the original battle, July 1–3. The reenactors will dress in authentic uniforms, sleep in tents, and carry rifles. I hear it is quite something to witness. I’ve never been.
When my friends in Ohio, where I now live, comment on their fond memories of visits to Gettysburg, or express a wish to visit Gettysburg sometime in the future, I am mostly confused. This confusion is, in some ways, a privilege. I was not born in Gettysburg, nor do I live there now. I don’t have to maintain a positive outlook about the town, about the battlefield tour buses and overpriced motels. I’ve never had to work a job that was dependent on the tourist industry. But I did have to grow up there.
Summer’s flood of tourists swells the town. For the rest of the year, Gettysburg is small, with fewer than 8,000 residents. Only 28% of residents over the age of 25 have a college degree. The tourists are more educated than the people of the town they visit, clocking in around 57%. During tourist season, locals get frustrated with the tourists’ inability to navigate the traffic circle (known as the Square) in the middle of town, make jokes about why tourist season doesn’t work the same as deer season, and profit significantly from the tourist industry, which brings 1.2 million people per year through Gettysburg, 3.4 million through Adams County.
The tourists are more educated than the people of the town they visit.
It is summer, warm and crowded in Gettysburg. It is summer and I am not there. Instead I am visiting my parents in their new home, about 45 minutes away. They live on a hill above the Susquehanna River, and in the evenings we walk the dog and look at the lights of Harrisburg, the mountains, the sunset.
The other night, I took the BuzzFeed privilege quiz, designed to help users notice the ways in which they are privileged in Western culture. I take a lot of BuzzFeed quizzes, and am generally fascinated with them; why is it so compelling to have a website tell you which Bachelorette contestant you would end up with, how long you would last in the zombie apocalypse, how much you know about European foods? The questions on the privilege quiz are more serious, asking the quiz-taker to check a box for types of privilege they’ve benefited from. Some boxes I checked: “I still identify as the gender I was born in,” “I am white,” “I went to an elite college,” “My parents are still married.” Overall, I selected 36 out of 100, and BuzzFeed told me “You’re not privileged at all. You grew up with an intersectional, complicated identity, and life never let you forget it.”
Privilege is not measured as a checklist.
This felt hilariously untrue. I am a white woman who presents as cis, straight, and able-bodied (I have an invisible disability). So okay, yes, it is just a BuzzFeed quiz and means nothing about how I move through the world and am viewed and treated. Privilege is not measured as a checklist, and not all types of privilege are created equal. It seems odd to weigh white privilege at the same level as not having divorced parents, for example. But even so, having taken the quiz honestly, how could I have only accrued 36 points on this privilege scale? Some of the reasons were from my adult life (my disability, living as a woman in the world) but many were hanging out in my past, in my hometown.
Things I Say When You Comment On My Hometown
America’s smallest town you’ve heard of! Yes, people actually live there. Yes, people are actually from there. No, I don’t believe in ghosts. We used to harass ghost tours when I was a teenager. Yes, really. More dead people than alive! It was okay. Small. Racist, you know? Very conservative. Issues with drugs. Issues with teen pregnancy. A lot of antisemitism. Addiction. No, I would not move back. Oh, yes, I suppose it is beautiful.
What You Know
You have heard of it because of the Gettysburg Address, because of the Civil War. The Battle of Gettysburg, which made us America’s bloodiest little town. Various politicians stop by to bumble through their own Gettysburg Addresses. After his attempt, Rick Santorum confusingly shook my hand while I protested him at the Gettysburg Hotel (with pink streaks in my hair and wearing a crop top, no less). There are battlefield audio tours, ghost tours led by women in hoop skirts, hotels and motels full of tourists. Barely above the Mason-Dixon line, this is the town that helped the North to win.
If you have come here, you have probably been to terrible restaurants, stayed in a hotel on a side of town locals refer to as the tourist end. You have perhaps heard of Gettysburg College, a small liberal arts college where my parents teach. You have seen the battlefields which are protected land and remain undeveloped. Maybe you’ve noticed how this keeps the town small within the donut of the battlefields. You’ve marveled at the eternal flame monument which burns at all hours, symbolizing peace.
You have not heard of: the nursery in our high school, which closed a few years ago not for lack of need but for lack of funding. The difficulty of buying condoms when you are a teenager and the grocery store clerks know your parents. The rampant racism, the fact that the gifted education class I attended from first grade through middle school was all white every year except fifth grade, when a Black girl joined us for one semester. The incidents of antisemitism I experienced as one of very few Jewish kids.
You don’t know that there were no minority students at my cafeteria table most years, that I barely saw the Latin@ or Black students who shared my small public schools for eleven years; they were not placed into upper level math classes, they did not come to chess club. You didn’t hear girls at high school sleepovers confess their fathers told them they could never date men who weren’t white.
Probably if you’ve visited, you’ve seen all the Confederate flags (as bumper stickers, waving on cars, splashed on t-shirts, magnets, mugs), but maybe you thought that just had something to do with authenticity. History. You haven’t noticed that some faculty members at the college choose to live elsewhere and commute to work, because they are LGBTQ or Black or because their spouses need jobs and those jobs don’t exist for them in Gettysburg.
You haven’t entered into the bitter battles (on social media and in local publications) over changing the school’s mascot, which remains the Warrior, symbolized by the head of a Native American man. And the struggles with heroin and meth, the news that two people I went to school with just went to jail for shooting up heroin in a car while the woman’s child sat in the backseat, watching? You didn’t hear about that. Just like you haven’t heard the rumors about the public pool, that we don’t have one because the most logical place to put it was in the Black neighborhood, and nobody, nobody in power, wanted that. And yes, in the Pennsylvania primary, 56.91% of registered Republicans in Adams County voted for Donald Trump.
When I say “incidents of antisemitism,” what do I mean? I mean a lot of things. I mean the girl who told me in second grade she forgave me for my grandparents killing Jesus. (When she later made a tasteless joke about concentration camps in tenth grade history class, it did not seem like a coincidence.) I mean the boys who drew swastikas on my test papers in seventh grade, the girl who called me fat Jew bitch on the playground in fifth grade. The man who I hooked up with at a party the summer after my sophomore year of college who called me my sexy Jew.
In second grade, a girl told me she forgave me for my grandparents killing Jesus.
Every single joke about where my horns were or how greedy I must be. The teacher who said it would be interesting to have the Jewish perspective in history class, sixth grade. Each year in elementary school when my teacher had the bright idea to ask me to bring in a menorah and explain Hanukkah in December. When my ninth grade English class spent maybe 20 minutes talking about how exactly one might extract a pound of flesh from a Jew (not from just any person, from a Jew) and decided a cheese grater would be most effective. When boys from that class then gave me a cheese grater as a Christmas present. When kick a Jew day was a fun joke in high school and there weren’t too many of us to celebrate on.
I retook the BuzzFeed quiz as if I grew up somewhere else, somewhere in America where being Jewish is not an issue. Most of America, then. I got 46 out of 100, which BuzzFeed insisted still made me not privileged. I think they might not be asking all the right questions. Then I took a quiz about my knowledge of Disney Channel Original Movies and got 6/8.
Where I’m From
If you look me up on Facebook, you might notice my hometown is listed as San Francisco, California. This is, at worst, aspirational liberal wishful thinking. At best, it is based in fact: I was born in San Francisco, though I spent my entire childhood and much of my young adulthood in Gettysburg. We moved there the summer I turned five, and we only lived in San Francisco until I was two. If there is a place that should be listed as my hometown on Facebook, it is Gettysburg. But how do you claim a place that was never willing to let you feel at home there?
I don’t mean to insult the people who were my friends, teachers, and mentors in childhood. I don’t mean to insult the people who provided the moments that felt the closest to belonging, because it would have been unbearable without them. I don’t mean to be insulting at all, or ungrateful, or greedy. (I hear people like me tend to be that way.)
But I do mean to call out a town that has been unwilling to change or self-critique, a town that as a whole made me feel my outsiderness. A town that made outsiders out of anyone who did not fit the prescribed mold, regardless of how long they had lived there and how long they had tried. I’m sure that there are people who would take issue with my daring to critique Gettysburg, mostly because my parents teach at the college, which is seen as an elitist occupation. Or because I was in that gifted education class, which some parents in the school district don’t even let their kids get tested for because they would prefer their child not be seen as weird, nerdy, snobby. And also because I went to a fancy college, Wesleyan University.
I do mean to call out a town that has been unwilling to change or self-critique, a town that as a whole made me feel my outsiderness.
The thing they don’t know about the fancy college is that I got there and was surprised to be suddenly surrounded by Jews. Wesleyan has a significant population of Jewish students, a rabbi on campus, a Jewish program house. The Jews at Wesleyan seemed to be mostly from big cities, where they grew up in vibrant Jewish communities, attended synagogues, and were not ever told that their grandparents had personally murdered someone else’s lord and savior. My friends there were shocked when I told them about my experiences growing up in Gettysburg. I was shocked to find that these were not stories they could relate to, that my stories were stories they thought had been left in the past.
Gettysburg Restaurant Recommendations
Definitely the Ragged Edge — great smoothies and sandwiches. Tito’s Tacos. The Blue Parrot or Sidney’s if you’re looking for something fancier. Ping’s Cafe. Hunt’s Battlefield Fries, trust me on this one. Sweeet! has a great collection of vintage candy. Gettysburg Baking Co. The Lincoln Diner if you want breakfast or milkshakes, or if it’s late and nothing else is open. Pizza House.
Questions BuzzFeed Didn’t Ask
What percentage of people from your high school go to college? Were your parents professors? Could they help you find good colleges to apply to? Did your school have abstinence-only sex education? Follow-up question: did your parents tell you about birth control, did they make sure you knew how to avoid getting pregnant in your teen years? Did your parents go to good colleges?
Would you have had access to an abortion? Did your parents help you with your college applications, did they let you attend an out-of-state school, did they save for years for your college education? Did they help you apply for financial aid to cover the rest?
Did your dad take you shopping at King of Prussia mall for college interview clothes? How many kids do you have right now compared to other women from your graduating class? What I mean is: did you have an escape route?
The Escape Route
My last two years of high school, I lived in Barcelona, Spain. Moving to Spain in many ways felt like a revelation. I fit in at school. My religion wasn’t a constant source of jokes. At the international high school, there were kids from all over, from so many different backgrounds. It was more interesting that I grew up in such a rural area than that I was a Jew. So it came as a shock the day I exited my apartment with two friends and we found ourselves in the middle of a massive anti-Israel protest, where participants were burning the Israeli flag and chanting death to Israel.
One of my friends looked at my mass of dark curls, my pale skin, and told me it might be a good idea to put my hood up. I did. We went to KFC and watched the action from the window, and I felt more afraid than perhaps I should have. I wondered later about how I would have reacted if I grew up in a city somewhere, maybe in Philadelphia with my cousins who went to endless bar and bat mitzvahs in middle school and had tons of Jewish friends. Would I have felt more angry than afraid, would I have felt less of a need to hide? Which thing is more naive? Antisemitism is on the rise in Europe, and in America too, though I imagine what I experienced growing up in Gettysburg is still viewed as anomalous. Perhaps in some ways I am glad to have known it, to have had to face adversity in this small and unexpected way. And the ability to be somewhat grateful? That too, of course, is a privilege.
Why talk about Spain, Wesleyan, why talk about San Francisco? Mostly as some sort of apology or acknowledgement, I think. I’m trying to say to the people in my hometown, you’re right, I didn’t belong there. Because that’s what they’ll say. When I’ve critiqued the town on social media, that’s what they’ve said: You’re not from here.
What do I have to do to be from here? It was not enough to have lived there since I was five years old; it was not enough to go to the local public schools, play field hockey, belong to the drama club, the chess club, the ultimate frisbee team, the literary magazine, the chorus and orchestra, the quiz team, the gay-straight alliance, to found a knitting club, to get straight A’s, to volunteer in the soup kitchen and the tutoring center. To host birthday parties, to go to birthday parties, to babysit neighborhood kids, to make craft projects and tag along to Lutheran Sunday School and youth group and sleep-away camp. To try to blend in.
But now I have moved away. With no plans to go back, I am now even more of an outsider. The striving is over. Why bother, now, to reckon with it all?
My parents have not yet sold their old house in Gettysburg. So a few weeks ago, I returned, alone, to camp out in the house for a night. All the furniture has been moved out; I brought a sleeping bag and pillow, slept on the floor. I thought it might be good writing material: what is it like to return to your empty childhood home? But it didn’t hurt the way I wanted it to. I wanted to miss the town, to be nostalgic or maybe even angry at my parents for leaving. Instead I thought about how much I didn’t want to run into people who I knew, how I was glad I wouldn’t need to return here for holidays anymore. I felt happy for my youngest brother, who is 12. He gets to go to a different school, with kids who won’t speculate on the best way to remove a pound of his specifically Jewish flesh. And I was angry, but not about leaving. I was angry at the town, for the way it treats the people who don’t fit in the mold it has decided, partly by necessity, to privilege: those who are white, Christian, uneducated, straight.
I was angry at the town, for the way it treats the people who don’t fit in the mold it has decided to privilege.
I think a lot about how this is possible, why it is seen as better to not learn. To not accept. To remain small. This mindset might look like the geography of the town, the donut hole that won’t expand outwards, caught in an untouchable bubble of history. Haven’t we figured out yet that this — the reenactment, the constant return to the past — isn’t why the tourists come to clog the Square, why the politicians want to be seen speaking here? They come because we’re supposed to symbolize progress. The Reenactment is something to witness, but that’s something to believe in. Am I being too idealistic? Perhaps. But I think we’re supposed to be the place where America fought to be better, where the right side won.
I’m sorry, I’m saying we again. You’re right. It was never my town.