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Butler, Pennsylvania, where I grew up, was a church-going community. Indeed, it was a community in which there was a very exclusive church-going culture. By ‘church-going,’ the elders of the community meant Protestant churches, but even then there were exclusions. Lutherans with their no-fun protocols—no dancing and no premarital sex, which might lead to dancing—were on the fringe. The Catholic church was papist and part of a conspiracy to take over America. The proof was the candidacy of U.S. Sen. John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, in 1960. The Butler Country Club did not allow Jews to set foot on its hallowed turf. Nor were we allowed in the dining room. Ethnics were directed towards the public course. Workers at the steel company were directed to the company golf course.

Signs abounded with variations on the theme of ‘No Jews, No Irish, No Dogs.’ Butler was a western Pennsylvania steel town, and the workers were mostly Polish, Lithuanian and other Eastern European immigrants. The kids I went to school with were predominantly first generation, though to a remarkable degree, they bore the cultural and religious biases of Eastern Europe. They may have been a step or two down on the social scale in Butler, but they took comfort in knowing that at least they weren’t the evil Jews who had murdered their Lord.

This translated into a good deal of aggression in the school. I was constantly being punched on the shoulder, pushed while walking down the stairs, and getting my ears flicked, an insidious form of torture in those days. Being called ‘Christ killer!’ usually accompanied these events. At the same time, I was an object of some curiosity; there weren’t too many of us Zhids or Kikes, as I was called, in Butler. So regularly, I would feel two fingers on the back of my head searching for my horns. All Jews have horns, right? Thanks, Michelangelo. The curiosity-seeker, on not finding my horns, would usually accuse me of some form of deception, an attempt on my part to hide the horns that clearly must have been there.

So, what does this have to do with aggression? Every incident required a strategy. To pretend nothing had happened only invited more incidents. If I had confronted every act of aggression with anger or assault, it would have resulted in a fight either in school or at a suggested location after school. It was a real dilemma! I developed a variety of strategies over time by trial and error. Faced with an attempt to push me down the stairs or a punch, I usually chose to stop, turn around, and look my would-be tormentor right in the eye with an expression of ‘Come on, now.’

Ignoring it was not a viable option.

An escalation might require a bit of punching in which my strategy was always to avoid the attack, and neutralize it, so that it would not lead to be a full-on bloody confrontation. If I had agreed to even one full-on fight, this would’ve resulted in a never-ending cycle of fights that ultimately would’ve included all of their friends against all of the male Jews in my class – me.

Gym teachers enjoyed a good fight with the boys in a circle around the assailants. One teacher in particular encouraged a couple of big, tough Polish kids to get into it with me, usually as a result of my scoring a run, throwing a touchdown pass, or winning a race. One of these kids really had it in for me and his goal was to get into a bout with me where he would turn around the two rings he wore, one on each hand, so he could bash in my face. My learned technique was to keep moving around, warding off killer blows, throwing some measured punches, and waiting until the bell rang signaling the end of class. That clanging sound was an irritant to the gym teacher, who really wanted to see some blood, specifically mine.

In those ancient times, you didn’t tell your parents, complain to the teachers, write a letter to the school newspaper, or go to the principal. But the lessons that were learned—or should I say the survival skills—have served me well, despite having a big, often sarcastic mouth.

And appropriately, later in life, I found that karate did not suit me. It was too confrontational. Aikido did, until my school became a bit too violent. Finally, Tai Chi Ch’uan embodied and refined those lessons that I had started to learn so many decades before in Butler.

“The Art of War,” by Sun Tzu, and the “Tao Te Ching,” by Lao Tzu, confirmed for me in later life that there were better ways to deal with aggression.

Tem Horwitz is a photographer, real estate developer, Tai Chi practitioner and teacher, and a writer. Click HERE to read more about Tem.


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