Bullying takes many different forms. It was the worst for me when it came under the guise of friendship. I had just entered ninth grade at a prestigious private school in New Jersey. This was a place of unimaginable wealth, the kind of school my mother had fought to get me and my older brother to ever since our father had left the two of us stranded and her without any career to speak of. I'd switched schools almost every year before that as she steadily climbed her professional ladder as an English teacher, always reaching for wherever she thought would give me and Seth the best chance to get into a good college. She settled here because it was the best she could do by the time Seth was about to enter high school. It would be the one institution I'd spend the most time at during my life as a student.
Seventh grade was a year of transition—changing schools once again and trying to find my footing as the perpetual new kid. But even then, this one felt different. The student parking lot on campus was littered with cars several pay grades above the beat up Honda Civic we drove in every morning. My brother hit the ground running, immediately becoming best friends with the son of a former treasury secretary. Sitting in history class one morning before the teacher showed up, I stewed quietly as my peers complained about how annoying their respective cleaning ladies were. What the hell am I doing here? I asked myself.
Once any sense of novelty wore off for me and my classmates, they started to see the same things everyone seemed to: I wasn't just shy; I was awkward. Worse yet, I was terrible at any sport I was required to play. The locker room after lacrosse practice in eighth grade became one of the most dreaded places on campus once one kid figured out I never fought back. He'd snap at my ankles with his lacrosse stick and shove me against the lockers, calling me a faggot until he grew bored of me.
I breathed a huge sigh of relief once I started ninth grade and learned that he'd transferred schools. Better yet, I'd managed to finally squirm my way into a group of friends. These are my people, I thought—more comfortable creating a group conference on the school's email system than hashing things out on the sports field. We still threw stones at one another, but at least they were virtual ones.
It felt safer. Cleaner, somehow.
Then things started to get weird. One person in particular, a boy I'll call John, was my best friend at the time. He started writing long, lurid notes about me going into the woods to have sex with animals. Graphic descriptions of me abusing small children. My face scrunching up in pain as I was raped by the cardinal papacy. The rest of them would egg him on.
I had no witty rejoinders, no equally twisted counterattacks.
I laughed at first. But even then I felt like I was missing something. Eventually, it occurred to me that it wasn't actually funny.
Maybe this is how boys talk to another, I thought. We'd twist the knife until it started to hurt. Giggling, we'd twist some more.
Finally I caved in and sent a message saying I would stop reading whatever they kept writing. Then I stayed on the page, refreshing it every few seconds and waiting for John's response. When he did respond, it was something to the effect of: "Now that he's not reading this anymore, Yannick is GAY GAY GAY GAY GAY GAY [...]."
I had no witty rejoinders, no equally twisted counterattacks. I was back in the locker room, laying prone on the field after a kid who seemed three times my size had knocked the wind out of me.
Eventually, I hoped, John would just get bored the same way his lacrosse-playing predecessor had. Then we could go back to just being friends.
That would never happen. One morning, I opened up my email in the library and saw a note from one of the school's IT advisers. He had just discovered the conference, he said. He was so sorry. It was shut down.
I can't recall most of what John or my other friends wrote in those emails anymore. In their place, there's a vivid moment sitting in my mother's office with her and Seth, the two of them aghast that I wasn't angry. They were just joking around, I kept trying to tell them.
Another meeting after that, this one with the school counselor. Then another, with the principal and my adviser. Please don't get them in trouble, I kept trying to say. It really wasn't that bad. I kept pleading with them because I was scared of what this would look like to the rest of my class—the kid who couldn't take a joke running to his mom crying. Really, I was just terrified of what it was going to be like not having anyone to sit with at lunch anymore, to have to go through the process of finding new friends for the third time in as many years.
The two of them flipped through the messages they'd printed out, trying to identify the exact point when things turned from a sick joke into something more perverse. Was it when one person said he wanted to kill me? Of course not, I said. Nobody actually wanted to hurt me.
We all stopped on one terse vignette, one that wasn't even written by John:
Roses are red,
Violets are blue.
You like to suck penis,
Because you're a Jew.
I've never really forgotten what it felt like to open that email, coming as it did after months of much more prolonged (and, to the guy's credit, more original) riffs on me.
I kept turning the idea over in my head. You're gay, because you're Jewish. I loved to bite the pillow, because I knew what it meant to kiss the tzitzit.
He wasn't really saying anything about me being Jewish though. We were high school students in Princeton, New Jersey. Less than a year before he wrote that message, we had both spent practically every weekend gathering at one local synagogue or another to celebrate bar and bat mitzvahs. Judaism wasn't anything unique. And it certainly wasn't a red flag. It was just part of our social mosaic.
Bullying isn't an exact science. You use what's at your disposal. So even if being Jewish was relatively normal, it was still a weak spot. It wasn't anything to be proud of.
And it certainly wasn't cool. Far from it. Jews may have an outsized voice in media and pop culture, but it's rarely one that shy teenagers look up to. The actor Jonah Hill touched on this in an interview last year for Marc Maron's WTF podcast when he described what a revelation it was to see the rapper Drake put on a bar mitzvah for himself in the music video for his song "HYFR." Before seeing one of the most famous emcees in the game truly celebrate his membership in the tribe, Hill said, the only Jewish celebrity he considered "cool" was Adam Sandler.
You can disagree with Hill's examples. But the man has a point. When I was a teenager, I wasn't going home after school to read Philip Roth novels or watch Woody Allen movies. I was going home to listen to Eminem and play Final Fantasy.
I get why seeing yourself represented as a Jew in rap is still an anomaly. But video games? Isn't this exactly the kind of field—a mixture of entertainment and lucrative technical skills—that we're supposed to be drawn to? My first year attending the game developers conference as a reporter, I found myself juggling more invitations to seders than I knew what to do with.
That didn't surprise me. What did shock me was reading an article by Kotaku editor Stephen Totilo in which he just barely managed to get the creators of Wolfenstein, the most iconic piece of work about killing Nazis in a field that often seems to have singular obsession with killing Nazis, to admit that the game's blonde hair blue-eyed protagonist was "of Jewish descent."
I've played a lot of video games in my life. More than I can remember or list off the top of my head. And until very recently, I couldn't think of a single one that had a Jewish character in it. I finally found one obscure indie title, and that was only with the help of a friend who edits a faith-based pop culture website.
Leave it up to Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of the irreverent cartoon series South Park, to change the game. Earlier this year, the duo released a role-playing game called The Stick of Truth that gives players free reign to explore their iconic paper-thin world, albeit in the guise of a live action Dungeons and Dragons-esque fantasy romp that Cartman and the rest of the gang are indulging in. Like any good RPG, it breaks down the character options into a handful of different classes. Most of these are standard fare for anyone who's played a game like Diablo: Fighter, Mage, Thief.
I usually have a moment of existential panic when I start playing an RPG and can't decide which class I'm going to spend the next 50 to 100-plus hours of my life with. But there was one class in The Stick of Truth that I knew I had to play down once I saw it. It's known simply as "Jew."
South Park spreads out the character creation process a bit more than a game like Diablo, which prompts you to make a decision before you ever get a chance to even step into the world and start killing bad guys. In The Stick of Truth, you create your South Park-ified avatar in the early moments of the game, but you don't end up deciding what class to play as until you step into the makeshift fort that Cartman and his team have assembled to fight against the other boys playing as the elven faction.
Cartman lays the choices out with his trademark flair for off-color remarks. "A white fighter?" he asked when I hovered over that option. "Haven't seen one of those in a while." When I toggled over to the Jew class a moment later, he interjected: "Jew, huh? I guess that means we'll never be friends." When I settled on my choice, he cracked a joke about how this meant I could handle his team's finances as well.
It felt like I was back at another screen more than a decade ago. Except this time it was a lot easier to call this guy an asshole, to chuckle at his lazy anti-Semitism. Kyle, another of the four central characters in the South Park universe, had already been doing so since the show first aired in 1997. He's a Jew too, and probably the most consistently decent, mature, and kindhearted member of the group. So even though I didn't end up meeting him until hours later in the game, I already knew that nothing Cartman said was meant to be taken at face value.
But The Stick of Truth doesn't stop making Jew jokes there. Though it has a decidedly American aesthetic, the game is modeled after JRPGs like Final Fantasy, meaning that the combat is turn-based and relies heavily on using limited special abilities to eke out any possible tactical advantage. The Jew's abilities are like all of the best moments in South Park: crude boyish affronts stretched so far beyond their logical conclusions that they become funny again. There's the Sling of David, a ranged attack that can disorient enemies. Jew-Jitsu pummels enemies with a krav maga-like fervor. A spinning dreidel throws entire groups of bad guys for a loop. And you can probably guess what something called Circum-scythe does.
It felt like I was back at another screen more than a decade ago.
There's something brilliant in the crude simplicity with which The Stick of Truth delivers these jokes and hammers them home. What I love about them is how they capture the perverse stereotypes Jews have always had to confront. The contradictory assumptions that we're all pasty and weak yet somehow villainous and predatory at the same time. The half-serious questions about whether or not we have mysterious magical powers or horns on our foreheads. The game, like the show, captures every possible wart in the crass mindset of middle school boyhood.
It doesn't hurt that The Stick of Truth is a great RPG made by a studio known for making great RPGs either. As far as JRPGs go, I'm one of those fans whose dedication peaked with Final Fantasy VII, a game that's still remembered as a high point in the series and the one I first dug into around the same time I was being bullied. Turn-based games have gone out of fashion lately, but there's a satisfaction you get after you've lined up a perfect chain of attacks to demolish your enemies that's unlike anything else I've felt playing games. The pace of combat is deliberately drawn out, forcing you to wait in suspense to see if everything went according to plan. Once it does, it's like getting a perfect strike in bowling, only with a lot more laser beams and fire-breathing dragons. Unlocking the Jew's spinning dreidel attack for the first time took me back to the rush I felt the first time I used The Knights of the Round, one of the most powerful abilities in FFVII.
Playing as the Jew, I kept thinking back to the jokes John and the others had made in that email conference, to the embarrassing lectures I had to sit through in summer camp when one cabin mate took it upon himself to explain why Jews were so reviled throughout much of European history. It was because we'd killed Christ, he said. Could you really blame superstitious pre-modern people for being scared that the Jews would grind their babies to mix in with their matzah?
The Stick of Truth takes all of this and says, "So what?" Maybe Jews do have magic powers. And maybe that's not such a bad thing. The other kids in the game all call your character "douchebag" in true South Park form. But at the end of the day, you're still the one who saves them all from the Nazi zombies. And at least in this battle against Nazi zombies, the authors of the game are willing to come out and make it explicitly clear that, yes, "the Jew" is indeed a Jewish character.
Just being able to see those words written so clearly in a game is an empowering experience in its own right. It may not have been enough to make me feel better in high school. But just watching Drake lean in to kiss his tzitzit probably wouldn't have either. That doesn't make either experience any less of a triumph.
It's hard for me to be too optimistic about The Stick of Truth inspiring other game developers to start featuring out and proud Jews in their work, however. Trey Parker and Matt Stone are both industry outsiders who have fashioned their entire career off an unrivaled ability to offend and provoke people while still making them laugh. Plus, this is the first South Park game they've made in over 15 years. And judging by how burned out they both sounded when I talked to them about it, it will probably be the only one for a long, long time.
Would Obsidian Entertainment, the game's developer, or Ubisoft, its publisher, have even thought of making a Jewish character without Parker and Stone's stamp of approval? I'm not so sure.
Video games, like all works of art, are supposed to inspire us. To give us courage. When I was the new kid, taking my bagged lunch into a bathroom stall because I was too scared of what it would feel like to sit alone in the cafeteria once again, knowing I could go home and shoot some Nazis wasn't enough to make me feel brave. I didn't know how to say this at the time, but I wanted to see the things I loved so dearly acknowledge me in return. I wanted to see myself in a game.
Like all of South Park, The Stick of Truth's antics are profane and ridiculous, even purposefully offensive. But it's still the first game to let me do that.