At my elementary school, a couple of kids in the school band thought my name was Herbert Coleman, not Herbert Cohen. They assumed I was not Jewish. Then one day they became aware that my name was Cohen and they knew I was a Jew. That realization gave them license to threaten and intimidate me. One told me not to show up for the school band parade in which I played drums. When I told my mother about the threat, she went to the principal and related the incident to him. Moreover, she told him that she expected me to be in the parade as planned, and I was. But the memory of the event is still with me. I was the same person whether my name was Coleman or Cohen, but for people who are prejudiced, the stereotype becomes the reality.
This is what happens in Focus, the story of Lawrence Newman, a self-effacing office manager who, when he gets a new pair of glasses, begins to “look Jewish.” This puts him at odds with neighbors in his Christian neighborhood, in which there is a strong current of anti-Semitism.
The more he tries to convince people of his Gentile roots, the more suspicious his neighbors become. They view Jews as responsible for the United States entry into the war and as a subversive element within American society. Moreover, they view Finkelstein, the Jewish grocer in the neighborhood, as an outsider bringing in undesirables that taint the Christian character of the neighborhood.
Things go south for Newman at work. Because he is perceived as a Jew, his boss relegates him to a remote office where he cannot be seen by people who visit his firm. Soon, Newman resigns in anger only to find that securing a new job is difficult when people regard him as Jewish. He forms a relationship with Gertrude Hart, a woman whom he did not hire when he was an office manager because she looked Jewish, but she now works for a Jewish firm that hires him.
Romance blossoms and they marry, but he still encounters quiet hostility from his neighbors who regard him as a Jew and an outsider. Things reach a boiling point when Newman attends a rally of a neo-Nazi group and there is a brutal attack on Finkelstein’s store. All this galvanizes Newman and his wife to rethink who they are and redefine themselves as persecuted Jews who want to be treated without prejudice.
Judaism affirms the sacred essence of all of God’s creations. Everyone is created in God’s image; therefore; everyone possesses a spark of the divine and has infinite potential. In Judaism there is no place for prejudice or discrimination since we all come from the same place. Eve was everyone’s mother.
Moreover, Jews were strangers without a homeland for many years; the Bible reminds us of this many times. In Leviticus (19:33-34), it states: “When an alien lives with you in your land, do not ill-treat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” We are Biblically commanded to empathize with the stranger, the one who is different from us.
The story of Lawrence Newman is a parable for the story of everyman, who is inherently different from every other man. His last name, Newman, is a clarion call to all men to be free of prejudice and to relate to all men as new men, without the baggage of old memory tapes of ingrained discrimination.