Last week I was on the phone with my mom while walking to Penn Station. We got into an incredibly interesting conversation about god and gender, so even after I arrived I stayed on the sidewalk to finish our conversation before I descended into the radio-free basement of Manhattan.

As I stood in the waning sunlight, I became aware of a woman circling me, muttering. As soon as I looked up, her muttering became all too audible. “Damned Jew bitch,” she said, staring at me, “Own the whole f*cking world, don’t you.” I tried to ignore her and continue talking, but she started repeating everything I said in a high-pitched squeal, like an annoying child. When I started to walk away, she followed, and began threatening me physically. “That’s right, run away, I’ll beat the crap out of you, f*cking Jew bitch.”

Of course when I looked around there was not a single police officer in sight – most likely she wouldn’t have dared to follow me otherwise – and while several people noticed what was going on, not one actually said or did anything. (I’m not surprised about this, just commenting.)

I’m accustomed to people attacking my ideas or my interpretations and fighting back intellectually. I’ve studied Tai Kwon Do, and can fend off a physical attack if need be. I’ve been told that my queerness is a phase, that I’m too girly to really be a lesbian, that because I dated a boy I must just be confused, that I’m too religious, that I’m not religious enough, that I’m going to hell.

But this felt like the most pure form of hate I’ve ever directly experienced. And even though I didn’t fear for my own safety so much (she was physically smaller than I am, and from watching her terrible posture and lack of balance I’m guessing I could have easily knocked her down if necessary), the look of absolute hatred in her eyes and her attitude of attack made her seem to lack any human qualities whatsoever. And despite her comment about Jews owning the world, it didn’t feel like she was attacking me in response to a perceived threat from “people like me;” it felt like she was radiating hatred for the sake of being hateful. And that’s what scares me.

When reasoning, explanation, and education won’t work, when any verbal response will likely be taken as provocation, what does one do? When diplomacy isn’t even an option, how to respond? When I’m determined to stand my ground, to not be intimidated out of a populated, public space for no reason at all, do I stay until it’s clear that I’m risking a physical altercation? When does my passive resistance, in other words, turn into a provocation in itself?

The episode left me temporarily rattled, but on a deeper level wanting to understand the dynamics of the interaction, and others like it. Having never been on the attacking end, I don’t understand the motivations of those who are. And without that understanding, I have no idea what response, if any, might prevent escalation.

In the end, I took an easy way out – I climbed into a cab, and had him take me two subway stops closer to home. But I know this won’t be the last time I experience hatred.

Shabbat shalom to all, and may we all stay strong in our quest for peace.