When I was in elementary school, a girl named Carol called me a “Jew bitch.” It was a shock and it hurt me, but I dismissed it, and her, as just plain stupid.
When I was in high school, a girl named Gayle said I was the first Jew she’d ever met, and I wasn’t so different after all. I laughed it off and said, “So I don’t have horns after all?”
And when I turned 13, a girl named Janice, my best friend, defied her Baptist parents and attended my special confirmation, which our rabbi did especially for me at a Friday night service, because I was very Jewish in my heart then and girls didn’t have bat mitzvahs.
In those days my family and I attended High Holy Day services in our small-town synagogue, where Jews gathered at least once a year to remember our roots and to say a special prayer for those we’d lost.
That congregating, infrequent as it was, that sense of belonging to and being understood by a group with a shared history and culture, instilled in me a deep sense of Jewish identity that is with me still.
Later, as an adult and a secular Jew, I wrote a poem about that identity that included these lines:
“Until I was in the 7th grade, I thought everyone my age was a first-generation American.
“I was sure my friends’ parents were as somber and worried as mine, having come from over there, where pogroms and persecution flourished.
“I thought bagels and lox and gefilte fish were things everyone ate all the time, and not just when they were being ‘ethnic.’
“It took me forever to realize that Sukkoth and Seder baffled people, but gave me lifeblood.
“And when at my confirmation, I was called ‘Esther,’ I understood why.”
* * *
I also wrote a poem called “March 13, 1943,” the day the Kraków Ghetto fell. (A month later, the fall of the Warsaw Ghetto followed.)
In the poem, I wondered if I’d have had the strength to resist the Nazis and the cunning to survive them as “the black saber of the Holocaust disemboweled European Jewry.”
But as I wept at every Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur service, moved by standing with Jews from all corners of the globe and Jews of all time, remembering those who even in the ghettos did their best to pray at the Jewish New Year and to remember the exodus out of Egypt at Seder, I never wondered, as an American Jew, if such vitriolic hatred and violence could be visited upon me and my loved ones.
Nor did my Jewish friends, many of whom are the progeny of people who fled pogroms or escaped in time from Nazi Germany.
* * *
I watched the effect that history had on my parents, both of whom fled pogroms in Ukraine as infants in the early part of the 20th century, carried by their own parents onto ships and into safe havens but further hardship in Canada and the U.S.
I saw that they stuck close to family, a safe haven and their only source of a social life as they visited one relative or another on Sundays in Philadelphia or vacationed annually with relatives in Toronto.
I realized where my mother’s compulsion to save wedding gifts wrapped in plastic, and her reluctance to buy new things, came from — you can never afford to be wasteful, and beautiful things are hard to come by, so you buy or use them only for special occasions.
In the back of her mind, no doubt, she also wanted things kept intact, just in case you had to leave home quickly.
Still, none of us ever thought that the vitriolic hatred and violence — the rabid anti-Semitism that fuels so many other discriminations, so much xenophobia, a terrifying nationalism, a hatred so vile that it led to the largest mass violence against Jews in American history, and that grow exponentially every day — could happen to us. Not here.
* * *
So, what’s it like to be a Jew in America in these times?
It is feeling a subtle and ever-present anxiety escalating into real, raw fear.
It is reluctance to reveal and celebrate your Jewishness.
It is the terror that something might happen to your kids or other loved ones.
It is hating the sight of a yellow star.
It is thinking about how and when to leave home and country before the brown shirts arrive.
It is having bad dreams and somatic issues and weeping more at sad movies.
It is saying “Love you” more than we ever did before.
It is watching with special horror what has become of people in this country since 2016.
It is longing for those people to come to their senses before it’s too late — for all of us.
It is hoping we will not be “the Chosen People” again while standing with others who are also deeply threatened.
It is saying “Never Again!” and hoping to God that we mean it.