Fear and pride of being visibly Jewish

I didn’t really enjoy Hanukkah until the year I was living in Berlin, Germany. We had lived in Israel for two and a half years before, and one of the wonderful things about living there was that the country operated according to the Jewish calendar. In December, you would see menorahs everywhere, hear Hanukkah music in malls, and smell the delicious variety of sufganiot. Hanukkah was in the air and Christmas was nowhere to be found.

Then we moved to East Berlin where we were one of a handful of Jewish families. In December, Christmas was everywhere, decorations and lights illuminated the houses, Christmas music played in the markets.

And celebrate Hanukkah in Berlin was so different from celebrating in Israel. Berlin has many reminders of the Holocaust. I walked past the memorial stars embedded in the sidewalk that were placed in front of the homes of Jews who had been murdered in the Holocaust. As I was taking my son to kindergarten, I passed a building on my street that had a plaque commemorating 44 kindergarten children who had been deported from that building and killed in the camps.

Everywhere I went there were reminders that being visibly Jewish had horrific consequences.

Yet Hanukkah is a celebration when we light the menorah in front of a window, proudly announcing the miracle of our survival. I was acutely aware of the dissonance of publicly displaying our Jewish pride while living in a city where my Jewish pride suddenly felt conflicted, on shaky ground.

If you had asked me if I was proud to be Jewish, without hesitation I would have answered definitely yes. But my behavior revealed something else. When the friendly store clerk turned to my son and asked him what he wanted for Christmas, I noticed that I was smiling instead of saying, “Thanks for asking, we’re Jewish and we don’t let’s not celebrate Christmas”. Part of me was rather uncomfortable being visibly Jewish.

This is understandable. Growing up, it was not uncommon to experience anti-Semitic incidents. They threw a raw egg at me. Anti-Semitism is still very present, and it can make us cautious about displaying our Judaism.

A few months before our first Hanukkah in Berlin, we celebrated the arrival of our first daughter. We gave it the Hebrew name Hadassah. We weren’t very comfortable giving him a distinctly Jewish legal name, so we started looking online for a name that would be his legal name on his birth certificate. Googling the names of popular girls, I noticed that many of the names were distinctly Arabic. And I figured if they could be confident enough to give their children such distinctive Islamic names, then so can I. Hadassa also became its legal name.

A few years later we were living in Western Canada and went for a weekend trip to a small town called Fernie, BC. It was a delightfully scenic place in the mountains, with no Jewish population. We rented an Airbnb and one morning when my husband was praying with his tallit and tefillin, the owner knocked on the door. I opened the door as my husband walked into another room; we weren’t comfortable for him to see my husband decked out in items that he would surely find odd and bizarre.

Non-Jews respect self-respecting Jews.

But our plan was foiled, as the owner had to enter the room where my husband was praying. Indeed, he was intrigued to see my husband praying at full speed. He told us that he was a priest and that he was so impressed to see us living like Jews. He told us proudly that his grandmother – his father’s mother was Jewish.

There is a lot of truth in Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ statement: non-jews respect jews who respect each other.

With the rise of anti-Semitism today, it can be uncomfortable to identify outwardly as Jewish. But I remember the priest in Fernie and the many other people we met who noticed my husband’s yarmulke or my modest dress, and how being visibly Jewish was greeted with respect and genuine curiosity, a curiosity that sometimes leads to conversations that educate and connect us to others.

Now, more than ever, we must remember that living authentically as Jews breeds respect.

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