I am Jewish.
People don’t often know that when they first meet me. I have blonde hair. My maiden name was changed a generation ago from something more “Jewish sounding,” and my married name, which is also Jewish, sounds Italian to many.
But my ancestry is just about 100% Eastern European Jewish. I had a bat mitzvah and a Jewish wedding, and my kids have been raised Jewish. I find comfort in my Jewishness – the matzo ball soup and potato pancakes, the loud family gatherings and the rituals we follow for birth, death and everything in between.
Because some people don’t necessarily “see me” as Jewish, I’ve been on the receiving end of comments that could be perceived as antisemitic. A co-worker once proudly told me they had “Jewed down” a vendor to a lower price, and I had to explain how offensive that was.
I grew up in a town that was predominantly non-Jewish, and had few Jewish friends in college. When I started my first job after college at an advertising agency in New York, I sheepishly went to tell my boss that I’d need a day off for Rosh Hashanah, and she interrupted me by saying, “Jill, most of us are Jewish here. It’s totally fine.” Things changed for me after that. When I got married, we bought a house in a town that had a sizable Jewish population and a large temple in our neighborhood.
We’ve been happy living here, raising our kids, and inviting our neighbors – Jewish and not – to celebrate holidays with us.
Recently, though, I feel a shift.
That large temple near us? For some time now, there’s been a near constant police presence outside. And in the last several weeks, they’ve erected cement posts around the perimeter. This literally means that the Jewish people in our neighborhood are so unsafe that it’s become necessary to build something to keep vehicles from trying to plow into us.
And in our town’s high school, they are now having students sign in and out to go to the bathroom, because they’ve recently found multiple swastikas carved into the walls in the school bathrooms. Several months ago there was a swastika found on park playground equipment here.
I tried to explain to someone that a swastika – for me at least – evokes a visceral reaction. It’s representative of people who wanted Jews to die. I also understand that for some, it’s just a shape. I know this may be an unpopular opinion. I’m not asking anyone to feel a certain way about swastikas – or for that matter, flags, mascots, numbers or letters that are offensive to different groups of people. I’m asking you to look beyond yourself and understand that what’s okay to you might be deeply upsetting to someone else (and vice versa), and none of us are overreacting.
Neighbors, friends, parents – I implore you to have these conversations with your children and each other. We are your neighbors. Our kids play sports together, sing in the choir, work on school projects at each other’s homes. Please make them understand that what is “just a symbol” to them can be representative of so much more to someone else.
And let’s talk about it. Have a question? Ask us. After all, we are your neighbors.