The French Philosopher Emmanuel Levinas and his notion of ethics and relation as determined by the encounter with the other comes to mind. His model of how others see us serves to understand the Jewish system of belonging and assimilation.
In Poland, after the war, I could never understand how others knew who the Jews in the community were. It mattered not if we practiced or not our religion, we were still seen as Jews. It was how others saw us, how we were seen in their eyes and not how we saw ourselves that counted.
My mother always remembered her school days with emotion. She had always been eager to learn and felt lucky to have been accepted to the second grade in a time when so many school children were still receiving no education. The first day of school on September 1, 1925 was one of the happiest days of her childhood. She walked proudly with all the other children from her street, wearing the same uniform as the other girls—a navy blue dress with a white collar. The boys, in their dark slacks and white shirts, looked handsome. School became the place where my mother could forget the hardship and poverty at home. She studied each day with her classmates who lived in her building or on her street, and this way they all helped each other, and they all excelled in school.
My first memory of school is very different from hers. I was seven years old when I learned that being Jewish meant I was different from my Polish schoolmates. September 1, 1958 was my first day of school. The day began with so much anticipation. I have been looking forward to this day for four years, since the day my older sister first started going to school.
On my very first day, I was taunted by classmates before I ever entered the building. “You are Jewish, Poland is not your country, and Palestine is where you belong.”
I didn’t understand. This was the first time I’d heard that my home was in Palestine. It also was the first time I wondered whether being both Jewish and Polish was actually possible. I could not wait to run home. The day became a blur and what I remember clearly is that I was already crying as I opened our kitchen door.
My mother sat with me and patiently explained what it meant to be Jewish. I can still remember the sadness in her voice and the tears in her eyes. My mother’s reaction was eclipsed by my amazement. Our true homeland, she told me, was in Palestine. My response was a simple one: “Let’s go to where we belong.”