“Hide your Jewish star,” my homeroom teacher whispered to me on the first day of 9th grade.
“Don’t let them see!” she reached for the silver star dangling in the soft spot at the base of my neck. “I’m Jewish too!,” she whispered, in an accent thick with the shtetl. “It is not safe to let them see!”
Them? Oh, you mean the other 9th graders?
Them: The guy with the pink hair and the earring slouched in the corner. The girl who wore silver star stickers over her pimples.
Them: The girl with the dred locks and hemp necklace. The boy with the glasses.
Them: The boy wearing the FUBU shirt. The girl with the hijab.
Two feelings swam through me.
1. Chill, this is LA. They play the Hanukkah Song on the radio, and half the school is MIA during the High Holydays.
2. OMG, what a life she must have had to make her afraid, even now, even years after moving to America.
But that was the beginning of a journey for me – a journey where I became That Kind of Jew: I’d wear a chai (in gold) or a magen david (in silver) depending on my eye makeup. I had an Israel Defense Forces T-shirt (olive) and a Coca-Cola in Hebrew T-shirt (red) … And even now, one of the things i’m looking forward to when I step off that plane at LAX in (OMFG) less than a week, is rocking the “emmmms” instead of “uhs” and talking with my hands a lot and telling people, “I am an Israeli.”
In other words, EMMM…. I’m looking forward to being an Israeli abroad.
But the thing is, even in LA where you can float down Fairfax Boulevard in a sea of yarmulkes, where I swear to you I once heard a guy wearing a big old diamond cross around his neck tell his son to “stop schlepping,” where they sell Hanukkah gelt at the checkout aisle at RiteAid, I know that Israel isn’t the most popular country in the whole entire world.
Check CNN if you don’t believe me.
But am I scared? Hell naw.
Israel is strong — sure, there are a lot of people who want to wipe us off the map but that is never going to happen. Want to know why? Because Israelis are strong.
Moyshe has left the ghetto, ladies and gentlemen. And the day we start hiding our identity is the day we begin to believe we have something to apologize for….
Yes, sometimes our government does things that may make us cringe.
Yes, there are some serious problems here — deep ones that we need to fix…
But when we go abroad, we are given an amazing opportunity to be the face of Israel — to represent this dynamic, complicated, nuanced, BEAUTIFUL country.
It’s a lot to take on, I know — it’s a heavy weight to carry, sure. But I would rather shoulder this burden with pride than tuck my Jewish star beneath my shirt with tears in my eyes.
We have a chance to be the change we want to see in the world by meeting others who may not like Israel as a country…. but may like us.