Michele Braun
Life Member, Hadassah Westchester

A Necklace and Other Outward Displays of Jewish Identity

Photo courtesy of the author.
Photo courtesy of the author.

In my memory, I always owned, always wore, the Star of David necklace my mother had given me. It had been a gift to her from an older brother, I think. The design was a simple six-pointed star encircled by a lightly textured rim—all in gold—and, at the center, a silver-toned shape of the two law tablets that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai. The entire charm was maybe the size of an American dime.

Clearly, I didn’t wear this necklace as an infant or toddler, but I’m sure that, by the time I became a bat mitzvah, I wore it every day. My preference for a very fine gold chain led to any number of broken chains – replacements that my parents likely funded – and not infrequent trips to a jewelry shop for repairs.

I lost that necklace during my second year of graduate school. The chain probably broke as I walked home from campus. I recall searching storm gutters and digging through fallen leaves for days, trying to find it. My memory places most of my search in the gutter on Forbes Street (officially Forbes Avenue but always called “Street” by the locals, I don’t know why).

Knowing that I was very upset by the loss of this heirloom, my mother bought me a replacement. But it never felt the same and I rarely wore it. Years later, in 2022, when I finished a second graduate program with a master of arts in Jewish education, a friend gifted me a small mezuzah on a chain. This friend’s Catholic parents had purchased the mezuzah on their one trip out of the US, when they toured Jerusalem with their church group. I have worn this charm continually ever since.

I know my small mezuzah gets noticed. One day, for example, my husband and I stopped at a small historic park, the site of a US Revolutionary War skirmish. The docent approached me, asked if I was Jewish and proceeded to tell me that she was researching the Jewish presence in the area during the war. I was able to provide some useful references. I suspect the docent was either Jewish herself or had married into a Jewish family, but she did not tell me and I did not ask.

I have never hidden my Jewishness. I grew up in a “Jewish neighborhood” (maybe 50 percent Jewish), where the business district featured a Jewish-style restaurant (Weinstein’s), kosher grocery stores (Adler’s and KosherMart) and a Judaica shop (Pinsker’s alongside a pizza place (Mineo’s), drugstores and a supermarket.

The door frames of our house and all my later residences have been adorned with mezuzahs. Hanukah candles have always been lit in my windows — except maybe when the only window in my New York City efficiency apartment faced an air shaft. I took off from work for the Jewish High Holidays, which means that all my employers could assume I was Jewish.

This is the America in which I was raised. As I traveled with backpack and EurRail Pass through Europe in my mid-20s, several of my t-shirts contained Hebrew script (including פייצבורג, “Pittsburgh,” in Yiddish). These proved to be terrific conversation starters, especially with young Israelis also traveling through Europe on the cheap.

This is the world I expected and experienced. I recall no explicit antisemitism.

My father, who emigrated from Europe as a child, certainly had a different experience. Arriving in the US with the biblical given name of Isaac, he changed it sometime around college graduation (though after serving in the US Navy during WWII). Thus, Isaac Braunstein became Howard E Braun. My father had a slide rule with a leather case that was originally inscribed with “Braunstein” from which the “stein” has been cut out. I cherish the slide rule because he taught me to use it, because his career as an engineer suited him, because a slide rule is a more elegant solution than modern calculators – and because it tells a story of the American Jewish experience.

In my parents’ generation, names were not infrequently “Americanized.” My siblings and I were given culturally generic first names. Yet we have given our children obviously Hebrew or biblical first names.

From outsiders to full participants.

During college, my daughter chaired the Jewish student union and, often wearing a kippah, she was one of the most visible Jews on campus. And yet, following the Shabbat morning massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018, this child of mine, who had grown up as an equal participant in the abundance of American society, wondered if it was time to worry.

Since October 7, anecdotal reports cite an increase in the sale of Jewish symbols, such as Star of David necklaces. At the same time, news articles report the granting of rabbinic authorization to place a mezuzah only on inner, rather than outer, door frames to avoid easy identification as a Jew.

So what is our path forward? We must not hide; we must stand proud — as Jews and as participants in world affairs. And yet, we must also try not to become targets for bigots and those seduced by hate.

I am conflicted.

About the Author
Michele Braun, a life member, Elana Chapter, Hadassah Westchester Region, is a member of the Hadassah Writers' Circle. She provides adult Jewish education classes and consulting services to synagogues and community organizations. Her life-long journey through Jewish learning began in the first-ever nursery school class of Temple Emanuel in San Jose, CA. In some form, she has been a student of Jewish life and texts ever since. Michele earned a bachelor’s degree in Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University and an MS in Public Management and Policy from Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College. Following a career in public policy with the Federal Reserve System, Michele returned to graduate school, earning an MA in Jewish Education from Hebrew University in 2022 and launching a new career in adult education. Topics of particular interest include Contemporary Torah Study, Jewish Textile Art as Modern Midrash, and making mainstream classrooms more accessible to students with disabilities. Michele and her husband, Norman Bernstein, live in Pound Ridge, NY. Their daughter, S. Judith Bernstein, recently published "In Shadowed Dreams," a novella.
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