They say to write what you know.
Well, here is what I know. I know that about six months have passed since the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh. I know it’s been a little over two weeks since a man decided to play God in the Chabad of Poway Synagogue.
I know that I’ve entertained improbable hypothetical situations in my head too many times to count. “If a man comes on the train with a gun, I’ll roll under the seat and pull my bag to my chest.” Better to lie on the floor of a dirty New York City subway car than to die for being a Jew. I know that I watch people reach into their pockets in slow motion; I’m always aware of my surroundings. I’ve practiced how I would say the Shema, the centerpiece of Jewish prayer, if a gunman were to ever enter any of the multiple Jewish spaces I inhabit. Maybe I’m just paranoid, or maybe the trauma is hereditary. I know that this isn’t our new reality; it’s just reality.
Being a Jew is dangerous, it always has been. I come from a family of Russian-Speaking Jews. We’ve lived through the USSR, through institutionalized antisemitism via communism. We’ve survived Babi Yar, the Siege of Leningrad, the Holocaust. So I know that being a Jew is worth dying for.
There are times when I am altogether okay with living in New York City. Kosher restaurants, my friends, my family, an amazing city filled with opportunities…what more could I ask for? And then there are moments where time slows, and I find myself imagining the Judean hills on my morning commute, and I realize that unbeknownst to me, a tear has slowly found its way down my cheek. I am usually mostly alright, and then the smell of bread on an empty sidewalk can halt me in my tracks, immobilizing me, reminding me of Friday mornings in Jerusalem. I close my eyes and see fresh challah, it’s right there, I can almost taste it. These instances are so deeply moving, so entirely encapsulating, so awe-inspiring, that they make it hard to breathe. And then the train comes, the streetlight changes, the moment passes with no one around me the wiser. A woman’s purse bumping into me jolts me back to reality and I go about my day, except now with a bittersweet smile plastered to my lips.
Bittersweet because I am a Jew in diaspora, a Jew outside my homeland, a Jew in a world that for most of human history has wanted me dead. Bittersweet because that being said, I am a Jew with a homeland waiting for me, a Jew with my heritage ripe for the taking, a Jew with a people whose arms are spread wide open. And nobody, not a gunman, not a government, not an anti-Semite, can take that away from me. From us. Not now, not ever. This, I am sure of. I am not confident in my beliefs; I am certain in them.
A non-Jewish friend of mine recently asked me, “Aren’t you scared?” And I glanced across the table and felt the words push past the tip of my tongue almost of their accord, almost as though God was the one pulling them out into the universe.
“No,” I answered easily, “because one who believes is not afraid.”
And I recognize that not every Jew is as privileged as I am to have had access to our ancient wisdom. I say “our” because each of us has equal claim to our birthright. “Our,” because if the Jew-haters of this world see us all as equal in our status as vermin, then perhaps we should see ourselves as equal to each other too.
“I call heaven and earth to witness you today: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse — therefore choose life!” (Deut. 30:19)
In this world, there is only life and death, and the difference between the two can be measured in how long it takes for you to run to a bomb shelter in Israel. In how long it takes for you to stand up for yourself after you hear an anti-Semitic comment in class. In how long it takes for you to realize that you are special, important, here for a reason. In how long it takes for you to begin living a meaningful, unapologetic, and purpose-driven Jewish life.
Being Jewish can get you killed; my identity is worth dying for. And I am lucky enough to feel secure in this statement. However, my heart goes out to all the unaffiliated Jews who haven’t felt the warm embrace of Torah, who haven’t felt the strength of Zionism, who haven’t felt close to a nation, a people, a family, in the way that I have. So to these Jews I say: If being Jewish is worth dying for, then it must be worth living for too.
This I know.