My whole life people have asked me where I’m from. I say New York City. The East Village. Born and raised on 6th street between A and B.
“No, but where are you really from?” They always ask. Especially the men. Men of all cultures — Egyptians, Indians, Lebanese, Dominicans — they come on to me expecting to find a piece of their culture reflected in me.
They stare at my dark curly hair, olive skin, bold brown eyes, looking up and down my petite frame.
“Are you Hispanic? Moroccan? Persian? Half- Black? Italian?”
They throw races and ethnicities at my blank face waiting for some reaction.
No one ever gets it right.
I’m Turkish and British. But I’m the Spanish sort of Turkish because my father’s ancestors were expelled from Spain for practicing their religion during the Inquisition, escaping to Turkey for survival. And I’m not the pure White sort of British either, because my British family fled to England from Iraq in the 1920s.
And I’m Jewish. (I tell people I’m Jewish early in conversation as a screener— just in case.)
They’re always taken aback, confused. Intrigued. Maybe just a little let down.
“You’re too hot to be Jewish,” I’ve heard, or “I’ve never kissed a Jewish girl before.”
When I was younger, I took these microaggressions as compliments. I thought I was making a good name for my people by highlighting my normalcy and hoped that the world wouldn’t label me as an Other as it did to my ancestors. I hoped that I would be spared from hearing the world’s haunting chants for Jewish death and suffering, and that I wouldn’t have to see my people tormented, mocked, dehumanized, and murdered on the world stage — but hearing the world call for Jewish annihilation is unfortunately something Jews in every generation must face and no exception is made for me.
On October 8th, just one day after Hamas’s barbaric terrorist attack in Israel, I joined members of New York’s Jewish community at a rally of solidarity by the United Nations. We found unity and comfort as we sang songs reminding each other of our strength while we held space for collective mourning. As the day went on, pro-Hamas protesters arrived to chant for a global intifada and make a mockery of our tears, unabashed. Israel hadn’t even begun its retaliation, and yet they met us with hatred for being Jewish — unable to give us a single day to grieve our friends and family who were brutally slaughtered, their blood hardly dry. One woman danced up and down the street smiling with glee — as if she herself was victorious for the killing of our people. There was nothing for them to be proud about on that day. Not on that Sunday when the horrific scenes continuously flooded our phones with footage worse than our wildest nightmares could have ever let us imagine.
The images and stories will forever be engraved in my mind. Whether it be 23 year-old Shani Louk’s unconscious body wrapped in rope lying on a pickup truck being taken into Gaza before being brutally beheaded, or the family minimized to black char after being lit on fire in their car as they tried to escape the atrocities at Kibbutz Be’eri, or the baby that was baked in an oven, or 19-year-old Naama Levy taken as hostage and paraded through Gaza with fresh blood still emanating from her sweatpants after being raped, or the testimony of Rotem Mathias, the 16-year-old whose mother was murdered on top of him in their home. I held these stories close to my soul as I looked across at my fellow New Yorkers who exposed themselves as unashamed terrorist supporters that day. They stared us in the eyes as they stomped on the Israeli flag, held up swastika symbols, and celebrated Hamas’ murder of Jews.
The surge in anti-Semitic violence globally has continued to escalate since that fateful day. From the destruction of a historic synagogue in Tunisia, to the disturbing attack on Jewish students at Tulane University, the deadly stabbing of a 30-year-old Jewish woman in France, and the horrifying infiltration of the Dagestan airport by Russian mobs hunting for Jews, we are constantly reminded that Jews are not fully welcome around the world, underscoring the need of our indigenous homeland and our defense force.
This past week, as I’ve met new people and introduced myself as Tamar, I’ve encountered the familiar curiosity of strangers: “Is that a Georgian name?” or “Where does that come from?” However, my typical response, “It’s Hebrew,” was met with stark negative reactions that I hadn’t experienced before. One man in a bar proclaimed “Oh, that’s weird,” while another abruptly ended the conversation he had initiated and walked away. These subtle, yet unmistakable instances of anti-Semitism exposed that these individuals had already succumbed to the prevailing negative narratives surrounding Jews and those with connections to Israel. I had quickly gone from being a curious specimen of multicultural exoticism to the dirty Jew and they didn’t quite know how to move forward. In a way these experiences only heighten my love for my name, a Hebrew word which significantly ties me to the Jewish homeland. While Turkish, Arabic, Ladino, English, French, and Hebrew are all languages I grew up hearing, Hebrew is the one I love the most. It’s the language of my name and of my people.
My name Tamar (tah-mar) means date palm in Hebrew. The date tree, etz tamar, is a testament to resilience, boasting a grounded trunk and a single-root system that can defy tornadoes and hurricanes while flourishing in the unforgiving heat of deserts across the Middle East. It’s a nurturing tree that bears sweet fruit brimming with nutritional benefits. Its strong fronds can hold up to 260 pounds each, while remaining flexible enough to sway in the wind. Much like the date palm’s fronds that extend in every direction, I’ve spent my years exploring the world and its rich cultures with curiosity and warmth. Yet, no matter where I go, I’ve always remained deeply grounded in the understanding of who I am at my core.
In college, after being in dual curriculum Jewish school for 16 years — where I spent half my day learning Hebrew, dissecting religious texts, understanding Jewish history, and the other half absorbed in secular studies — I actively diversified my friend group and sought out people of different cultures and backgrounds, exposing myself to new perspectives. Since I’ve always been ethnically ambiguous, and especially because of my close ties to Arab and Muslim lands, I’ve been accepted in a diversity of ethnic groups. I can sympathize and relate to people of a myriad of cultures. For years, my peers who felt marginalized in their communities came to me as an ally, as someone to rant to, as someone who would understand the minority perspective. I always listened. I always empathized. But deep down I knew when push came to shove, they wouldn’t be there in the same way for me.
I took advantage of my time in these friendships, taking on the role of Jewish representation, sharing my tribe’s food, music, culture, traditions, educating them on the Holocaust, on the pogroms, on the significance of our holidays, bringing them to Shabbat dinners where they sat beside me and felt the kindness of my people. I watched as my gentile friends fell in love with our culture, singing with Rabbis on holidays, cheering l’chaim, pronouncing Hebrew slang words over lunch between classes. I showed them how Judaism wasn’t just a religion, but an ethnicity, and a way of life.
I was always keen to unveil the vibrant tapestry of Judaism because I wanted my friends to see the truth. Deep within me has always lived the profound understanding of our fragile place in society and I felt that if I could only share my culture with my friends that they would remain fervent Jewish allies if we were to fall on hard times again.
“Fervent Jewish allies” is not the way I would refer to them now amidst current events. While a few dear friends have reached out personally, many more have remained silent. They’ve chosen to glide through my public displays of heart wrenched suffering and pleas on social media without stopping to even reply with a heart emoji or a quick “I’m thinking of you” message. I hope that in their silence they are at least experiencing an uncomfortable friction succumbing to the insidious spread of anti-Semitic propaganda because deep down they know that the chants they hear being screamed around the world vilifying me and my people, demanding for our execution and gassing doesn’t resonate with the Jews they have come to know. In their silence, I hope that they are thinking. I hope that they will continue to think, to question, and to seek the truth amidst the clamor of misinformation and hate.
You might respectfully disagree with Israeli policies and government actions — many Jews and Israelis do so and have done for years — but you cannot call for a complete destruction to the state of Israel without being anti-Semitic and you cannot stay silent while witnessing blatant acts of anti-Semitism without being complicit— doing so is as good as sending your Jewish friends off in cattle cars to be murdered, just as the world did 78 years ago. Do not do it again.
I will never forget seeing Stars of David etched on the Zyklon B stained walls of the gas chambers at Auschwitz I— a last effort to be proud Jews in the face of the Nazis. Nor will I forget the strength and determination of Lee Sasi, a survivor of the Supernova festival who hid under a pile of dead bodies on October 7, 2023 in order to survive. I come from a tribe of fighters — not because we are a violent people, but because we have always relied on our resilience and strength to fight for our survival and the survival of our descendants. This innate instinct is inherent to who we are and crucial to retain as only 0.2% of the world’s population.
To all those — especially those of minority backgrounds who do not identify as White — who see a part of themselves reflected in me until they learn that I am a Jew with ties to Israel, I ask you to question why. Why are you eager to separate yourself from me? Why are you suddenly silent when you witness my people being attacked? Let’s confront the biases that divide us.
This was written with Tamar Gutman (27) and Tamar Metzger (78) in mind. We are mourning the loss of Tamar Gutman and celebrating the release of Tamar Metzger after 52 days of being held captive by Hamas in the Gaza Strip.