Growing Up Jew-ish While Facing Antisemitism

This is a picture of me in The Golan Heights, during my journey back to Judaism.

Growing up, I had a unique childhood to say the least. My mother is a very strong Jewish woman who raised me. My father is a white supremacist. My grandfather was in the KKK. How does this happen you may be thinking, I am here to share my story and to explain exactly that. How did it affect me? How did I heal? When people talk about Nazis today and white supremacists, most don’t even know what it is really like. I do. I have first-hand experience. This may sound like a sad story, and it could have been; but it isn’t. I thank G-d every day for me going through these hardships. Why? Because it made me a strong and unapologetic Jewish Zionist.

My mother and father went to the same high school, however; they didn’t start dating until four years later. My mother was a popular girl with good grades. My father was the “bad boy,” who didn’t wind up graduating. In the beginning of their relationship he was charming, fun, kind. However, that changed quickly, especially; after they were married. I will not share her story and the details of that relationship. But I will say, my mother left that abusive relationship and took me with her. (She has since remarried to a wonderful man.) You may be thinking how does a Jewish woman wind up marrying a white supremacist? Imagine every domestic abuse case you’ve ever heard about. The abuser is handsome, charismatic, manipulative, and you never see it coming. (My mother is also handicapped and I truly believe my father took advantage of that.)  My great-grandfather, my mother’s grandfather, had warned my mom that my father was a very bad man and that she shouldn’t date him. But then I came along. My mother wasn’t allowed in my grandfather’s (my dad’s father,) house until she was pregnant with me. This was because she was Jewish. When she became pregnant, she had,” their blood running in her,” so it became okay for her to enter their house and be amongst them.

I was born Feb 17th, 1990 in one of the worst snowstorms. My mother and father raised me together until I was one and a half. My mother escaped and took me with her. My father didn’t seem to mind all that much. He took off to Florida for the next six years. He came back at the end of second grade and forced my mother to change my last name to his; it had been legally changed to her maiden name. As a kid I was very confused, I had never met this man and now my last name has to change? Then he disappeared for a few more years. During this time, I was raised Jewish. I went to a Jewish school in pre-school and kindergarten; then public school from there on. I would celebrate all the Jewish holidays with my mom’s side of the family. My great grandmother loved the holidays. She loved seeing all of us, the food, and her faith/culture being carried on. When she died, that stopped but by then my Jewish Identity had already been damaged.

When my father came back into my life I was in elementary school. He was around for only a few years (which is a pattern at this point,) I was about 9-12 years old. These are supposed to be your formative years. In the beginning my father was my hero.  He treated me very well. He took me to arcades, kiddie-land (a kid’s version of six flags,) played video games with me, took me to the movies my mom wouldn’t let me see. He seemed like he really cared about me. He introduced me to my grandfather and my uncle. They absolutely adored me. The closer my father and I got, the more I trusted him. The abuse started off slowly. He would talk about race and how I could never come home with anyone who isn’t white and Lutheran, or he would, “beat me and my hypothetical boyfriend with his belt. “He would force me to go outside while he was in the house and told me to, “go play in traffic.” My father never had anything nice to say about my mother. He called her all sorts of names: crippled, B@#$%, a K*k* etc. He was trying to exert his dominance and influence upon his child.

As I mentioned, the abuse started slowly. Around the time he started dating and bringing me around the women and their children he would always put me down. When he met Rosie, who had three kids of her own, my father would relentlessly put me down.  They would ask me questions like.” Why don’t you have straight blonde hair like your Dutch and German cousins?” “Why are your eyes so dark, your cousins have light eyes.” One day they decided they couldn’t stand my curly hair. They bought me a hair straightener. I was to sit down while they straightened my hair, they expressed,” Only a k*k**s and n****** have nappy curly hair.”  From this point forward my hair was to be straight whenever I came. When it came to his girlfriend’s children, I was told that they were better than me. Soon, they wouldn’t allow me to play with them at all. They sat me at the computer to play a video game. They would feed me a grilled cheese sandwich and a scoop of cherry Garcia ice cream. That was it. For the entire day. Even if I was forced to sleep over. When they would watch movies, they would put something scary on. One time that I remember vividly, I still cannot watch this movie to this day, they made us watch The Candy Man. The premise of the movie is similar to Bloody Mary. If you say his name three times in the mirror he comes after you with all his bees. As if I wasn’t scared enough, when the movie ended, they took us to the bathroom. The three children, my father, and his girlfriend repeated saying,” The Candy Man,” three times. My father leaned in and told me that The Candy Man was coming and was only going to come after me. I was terrified of bees until I was twenty-nine years old, the first time I was stung by one. When my father finally gave up his parental rights to me, I was in junior high. This wasn’t an easy battle, but it was won. Unfortunately, it wasn’t soon enough and had left what I thought to have been irreparable damage. The last things my father said to me was, “f*** you, go F*** yourself, I never loved you, goodbye!”

My childhood was like a whirlwind of people telling me how different I am. I mentioned earlier that I went to public school. That being said the Jewish population in the entire school was always 3-5 kids; me being one of them. The majority of the time I would be the only Jewish one in a class. How do I know this, and how do I remember this? I felt like I was the Jewish representative at all times. During the holidays, it was always the hardest for me. Growing up in the 90’s they still had religion in public schools and it was a very Christian based religion. For example: Christmas parties, Christmas break, making Christmas decorations. Here I was, a young Jewish girl surrounded by people of a different faith, that didn’t understand all of my holidays and was told from an early age, by my father, that it was wrong to be who I was. For a while I tried to be proud. I would ask for the colors blue and white so that I could at least make something Hanukkah-ish. I never got off of school for my holidays, always theirs.

From the treatment of my father, it turned into the treatment of my peers. I would cringe whenever we were taught about the holocaust. First, they weren’t as sensitive to the subject like a Jewish person would be. People would always stare at me and ask me questions. Second, they would start,” Heil Hitler-ing,” me. I have yearbooks to this day that still have,” Your #1 Nazi friend,” written beneath the covers. When my great grandmother passed away, I received this beautiful Star of David and I was so honored and proud I wore it. I didn’t wear it for very long. People would start calling me all these awful names, I would cry. I remember standing in the hallway one day right before class and someone called me a k*k*.  I was a freshman at this time, so when this senior turned around and heard what the other person had said… He wrapped his arm over my shoulder and told them to never mess with me again. After that day, I took my Star of David off. Not to be put back on my neck until I was twenty-six years old.

You’re probably wondering how I handled this, how I coped, what I felt. The answer is, I didn’t. I denied I was Jewish for many years. I never talked about my father. I gave up on faith, I gave up on g-d. I became an alcoholic. I didn’t know who I was or who I was supposed to be. I questioned everything I did, I had so much anxiety I couldn’t be in public at any point by myself without having a full-on panic attack. I wouldn’t even get up to go throw my school lunch away in the cafeteria garbage by myself because I was terrified. I made horrible decisions, yet somehow got good grades and graduated from college. I was angry. I was lost. I was sad. I was missing. I drowned this all away to the bottom of the bottle. As I mentioned I never talked about this growing up. My friends never new. They never knew the reason why I was the way I was. They would only get snippets of me drunk crying on the floor about how no one loved me and I didn’t even love myself. I hated myself. I hated my choices. I hated every single person that ever felt the need to remind me that I am different. I would call my mom in the middle of the night that I wound up just like my father. She would ask me what I meant by that. My father is an alcoholic/ addict who cannot handle his own emotions. I felt like that described me to a tee.

When I was twenty-six years old, I felt like it was time to figure who I was. I put back on my Star of David and started growing the courage to be publicly Jewish. April 28th, 2017 at the age of twenty-seven, I checked myself into rehab. It was the greatest gift I have ever given myself.  It started my journey back to Judaism. It forced me to start a relationship with G-d. Over the last three years and extensive therapy I have not only accepted who I am but learned how to love me. This was a gradual thing. I saw everything going on with antisemitic attacks and I couldn’t be silent anymore. I felt like my entire life experiences trained me for this moment. I remember reading a quote that said, “In order to fight antisemitism one must become more Jewish.” So, I went on Birthright in December of 2018. This opened my eyes to my culture. I got to learn my history, see our land, it opened my eyes. When I came home you can say, at the very least, that going to Israel lit the fire within my soul. I found a synagogue near by and started going to services. I loved it but it wasn’t a enough. My friend told me about a program called RAJE- Russian American Jewish Experience. This is where I really dove in to what it meant to be a Jew. I took classes from an orthodox rabbi for three hours every Sunday. I had my first and many more shabbats in the Jewish neighborhood with in Chicago. They sent us back to Israel.

January of 2020, I spent the entire month there learning about what it means to be a Jew from history to culture and everything in between. I lived on the land, I walked on the land, I travelled the entire land of Israel, except the Gaza strip. It was fabulous. It helped me heal my soul. I decided to extend my trip and I went to Neve Jerusalem, a seminary in Jerusalem, and the experience added fuel to the fire already burning in my soul. I came home and hit the ground running. I started joining organizations within Chicago. I magically found Herut which has been a blessing. Everything they stand for I believe in. I started reading all the books I could. I became vocal about me and other Jews. No one could ever make me feel bad for being me.

This could have been a sad story. I could have given up and been defeated. I truly believe that G-d does everything for a reason. I was meant to go through all that pain when I was younger to come back even stronger as an adult. No one can say anything to me that could keep me down. I was proud. I am proud. I believe in my heritage. I believe in Israel. I believe in the Jewish people. When the world wanted to beat me up for being who I was, I fought back. I came out winning. I will make sure my kids know what it’s like to be Jewish. They will hold Jewish values. They will be proud. I will teach them how to deal with the outside world. And most importantly I won’t be the last proud Jew in my family. No one in my family holds Judaism as close to their heart as I do.  I feel deep within my bones that this I my mission in life. To keep Judaism alive, to stick up for my people, and take a stand.

About the Author
Angela Van Der Pluym is a Jewish girl from Chicago. She has a Political Science degree with an emphasis in Public Law. She is apart of the Young Leaders cabinet of Herut Noth America. She is a dog mom to her bulldog, named Kylo.
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