I took my daughter shopping this weekend. We stopped at a kiosk in our local mall in West Los Angeles. As I was browsing, the saleswoman approached me. With a lowered voice, her hand on my forearm, she told me to please be careful wearing that, looking meaningfully at my large Magen David (Jewish star). This young woman was not Jewish. She seemed genuinely concerned. You see, she told me quietly, the security at the mall had warned all the vendors to put their Jewish-themed products away due to safety concerns. “We usually see a lot of Jewish families in this mall,” she told me, “but they haven’t been coming.”
Until this month, I had not worn a Jewish star in nearly twenty years – not because I had anything to hide, but because it wasn’t my style. The morning of October 7th, I dug out my biggest Magen David and I have not taken it off. Since that horrible day, Jews in both Israel and the Diaspora have experienced a world that we thought was buried safely in the past: a world that is not safe for Jews. In Israel, Jews are running to bomb shelters and having to evacuate their homes. Others have been called up to duty and are risking their lives to defend the Jewish homeland. And those are the lucky Israelis who were not in the South on that tragic morning.
Meanwhile in the United States a friend of mine who is a professor at UCLA found a pile of trash on the doorstep of her home with a page that read “Loudmouth Jew” and a swastika on top. A friend in a Chicago suburb is pulling her children out of school and moving because they are being harassed and threatened by Jew-hating neighbors. A friend of a friend was beat up walking out of his law office for wearing a Chai around his neck. Magen Am, a nonprofit in Los Angeles that provides self-defense classes and firearm training for the Jewish community is receiving over 600 calls per week.
Whether it be mobs looking for Jews in Russian airports, celebrations of the slaughter of our innocents on college campuses, hipsters pulling down and defacing posters of our kidnapped children, or even our very own non-Jewish friends staying silent, the world we thought we knew has been shattered. Run and hide this new world screams. Your grandparents’ stories are at your heels. This new world mocks you for being arrogant enough to think that pogroms and concentration camps were a thing of the past. Despite this, I have never wanted to shout my Jewishness from the rooftops more.
My family came to the United States as refugees from the Soviet Union when I was seven years old. They took me out of a society in which antisemitism was the norm, where how curly your hair was or how Jewish your last name sounded would dictate whether or not you would be accepted to university, get a job, or whether you got beaten up on the playground. But in my American life, I can count on one hand the number of times that I experienced blatant antisemitism until now. My daughters have never needed to hide their Jewishness. They have lived in a diverse society in which they could invite all of their friends of different backgrounds to their Hanukkah celebrations, where being Jewish was casual. And yet, the Soviet child in me always felt that this reality is fragile and that the ominous, secretive existence I experienced as a young child is buried just beneath the surface. So while most of my American Jewish friends are livid, terrified, and shocked, many of my Soviet friends are finding this new reality eerily familiar, like a ghostly shadow whose presence we always sensed and yet chose to suppress.
Some people I know are pulling their kids out of Jewish schools for fear of targeted attacks, others are taking their kids out of public schools and putting them in Jewish ones because they feel that at Jewish schools they will be safe from antisemitism. These responses remind me of the way my Israeli friends have described living in Israel during the terrorist onslaught of the second Intifada – when people living in Tel Aviv would tell themselves they’re safe by avoiding Jerusalem, while those who lived in Jerusalem would avoid East Jerusalem, and so on. Everyone would draw their imaginary red lines. The truth is that no one knows what is coming, what is safer, or the right way to navigate this new world. Are we overreacting or underreacting? Is this just a blip that will pass or is this the beginning of something far more frightening? All we have is our instincts, similar to the choices Jews had to make nearly ninety years ago in Europe, or when the Cossacks stalked their villages during the pogroms. The decisions made by our ancestors — whether to stay or whether to go, whether to hide or whether to run or whether to fight — continue to reverberate in their descendants’ lives. They survived by making these impossible decisions and we are alive because of them.
My grandparents, who survived Stalin and the Holocaust, have been begging me to keep a low profile. Stop going to rallies, they say. Watch your kids, they say. Take your mezuzahs off your door frames. And for goodness sake, please take off your Jewish star. I completely understand their concerns. After all, the Jews who survived the Holocaust did so by hiding. They are older and wiser and a part of me knows I should listen to them. But a bigger part refuses to take the Jewish star off. I can’t. I am a child of Soviet Refuseniks. I was not raised to hide. But also, I am an American and I believe that all people are entitled to freedom and safety. These are the rights I grew up with and I won’t just give them up! My parents and grandparents never had such privileges in the Soviet Union.
Last night a man in line in front of me at a pizza place noticed my Magen David and said “I like what you’re wearing. You’re braver than I am.” I am not sure if I am brave or stupid, I answered. “My kids want me to take down the mezuzahs,” he told me. “They’re scared, but I refuse. I escaped Iran so I could have the freedom to put mezuzahs on my door posts.” That’s how I feel too. My parents took me out of the Soviet Union so I could wear my Magen David freely and with pride. My brothers and sisters in Israel are fighting Hamas on the front lines so Jews around the world will not have to hide. The world may have changed on October 7th, but I don’t want to.
This weekend my oldest child will become a Bat Mitzvah and with that milestone, will take on the privileges and responsibilities of being a Jewish adult. I worry about the world she is inheriting. A month ago I would not have thought of hiring armed guards for the celebration. But I am also proud. We have raised our daughter to be a “Loudmouth Jew.” I hope that she will go forth and express her Jewishness unapologetically with pride, strength, and courage. As she reads from the Torah this Shabbat I will be by her side, wearing my biggest Magen David. Am Yisrael Chai!