Voting for the First Time as an American Jew

“Do you want to say ‘A Prayer for Our Country?’” I shouted to my friend Henry as we barreled down Bleecker Street toward the West Village. It was 10:30 PM on election night, and CNN had just called Ohio for Trump.

Only an hour before, we had been sipping beers among a sea of 20-somethings in “Nasty Woman” t-shirts, giddy with anticipation as we waited to toast the first woman president of the United States. “As Ohio goes, so goes the nation,” Henry had reminded me as the polls began to close on the East Coast. We had both moved to New York from Ohio; Henry hails from the Rust Belt city of Youngstown, and I grew up in the Appalachian college town of Athens. In the days that followed the election I would tell people bitterly that I had “left Ohio for a reason,” but that night I had chosen to believe that the place that I was from was not the place that I knew.

I held up my cellphone so that we could both read the prayer. Our faces were awash with blue light and disbelief.

“Our God and God of our ancestors,” we shouted, throwing our arms to the sky. I thought of all the times that I had heard this prayer recited on Saturday mornings, how I had repeated it mechanically each Shabbat, with little enthusiasm. We jostled each other and laughed as we bent over the screen, yelling each line a little louder as we drank up the final moments of hysteria before the plunge.

2016 was the first time that I voted in a U.S. presidential election as a Jew. I marked the one-year anniversary of my conversion during the height of the 2016 primary season, four days before New Yorkers went to the polls. The election put my newfound “otherness” in sharp relief. When I entered the voting booth in April, and again in November, I knew that I had to vote not only for the candidate whom I believed would be best for America, but also for a leader who would ensure the continued safety and prosperity of my people.

The dog whistles of Trump’s campaign and the outright antisemitism of many of his supporters drudged up anti-Jewish sentiment that I had never witnessed in my lifetime. I thought back to my meetings with my sponsoring rabbi, and how I had brushed aside his concerns about the antisemitic hatred he told me was lurking under the surface of our society. Now, during the last months of the election, my skin felt hot when I saw someone on the subway glance at the Star of David around my neck. I worried about my friends of color, especially those that wore hijab. I prayed that the country that I was from was not the country that I knew.

On election night, as it became increasingly clear that Hillary Clinton’s chances of winning were slipping away, columnist Peter Beinart tweeted, “I’ve never felt more Jewish and less American.” Similar sentiments poured out of my Jewish community that night and in the coming days. As we rode tear-streaked in a cab back to his apartment an hour before Hillary would officially concede, Henry told me that he understood more than ever why at the end of Fiddler on the Roof Tevye exclaims, “Maybe that’s why we always wear our hats.” Jewish friends on social media wrote anxious posts saying that maybe now really was the time to flee: not in the reactionary way that disgruntled American voters pledge to move to Canada, but out of a genuine belief that we have seen this before. When I noticed that the parashah for the upcoming Shabbat was “Lekh Lekha,” I couldn’t help but wonder if it was more than a coincidence.

Comfort came that week in various ways: waking up to texts of love and support from close friends in the morning, venting anger and disbelief over glasses of wine in the evening. I found the most solace in the presence of close female friends, but by the end of the week I had an increasing, almost desperate need to be among Jewish community. I hadn’t been to synagogue since Yom Kippur, but on Saturday I woke up early and took the hour-long subway ride to a shul I knew well in Washington Heights.

I have spent half of my adult life living and learning in Jewish communities, but there are times when the “we” still does not come naturally to me. After years of living on the outskirts of Jewish society, when I had to step out of rooms to avoid being counted in a minyan, being recognized as a full member of my community was a rush. Still, there are days that remind me of the first time that I wore a tallit and approached the bima. The feeling of heavy cloth cascading down my back filled me with a tremendous sense of honor; it was a moment I had dreamed about for years. And yet, I couldn’t help but become frustrated with the way the prayer shawl kept slipping down my shoulders, in constant need of adjustment.

After the election, I felt an overwhelming sense of betrayal–from my fellow white women, from the state where I grew up, and from my country. But as I listened to my rabbi’s words, surrounded by faces that mirrored my exhaustion and fear, I was heartened. In a moment when many of us are feeling powerless to effect change in a country that no longer feels like our own, we have also been presented with an opportunity: to make sure that the American Jewish community speaks up, acts out, and works to ensure the safety of this country’s most vulnerable citizens.

Since my conversion, I have struggled with what it means for me to call myself a Jew in America. Now, I see that I have a chance to answer that question. Like Abram setting off into the wilderness, I am filled with fear at the prospect of what the next four years will bring. But I also feel a sense of belonging in my Jewish community like I never have before, as we stride forward into this uncertain future, together.

About the Author
Alana Dakin (@alanadakin) is a freelance writer and works in nonprofit communications in New York. She holds an M.A. in Israel Studies from the Rothberg International School (Hebrew University).
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