Pride and Fear as a Jew in America, 2019

BY
hero image
Young abused woman scared looking through the window seeking safety.
01 May 2019
Inspiration

My first memory of being out and about as recognizably Jewish, different from those around me, is from my early days in day camp. The camp was run by the Jewish Community Center but the clientele was diverse, and I was very conscious of being the only kid – or some years, one of very few kids – who got up to wash for lunch or who said full berachos before and after eating.

During the year, I existed in a bubble – Orthodox day school, Orthodox shul – but during the summers, I was different. It was hard, because I was a kid and I was embarrassed to do something different, worried that someone would try to talk to me when I couldn’t respond, during the long trek from the water fountain where I could wash back to the picnic tables where we ate our lunches. I didn’t want to seem weird or rude. But I wasn’t afraid.

Of course, even during the school year, we sometimes exited the bubble and had to think about our place as members of a minority against the backdrop of American society. Before every school outing, we would get a speech about the importance of being on our best behavior while out and about, on display to the world as a group of Jews. We were reminded that people might judge all of us by the actions of a few and that we must strive to make a kiddush Hashem, never a chilul Hashem.

We were afraid we might make our people look bad, but not that anything bad would happen. We had begun to learn about centuries of anti-Semitism and the violence it could lead to. We knew there were still whispers of anti-Semitism. But we were sure we were safe.

As I aged out of those JCC camps, I spent a couple of summers taking enrichment courses at a local (non-Jewish) private school. Again, I was the only one – or one of very few – to wash and bentch. I tried to bring lunches that didn’t involve bread, simply to avoid the awkwardness, but I was also old enough to be consciously proud of who I was and how I was different. I had stopped wearing pants by then, and I can still remember the satisfaction it brought me when peers asked about my skirts and I was able to respond with confidence: This is who I am, this is what I do, and I am so glad we can talk about it with respect.

Throughout my teenage years, I traveled fairly frequently – primarily for NCSY conventions and Torah study programs and the like, so I remained within my Orthodox Jewish bubble to some degree, but the travels themselves brought me to many an airport or gas station at many a prayer time. Sometimes on my own, and sometimes with a group, I davened in some of the oddest public places. Those experiences prepared me for life as a busy adult (and eventually a mother), fitting in my shacharis and mincha prayers in parking lots and supermarkets and doctor’s offices in addition to the airports and gas stations and subway platforms where it had begun to feel almost normal to daven. Standing and muttering to myself carried the same risk of embarrassment or awkwardness that it did when I was eight years old and wondering how to get away with bentching, the same concern of perceived rudeness if someone would talk to me when I couldn’t respond. But I talked to G-d with pride, wherever I found myself, my only real concerns being to avoid gross places (where it’s halachically inappropriate to daven) and places where I might be physically in someone’s way. The latter, of course, always carried not just an altruistic sense of avoiding bothering others but the fear of creating a chilul Hashem. I never thought to fear beyond that, though.

As a young adult, I often carried a Jewish book (or several) with me, to learn on the subway or at the airport or wherever I might find myself – which was often noticed by fellow travelers. I had countless fascinating conversations with people from all walks of life who noticed that I was Jewish, who wanted to know what I was reading and how I could read it, who often wanted me to answer their burning questions about Jews and Judaism. I always loved the questions, loved being visible as a proud Jew, loved the positive interactions.

Only one conversation that I can remember of these included any speck of anti-Semitism: A very nice lady shared with me, apologetically, that some of her family members harbored views about Jews having lots of money and running the world. Not only was I not afraid because of her revelation, but I have to confess that I laughed. I knew those views existed, and I knew they were no laughing matter; I knew what such thinking had done in Germany (as we’ll be commemorating this week, in fact). But in the moment, caught off guard, confronted by the information that there were real live people, today, who really did believe such patently ridiculous things – it wasn’t a laughter of amusement, but of surprise and, though intellectually I knew it was true, disbelief.

I still wasn’t afraid.

Sometimes, after a terrorist attack in Israel or elsewhere, I would wonder who around me was sympathetic to which side. But I wasn’t really afraid, especially in America.

Gradually, and suddenly, things changed.

Pittsburgh happened.

Thirty-nine years as an Orthodox Jew in America, close to thirty of them dressing in a distinctive manner that labeled me as a Jew, close to fifteen of them with the addition of a head covering that screams “Look at me! I’m different!” – and I was finally afraid. The day after the shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue, I walked into Starbucks – a location I visit regularly, where I’ve always felt at home – and suddenly, that day, everything looked sinister. Suddenly, the scarf on my head felt extremely noticeable, and I found myself wondering and even worrying about what the people around me thought of it. Of me. I found myself wondering and even worrying whether any of them might want to harm me because of it, because of who it might tell them I am.

One of the details of that Pittsburgh massacre that jumped out at me was a mention that the shooter was a truck driver. It caught my attention because my family travels frequently these days, too: a lot of road trips to visit relatives, during which we stop at a lot of truck stops and see a lot of truck drivers. They’d always seemed to be a friendly bunch, but suddenly I couldn’t help wondering whether I would have thought he seemed friendly too, if we’d encountered him at a random truck stop in the middle of Pennsylvania.

Driving back from visiting my parents on the day after Pesach – the day after another shul shooting – my family stopped at a gas station and decided it was a good time for a mincha break. I took the first davening shift while my husband supervised the kids, and found a convenient corner that faced away from the rest of the convenience store and that didn’t block access to any products or doors anyone might need; after all, I didn’t want to risk being rude. The path to the bathroom was right behind me, though, and amidst all the distractions that might pop up while saying any prayer anywhere, suddenly I had a new distracting thought: I’m standing here looking Jewish; how easy would it be for someone to walk behind me, ostensibly on their way to or from the bathroom, and pull out a knife?

It seems like everyone this week has been sharing the words of Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, rabbi of the shul in Poway who was shot – such as these lines:

I pray that my missing finger serves as a constant reminder to me. A reminder that every single human being is created in the image of God; a reminder that I am part of a people that has survived the worst destruction and will always endure; a reminder that my ancestors gave their lives so that I can live in freedom in America; and a reminder, most of all, to never, ever, not ever be afraid to be Jewish.

This week, I’ve worn my Jewish star necklace every day. I never wore it as a statement, but because it’s pretty; I didn’t stop wearing it as often as I used to for any particular reason. But I’m very conscious of wearing it now.

I will wear my Jewish star and my skirts and my scarves, I will learn Torah and I will pray, and I will engage in respectful conversation wherever I can.

I am still proud, as I always was, of who I am. And I, too, will not be afraid.


Sarah C. Rudolph is a Jewish educator and freelance writer. She has been sharing her passion for Jewish texts of all kinds for over 15 years, with students of all ages. Sarah’s essays have been published in a variety of internet and print media, including Times of Israel, Kveller, Jewish Action, The Lehrhaus, TorahMusings, and more. Sarah lives in Cleveland with her husband and four children, but is privileged to learn online with students all over the world through www.TorahTutors.org and www.WebYeshiva.org.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.