I was raised by my secular, humanist Jewish family in the woods of central Maine. We were surrounded by lakes and maples, heard loons at night and occasionally, a moose and her calf wandered into our backyard, much to the consternation of our golden retriever. There were no sidewalks in our town, no traffic lights. My sisters and I played Laura Ingalls Wilder in the backyard until dark. It was isolated and idyllic.
That same isolation became disruptive once we entered the small public elementary school in the next town. We were raised to be proud and outspoken about our heritage, to speak up when teachers talked about Hanukkah in the context of “Christmas Around the World,” to bring in our brass menorahs and wooden dreidels and explain our customs to our classmates.
You may already know how this story goes. Sixth grade boys drew swastikas on their notebooks and showed them to me. “Do you know what this means?” they asked, feigning innocence. My sister’s classroom teacher referred to Judaism as a branch of Christianity, and her classmates called her a “stupid Jew” when she corrected her. A small blonde girl in my class kicked me as I walked up the stairs to the bus, hissing “Jew” in my ear as I fell. In middle school, well-meaning friends urged me to become a Jew for Jesus, to avoid my inevitable damnation. Our bus route took us past hand-painted signs nailed to a grove of trees that read “Jews = Sinners” and “Sinners Damned to Hell.” Read the rest of this entry →