In my role as a counselor, I have had to sit across from men with swastikas tattooed on their necks and hands. In one case, I had a man tell me, with the iciest look I’ve ever seen, that he had just taken a book out of the library about how the death camps were created. He knew I was Jewish, and the rest of our short time together was spent in silent and intense stare-downs. When I asked another young man about some numbers on his knuckles that I had Googled, only to discover that the ADL had these in a list of Aryan Nation prison gangs, he told me that he needed to get them to be protected while incarcerated. I didn’t believe him for a second.
I am the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, and for that, I live in my Jewish skin with great honor. Despite my lack of formal observance and ambiguity around my own sense of spirituality, I am, first and foremost, a Jewish girl from Long Island. When I go back to visit, it’s like slipping into a warm bath—it’s comforting and familiar and comes with the guarantee of the delicious food of my youth. Nobody shushes me when I get too loud or judges me if I ask personal questions. It’s what we do.
In my work in social services, I am often the only Jewish person in my office. I’ve worked with felons, juveniles in residential programs, and now drug addicts and alcoholics. I am shocked to learn that I am often the first Jewish person they have met. When they hear me talk about my mother’s role as a Hidden Child during the Holocaust, they are awestruck that they now know someone directly connected to a war that most of them only know from textbooks and The History Channel.
Back in 1977, when I was 13, I went to at least one bar/bat mitzvah every weekend. I grew up on Long Island where almost all of my friends were Jewish. Now, I live in the greater Boston area, far removed from the leafy suburbs and Jewish neighborhoods. My city is mixed income, mixed race, and mostly Christian. I have very few Jews in my orbit. I cobble together a seder every year, adding a multicultural and bilingual twist to the Haggadah (my husband is Puerto Rican). I light Hanukkah candles and recite the prayer together with my daughter, using the same menorah I grew up with.
That’s about the extent of my Jewish ritual throughout the year.
Yet I give public talks about my mother. I’ve stood in front of adults and middle-schoolers, inmates and addicts, and told her story, which is my story, too, with an intense amount of pride and strength. I love being able to define myself as a Jewish New Yorker. Those words alone puff me up and make me stand a bit taller. Is it my role to educate? Is it my role to turn ugly hatred into understanding?
Whatever it is, and whatever I’m doing, being Jewish defines me, and I couldn’t be more proud.