As a Daughter of a Holocaust Survivor, Being Jewish Defines Me – Kveller
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why be jewish

As a Daughter of a Holocaust Survivor, Being Jewish Defines Me

This article is part of our essay series, “Why Be Jewish?,” based off of “Why Be Jewish?”—a new book by the late Edgar M. Bronfman. Read the rest in the series here.

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.

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