At an event in New York City organized by Israeli actress, writer and activist Noa Tishby and politician Andrew Yang to celebrate AAPI and Jewish American Heritage Month last Tuesday, Jewish actress Debra Messing opened up about experiencing antisemitism as a child. The story she shared was so harrowing that many of the fellow attendees audibly gasped when they heard it.
Messing recounted how, when she was a child, her family moved from Brooklyn to Rhode Island, where she was one of only three Jewish kids in her community (Messing’s father was the president of the Jewish Federation of Rhode Island). One day, when she was in second grade and standing in a line for the gym, someone yelled at her to go to the back of the line, using the ethnic slur “kike.”
“I didn’t know what that word meant,” Messing recalled. The kids’ parents were called to the school, and a conversation was had, but the event revealed to Messing that being Jewish was a dangerous thing.
On another occasion, when her grandfather came to visit, the family woke up one morning to a giant swastika painted on his car. “Things [like that] happened regularly,” Messing told the other guests.
Messing also shared that she used to pretend she was sick when she had to be absent from school on Yom Kippur out of fear of being harassed by the other children. It’s a story she shared with us last year after starring in the Netflix bar mitzvah musical “13: The Musical.”
These occurrences, she said, taught her to make herself small, to hide her Jewish identity. That is, until she attended Brandeis University, or as she calls it, “Jew U,” where she could finally celebrate being Jewish.
Other influential people in the crowd that night were iconic couples therapist Esther Perel, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, Nancy Spielberg, award-winning producer and Steven Spielberg’s sister, Rabbi Angela Buchdal, the first Asian-American to be ordained as rabbi, entrepreneur Ari Ackerman, author Amy Chua who talked about the discrimination her parents experienced coming to this county, and Brooks Brothers CEO Ken Ohashi who talked about raising Jewish Asian kids.
Messing shared her gratitude to Yang and Tishby on Instagram “for creating such a sacred space to share, and recognize how similar our experiences have been.”
The stories from Messing are harrowing, and sadly familiar for many minorities in this country. At a time when rising antisemitism and racism against the AAPI community in this country is troubling, it’s important to share them — and to be able to share our pride in who we are.
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