I'm Afraid to Wear My Star of David Necklace. My Daughter Sure Isn't. – Kveller
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jewish identity

I’m Afraid to Wear My Star of David Necklace. My Daughter Sure Isn’t.

Fear is a learned behavior and somehow, I forgot to teach it to her.

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I am with my 24-year-old daughter. She’s wearing the Star of David necklace that I gave to her when she was in college. She was always borrowing mine, so I got her one of her own.

“Do you always wear that?” I ask and touch my naked neck.

“I never take it off,” she says. “It’s my favorite thing.”

I feel a small wave of shame. I love my necklace as well — a charm of gold with tiny diamonds on the lines. It was a gift from my husband more than 25 years ago. Precious enough to me that I didn’t want my daughter wearing and possibly losing it. She could be careless — with jackets, with jewelry, with her naiveté. I used to don that jewel all the time. Now, unless I’m at a Jewish event, it stays closeted.

All of my life, I’ve heard our family’s stories of antisemitism, from annoying to deadly. In the 1940s, my father and his brother fought their way to school in Los Angeles each day to the tune of antisemitic slurs and physical blows. As soon as he was old enough, their father changed our name from Bernstein to Burns because when he came to California as a 5-year-old in 1905, there were signs on vacant apartment buildings that read, “No Dogs or Jews.” 

At the same age, 33 years later, my mom escaped with her family from Nazi Germany. Her mother told me stories of narrow escapes from movie theaters and taxis in Berlin, where soldiers stopped shows and traffic to line Jews up and truck them to their death. I listened with fascination to my grandmother’s heavily accented trauma. From my diverse, middle class neighborhood in Granada Hills, California, I could only imagine a frightening regime in another country as foreign as the names my father was called when he was a kid – kike, heeb, sheeny. My dad had to explain the meaning of each. These words were not part of my childhood story, but they are part of my history. 

Change your name, hide and escape or you’ll have to fight for your life. These are the messages I learned as a child, and although I didn’t experience it firsthand, I believe my ancestors’ tales of peril. It’s the lore I came up on. 

I’ve shared all of this with my girl, but she is yet another generation removed from the terror, and she has grown up in a different world. From ages 2 to 11, she attended a Jewish day school. When it was time for high school, we chose the one with the best softball team, a small Catholic girl’s school. I worried that she would be a victim of microaggressions at best and full blown bigotry at worst. 

On her first day I told her, “You have to be your best self. Be generous and kind. Show them what a Jewish person is.”

“Mom,” she said with an eye-roll, “I know who I am.”

She did. With a solid knowledge of the Old Testament and the ideals she had about healing the world, she became a leader on her team, in her social groups and even in religion classes. If the nuns had qualms about her Jewishness, they kept it to themselves. 

There have been incidents of Jewish hate in this country within her lifetime. Many right here in Los Angeles, and when she was 12, in our small, safe suburb, when a house where Orthodox Jews prayed was tagged with a swastika. A year after that, a cheerleader at a local high school bullied a Jewish girl into a deep depression. The school refused to get involved, so the mom went to the media. I didn’t tell my daughter about any of it. She was too young and innocent to realize that someone might want to hurt her just because she is Jewish. I wanted her to feel safe in the world for as long as possible

When she was in college, she heard a story that shook her. Her best friend from day school went to college in the south. She took a tour of the death camps in Germany with her sociology class. She told my daughter that some kids in her group were making Jewish jokes inside the concentration camps.

“Can you believe that, Mom?” my girl asked as she relayed the story. “Freakin’ Texas!”

“It’s here too, ya know,” I said. 

“Gross,” she said.

“It’s pretty scary.” 

“You’re overreacting,” she assured me. 

Since October 7, hate crimes against Jews in the U.S. are up 360%

“That’s a lot of hate!” I say to my daughter, testing to see if she believes, now that she is an adult, now that she’s seen some things on the news, on TikTok, on her friends’ faces that have different beliefs about Jews than they had before the war began in the Middle East, that she might be in danger if the wrong person sees her wearing her religion around her neck.

“It’s not directed at me,” she says.

“It absolutely is.”

“Mom! We live in Los Angeles!” 

She is hedging for a win in this debate. I want to remind her how fast things went south for her grandmother in Germany, and her ancestors before that, and the ones before that. And that all Jews who live here are the descendants of people who were forced to leave another place that they once called home, from every corner of the world. I want to tell her that her great-grandmother thought everything was going to be OK, until her neighbor pushed her down the stairs. Within a week, she was on a boat to America, two toddlers in tow, where she had no money, no English and a wound so deep that it caused generational trauma that we are still coping with. My own fear has grown exponentially in the last few months. “It could happen again!” my grandparents and parents told me when I was young. I believed it less than my daughter does. But now I see the truth of their trauma, and because I do, I don’t pursue this conversation. I still don’t want to frighten my kid.

Actually, I sort of want to be her.

Fear is a learned behavior and somehow, I forgot to teach it to her. My grandmother couldn’t stop the Nazis by believing she was safe, but she didn’t wait around for the wolves to come in. She left everything she knew and saved her family. My uncle cleared a path to school each day with his courage. Eventually that path led to Harvard Law School and a brilliant career. My baby’s blood is fortified with fearlessness and love and the belief that, no matter how dire the situation, she has inherited the power to save herself. This is what she learned instead of hide who you are, be quiet, and for God’s sake, stay safe! 

I want to tell her how right she is and I want to tell her how wrong she is. I want to run home and put my necklace on and wear it every day and night. I want to insist that she take hers off, at least until things calm down. I want to do all of it so equally that I don’t do anything. 

The gift I gave my daughter sparkles against her soft, smooth skin. Sometime in the future I may have enough energy or fear to insist she take a more secure path. One day I’ll tell her not to poke the bear, and I won’t back down until she hears me. Even then, I don’t think I’ll convince her. She is a strong woman. She decides these things for herself.

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