Jewish, American & Scared – Kveller
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Jewish, American & Scared

I am 5 years old. I am learning to spell my last name. N as in Nancy. A. U. M as in Mary. B U R G. No, that’s B R G. I decide that when I grow up, I am going to change my last name to Whitney, like my best friend Elizabeth who lives next door. I’m not sure why her name seems so much better than mine, but it does.

I am 8 years old. I start learning about the Holocaust in school. My egocentric child’s mind becomes hyper-focused on figuring out whether or not I would have survived. I know that my father’s family were all German Jews (I wouldn’t come close to the truth of my mother’s family for years), but I have the blue eyes, light skin, and straight blonde hair that was the Aryan ideal. I tell myself that my looks would have saved me.

I am 14 years old. I am going to Spain for the summer on a student trip. I find my fellow travelers in the international terminal of Kennedy airport. I introduce myself; they respond with confused looks. “Naumburg? You’re Carla Naumburg? That’s funny. You don’t look Jewish.” Apparently they had been studying the roster for the trip, trying to decide who was Jewish and who wasn’t. I didn’t know how to respond.

I am 16 years old. My grandmother suggests that I get a nose job. She offers to pay.

I am 25 years old. My then-fiancée and I are planning our wedding. We are trying to figure out what to do about our last names. I have always wanted a name that was better than mine, easier to spell. Instead, I fell in love with a man with a hyphenated last name, a reflection of his parents’ desire to create an egalitarian life together. As much as I want us to have the same name, I don’t want his hyphen. I suggest that we both take my grandmother’s maiden name, Heming. It has the first letters of all of our last names. My husband declares it too goyishe. I remind him that goyishe was the point when my family chose that name all those years ago as they stepped off the boat from Germany. He won’t take it. I can’t come up with anything better. We keep things as they are, even though I can’t help but think that someday it might be useful to have a goyishe last name.

I am 27 years old. I have spent years researching my mother’s family history. “Leda Mommy,” I tell my aging grandmother, “We’re Jewish. We’re all Jewish. Why didn’t you tell me?” She turns to me, lifts her head off the pillow, and says in the clearest voice I have heard from her in months, “Don’t ever tell anyone.”

I am 36 years old. My younger daughter turned four at the end of June. She loves to be fancy, so her Bubbe and Zayde got her a “big girl necklace”–a small, sparkling, sterling silver Star of David. My daughter is overjoyed. She calls it her David Star and wears it proudly every chance she gets. I can’t help but remember family stories about a diamond-encrusted Star of David that was lost during the war in Italy. I choose to ignore the tinge of worry that comes up every time I see her wearing the necklace.

Which brings us to now.

I can’t sleep. I lay awake in bed for hours, rolling from my back to my side and back again. My anxiety is already high. I know this, and I check Facebook before bedtime anyway. I see swastikas on protest signs in France, on cars in Florida, on tombstones and sidewalks a few towns from where we live now. I am acutely aware that the shame people once felt about revealing their anti-Semitism (which I don’t believe ever really went away) is diffusing.

I wonder if I even have the right to be scared. The only time I have ever heard the wail of an air raid siren is in the movies. I have never been in a bomb shelter, much less lived in a home with one. Unlike generations of my ancestors, I have never truly feared for my life. I’ve never experienced overt anti-Semitism, and I live in a heavily Jewish town where it would not be tolerated, or so I tell myself. Despite everything that is happening, the only claim I have to my fear is my history, a history that is quickly becoming reality.

I put down my phone and try to go to sleep.

Hours later. I’m still awake. I listen to my daughters breathing slowly and heavily in the next room, and I know they will be up early in the morning. They know nothing of what is going on, a luxury of living in this particular place at this particular time. They are proud of being Jewish. I wonder if we made the wrong choice in giving them names that reflect our European Jewish ancestory. Shtetl names, as my husband and I like to call them. Allison. Ashley. Kate. Jessica. Lisa. Even Sarah. I run through name after name that we should have chosen instead.

I know that this is the part of the story where I am supposed to tell you that no one benefits from my fear, and that I am proud to be Jewish, and proud to be raising Jewish daughters. This is the part where I’m supposed to say something about not letting the terrorists win, about not letting anti-Semitism creep into my thoughts and make me doubt myself.

All of that is true, to be sure, but it’s not the whole truth. Our history is not a figment of my overactive anxiety. It’s real, and we Jews know as well as anyone, it may very well repeat itself. Which is why I probably won’t stop worrying any time soon.

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