Two years past my official conversion to Judaism, I am informed, by a stranger who’s taken notice of the religious symbol around my neck, that Baptists here in Hall County, Georgia are good friends to Israel. Her church took a tour in Jerusalem, and their Jewish guide was so nice. Don’t I just love Bibi? She adores my people and oh, she does hope that we accept our messiah someday.
My Magen David, the Jewish star on my necklace, prompts a stranger to ask if anyone in my family died in the Holocaust. Her eyes water in anticipation. She seems disappointed when I say no. As a gesture of reconciliation, she apprises me of the Shoah’s horrors. How could people be so awful?
At the gas station, the Jewish star on my water bottle leads to an excited response from the girl at the counter. She wants to take a picture of it for her mother, who collects Israeli memorabilia. While I’m settling into the conflation of my religious symbol with an explicitly nationalist one, she tells me that her mother’s collection is anticipatory: She looks forward to the day when Israel’s houses collapse into flames, hearkening the Second Coming.
All of these encounters begin with an expressed love for Judaism. They gather in my consciousness, this litany of pestilent microaggressions, as instances of philo-Semitism. All follow from a belief that what is Jewish should be cherished and respected, but it’s the underlying reason why that leaves me feeling uneasy. Love, but because of what followed from it. Love, because without Judaism as a foundation, Christianity would not have been.
Love declared, but with the caveat that of course we are still lacking, feels very much like something else.
A decade ago, I introduced myself to my Hebrew Bible professor as three-eighths Jewish. A flag in the sand between us: I am a sympathetic being. There was a need to it, this parading out of common roots, this justification of my interest. I was still taking communion and reciting the Creed at the time, though. My great-grandparents’ history aside: I was Catholic. I was no percent really Jewish.
What made my great-grandparents leave the tradition I was learning to love? You take doses of history and mythology in equal measure, trying to understand. My maternal great-grandfather’s recorded nationality changed in the early 1920s: from German to Hebrew.
On my father’s side, my great-grandparents vacillated between identifying as Russian and Polish in census data—a decade as one, the next decade the other. Saved yizkor books hold names forgotten by the living.
My maternal great-grandfather’s surviving son denies that “Guttman” is anything but a German name. Who says kaddish for a person whose children know only the Our Father by heart? How do you place stones on graves that none on Earth can lead you to?
Three great-grandparents. Faint breadcrumbs. I looked toward classmates who discussed seder plans with jealousy. I started wearing a Magen David with my crucifix in deference to my lineage.
“I’m three-eighths Jewish,” I told a classmate making Shabbat plans. She had something I did not. She had something that I wanted. I needed her to acknowledge that we stood on equal footing, even though we were demonstrably on different ground. I wonder: How closely did my hunger compare to that of the stranger who wants to know where I go to synagogue, and have I heard the Good News of Jesus Christ?
A good rabbi warns you that part of joining the Jewish community is accepting that you’ll be privy to the slights and biases heaped on it. You get: the traditions. The community. The Torah. The Amidah. The freedom to drop oy vey! The right to critique the palatability of Manischewitz. The inheritance of thousands of years of hatred.
You are warned about anti-Semitism, and you do encounter it. Those whose theological understandings give them room to pronounce my doom, I can handle. Those for whom my magen is an opening to educate me on the meaning of Christmas: I, and my gritted teeth, are prepared to bear you out. But this philo-Semitism, this fetishization of my tradition that’s wrapped up prettily and delivered with warm sentiments: I did not know to expect it. I could not anticipate how much it would shake me.
A Christian whose eyes once teared up when she lauded the beauty of my tradition returns to show me the Magen David she picked up in Israel. Our roots, our shared roots! I am a bad ambassador: I avoid her. I don’t know what the symbol means around her neck. My faith is not your relic.
But ducking her, I am confronted with the memory of myself, not that long ago: a Catholic girl, with a Magen David around her neck. Is it the uncomfortable conversation I am avoiding, or the irony?