I once asked my mother, when I was a young girl, why she fasted on Yom Kippur. She isn’t particularly religious, doesn’t believe in all the Bible stories and questions the existence of God as depicted in traditional Judeo-Christian texts and ideologies. My young brain simply assumed that anyone who fasted on the holiest day in the Jewish year did so out of religious obligation. Her response surprised me, but has become one that has molded my own feelings toward Judaism: “I fast for the same reason we keep kosher on Passover. It makes me feel connected to Jews all over the world, knowing we are partaking in the same tradition and rule of law.” I have pondered this statement consistently throughout my adult life. Its meaning has morphed, shrunk, expanded, and changed depending on my own personal story at any given moment or what is occurring in the world around me.
With the tragic and shocking (thought not entirely surprising) wave of anti-semitism and violent attacks against Jews in the tri-state area during Chanukah this past December, I was forced to reckon with my own insecurities about being a Jew in this day and age and what it means for Jews all over this country. And for our ability to practice safely, regardless of our affiliation or how often we attend synagogue. And to simply exist.
Yes, these attacks were focused on the Orthodox and Hasidic community. No, I’m not religious or very observant. No, I don’t dress like an Orthodox woman. The men in my family have never worn kippas outside of the synagogue or their own homes on Jewish holidays. We are not kosher. I have a penchant for ham and cheese. I don’t solely date Jewish men. And I do NOT dress modestly. My clothes aren’t always super revealing, but I believe in displaying my figure when the spirit leads me. Regardless of what I choose to wear on a daily basis or how I dress for a wedding, I have come to the harsh realization that my freedom and choice to wear what I want as a Jewish woman may be protecting me from verbal and physical anti-semitic attacks.
Like many secular Jews, I have had my share of judgments toward the Orthodox and Hasidic communities. While there are definitely different sects of Othodoxy, even here in NYC, many religious Jews wouldn’t even consider me Jewish; it’s actually infuriating. At the same time, is that so different than thinking that they are “the other,” as I have often done in the past? No, actually. It isn’t. And I have been wrong.
I have come to realize that my ignorance has contributed, in a roundabout way, to a rise in anti-semitism. How has it helped any Jew to single out one type of us?
The essence of our blood, our history, our ancestors–it all stems from the same nucleus, the same genesis (no pun intended). There weren’t varieties of different types of synagogues 300 years ago. In Fiddler on the Roof, isn’t Tevye the metaphor for an ancient Jewish father? Isn’t the pogrom that occurred in the musical the same one (not literally, but in reality) that happened to many of our Jewish ancestors (I actually know this happened to my family for a fact, but that’s another story). I am descended from the same types of families and observance levels as religious Jews in Bed-Stuy. Maybe the similarities exist in generations past, but they existed. They created me. They kept Judaism on earth. They put prayers in the Wailing Wall. And they live inside me. Therefore, I have come to value this truth: an attack on ANY Jew is an attack on ALL Jews.
Here are the facts, as I view them, and I present them clearly and emphatically.
No Jew, whether Hasidic or non-practicing, EVER deserves a verbal or physical assault for being, simply, a Jew. They did NOT, and I will repeat this for the ignorant and uninformed in the back, NOT “bring this on themselves” because of the recent vaccination controversies in the past year. Yes, I believe those who don’t vaccinate are in the wrong, but that does not entitle anyone to attack another, let alone murder someone. They do not “bring this on themselves” because they don’t mingle enough with the outside world and hold some archaic values. The same way a woman is NEVER asked to be raped or assaulted for wearing a certain kind of dress to a bar, so a Jew doesn’t deserve or ask to be attacked for wearing a wig, a hat, or not making eye contact with the opposite sex. They aren’t “the other.” They aren’t a different type of Jew. They aren’t greedier or cheaper than any other part of humanity. On the surface and on paper, we may all seem different. But the soul of a people or history is united. You may not be aligned with their practices. You may not agree with their lifestyle choices or understand why they observe certain laws. You may even find their way of thinking and acting and doing absurd and ludicrous.
I am not here to tell you if you are wrong or right. I don’t particularly care. We judge what we choose and what makes us feel superior to appease our own self-hate. That’s on you. I am here to remind you (and myself) that they are human. That they are fearing for their lives the same way my great-great grandparents did in Poland when facing the threat of pogroms. The same way the majority of Jews that exist in 2020 have ancestors that had to practice their faith in secret, were spit on walking through villages in Poland and Russia, were thrown off carriages during raids on shtetls, were mocked as greedy thieves and merchants by Shakespeare and The Grimm Brothers, were burned at the stake during The Inquisition…sadly, I could keep going.
About a month and a half ago, I was walking near the diamond district. It was 6 pm. It was dark out. A Hasidic man walked by me. There was a time, (too recently, I may shamefully add), where I would have thought, “Are we even BOTH Jews? We have a seemingly endless body of water between the types of lives we lead and the way we consider our Jewish identity.” This time, my immediate thought was, “I really hope he arrives home safely.” I thought about him the rest of the night and the implications that my fear has for our entire community. I hope you will too.
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Wow. Thank you for sharing this, Suzanne. Your ideas are powerful and ring true for me. I have felt relief at not looking (due to my outward appearance) like a Jew but have also learned that Jews who look the part are just as worthy of life and goodness as any other person. We’re all human beings trying to do our best in this world. And in terms of safety that’s all that should matter.
When our daughter was shlepping us, her family, down this path of Torah observance, I was very mixed in my emotions. On the one hand, this is what I had wanted since I was little and observed my bubba and zeida in their Torah observance…but as the saying going…”be careful what you wish for…you may GET it!”. However, now that it was upon me, many emotions arose. First, I had to find a balance with the one daughter who wanted to observe and the other two who were not quite sure at the time and my husband who absolutely did NOT want to observe. I didn’t want our home to be a battlefield with two opposing camps. So, I kept jumping from one side to the other, trying to keep an equilibrium in our, otherwise, very happy home. Honestly, I also wasn’t quite sure how I REALLY felt about becoming observant now that this was suddenly upon me. This was going to be a REALLY BIG CHANGE in how we lived and comported ourselves…and all of the ramifications from family and friends! The other big issue for me, as you stated above…was OUTWARDLY LOOKING Torah observant by our dress…and, therefore, becoming a target for antisemites who might possibly attack us. I didn’t have boys, but I looked to the future and saw my husband and our sons-in-law and grandsons dressed as visible Jews. This terrified me! Then I took myself in hand and reminded myself that not that long ago, Jews of ALL strips, colors and patterns were ALL marched into the ovens of Auschwitz….regardless of their appearance or their level of observance or lack thereof…even those who converted to xianity! Hitler, yemach shemo/may his name be erased, and his nazi goons, killed and tortured every Jew they could find and imprison, regardless of what they wore or didn’t wear…believe in or not, observe or not.
Now that we have been observant for over 20 years, I feel such a aura of protection from my Father in Heaven. With all of my health issues, I have so many brachas/blessings that He Has Bestowed upon my life…with an adoring husband who is the love of my life since we’re teens!, my three gorgeous, inside and outside, daughters, their equally gorgeous, inside and outside husbands, our sons (in law)…and our FOURTEEN precious grandchildren. I have NO regrets or concerns now that we made this choice to live as observant Jews. I love to say that we had something wonderful before our transisiton into this lifestyle…pillars of our community and admired by many. We took something good…and made it MUCH better! This observance just made our lives richer…and with so much more meaning. Every day is not the same…the week has an ebb and flow around Shabbos…the days lead up to Shabbos as it approahes and then settles down after Shabbos for a short period until we lead up to it again. Every day is not that humdrum, gotta get off of this damned treadmill!!! We put away all of our distractions from what really counts…FAMILY and G-D…and just…AHHH!…ENJOY for 25 hours!!!
The one thing I want to add in closing is that I feel that you are struggling with this concept of observance and where you stand in this struggle. Struggle in life, in general, is a wonderful thing…that means that you’re growing and not static…your juices are flowing. But in this particular case, vis-a-vis your level of observance…is an ESPECIALLY wonderful thing. Kol HaKavod…may you go from strength to strength. Keep it going, Suzanne…you’ll get to where you’re supposed to be…eventually…wherever that is. Hatzlachah…the best of luck!!!