Jewish Identity In Neo-Nazi Modern America
Jewish identity has always been a political statement. Operating both as a religion and heritage, Judaism melds the ideologies of culture and belief, which creates a confusing definition for self-identification and outside understanding. When I am asked, “Are you Jewish?” I answer with a quick, “Yes, but…” because I feel compelled to answer the several questions and comments I anticipate regarding my culture. It feels like a defense mechanism, to separate myself from the preconceived notions of Judaism and define myself as an individual. I am quick to explain my views on Israel, my exposure to Jewish culture, and dispel any negative stereotypes that might come up. In the same breath, I also feel the need to justify my identity, explaining that just because I have a very limited understanding of Hebrew, my mother is Catholic, and I did not have a Bat Mitzvah, my Judaism is just as valid. While this has been a nearly lifelong process of self-discovery, the events in Charlottesville have forced me to think more deeply about what my Jewish identity means to me and how that identity can contribute to a future that is free from Neo-Nazis, fascism, and the epidemic of white supremacy that has plagued the United States since before its inception.
I was brought up in a religiously diverse family. My mother was raised a devout Catholic in a tightly knit Polish community from the Cleveland intercity, while my father was born into a community of New York Jews. Growing up, I was left to find my own spiritual identity. My parents never tried to indoctrinate me into either religion and every holiday season, the menorah always sat proudly next the Christmas tree. To me, it appeared normal to celebrate both Jewish and Catholic holidays. However, the implications of my Jewish last name and outward appearance allowed the public to define me before I had a chance to define myself. While my first name is cloaked in anonymity, my last name speaks volumes to my heritage. My curly hair and large nose serve as permanent physical reminders of the stereotypes that remain the dominant cultural marker in America. My outward characteristic aligned with what America expected a Jew to look like and my last name read as inherently Jewish.
These assumptions of my Judaism became more apparent and uncomfortable throughout my teenage years. At the time, my family was living in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where only .5% of the population was Jewish. When the Holocaust was discussed, my classmates would look to me to provide a unique perspective about the horrors of this period, since I was one of the few students of Jewish descent. In choir, whenever it came time to learn the lyrics to our annual Hanukkah song, my choral director would look to me to teach Hebrew, assuming I knew the language. I heard jokes about Jews in the hallways and even had a friend congratulate me because I celebrated Hanukah and Christmas and received gifts for both holidays, indicating my greed and therefore making me a “good Jew”, perpetuating a painful stereotype. I was tokenized and forced into an identity that I wasn’t particularly connected to yet.
Eventually I grew into my identity, seeing my Judaism as a link to history and the sacrifices my family made to immigrate to the United States. I found tremendous strength in their stories, prompting an intense desire to honor them and connect with my Jewish roots. My last name no longer felt like a burden and my curly hair was freed from the prison of hair-ties and bobby pins. My Judaism became a point of pride for me and I was excited to start college in Boston and hopefully further my relationship with my heritage.
My Alma mater has a fierce Jewish population that is incredibly vocal and proud, something I celebrated as an incoming freshman. Because my exposure to Judaism was limited to my own research, I was eager to delve into Jewish communities in college. However, I was met with harsh lessons of religion, tradition, and denial. I was told by several more observant Jewish students I wasn’t Jewish because my mother was Catholic, despite being a Reform Jew myself. I felt afraid to go to Hillel because I couldn’t find people willing help me understand services for High Holy Days. People dismissed me because I was uneducated when it came to the religious aspect of Judaism and I felt alienated from my own culture. Though I found Jewish friends who are supremely supportive, I still feel enormous amounts of hurt and shame from communities who turned me away.
These experiences did inevitably teach me some incredible lessons. Like any other religion, Judaism is flawed and divided internally, as the battle for complete ownership of the religion persists between different sects, movements, and factions like any diverse population. Whether I was in Albuquerque or in Boston, I was met with combative opinions and arguments concerning my identity. However I choose to define my Judaism, it remains a political choice to Jews and non-Jews alike especially with the current political climate in the United States.
Twice this summer the Holocaust Memorial in Boston has been vandalized. While the events in Charlottesville deeply frightened me, my ignorance caught up to me when Boston too was afflicted with strains of Neo-Nazi ideologies. On August 19th, Nazis marched on the Boston Common. There may have only been a handful of them, but they were emboldened and allowed to exercise their beliefs of hatred that once began a world war. In a city I have called home for four years, I feel unsafe. The same enemies my great-grandparents fled from are in my own backyard. The safety they sought in immigrating and the dangers they faced is all over my social media feeds. Over one hundred years ago, they came to the United States to escape from the same anti-Semitism I am threatened by daily.
My mere existence is a constant statement against Neo-Nazi ideologies. Simply by living my own life, I have disrupted the utopias of millions of Americans who believe I shouldn’t even be alive, that my culture and religion should be destroyed, and Jews rid from this world. Anti-Semitism in America is not a new phenomenon by any means, but the recent public and accepted declaration of Nazi sentiments only brings to light the centuries of prejudice Jews have felt in this country. Legacy-based admissions to Ivy League universities were established to keep out Jewish students. Jews abandoned religious practices in an attempt to secularize themselves to survive in America. Even within the past year, Jewish community centers have been threatened, cemeteries vandalized, and swastikas appeared on the walls of my college campus. Anti-Semitism has always been a silent tradition in America, but now it has a public voice, echoing across the entire nation.
All of the incidents within the past year have moved me to tears on several occasions. I had trouble getting out of bed, exhausted from constantly defending my identity to Jews and non-Jews while Neo-Nazis marched through Charlottesville, Boston, St. Louis, all across the country. I was scared to own my heritage, shamed by my own communities and fearful of those who hated me simply because of my religion.
I also realize that I am incredibly privileged, knowing that I have only started to feel the weight of prejudice now while people of color, other religious minorities, LGBTQ+ individuals, and people with disabilities have felt this weight for their entire lives. In a way, I am lucky that only now do I feel this fear, but it also has taught me that I need to not only fight for my own identity but also work alongside oppressed populations in this country. Just because I am Jewish, I am not exempt from my white privilege. While I understand not all Jews are white, I know I benefit from my whiteness more so than my Judaism hinders me. Only recently has this balance been threatened. Yes, anti-Semitism has never fully disappeared, but most American Jews cannot deny that they have benefited from these systems of oppression and institutionalized racism.
So this is my plea: it is time anti-Semitism is fully recognized as an actualized threat to millions of American citizens, regardless of how they define their Judaism, and understood as an act of oppression. It is also time that Jews put their differences aside, whether Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, or even just culturally Jewish, and collect the strength not only to dismantle Neo-Nazis, but also destroy the oppressive institutions that we benefit from. Jewish Americans continue to be threatened, but we also have power in our privilege that we must use as activist, writers, politicians, teachers, speakers, and ultimately citizens of this country.
So, whether you agree that I am Jewish or not, it does not matter. I am Jewish, I own my identity, and I plan on using that identity to create a world that my ancestors hoped for when they arrived on Ellis Island, to fight alongside marginalized communities and let their voices and stories be heard louder than even mine, and ultimately push against the status quo of white supremacist America.
Judaism, though imperfect, is powerful. My identity can be used for a radical revolution, where the ideas of hate fall upon deaf ears and the songs of equity and equality ring true. While not every Jewish American has similar experiences to me, it is important to know where our privilege lies and how we can help enact change. We have a responsibility to not only fight against the threats targeted at our own people, but to also use our cultural capital to fight for and alongside people who face more immediate terrors.
After the Holocaust, the world said never again. While that promise has certainly not been kept, it doesn’t mean we give up. We keep going and we keep fighting.