Some thoughts on being Jewish in 2018

Helena Touhey
Nov 2, 2018 · 6 min read

I was raised Jewish in a majority Catholic community, and was always somewhat aware of being a religious minority, of being an Other, an awareness that has stayed with me for three decades. My mother is Jewish, but father is not; he was raised Catholic and half of my family is Catholic. I have family members who didn’t attend my parents wedding because it was “mixed.” I don’t “look Jewish” in the way most people think of, and my last name isn’t “Jewish.” It’s Irish; I’m of Irish ancestry, and I am also Jewish. I’ll never forget the time, in high school, someone said to me: “You can’t be Irish; you’re Jewish!” My response was: You’re wrong, because I am both, they are not mutually exclusive. I sometimes say that all of my ancestors tried to kill each other at one time or another; the Protestant who came over on the Mayflower would have taken issue with the Irish Catholics who came to North America a few centuries later, although they equally would have been at odds with the Eastern European Jews who came over in the 19th and 20th centuries. But there are always those who defy division and opt for love and unity: my maternal great-grandparents were one blonde-haired, blue-eyed Protestant boy and one dark-haired, dark-eyed Orthodox Jewish woman, both from New Jersey, who married, despite my great grandmother being disowned from her religious family. As I mentioned, my own parents are of two religions, as are two sets of aunts and uncles (my mom’s brother, and sister). I started learning about the Holocaust in Hebrew school (which I attended three days a week for five years), and read a lot of books on the subject in middle school. Something about that atrocity fascinated me, and I wondered then, as I still do from time to time, who in my community would have saved me, and who would have turned a blind eye if my family were rounded up and taken to our deaths. I hope I am never faced with the answer to that query.

Over the years, I have found different ways to connect with being Jewish. I celebrate and observe all the major Jewish holidays, usually with my family and our close, Jewish family friends. I had a bat mitzvah. I was a tour guide at Touro Synagogue for several summers during college; Touro, located in Newport, Rhode Island, is the oldest-existing synagogue in North America, and the original congregants were Sephardic Jews whose families fled the Spanish Inquisition. I took an Oral History of the Holocaust course in college for which I, and two others, interviewed Golda, a woman who survived Auschwitz (she was with her mother *in* a gas chamber as the Allies neared, but the Nazis didn’t have time to kill them and destroy the evidence, so they removed this group from the gas chamber and instead sent them on a Death March to another camp. Golda was around 9 at the time. When I met her, decades had past and she was still having nightmares). I’ve traveled to Israel twice in the last year and a half, and for the first time experienced what it feels like to not be a religious minority. I’ve become connected to a greater Jewish community through travel, and taken a renewed interest in Shabbat dinners — I’m especially grateful for my friend group in Newport and our (almost weekly!) Shabbat dinners this fall. Last autumn, I hosted a sukkot celebration on a nearby farm, building a sukkah and hosting a potluck under the stars, bringing together 50 Jewish and non-Jewish friends in my community for one of my favorite Jewish traditions. I’ve since delved deeper into interfaith work, and attended the Muslim Jewish Interfaith Coalition forum in Morocco in late August, meeting and connecting with Muslims and Jews from all over the world. Before that, while traveling for several months around the Middle East, Balkans and Mediterranean this spring/summer, I sought out synagogues in nearly every place I passed through, as well as mosques. I’ve also now been to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre several times, a place in Jerusalem where I have felt connected to my Catholic family, and honored this part of my ancestry. As an adult, I’ve developed a new appreciation for my name — Helena — which was given to me in the Jewish tradition of being named after a family member who died, and in memory of my Catholic grandmother, Helen. It represents my hybrid existence in this world, and is a reminder that things are never black and white; everything is interconnected, and nuance is everything.

The attack at the synagogue in Pittsburgh saddens and troubles me, but it does not surprise me. It’s important to note that it was an act of anti-semitism, that it was an intentional religious-based hate crime. We can talk about race and gun violence, but we must also recognize that a man walked into a synagogue to intentionally kill Jews, who happened to be senior citizens. I’ve come across one reference to his having killed “elders,” but this implies respect, and an understanding of equality; Robert Bowers saw these people first and foremost as Jews, as Others, and intended to kill them for this reason. And he succeeded. For a lot of Jews, myself included, this attack is something our grandparents experienced and fled from in Europe not so long ago. It’s a thousand years of history cycling on repeat, just in a new place, a new country, a new continent, a new century. Many of the synagogues I visited on my travels exist in places that once had thriving Jewish communities, and are places that were marked by the Inquisition and/or the Holocaust and now have small Jewish communities, if any at all. Some of the synagogues were built as miniature versions of great synagogues in Vienna that were intentionally destroyed. (There are also many Middle Eastern and Arab Jews who have had to flee communities they lived in for centuries, for reasons associated with modern politics and religious extremism). Since Trump was elected president, anti-semitic incidents in the United States have increased nearly 60%, and as Time magazine reported earlier this year, that’s the largest one year increase since the Anti-Defamation League began keeping track nearly 40 years ago. In 2017, Time reported, there were 1,986 incidents of anti-semitism in the U.S. And, across Europe and around the world, nationalist groups are becoming visible and vocal once again (elections in Brazil last week are further proof of this). The day after the synagogue shooting, I attended a lecture at a Jewish community center in Providence, R.I., featuring Mohammed Al Samawi, a Yemeni refugee who escaped Yemen at the start of the civil war with the help of Jewish friends he met through various interfaith work (he has since written a book, “The Fox Hunt: A refugee’s memoir of coming to America”). His story, one of tragic circumstances, sheer luck and the grace of God, gave me hope and reminded me that there are still good things happening in this world. As a Muslim in a conservative country, Mohammed was taught to hate Jews but instead learned to see us as friends. “I wanted my own thoughts,” he told those gathered for the event, “not the thoughts of the others.”

I share all of this not to prove any point, but rather to share some of the things that have been on my mind. My experiences and identity are my own, and are not the same for all Jews. My mother, sister, friends and extended family would all have different stories to share, different points to raise. At a time when everyone is quick to otherize, I feel an obligation to share in a way that may help humanize, scattered thoughts and all.

Close-up of a synagogue door in the medina of Essaouira, Morocco.

Helena Touhey

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