Take it from a Jew from West Virginia

Last week tears filled my eyes. Hopelessness clouded my spirit. I felt a familiar darkness tap on my heart. It was similar to how I felt in November of 2016, when a viral video captured an organized group of “alt right” recklessly wielding Nazi salutes and propping up ideologies that apparently still exist. Yet, there is nothing new under the sun and having grown up in the beauty and backwoods of rural West Virginia, this Jew has seen it before.

Not that West Virginia is a hotbed for racism, because the vast majority of the community in which I resided was comprised of lovely, warm people. But there were a few rotten apples. And these rotten apples left their mark on me, and perhaps helped inflame the passion that led me to move to Israel in my twenties.

I often get shady looks or judgmental comments from others in my tribe when asked where I’m from. “There are Jews in West Virginia?” “Well one less now,” I respond through a forced smile. Having not been reared in New York, California or anywhere metropolitan, most can’t fathom that I could even exist. Yet, I’ve had to speak up and find courage in the face of anti-semitism more times than most Jews have to in this great country.

I almost giggled when a Jewish reporter in Charlottesville lamented being called Shlomo. Not that it’s okay, because it’s not. But it’s mild.

  • The first recollection I have of facing anything anti-semitic was in 6th grade. A boy in class was trying (and failing) to draw swastikas on his notebook. I asked him what he was doing and ridiculed him for being too stupid to even draw a swastika properly.
  • In high school, the steps of my school were spray painted with KKK and swastikas, which incited a walkout by primarily my African American classmates until it was dealt with by administration.
  • I remember hiding my Star of David necklace behind my collar in college, when I worked at a resort in West Virginia. The servers on my shift were carelessly throwing around terms like fucking jews, kikes, and more in response to our Chabad group visiting over Passover.
  • There was the time my friend was working as a DJ in a club in Morgantown and the owners would hang out with my friends and I while my friend would spin a set. I was told afterwards that the owners had said, “All Jews are pigs, but we like Tamar.” I felt my stomach fall through my toes at the thought of ever returning after that.
  • There was that one party hosted by a friend of a friend where a Swastika flag was hanging over his sister’s bed. Or the time I was asked if my Hebrew necklace meant, “pre-heat oven to 350 degrees.” Or the one million times “jewin me down” was used in a sentence.

All of these incidents are upsetting and not okay, and I feel my throat close even as I recount them. But unfortunately they aren’t a new phenomenon. I know most Jews in this country have had the wonderful luxury of being protected from all of this hate and ugliness, so seeing swastika flags in their country, hearing Nazi slogans being chanted, and staring down the putrid face of anti-semitism is daunting and sickening and feels almost apocalyptic.

Unfortunately, the anonymity of the internet has created a network for these idiots who were drawing swastikas in sixth grade, making racist comments in college and filling their hearts with hate to connect and congregate. But they’re still small, albeit growing, but small.

But that’s not the full story on my experience of being a Jew in West Virginia. There was also the time my teacher asked me to bring in my menorah and dreidel to class to teach my classmates about Hanukkah. It was important to her that her students understand and learn about Judaism.

There was the time I completely messed up an order when I was waiting tables in college. The woman I left waiting for almost 30 minutes, asked me if I knew my name was in the bible. When I told her I was Jewish, she left me a $50 tip on a $15 check, with a note. “God says that He will bless those that bless you. God bless you, Tamar.” I had completely ruined her order, and left her waiting and she responded with love and grace.

Or the countless other positive experiences I had in West Virginia because of being Jewish. This part of the population is even bigger, and harder to recount, because there are so many.

Although our 24 hour news cycles, new Twitter trends, and endless spins on every story make it seem so hopeless right now, I’m here to tell you, that there is still much more light in the world than darkness, and more love than hate. As we speak out against the hate and stand together, let’s not neglect all the light that is still shining. Don’t be overwhelmed by what we saw, it’s always been there; it’s just that now the darkness can’t hide away anymore.