In the Shadow of the Tree of Life
To be a Jewish American Woman Without Looking Like One
Mid-July in Berlin is full of color. The sun illuminates the cascades of buildings that seem impossibly old compared to the infant cities of the United States. The green of the parks reflected in my sunglasses complimented the laughter and shouting of everyone enjoying a perfect summer’s day. Perhaps it was unreasonable to think that this color should stop just because I had arrived at my destination.
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is full of space, at least until you’re in it. Smooth concrete blocks arise from the cobblestone ground as far as the eye can see, creating narrow passageways that close in around you and make you feel trapped even as you look up at the sky. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is untouched by the color of Berlin.
I was at first confounded by the behavior of the tourists in the memorial. They ran and shouted, and I could not believe they felt comfortable showing such flagrant disrespect to both the history that the memorial was honoring and me as a Jew visiting it. But as I gaped at their behavior, a thought loomed in the shadows cast by the structures: These people had no idea I was Jewish. My nose, inherited from my mother who converted but was not born Jewish, did not betray my semitism. My hair shone blonde in the sun, uncurling beyond a few waves at the end, and the towering blocks around me were reflected in blue eyes. I wore no star of David, no yarmulke, and I felt disconnected. I wanted to shout in Hebrew, wanted to grow horns and a long nose and dark hair and become every vulgar stereotype that had ever been hurled at my people, simply so that I could have some solidarity with my history, a history that everyone around me seemed to be as removed from as I felt in that moment.
The Tree of Life synagogue is full of caution tape. Months later, my preschool remains a crime scene. There was one day in October that the Tree of Life synagogue was untouched by the usual quiet of Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood. The memorial to the murdered Jews there is not as formal as the one in Berlin, yet in its way it is much more powerful. No one shouts outside of Tree of Life. No one plays tag, no one poses. There are small rocks everywhere, some painted with Jewish symbols. There are signs made by children, in Hebrew and English, that remind us to have tik’vah, hope.
Since Berlin, I have found myself occupying a new kind of Jewish body, a kind that is devoid of physical markers but swirling with doubt. To be a young Jewish woman in 2019 America is to patch your culture together from the scraps of what you have been given. Intermarriage, an abandonment of Kosher, a move away from orthodoxy in favor of reform practices, all of this has wiped out conventional demarcations — dress, diet, physical features — that once were so entwined with perceptions of Judaism. There is a safety in blending in. There is a loneliness, too. Since Tree of Life, I have found myself limited by this new kind of body.
Jewish women’s bodies are subjected to a lot, and we often bear it quietly, contrary to the hateful stereotypes perpetuated in media about our constant complaining, our brattiness, our propensity to be an overbearing mother or a typical JAP (Jewish American Princess). Young Jewish girls are gifted straighteners for their hair, have moved from ankle-length skirts to Juicy Couture sweatsuits, are pressured to wax their body hair, their eyebrows, their arms, to fit in. We pierce our ears and later on, we get tattoos. Some of us eat bacon and show our shoulders in Bat Mitzvah photos. Most of us kiss non-Jewish boys and this news wouldn’t even make most of our mothers say “oy.” We can sort-of-not-really read Hebrew and can’t speak it at all.
To all of us descendants of immigrants, we know this to be the process of assimilation. We lose our language, our clothing, but try to hold onto the cultural practices that we can still find meaning in without sacrificing our safety. After Tree of Life, I became far less interested in the protection that these compromises afford, and much more frustrated by the invisibility it necessitated, hiding me from other Jews, making me feel disconnected from the coalition of hurt that my community was building.
Modern Jewish women carry unseen burdens. Many of us want to claim our bodies as our own, exercise our autonomy as feminists, but fear that going against the Torah will symbolize some sort of rebellion. I do not have tattoos as a symbol of resistance against my religion, but rather because I value my body as my own. I don’t see this as a conflict. Judaism is about asking questions, and I question any part of a religion that grants control of a woman’s body to anyone other than herself, even our holy text. Misogynistic beauty standards have forced so many of us to negotiate our bodies on the terms of a non-Jewish society.
For Women’s History Month, I will choose to respect the diversity of modern Jewish women’s bodies. When we treat them as a monolith, we lose out on the things that make the Jewish community enduring: diversity of perspective, asking questions and strengthening our faith through knowledge. To be Jewish in 2019 is to inherently take risks. Carrying our bodies in public, even in Jewish communities like Squirrel Hill, has become an act of defiance, whether we want it to be or not. It is therefore our responsibility to relieve each other of our excess burdens as best we can. By narrowing our definition of what Jewish women can be, we only feed into the cycle that makes it more difficult to carry on the traditions of Judaism, a more important responsibility than ever.
For Women’s History Month, I will respect that altering one’s physical self to conform is not a rejection of culture, but rather playing by the rules of a game we did not invent. I will also know that adhering to traditional expressions of Judaism is not a rejection of feminism but an exercise of agency that is just as valid, born of a desire to be seen by our own. I will understand that there is no lesser manifestation of a woman’s Judaism, and create the space for diversity within our community, encouraging women to take it up for themselves. I will respect those who want to remain safe and those who want to take risks to resist the acts of anti-semitism that have plagued my community since October and our people since the dawn of our religion.
The Jewish woman’s body is full of conflict. It is also full of color, and space, and tik’vah.