Note: Some of the names in this piece have been changed to protect the identities of those who were minors at the time.
I avoided the news, but my radio forced me to hear their names: Joyce Fienberg, Irving Younger, Rose Mallinger, Bernice and Sylvan Simon, Jerry Rabinowitz, Melvin Wax, Richard Gottfried, Daniel Stein, brothers Cecil and David Rosenthal.
Each syllable rang so familiar — like neighbors my grandmother would have over for dinner, or my aunt’s friend from temple who brought the Passover gefilte fish she made with the rabbi, or my friend’s dad who drove us home from Hebrew school on Thursdays. Though it seemed inconceivable for anti-Semitism to still be prevalent in the United States, the massacre at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue happened. Eleven Jewish people were murdered during their morning ceremonies by a white supremacist shouting anti-Semitic slurs.
I recalled the many Holocaust survivors who had visited my synagogue in Thousand Oaks when I was a child. They recounted stories of escape and loss, and urged the importance of maintaining our Jewish identity. They told us Judaism was more than just a religion — it was our blood. They told us: Never again.
I’d look around the synagogue: behind the bimah, to the large stained-glass windows reflecting turquoise and pink light onto my friend Noah, his lips still caked in cream cheese from snack-time bagels. We were comfortable. The survivors’ warnings seemed inconceivable. Thousand Oaks was a safe, suburban California town. Our elementary school considered Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur holidays worth closing for. We sang Hanukkah songs alongside Christmas carols. My parents decorated our home with blue lights in December, even if the rest of the street was red and green. Though we were often different, being Jewish felt safe.
Matt Malenkov was the punk kid. In eighth grade, he was my only peer who truly rocked a mohawk — spiking it daily and varying its color weekly. He was heavyset and tough — like someone you didn’t want to fuck with. But when you got to know him, he was a friend to anybody who expressed interest in thrash punk music. And for some reason, the biggest fans of punk at our California middle school were predominantly Latinx. Matt was friends with all of them.
In 2005, during our freshman year of high school, Matt changed. It was most apparent in his style, which shifted from fun mohawks to a clean-shaved head, all black clothing, and black Doc Marten boots tied up with white laces. Stomping through the outdoor halls of Westlake High School, Matt looked ready for war. He also grew quiet. The only class we had together was fifth-period English, which we shared with Arturo, one of our mutual punk friends. Matt spoke to no one.
White power didn’t seem to fit into our suburban bubble, so most of us didn’t take it seriously at first.
One day, I noticed Arturo side-eyeing him. “What’s with you guys?” I asked Arturo after class.
“We aren’t friends anymore,” he said.
“Matt’s a skinhead now.”
“A skinhead. He won’t hang out with me ’cause I’m Mexican.”
At lunch, I asked my friends what a skinhead was. My music-savvy friend Natalie explained the punk subculture that arose in 1960s working-class London. “You know Matt’s brother?” she went on. “He’s a skinhead punk. Like, he’s into the music. But Matt’s a white power skinhead. Haven’t you noticed? There’re a bunch of them.”
Over the next week, I did notice — about six of them in total. During breaks, they huddled around the outdoor quad near an oak tree. Each dressed their pale white skin with black clothing and laced-up combat boots. As athletic kids were labelled “jocks,” and studious ones “nerds,” those who wouldn’t hang out with POC became known as the “white power kids.”
Thousand Oaks had often been ranked one of the safest cities in the United States. White power didn’t seem to fit into our suburban bubble, so most of us didn’t take it seriously at first. We figured the white power kids were just making some sort of joke — that Matt would snap out of it and be Arturo’s friend again. At one point, a Jewish friend of mine even wrote a “W” on the back of his left hand and a “P” on the other. He crossed his arms in front of his chest so “WP” was on display. “White power,” he said. “Like Nazis.” Then he spat on the back of his hands and wiped it off.
Matt continued huddling with, and dressing like, his new friends. It slowly became clear they took it seriously. Lauren — the sole girl in the group, who followed the all-black dress code and tied her straight blonde hair in a tight bun — began bullying Latinx kids with racial slurs as they passed by the oak tree. It wasn’t a joke.
One day, I approached Matt after English class. “Why aren’t you friends with Arturo anymore?” He didn’t respond. His broad shoulders stared me down. “We were all friends in middle school,” I reminded him. Nothing. I brought up more middle school memories, of sharing bands and hanging at the mall. Nothing.
“So what,” I continued, boiling over, “you’re not going to be my friend either, because I’m Jewish?”
That piqued his interest. I had never told him I was Jewish, and my Judaism often surprised people. I may have curls, but I’m also fair-skinned and blonde. One could say I “pass.”
In that moment, in his eyes, I became non-white. And in that instant too, he stopped being the quiet type. Our argument was a blur. It moved into the hallway. We yelled our separate forms of teen angst back and forth. I don’t recall the resolution — though I did call him out as a Nazi. For a moment, I felt victorious. A sophomore came up to me afterward, and said, “I’m glad you stood up to one of the white power kids. Someone’s gotta do it.”
Later that week, the rumor began.
“You know Matt wants to stab you to get his red ribbons?” Arturo told me.
“Red ribbons?” I asked, too stuck in an unreality to believe I could be stabbed.
“It’s what you get for the first time you stab a Jew, and Matt wants you to be his first Jew.”
I Googled it and discovered what red ribbons are. They’re shoelaces. Red shoelaces. When a white power skinhead wears red shoelaces, it means that person has shed blood for the cause. Jewish blood would count.
As fast as the rumor spread, I became increasingly conscious of my Jewish identity — aware that, even in a safe suburb like Thousand Oaks, some people believed I didn’t deserve the right to exist. I considered bringing a pocket knife to school. If he tried to stab me, I’d quickly flash my knife, warning him off. No, that was too complicated. Maybe some pepper spray. I didn’t know where to buy it.
I didn’t want to go to school.
In English class, Matt stared me down. I stared back, hiding my fear. Outside of class, I avoided the white power kids at all cost. When I accidentally passed by them, Lauren was the most vocal. She’d had no idea who I was before the rumor, and now she was the swiftest at spreading it. She’d stomp around in her boots, harassing me, “Matt’s gonna get his ribbons soon.”
One day in art class, I got a yellow slip of paper from the administration. “Come to counseling immediately,” it read. I left for the office, looking over my shoulder.
How are certain forms of violence swept away so effortlessly, then forgotten so fast?
Ms. Farmer, the counselor who handled general affairs, smiled at me, palms pressed together. “We know what’s been going on,” she said. “We know the rumor. We’re taking care of it. We want you and your parents to know you are safe at this school.”
A day later, the white power kids were gone. All of them — as though they had never been at the school at all. I’m not sure who told the administration, or why I hadn’t. I think I didn’t allow myself to believe it was real. New rumors spread that someone had snatched up each white power kid in the middle of the night and taken them to one of those camps out in Utah for “rehabilitation.”
The only one who returned, months later, was Lauren. At first, I didn’t recognize her. Her hair was in pigtails and she wore a pink skirt with a lavender top. Her shoes were slip-ons. No laces. She didn’t harass me as I walked by. Nor did she smile. She appeared to be in some sort of Cuckoo’s Nest fog where neither hate nor love existed.
I later found out that my encounter with anti-Semitism in Thousand Oaks was no anomaly, but part of a broader pattern. In 1992, a local fifth-grader dressed up as Hitler and won a second-place prize for a speech that discounted the Holocaust and portrayed the Nazi leader as a great, misunderstood military commander. In 1999, a rabbi at Etz Chaim, one of our neighborhood synagogues, warned of his temple and others being defaced by “white power advocates.” In 2001, three teenagers were arrested on suspicion of spray-painting swastikas and racial slurs on a middle school that my friends attended. These incidents didn’t seem to dent Thousand Oaks’ outstanding reputation for public safety.
It made me wonder: What goes into ranking a city as the safest — who is it safe for? How are certain forms of violence swept away so effortlessly, then forgotten so fast?
Looking at the Tree of Life massacre, I thought about my great-great grandparents who — along with orphaned Jewish children — had escaped Russian pogroms. I thought about how those murdered in the Pittsburgh synagogue were also likely from lineages that had contended with, and felt the shadow of, earlier violence against Jews. One survivor of the shooting had, in fact, been a child in Auschwitz during the Holocaust. Judah Samet. Outside the temple, he heard gunfire killing his friends. “It just never ends,” Samet told reporters. “It’s never completely safe for Jews. It’s in the DNA. Not just America’s DNA but the world’s.”
A few years after I graduated from high school, my family and I finished eating dinner next door to a fluorescent-lit donut shop. My mom unlocked the car. I noticed broad shoulders on a hunched silhouette sitting outside, backlit by the fluorescents. The figure looked up. Matt.
His eyes were in shadow. I peeked down at his feet. He still wore boots, but I couldn’t make out the color of his shoelaces.