Growing up in a hate-filled world
January 15, 2021
Sometimes I feel uncomfortable sharing my Judaism in public. Why should I have to be though? Judaism has had such a profound impact on my life and has shaped me into the person I am today. I attended a Jewish preschool, have been participating in local Jewish events since a young age, attend synagogue regularly, and have endless Jewish friendships made through Jewish youth groups and summer camp. Judaism is so special to me and creates a community that I am proud to be a part of. So why is it that I am so cautiously aware of the hamsa hanging around my neck, why am I sometimes embarrassed to say I can’t go to something because I have services, or a youth group event that I feel awkward describing? Why do I cringe when a teacher brings up the Holocaust in class? Why do I keep all my feelings about my culture and religion inside and not express them in certain environments?
It used to feel so simple. I used to feel like embracing my Judaism was as normal and accepted as any of my other friends were with their religions. But my perception of the world has drastically changed since I was a little girl walking out of my protected Jewish preschool going to visit my grandparents down the street. And unfortunately, it isn’t just my perception that has changed, it’s also the amount of anti-SemitismI have faced and have seen since entering public school and growing up.
My first vivid memory of encountering anti-Semitism was in third grade when we had a dress-up book report and were instructed to come to school dressed up like one of the characters in our book. I remember arriving at the patio where all the kids met before class started and looking around at all the costumes. There was one boy that stood out to me; maybe because of the boys gathering around him and bringing attention to him, or maybe because of the pit in my stomach when I saw what was glued on the side of his shirt. I walked up to him and asked him who he was supposed to be and he answered with one word and a jeering laugh, “Hitler.” It was in that moment that I realized I was no longer in a bubble. After that, it was ugly comments like “I can’t wait to see the gas chamber” before watching “The Boy In The Striped Pajamas” in class in seventh grade, or snide remarks like “I thought he was Jewish because of his nose” when seeing a not-so-attractive character in a film. I have heard countless stories from my friends and peers of facing anti-Semitism in their schools; whether seeing swatstikas on the walls or being told Holocaust jokes. What people fail to realize is that every comment does matter and even if the receiver acts like it doesn’t bother them, odds are they are too afraid to explain to you the impact it has on them. Small comments build into small acts, which eventually grow into extreme acts if people continue to be complacent.
In elementary school, the struggle was hearing non-Jewish kids excitedly talk about Christmas, and ask you if you had a “Chanukah fairy.” In middle school, innocent “Chanukah fairy” comments turned into darker comments, referencing ovens or attics when “The Diary of Anne Frank” and other Holocaust literature works were brought into the curriculum. And finally in high school, the jokes reached a level that doesn’t cut any deeper, but just starts filling with sadness. Sadness when you turn on the TV and see the headlines “Tree of Life Synagouge Shooting,” sadness when all of your non-Jewish friends that always repost “thoughts and prayers” posts are silent, sadness when the anti-Semitic acts of hate only continue in places like North Miami Beach and Monsey, New York. Sadness when you know you can never go back to a time where you felt 100 percent safe being Jewish. Sadness when your once sacred Jewish preschool has received numerous bomb threats. Sadness when you don’t understand why the world doesn’t appreciate Judaism the way you do. Sadness when the overarching question becomes “Why do they hate us so much?” Each comment and headline is a stab to my heart because I feel such a connection to my faith and every act of hate resides in me for a long period of time, like a scar that won’t ever fully heal. The world today is so full of hate, and so closed to conversation. No one wants to talk about the hard-hitting topics and the things that matter the most, because it’s a pill that’s too hard to swallow.
I should be able to be openly Jewish, and not just in front of certain people. The world today is a scary place to be yourself, and the fear is more than just words.
My favorite quote is by Rabbi Hillel and reads: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I? And if not now, when?” As difficult as it may be sometimes, I must be my own self-advocate and I must stay strong amidst the hate. If we don’t face the hate with strength, who will honor the memories of those innocent souls taken by it? My resolution to myself is to be more open and conversational about my connection to Judaism and the lessons it has brought into my life through the people I’ve met and the places I’ve been. I pray that people start having conversations with each other and not just making noise. Talk to your non-Jewish friends about what it means to be Jewish! Just a simple conversation can make a huge difference. I pray that by the time I have children, they can grow up able to be openly Jewish, and never have to feel like I have felt. I pray that I can find the courage that my friends possess to be more open about my love for Judaism and speak up for what’s right. Being Jewish is a blessing and I am forever grateful for my family and for the meaningful relationships I have been able to build through it. The community that Judaism has brought me overwhelms me with love and appreciation. No matter how far away they are or even if I have never met them, we share a universal understanding of what it means to be Jewish and why it is vital to protect our faith from hate the best we can. My exposure to hate and anti-Semitism may have greatly increased since I was young, but my love and spark for Judaism has never died and will always remain an important part of my identity.
Alexa Coultoff is an 11th grader at Lake Mary High School. She is also on USY Board of Directors at Congregation Ohev Shalom.