When You Make Jews Afraid, All You Prove Is That We’re Human Too

Growing up Jewish in America, it has usually been easy to forget the fear that’s part of my DNA. It feels awful to acknowledge that, right now, fear is reasonable.

If you asked me what it’s like to be Jewish, I would tell you that the first thing we eat after a funeral is something small and sweet — cookies, cakes, fruit. When we find ourselves in darkness, we reach for reminders of pleasure; we allow space for grief, and also for the life that will be lived in its wake. We welcome each new year with sweet things, too; we are always putting our rituals into our mouths, to understand them with our whole bodies. The name Israel means he who wrestles with god, because we like a good fight, the Jews do, and there is no authority we will not step up to challenge. We like to read and we like to study and we love to sit around and talk so much that we have names for all the different ways of talking: kibbitz and schmooze and kvetch.

I would also tell you that we are scared. I would tell you that we are scared in generational terms: that scientists have started researching whether we pass down fear in our DNA. The history of Jewish persecution does not begin or end with the Holocaust — the Bible is one long exile narrative, and most of our holidays celebrate survival against enormous, violent odds— but my Holocaust education started in the third grade and continued intensively, relentlessly, every year after that. That kind of education stays with you; in fact, there’s mounting evidence that focusing on it is traumatic and can trigger mental health issues in teens. Jews mark the years by visiting graveyards to put pebbles on the tombstones of our loved ones, so that even the earth counts with us: all the days we have survived the most final kind of loss.

But it’s also true that Jews, especially Jews like me (white, urban, relatively unobservant), are largely integrated into American society. I have lived most of my life with an anxiety about my Jewishness that felt tribal, rather than personal. That was true, at least, until 15 Jewish community centers and schools received threatening phone calls in a single day in January, with similar waves of threats rolling in the next week, and the next; that was true until 23 centers were evacuated due to bomb threats on Monday this week. Nearly half of all the JCCs in the US have received bomb threats already this year. If authorities have arrested someone who may responsible for eight of those threats, there are more than ten times that number still unaccounted for. Our cemeteries are being vandalized. And the president is suggesting that we’re doing this ourselves, to attract attention and garner sympathy.

We are not the only victims of this renewed wave of white supremacist violence, of course — four mosques have been burned in the last seven weeks; two people were shot in Kansas because the killer thought they were Iranian immigrants. The black community have all too recently seen their holy spaces under attack. But it has been a long time since many people, myself included, took seriously the idea that Jews would be the targets of that violence. And so the recent uptick in anti-Semitic incidents has forced me into a renewed struggle with old, ugly, deep-seated fears about where I am safe, and where I am allowed to belong.

I grew up in Jewish spaces, and I grew up watching them stay alert against the possibility of attack: the elementary school that got evacuated when a lazy postal worker threw a package over a wall instead of leaving it at our door, and the high school youth group retreats with guards posted to keep an eye on the outskirts of our adolescent flirting. I spent a couple of years recently working as the program coordinator for a local Jewish community center. I memorized our gate codes and our security procedures. I allowed an extra five minutes for ID checks and bag scans on my way into meetings at temples, or the mid-city Jewish Federation building in Los Angeles.

Some days it feels brave and defiant, and some days it feels exhausting, and some days it feels like nothing at all.

The public facet of Jewish identity is a fluid thing: If you’re not Orthodox or Hasidic, it likely isn’t visible in the way that being black, for instance, is. You can take it off and put it on again. And so every time you walk through doors that will mark you with your faith, there is the friction of remembering that what you’re doing is dangerous. Especially if you are white — which many, though not all, American Jews are — that precariousness is particularly acute. You are so used to feeling safe in your skin. You choose to walk through the door anyway, and some days it feels brave and defiant, and some days it feels exhausting, and some days it feels like nothing at all — just the ordinary stuff of being alive. All three reactions are correct ones, I think.

The center I worked at was founded in the 1950s by Russian immigrants who wanted a place to gather, to educate their children, to take a sauna, to dance together. It was almost sold off to pay some debts, a little over a decade ago, but a local Catholic archbishop saved it. He used his discretionary funds to offer the center a loan, because he used to go to the dances there when he was growing up. He didn’t want to imagine our neighborhood without it. This is the balance of Jewish life: For every neighbor who has ever made threats against us, there have been more offering us their savings and their connections, helping us rebuild those cemeteries.

But that doesn’t save me from the immediacy of knowing that the centers being evacuated after bomb threats this week house pre-schools, mostly, or ping-pong tables and lap pools and old ladies playing mah-jongg. (Old Jewish ladies are wild for mah-jongg.) I see photographs of cribs being wheeled out of JCCs, and it reminds me of the 3-year-old at my center who lost it when we did a fire drill — who, even when he understood that there was no danger this time, could not be comforted, knowing that there might be the next. And it reminds me of being 11 and goofing off in Hebrew class until the teacher exploded, screamed at us until we were all crying, a tirade that ended with this: “I have been to Germany, and I have touched the ovens. Don’t kid yourselves. Those ovens are still hot.” (Obviously, he should not have been left alone with children.) I cried so hard and so long I had to be sent home from school for the day. I had nightmares after, for years.

Every child has to learn about death. Some children also have to learn that there are people to whom their very life is offensive. 

Every child has to learn about death. Some children also have to learn that there are people to whom their very life is offensive. In order to stay sane you forget it, you ignore it, you do your best to live anyway, in the face of it. In Los Angeles, in my life so far, that has mostly been easy.

So it feels like insult to injury when I am forced to dredge up the fear I have spent so long trying to be bigger than. It feels awful to acknowledge that, right now, fear is reasonable, and necessary, and real. My best friend had a baby a year ago. Her JCC daycare was evacuated because of a bomb threat this week. We are being menaced with a kind of fear that is specifically intended to be unbearable, to remind us that there is no form of Jewish life that is innocent or secular or integrated enough to be acceptable.

And so I ask myself to remember that the world is not a safe place, when it comes down to it. That going to visit my old co-workers and my childhood synagogue is important, and so is writing this. So is admitting to the depth and breadth of my fear. I hate that a bunch of smirking anti-Semites got to sit at home making phone calls that terrorized my community this week; I wish I could say that they didn’t scare me, but they do, and it would be worse for me to ignore that fear.

They can make those phone calls because they cannot imagine that our babies are as human as theirs. Trump can insinuate that this is a plot we cooked up to make ourselves look vulnerable because that’s the story people have been telling about us for years — that we’re crafty and canny, that we always control the story. I’ve spent years in rooms with other Jews arguing that we need to look past Holocaust education if we want to see a future for our people, but that doesn’t mean I want us written out of the narrative entirely. We are not the only people who have ever suffered; we are far from the only group being terrorized by the people this administration has emboldened. But we are among them. And I know that now in a different way than I ever have before.

Jews are no strangers to the inevitability of our deaths. When you scare us, all you prove is that we are human, and you have made yourself numb to that fact. You remind me to find something sweet to eat, to call my mother and my friends, to be grateful for the gorgeous resilience of my tradition, and for the fact that we will do everything we can to keep our children safe, except to stop being Jews.

Zan Romanoff is a writer who lives in Los Angeles.

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