A Map of Jerusalem

For years my face and name were a message I didn’t know I was sending. In kindergarten, our teacher gave my classmate Daniel and me blue and white construction paper to make cards for our family when everyone else got red and green. I knew this was because we were both Jewish, but my mother had to explain that blue and white were the colors of Israel. Growing up in Virginia, Daniel and his family were the only other Jews I knew.

“You have the map of Jerusalem across your face,” my father told me once when I was in high school, which I thought was a nice way to say that I had a big nose, brown eyes, and curly hair. I smiled at his attempt to make me feel better about my awkward looks; after all, I looked just like him.

We were so secular that we had a Christmas tree every year until I turned 18. At the top of the tree was a sun instead of an angel because my father was an astronomer. My father was raised a Jew in Indianapolis. He went to temple, but it met on a Sunday, and he had no inclination to practice Judaism as an adult. My mother was also Jewish, but was raised as a Christian Scientist. If you asked her if she believed in God, she’d tell you she was a member of the Unitarian Church, where she played piano. Even as a kid I knew that wasn’t a real answer.

Like many young bookish Jews, I went through a World War II phase. I read The Diary of Anne Frank, The Summer of my German Soldier, The Upstairs Room, Journey to Topaz, which was about the Japanese internment camps in the United States, and Snow Treasure, where the kids used their sleds to smuggle Norwegian gold to a boat under the nose of the Nazis. These books taught me that I was part of a people who had been killed in Europe thirty-five years before I was born. I thought about whether I could bear being hidden in an attic with my family, or whether I was brave enough to join the resistance. But it was just an intellectual exercise. No one I was closely related to had been killed; my father’s family had been in the United States since the 1880s, and my mother’s family came over from Germany sometime around the Civil War.

At the end of my World War II phase, I discovered Roman Vishniac, who photographed children in the Eastern European shtetls just before the war. One photo captures two boys about my age on their way to yeshiva. Forbidden to cut the “corner of their beards,” their long earlocks curl in the rain the same way my hair does. It was the first time I had felt viscerally that I was a Jew.

*     *     *

In 1990, my parents and I watched the first Gulf War on TV mostly during dinner. I hated the idea of fighting, but I was also fascinated. A war! In my lifetime! The newscasters were excited too. They talked in detail about missiles and missile strikes. Reporters described the new “smart” bombs in breathless detail. My mother’s mouth tightened as the nightly news stopped covering domestic events, or anything but the shiny new war.

My mother said, “When I was a teenager, everyone knew someone, a friend or a brother or father, who had died in World War II.” She went to high school in the late forties. My father turned 18 in 1942 and knew he didn’t want to fight; so he signed up and joined the Signal Corps, where he was a radio repairman. He went back to school on the GI Bill and became an electrical engineer and eventually an astronomer. His stories about the war were mostly about his own ingenuity. He told me about repairing a juke box for officers in the Philippines, and being rewarded by one cold beer, or about sleeping on the floor of a Mitsubishi factory in Japan and rigging up a wire that electrocuted the rats that ran across their bags as they slept. When his ship arrived in San Francisco, he remembered seeing a sign visible only to incoming boats that said, “Welcome home, soldier. Job well done.”

But as he watched the news about the war in Iraq he said, “We had to go to war to stop Hitler, but this one….” He shook his head. “The Arabs and the Jews are brothers.” I gave him a hard time about not including sisters (inclusive language was a long-term recreational argument between my father and me), but his words were aphoristic and I remembered them.

*     *     *

At the end of my World War II phase, I discovered Roman Vishniac, who photographed children in the Eastern European shtetls just before the war. One photo captures two boys about my age on their way to yeshiva. Forbidden to cut the “corner of their beards,” their long earlocks curl in the rain the same way my hair does. It was the first time I had felt viscerally that I was a Jew.

Don’t talk to the Goldsteins about Israel. It was the Western Goldsteins we meant, my father’s brother and his family in California. My oldest cousin Lisa was in rabbinical school, and my aunt and uncle went to synagogue every week. We were the Eastern Goldsteins, living in Virginia. The first time I was ever in a synagogue, I was seventeen years old, and we joined the Western Goldsteins in New York City to see Lisa’s ordination. I watched my uncle and male cousins put on the black yarmulkes offered in baskets at the end of the pew, and I looked around, wondering what it would be like to have been raised in this familiar, foreign faith. My father did not take a yarmulke, and my mother looked politely bored. She had been a church pianist for years, and liked to say that she could give a Unitarian sermon in her sleep. Although she taught me how to recognize Jewish names, she called herself a self-loathing Jew.

“Why?” I finally asked her.

“I just don’t find any connection with other Jews. I wasn’t raised Jewish, I don’t know the same people they do, it just seems judgmental and narrow minded.” I knew she was referring indirectly to my aunt. My mother and aunt had never gotten along.

*     *     *

People often look at my Jewish looks and name, my lack of religious upbringing and assume that my mother wasn’t Jewish. But because my parents were born in the 1920s and 1930s anti-Semitism meant they were not likely to marry outside their religion. For someone my age, I am remarkably racially pure. It’s such a troubling phrase, once used to keep Jews from opportunities, but when someone questions whether I am a Jew, I can’t help but think it.

My parents told me instances of oblique anti-Semitism. My father, a professor at the University of Virginia, once remarked that he would not have been allowed to teach there a hundred years ago. My mother would tell me the story of her cousin Paul, who rushed a fraternity at the University of California. During the swearing in, the men stood in a circle.

“Step out of the circle if you’re Jewish,” they said as part of a list of “unacceptable” traits of future fraternity brothers. Paul, who was not religious, stepped out.

“We don’t mean you, Paul! Come back!” the other students shouted, but he was already putting on his coat to leave.

Both of my parents liked to talk about history. When I learned about Kennedy’s assassination in elementary school, my mother told me people didn’t want to elect Kennedy because he was Catholic.

“Why would they care?” I asked. There were not very many Catholics in my hometown either.

“They worried he’d be ruled by a religious authority outside the United States,” she explained. “They used to say the same thing about the Jews,” she added.

*     *     *

Just after college I went to visit Lisa, who became a Hillel rabbi. She led services on Friday night. We sat in a circle in a room off the student union and the prayers were sung. I was embarrassed to be the rabbi’s cousin, and not know anything about her world of Judaism. And so I relied on my years of playing in orchestra when the prayers started. I mumbled the words and followed along with the tune, sight-reading the prayers. After, Lisa turned to me in surprise and said, “Where did you learn those prayers?” She knew for a fact I didn’t learn them at home.

I became used to sight-reading Judaism, faking my way through the encounters. I understood the cultural cues of being Jewish, but I knew nothing about the religion.

*     *     *

My father and his brother were close, even though they lived on opposite sides of the country. My uncle flew east frequently when my father became sick with terminal brain cancer. My aunt and uncle came together sometime before Passover, and my aunt was not eating anything that the Israelites wouldn’t have had on the exodus out of Egypt.

“Isn’t it rude to have such strict diet requirements in a house where someone is dying?” I asked my mother over the phone. I was 24, and I watched some of my friends give up leavened bread around Passover, or candy for Lent, but this seemed extreme.

“I think so,” my mother said. “Your father and I laughed about it. It was one of the last things we laughed about.” Not long after the visit, my father slipped into a coma.

*     *     *

“Why do they have to argue all the time?” my colleague at the bookstore asked, gesturing to the two older Jewish men standing by the newspaper rack, arguing about Israel. I smiled and said nothing. After my father died, I went to grad school, and got a job at the Brookline Booksmith, in a very Jewish suburb of Boston. For the first time in my life I was surrounded by Jews and I was just beginning to pick out aspects of my family that seemed to me to be Jewish. And Goldsteins, East and West, sure loved to argue. My dad and I used to argue all the time. Usually they weren’t fights, just heated discussions about all sorts of things such as whether we’d go back to horses when we ran out of oil, or the ethics of the atomic bomb, or the best topping on a hot dog. I was outspoken in my family, especially with my father, but quieter in public. I hated to argue when I didn’t know the facts, and I couldn’t always articulate what I was trying to say. I lost some confidence without my father’s keen appreciative eye. My favorite opponent, gone.

*     *     *

My father’s cousin Dave sent me a chain email that talked about how the Jews had contributed incredible learning and culture to Spain, but were expelled in 1492. The email suggested that Muslims contributed poverty and violence to European culture and should be expelled. I was tempted not to answer. I didn’t talk to Dave often, and I wasn’t sure how to talk to a man sixty years older than me about how short-sighted and racist I found his email. Then I remembered my father’s words.

I wrote back that I was glad to hear from him. I told him that my father had always said that the Jews and Arabs were brothers. (I knew that statement had the purity of coming from a dead man everyone loved.) I asked him to stop forwarding me emails of this kind, but that I would love to get letters from him. I told him a few things about my job and that I was moving in with Mike, the man I would eventually marry. I never heard from Dave again.

Don’t talk to the Goldsteins about Israel. I now realize that does not mean, “don’t start an argument.” My family loved a good argument. Instead it meant, “Don’t nudge the sleeping dragon of racism.” We don’t want to know. Because if we knew we would have to act, or at least speak up. And then we would have to deal with what followed.

*     *     *

At a neighbor’s Hanukah party (my second Hanukah party ever at age 39), I sit next to a woman in her sixties. “I don’t have a mezuzah,” she said. “I don’t tell people I’m Jewish.” She lives in a smallish town in New Hampshire.

“Why?” I ask.

“I’m afraid of prejudice,” she said. Our conversation moved on to other things. Twenty minutes later, I heard her tell someone else, “I would never get on a plane with an Arab.” It was thirteen years after September 11.

“Oh, come on,” the other person said. “Not all Arabs are terrorists.”

“You never know,” she said. Her face hardened. “I wouldn’t feel safe with any of those people. Would you?”

I wasn’t silent out of respect. I was silent out of fear, not fear for my safety, but fear of what people would have thought of me. And even more so, I was afraid of being embarrassed, of being looked down on, of being wrong, of having my cover blown.

To my shame, I did not respond to my neighbor’s friend. I was angry, but did not engage. Instead Mike spoke up about the many Muslim students he had taught over the years, and others joined him in the conversation. I had gotten used to talking to my non-Jewish liberal friends about how I found Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians hypocritical to say the least. But when there were Jews around, I was silent around the subject. What could I tell her that would make her understand? I thought to myself. I can blame the fact that my parents taught me to be polite. I can blame that I was the youngest nonfamily guest and I didn’t want to offend the hosts. I can blame that on the old Eastern/Western Goldstein silence. But they’re just excuses.

I wasn’t silent out of respect. I was silent out of fear, not fear for my safety, but fear of what people would have thought of me. And even more so, I was afraid of being embarrassed, of being looked down on, of being wrong, of having my cover blown. Everyone would know I wasn’t a real Jew.

*     *     *

A month later terrorists blew up the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris. The prime minister of France lamented that this violence might cause Jews to flee France, and how that would be a loss to the Republic. He discounted far-right anti-Semitism of white supremacists, and instead talked about “this new anti-Semitism comes from the difficult neighborhoods, from immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa, who have turned anger about Gaza into something very dangerous. Israel and Palestine are just a pretext. There is something far more profound taking place now.”

In the early twentieth century, many Americans talked about the new, dangerous immigrants with close ties to foreign radicalism. A banker on the Board of Overseers at Harvard wrote to Harvard’s president, “there is acknowledgment of interests of political control beyond, and in the minds of these people, superior to the Government of this country—the Jew is always a Jew first and an American second…” During World War II, a Gallup poll revealed that Americans saw Jews as the group with the greatest menace to American security, over Germans and Japanese.

*     *     *

When I was a teenager, I made my own peace with Israel by vowing that I would never go there. I figured I didn’t really know enough to be able to engage either side, so I held myself above the whole situation. This was something I learned as an Eastern Goldstein. My mother protected herself by proclaiming to be a self-loathing Jew. My father offered platitudes. But platitudes sound different coming from a man who was in World War II.

My father and I are (were) profoundly naïve, ignoring a wide range of politics that we never really understood, to say that the Arabs and Jews are brothers (and sisters). And I have been silenced by politeness, by ignorance, by the desire to get along. But I am a writer, and my silence will certainly not protect me. My voice is not political except with my face and my name, and I have a new message I would like to figure out how to send.

 

In 1951, Hannah Arendt wrote that Jews were the canary in the coal mine for Europe. A rise in anti-Semitism indicated a rise in totalitarianism. The world has changed since 1951, and I think Islamophobia is a new indicator of the danger of far-right nationalism. Islamophobia is the new anti-Semitism. And it is an anti-Semitism that Jews perpetrate.

After the bombing of a Danish synagogue, a month after the Hebdo massacre, local Muslims gathered to form a human ring around a synagogue in Oslo. Jews should be forming rings around mosques and Islamic centers. To be a Jew should be to protect other people’s precariousness as well. For if not us, who?

Ellen Goldstein was born and raised in Charlottesville, Virginia. Her work has appeared in journals such Ellen Goldstein asPost Road, Solstice, The Common, Measure,andCarbon Culture Review; as well as in the anthologiesNot Quite What I Was Planning: Six Word Memoirs, Letters to the World, Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry,andQueer South,which was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award. She lives in Eastern Massachusetts.