Being Jewish in America
By Katy Swartz
By now, many of you have heard about the events that happened in Pittsburgh on Saturday, October 27th. A gunman burst into a synagogue yelling “death to the Jews” before killing 11 people, and injuring many others, including police officers. When questioned by police after his arrest, he said that he “wanted all Jews to die.”
Right now, my heart is broken. This grief feels so immensely personal, so incredibly close to home, and I am crying tears for these eleven individuals who were murdered as they were simply living out their lives as Jews, as my people have done for thousands of years. I can picture the scene in my head so clearly, one that I have been in countless times before. I can see the synagogue, the shul as we call it in Yiddish, preparing for a bris, a ritual circumcision of 8-day old male infants that we have had in Judaism since biblical days. It is the time when these babies are given their names (known only to the parents before this), and they officially become members of the Jewish people.
Given that anti-Semitism is at the root of this hate crime, the worst act of violence against Jews in the history of the United States, I wanted to share a bit of my own experience being Jewish in America, and growing up in the states of Arizona, Oklahoma, and Texas. I left Arizona when I was 10 and therefore spent most of my formative years in the states of Texas and Oklahoma, embedded within the Bible Belt. These states do not have large Jewish populations, and many Jewish (and non-Jewish) people tell me I’m the first Jewish person they’ve met from there. For some context, the Bible Belt is a region in the United States known for its social conservatism and deep Christian religious roots. Luckily, since this isn’t a scholarly paper, I can go ahead and direct you to Wikipedia, if you’d like to read more.
We have started a dialogue about the numerous acts of hatred that have happened in the United States since Trump was elected, and the deep harm they have done to so many communities. My community (or communities, if you count my queerness as well) is not alone. I went to a vigil on Saturday where Muslim leaders stood in solidarity with us, and I stand in solidarity with them, with people of color, and with all individuals who have been targeted by these horrific events, which have occurred with such frequency that so many of us have almost become numb to these tragedies, truly unable to handle another onslaught of hate. I merely wish to add my voice to this conversation and talk a bit about what it feels like to be Jewish right now, and how it felt to me when growing up.
Growing up in the Bible Belt, being Jewish was an anomaly. Anti-Semitism was ever-present, though we believed so much of it was due to ignorance and the reality was that so many people had never met a Jewish person before. Someone asked my sister where her horns were (for context, see here) and drew a swastika on her locker. Someone threw a quarter at me during orchestra practice in high school (another stereotype of Jews being that we have a lot of money; throwing quarters is a common anti-Semitic act), and we all have a story about the time we were told we were going to hell for our beliefs. There were, of course, many wonderful people who never acted this way, and these incidents equally horrified them. However, I never felt like I was truly welcome in Oklahoma or Texas, never really fit in.
I remember in high school we had a ‘diversity day’ where they split all students up by race and put us in different rooms. They put the white students in the gym (the only room big enough to fit all of these students at a high school founded as a white-flight school in the 60s when public schools were desegregated in Fort Worth, Texas). However, on that day, I was told that I —with the excessive amount of white privilege that I hold and some incredibly light skin — was not white. All of the Jews were put in a classroom where we had to talk about the slurs that have been used against us, then write these on poster paper and hang them around the school to show everyone. For over a week, I had to walk past the word K—-, the same word used by the person who committed these acts yesterday and countless people before him, just hanging there, taunting me. So no, America has not always felt like a safe haven. I have not always felt safe. We always had an armed police officer outside our synagogue during services, and no, their presence could not have made this horrific outcome 'better.'
I can’t quite describe what it feels like to read so many articles and posts where people say “now I wake up”, “now I know Anti-semitism exists here.” Anti-semitism has always existed in my life, and has always existed in America. We see a politician who gives these people a voice, allows them to come to the surface. He has caused immeasurable harm to so many communities, and I know that my queer and Jewish communities are two in a number of those targeted directly.
My only request when you offer us support is to please, remember the eleven victims. Do not say their deaths were preventable, that we knew this was going to happen. And yes, vote on November 6th. It’s the least we can do right now. But please remember that anti-Semitism, just like Islamophobia, Racism, Homophobia, and all other forms of hatred is going nowhere, and this fight is a long one. For Americans, voting on November 6th is our most important civic duty and one of the most necessary responses to this uptick in acts of hatred. However, it is just the start.