What does Judaism look like in an anti-Semitic world?


A finger points in my direction. Its owner, my seventh grade teacher, is talking about Jews who took on new identities during the Holocaust and were able to hide in plain sight. “You have blonde hair and blue eyes, so you would have survived.” I laugh along with all of my peers. It isn’t the first time someone has told me this, as if having blonde hair and blue eyes is some sort of magical shield that protects me from the undesirability of my Jewish identity.

I used to smile to myself and agree, feeling lucky and special that I would be able to survive such a tragedy, confident that it would never become an issue for me. Any time the Holocaust was brought up in my youth, my peers would single me out and remind me, jokingly, how lucky I was that I would have survived back then. I felt lucky, too. I learned that my appearance is like a privilege card that I get to keep in my back pocket for emergencies. Today, with anti-Semitism on the rise, I wonder if it’s time to play it. I wonder what playing this card entails. Is it as drastic as renouncing my Jewish identity and community? Or does it boil down to the fact that I do not appear Jewish to others, and my blonde hair and blue eyes shield me from some potential anti-Semitic hate crimes?

Is it fair that I have this card and this privilege? Do I need to play it now to protect friends and family? Do I rip it up to proudly stand with my community?

These questions plague me now that anti-Semitism has gone from an intangible concern, lingering at the back of my mind, to a paralyzing, consuming fear that I was told I would never experience in my lifetime.

My brother’s JCC was evacuated due to a bomb threat last month. The local urban temple, where I have spent much of time, where our family friend is the head Rabbi, where many of my Jewish peers work, was recently defaced by Holocaust-denying graffiti. I am afraid for my own safety when I gather in public Jewish spaces. 

And yet, people think I am lucky because I can just walk away from all of this. My blonde hair and blue eyes apparently allow me to turn my back and bury my head in the sand because I don’tlook Jewish.

“You don’t look Jewish!” people tell me, unable to mask the surprise in their voice once they find out. “I know,” I respond, apologetically. “But my dad does! Big nose, curly hair, everything!” I say, almost begging. Begging them to accept me as a Jew, begging them to not question my identity, begging them to believe that I am Jewish enough. Enough for whom, though, for what? Jews and non-Jews alike never fail to remind me that I, with my blonde hair and blue eyes, do not look Jewish. They remind me that I have never been subject to the unattainable beauty ideals and overt prejudice that afflicts those with stereotypically Semitic features.

Being a Jew with blonde hair and blue eyes makes me lucky. I have never been laughed at for my Semitic features, been targeted as the butt of jokes, or been singled out for being Jewish without first identifying myself.

Even before the idea of going into a public Jewish gathering space made me nervous and even before my phone started dinging with news of anti-Semitic hate crimes, I have carried this weird privilege card with me. For a long time it has kept me slightly isolated from my community, but it may also be keeping me safe. It’s burning a hole in my pocket these days but I have absolutely no idea what to do with it.

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