After Paris, We Choose to Wear our Yellow Star

Germany, striped armband with yellow Jewish star with inscription "Jude."
Germany, striped armband with yellow Jewish star with inscription “Jude.”

By Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt

It begins with an innocent weekend trip to Moscow, to visit my fiance’s family.

I ask him if he will hide his yarmulke and he says no, he will not apologize for who he is, he will wear his skullcap wherever we are – in Charles de Gaulle on our layover on the way, in Moscow, and in Schiphol on the way back.

My heart drops, and I nod. Decades of Soviet paranoia flash before me. Europe, after all, is not what it was – it’s not the Europe of 1938, but it’s not the Europe of 1998, either.

“Can you ask him to wear a cap at least?” my mother asks me in Russian the Shabbat before, eyeing me carefully.

The debate over whether to wear obvious Jewish signs abroad is a common and heated one in the Orthodox community. Does one choose one’s ideals and principles? Or does one err on the side of safety? After all, it takes just one lunatic.

I shake my head slowly. “I can’t ask him that. It’s a real principle of his. He will not hide it.”

The table is silent. My parents, Soviet Jewish emigrants, and I, their daughter, who inherited every one of their traumas, exchange looks and switch to a new conversation topic.

Being an Orthodox Jew in the Diaspora – that is, being openly and defiantly different – is not easy.

It means every day, everywhere, one declares one’s difference by dressing differently.

As a journalist living in and writing about my Orthodox community, I have been preoccupied for years by this question of outside and inside, external perceptions, how they shape our identity, and how they affect our most important decisions.

And being raised in the New York area, but on a healthy diet of Soviet nightmares, taught me to obsessively avoid being obviously Jewish or Orthodox when stepping outside our community.

Tribalism terrified me. I spent hours scouring department stores for dresses and blouses that looked effortless, skirts not an inch too long, always a pair of heels. I wanted to be perceived as a young career woman who simply chose to dress conservatively.

“Dress British, think Yiddish,” I would tell myself. I was secretly proud of my light eyes and “goyish nose,” which my grandparents would often praise me for.

My relatives beamed at me, “You’d never think she’s Jewish.” When one aunt once disagreed, announcing that I looked like a zhidovka and there was no escaping it, I left the table to cry.

Fast-forward some years, and at age 23, a month ago, I married a rabbi.

There is no more hiding my own difference. Standing next to my husband, I am learning to be proud of who I am, to embrace it. Slowly, I am learning the simple ability to be different. As we walk home together from synagogue here in Manhattan – he in his yarmulke, me in my married woman’s wig or hat – I am constantly reminded that we are different.

But recent events have hit me with the uncomfortable realization that to be different is no longer a sweet schoolroom lesson in U.S. pride in diversity, the kind of posters displayed in kindergarten, of children of all colors. To be different, even in 2015, can bear a heavy price.

By being different, we are branded. If something happens, we become more than different – “we become a target,” I think in Russian.

These days, I quietly marvel over how merely stepping outside has become an act of courage in my mind. When I step into my Upper East Side gym in a modest skirt and headscarf, I swallow the lump in my throat and force myself to ignore the stares. Everywhere – a hotel bar, a corporate office – I try to muster the ability to walk proudly, insist on being who I am, to be unafraid of being The Jew.

After all, isn’t the experience of a writer, an independent opinion, the essentially Jewish experience? Being that inevitable Other, foreigner? Whether one is a woman in a man’s world, a religious person in a secular world, or an independent-thinking journalist in a homogeneous society, one bears the brunt of being different.

This is the inescapable condition of the Diaspora Jew. And the Orthodox may feel it more potently: How many secular colleagues and relatives laugh nervously at the way we dress, the way we name our children, the way we choose these consuming lifestyles? “Do you have to be Jewish in everything you do?” Because we show our difference on our sleeves. We choose to wear our yellow stars.

These days, here in New York, we are privileged; the life of the Orthodox Jew engaging in the modern world has never been easier or freer. Yet in a kosher restaurant, a dinner with a Knesset member and several Jewish businessmen – sleek, well-dressed, as polished as gentiles – the discussion turns to the Diaspora Jewish condition today, the way we still see everything as still fragile.

“Are you any different from the Jew in Paris?” one of the businessmen suddenly shouts, his hands flying. “In London? What makes you think you’re any different?” He gestures around the room – chandeliers glisten, bankers and their wives dine around us, waiters scuttle, some people look up startled. “How do you know, ah? How do you know you’re any different?”

We raise our voices in turn, demanding, growing in fervor: “This is America, for heaven’s sake! What are you saying, exactly?”

An endless argument in our shtetl.

As our phones buzz with news from France, we shake our heads here in the free Diaspora but continue going about our daily lives, this sort of illusory fairytale for Jews: to our own Hyper Cacher supermarkets, haggling with the butcher, rushing home to knead challah dough, to set our tables and prepare our candlesticks. “That’s just France,” we think to ourselves. “That’s what you get for being a Jew and still living there.”

And on the Sabbath here in New York, we sit in our dining rooms, passing the kale and the brisket, in our diamonds and furs, hushing: No, no, this will never happen to us, no.

But that looming sense of apprehension remains, uncomfortably so – the sense of inescapable difference, and one wonders if it’s self-perpetuated or if it comes from outside.

I had been confident that things were finally different for my generation, that one could live life as a Jew openly anywhere, and soon enough we could go on colorful expeditions anywhere we wanted.

And now I wonder, as I stand before my silver candlesticks, if I am fated to whisper the same prayers, with the same fears, that my great-great-grandmothers surely whispered in front of their own candlesticks? Perhaps they ushered in the Sabbath with the same secret thoughts? “When will they come for us, too?” These are the thoughts I think but am too afraid to voice at those Sabbath tables. And I know I am not alone in these thoughts. I know we all think them and then, in unison, push them away with a defiant shove.

A terrible secret part of me wonders what music they may or may not play when they make films 50 years later, as they stage our Sabbath-table conversations. Will it be an Itzhak Perlman violin, or Chopin with an Adrian Brody in the leading role?

And the script they’ll write for us, what kind of humor will the young screenwriter include? Jokes that will no doubt be ironic, foreboding, that the cinematic versions of us will crack about some harmless madmen? Surely the audience will laugh nervously as they watch these clueless Jews on screen, insisting that they themselves would never be so blind?

The chairs around the table shift. Booklets are passed around for the Grace After Meals, and as the room hushes for prayer, I’m still hushing those violins in my mind. I scold myself for falling prey to the neuroses and victimhood narratives I’ve inherited, which somehow my college courses did not fully erase: Not here, not now, not in such a civilized world, I declare. And anyway, if things get too uncomfortable, we can always move to Israel. It’s Israel that makes everything different now.

In the wake of Paris, I step outside onto Lexington Avenue, and these tiny nagging fears come with me. They live in the yellow star inside my coat.