It was a sunny spring afternoon in my hometown in southern California. As the school bell rang, like many other high school seniors, I made a beeline to the parking lot to get in my car and head home. But on this particular day, I stumbled upon a horrific surprise – the windows of my car were covered in bright red swastikas. And on the front windshield, a message: “Die stupid Jew.”
As you can imagine, it was one of those moments I will never forget, and I was overtaken by fear and confusion. Why would anybody do that? I remember, with the intent to narrow down the culprit, my school principal asking which students knew that I was Jewish. “Everyone,” I responded. I never felt like my Judaism was something I had to hide.
Later that day, I told my parents what I experienced and saw a look of worry in their eyes. My father implored, “Please do not show off that you are Jewish.” The overwhelm of feelings left me with no other response but to nod in agreement and honor his request.
I especially trusted my father’s judgement in this scary incident as he unfortunately was no stranger to antisemitism himself. With my mother, they came to America to escape religious persecution prompted by the Iranian revolution. Like most Iranian Jews, they had experienced what it was like to be discriminated against and to have a target on their back, generation after generation, simply because of their religious affiliation. One thing had been clear to me since childhood: My family immigrated to America so that I could proudly and openly be Jewish without experiencing antisemitism like they had. Or so they thought.
Recently, the FBI released its hate crime statistics in the U.S. for 2020, which showed that of all hate crimes motivated by hatred of victims due to their religion, 57.5% targeted Jews. In spring of this year, prompted by turmoil in the Middle East, attacks against Jews around the world had increased over 400%. During that time, in Los Angeles, where I now live, a group of Jewish men were beaten up at a popular restaurant after several antisemites identified them as Jewish. Nearly 15 years after my personal experience of high school antisemitism, my father sat me down once again and said, “Please don’t show off your Judaism. Things are getting dangerous.”
This time, I couldn’t agree. While I was scared and felt really helpless, I was motivated by the powerful force of knowing that I was born in America, so that unlike the generations before me, I actually could show off my Judaism. I took action in the only way I knew how, by putting on my Jewish star necklace, a piece of jewelry that in recent years had been replaced with the more mainstream (and not exclusively Jewish) hamsa.
When I put on my Jewish star necklace, I experienced a strange yet familiar discomfort, one that I experienced as a child from time to time when I was in secular spaces where it was known that I’m a Jew. The necklace, despite being delicate, felt like a weight on my chest that I didn’t quite understand. While a small part of me may have feared being targeted, I knew it was deeper than that. After some reflection, it occurred to me that the heaviness was a feeling of responsibility that my actions as an individual may be attributed to all Jews. By publicly sharing my religious affiliation, I am now representing my tribe, one that is often stereotyped and by some, disliked. What happens if I get impatient with someone in public or miscalculate the tip at a restaurant and someone assumes it’s “a Jew thing?”
I thought about taking it off many times, but instead decided to shift my perspective. This charm is not only a symbol of my Judaism, but also a reminder for me every day to embody Jewish values. To practice v’ahavta leriyecha comocha (love my neighbor like myself), to treat others the way I want to be treated and to practice compassion. This way, even if I am to be judged, it will be for my acts of kindness, empathy and mindfulness towards others.
I would be remiss to not acknowledge that not all minorities have the option to change or hide their traits. I recognize that I could take my necklace off at any point and hide my Judaism and “go under the radar.” I recognize that Jews in other parts of the world don’t dare to wear a star of David, or are scared to publicly show they are a Jew because they likely will be attacked or targeted. Sadly, wearing this symbol of identity, religion and culture has become a luxury.
But it shouldn’t have to be. Every time I hear about a hate crime due to someone’s religion, race, ethnicity, gender, you name it, my body gets tense – that could easily have been me. I feel a surge of helplessness and simultaneously gratitude towards the organizations and people who are passionately fighting against hatred every day.
While I recognize I am only one person, my response to acts of hatred in the world is to balance it with higher consciousness through my own personal actions. To practice embodying Jewish teachings like b’tzelem Elohim, the idea that all human beings are created in the image of God.
When I look down at my Jewish star necklace, I still hold an intense sense of responsibility, but a different kind than what I experienced a few months ago. In present day, my responsibility is to take actions that reflect the world I want to live in and leave behind. One where our future generations can proudly and safely flaunt their Jewish or other minority identities. A more accepting and loving world. And perhaps we can get a little closer to that vision every day by spreading goodness and embodying the change we want to see.