I have only attended one bat mitzvah in my entire life. My main memory of the event is that my family arrived an hour early because we thought it would be “like a wedding” where it is customary to arrive early to the service. It turns out that’s not the case. I remember me and my sister itching in our frilly dress, waiting in the back of our minivan in an empty parking lot for what felt like hours. When the event finally started, we had a great time. The service was foreign to me, but I remember being transfixed by how big the Torah was, how beautiful it looked.
Outside of that solitary bat mitzvah, I didn’t have a ton of exposure to Jewish culture and religion growing up. I was raised in and confirmed Presbyterian, but I’ve considered myself an atheist since I was around 16. Despite this, I have always been open to and fascinated with other religions, even with the lack of belief in one of my own. I went to a massive public high school where resources were scarce, and we spent much more time trying to curb fights in the hallways than we ever did exploring other religions and faiths. I grew up near a massive, beautiful mosque and my house was near a couple of churches of varying denominations. I knew of the Jewish culture and faith, but I hadn’t considered it nearly as much until I started attending Skidmore College in upstate New York in 2019.
It was there that I started living with two of my closest friends, who also just happened to be Jewish. I had a few Jewish friends growing up here and there, but I had never had such a wide exposure to Jewish culture and customs. It was that year that I enjoyed my first bowl of matzah ball soup. We even gathered our friends and had a small interfaith Rosh Hashanah dinner. I rang in the Jewish New Year for the first time in my life, embracing and enjoying all of the new things I was learning, like the fact that I’d been pronouncing “challah” wrong my whole life. But more than learning about cultural customs and food, I also learned about other, deeper notions of what it means to be Jewish that I had never considered before.
One day last year, we were driving around aimlessly, waiting the agonizing three hours before we could get our COVID tests. Rebecca pressed her nose against the windows and turned to Hannah. “Wow,” she said. “This turned from a small little city to country roads so fast.” Outside the window, we watched as the buildings turned to fields and then to pastures.
“We’re in the middle of nowhere,” Hannah declared, spinning the steering wheel as we turned into yet another empty street lined with fields.
“I don’t know if I would define this as the middle of nowhere,” I piped up. “I mean, there’s roads paved and we still have cell service. Could be worse. Plus, we’re only like 10, 20 minutes outside of the hospital.”
“I define this as the middle of nowhere. I would not say I’m Jewish out loud here. I would not feel safe,” Hannah said, matter-of-factly. Rebecca murmured in agreement, and then we switched the soundtrack to Taylor Swift for the rest of the drive.
But I couldn’t stop thinking about what they said. Charming country roads are only charming if you feel safe there. And what was an idyllic pasture to me could be a fear-inducing place for someone else. The nurse swabbed my nose and I gazed out the window, thinking about it still..
A while later, I was in a meeting on campus about club budgets when someone commented on how they thought our Jewish culture club on campus shouldn’t be considered a “diversity club.” I asked them what they meant, and they explained that since Hillel is “all white,” it’s unfair that it is frequently grouped in with other cultural and diversity clubs on campus. I immediately corrected them and explained how completely untrue that is. Jews are far from a monolith — there are Ethiopian Jews, Persian Jews, Sephardic Jews, Asian Jews, and many other types. To say that all Jewish people in our Hillel club, or in general, are white is ridiculous. After this conversation, I couldn’t help but think about how I would have responded to this same statement just a year ago. Had I not been properly educated, I would have never had the nerve to say anything.
This kind of conversation is something that I am quite used to myself. I am Native American, Lenni-Lenape to be exact, and like many Natives on the East Coast, I don’t “look” like what many people consider an Indigenous person to look like. Because of this, when I talk about my identity, I often get asked what “percent” Indian I am. Not only is this hugely inappropriate, but it points back to a long history of Native people being forced to count how much “dirty” blood was inside of them. The idea of blood status is one I find to be deeply colonial and incredibly personal. It’s something that has always bothered me, but like many white-passing people, I usually am pretty agreeable about it and educate them if I have the energy. If I do not, I simply answer and let it go.
Over time, my friends have learned more and often stick up for me when the question comes up. It feels amazing to be seen by others, and if I can do that for my Jewish peers and friends in any sense, I will. Identity is important, and it is complex. It is something that you should never have to defend, and I am always proud to stick up for my Jewish friends and peers, in the same way that they have stuck up for me.
I am still learning how to be a better ally to my Jewish friends and peers. It is important to keep these stories in mind, especially as a non-Jewish person, and carry this knowledge throughout my life. As a non-Jewish person, I have a voice and a position of privilege that I need to use, especially in conversations with other non-Jews. This was something that took me some time to understand, but the more I thought about it, and the more I listened to Jewish voices, the more it made sense.
Like other forms of bigotry, antisemitism is on the rise in America. It’s not enough to simply have Jewish friends, or condemn the actions of horrible people doing horrible things. Antisemitism can be somewhat hidden, and it is more rampant in our daily cultural lives than I ever realized. Boys my friends date make insensitive remarks. Jewish voices are sometimes excluded from social justice circles. It is the moral responsibility of non-Jews like myself to make ourselves aware of these things, and to speak up when we can. It is not enough to simply be aware of the struggles — you must fight against them.