Any artist who puts their work online is usually looking for some kind of reaction, someone to reach out and offer them the chance to be discovered. I’ve been posting illustrations online for a few years now, feeling content and happy with the small, safe community I had created. Of course, like other young artistic women living in Brooklyn, I wanted to “be discovered” and hoped that if I kept doing my bit of good, eventually it might lead to something more.
And then it happened. And I was woefully unprepared.
I grew up in a secular Jewish household in the liberal bubble of West LA. I loved cooking latkes with my bubbe, klezmer music on vinyl playing in the background. I loved singing on Passover, and eating fistfuls of challah on Fridays. I went to temple maybe four times my entire childhood but I loved being Jewish. I’ve always clung to Jewish culture and felt great affection for it, even though I’ve never been religious.
Looking back, I never experienced real anti-Semitism, except for maybe when my friends in middle school would tell me I had a “Jew nose.” After years of self-reflection (and a nose piercing), I realized they were only saying that because I’m Jewish and not because I had an unusually large nose. I do not. We were in middle school. They were ignorant.
In college, I took a few courses on the Holocaust and I was so consumed by the horrors of the Shoah that my mind rarely drifted anywhere else. I just couldn’t turn off the part of me that empathized so deeply with these stories to the point where they kind of took over my life. I cried reading our textbooks. But still, I never had any sort of anti-Semitic hatred directed toward me. Sure, there was the time my teachers at my musical theater BFA program suggested I sing a bunch of Barbara Streisand songs, or tunes from Fiddler on The Roof, and insisted it was “because they’d sound good in my voice.” But nothing harmful, just a bit goofy and misguided.
There was also the time an ex-boyfriend once drunkenly yelled “k**e” in my general direction. He played it off like a joke. Another ex-boyfriend once told me it made him “uncomfortable” when I said the Hebrew prayers over the Hanukkah candles. I told him it was just my tradition, and it brought me joy to be able to do that, and that I did it for all of the Jews who had their traditions ripped away from them. He didn’t understand.
That had been my small collection of personal instances of anti-Semitism up until the moment my art went viral.
In the past couple of years, I’ve learned to channel my frustrations with the world, with the patriarchy, with xenophobia, into drawings that I post online. In turn, I’ve received a sense of community and relief.
And so, in a haze of despair over the various anti-Semitic attacks that took place during the week of Hanukkah in New York alone this past December, I decided to draw. I illustrated a menorah and I wrote out each instance of anti-Semitism next to the candle corresponding to the day it happened. In two days, over 120,000 people had seen it, nearly 20,000 people had “liked it,” and 14,000 people had shared it. I was excited that my illustration had made an impact. People often get their news from social media first, before heading to any kind of news outlet, and this felt like a positive contribution that just might lead to further personal investigation.
Comments started rolling in. Lots of “this is so sad” and “why is this still happening?”
And then came a different kind of comment.
“Jews do this to themselves because of how they act.”
“Jews deserve to die.”
Fighting back the urge to debate, I deleted most of these comments as swiftly as I could. Maybe someone more accustomed to being in the public eye could have let these hateful words roll off her back, but I was like a ninja — deleting comments with the quickest swipe the world has ever seen. Still, I was scared. I knew these attitudes existed, but never had they been so close, so tangible. I was honestly shocked. I know these are cowardly people hiding behind their keyboards, but I also know that the internet allows people’s deepest, ugliest truths to be brought to light.
Amidst the shock and worry was curiosity about these awful commenters. Occasionally I would check their pages to see what other kind of content they posted. Some were white nationalist pages, some were teenage boys, some were just “normal” people who posted pictures of themselves with their children and pets. And yet they clearly all harbored this deep, chilling hatred of Jews so much that they thought Jews deserved to die. Did they think I deserved to die?
I couldn’t stop myself from continuously checking my phone. The post had nearly tripled in likes overnight, and I had lots of new comments to wade through. One in particular caught my eye. All it said was “GOOD.” I went to the poster’s page and they had reposted my drawing along with a meme of a man saying, “I don’t care.” I commented and told him he didn’t have my permission to repost my work, and he needed to remove it. He told me he wouldn’t. He called me a k**e.
He told me I should go and die.
I don’t cover my hair. I wear pants and use an iPhone. I wear a Star of David that you’d have to be within two feet of me to see, but for the most part you couldn’t immediately look at me and shout, “Jew.” I’ve learned it doesn’t really matter: People do not care what kind of Jew you are, how Jewish you are. They don’t care if you’ve been to temple every week, or never in your life. Just knowing you have Jewish blood is enough for them. And when they came for us in the Holocaust, they came for religious and non-religious Jews alike. It did not matter to them back then, and apparently, it doesn’t matter now. At this moment in time, Hasidic and secular Jews are one. My fate, and the fate of Hasidic Jews who display their Judaism on a daily basis, are inextricably tied, which was made very clear to me amidst the success of this post.
Jews have seen what it looks like when small prejudices turn to misdemeanors, turn to horrific crime, turn to utter slaughter. While I hope that more people will include us in their activism, I think it is also our job to, in turn, and with our unique knowledge, confront the horrors that non-Jewish minorities and other oppressed peoples face. We must make their injustices our injustices. Because we know that while, one day, it’s just being called a slur and told to die by a random voice in the crowd, there aren’t that many steps between that and something much, much worse.
I, personally, will be fine and I know that. But my little microcosmic experience points to a much scarier and growing narrative, one that I feel renewed responsibility to speak on and address. I will be okay, but I will also be louder than ever.
Image by Yuri_B/Pixabay