Sometimes It's Hard to Be a Jew

That metal taste in my mouth is back, a nauseating combination of rage, shame and fear.

It's been years since I have tasted it -- perhaps not since the last time someone drew a swastika on the whiteboard hanging on my dorm room door.

With each Facebook post about the terror attack at the kosher supermarket in France, with every news account of anti-Semitic incidents in Europe, with any YouTube video resounding with chants for "Death to the Jews," I have begun to flash back to memories that I thought were long buried.

In grammar school, I was the only Jew in my grade, and I was regularly pummeled for killing Christ. While I was in kindergarten, the Vatican issued Nostra Aetate, absolving the Jews of collective responsibility for deicide, but apparently this concept took a while to take hold in the boondocks. Years of being the other twisted my sense of self in knots.

The taunts about the matzah sandwich I brought for lunch during Pesach.

The day I had to make a Christmas ornament in art class, and crafted it in blue and white.

The teacher who tried to get me to make the sign of the cross before entering her classroom.

High school was better. I wasn't known only for being Jewish, but also for being involved in theatre, speech and choir. Even though there were only a handful of students who were not white and Christian, most of the time I felt like I belonged. Except when I didn't.

The day members of the Nazi Party spoke at my high school.

The boy whose parents wouldn't let him go to the school dance with me because I was Jewish.

The bomb threat that evacuated our synagogue during High Holidays.

I loved my small liberal arts college, but once again I was the first Jew some of my classmates had ever met. I was taken aback by some of their questions, given how intelligent the students were (i.e., no, my headband did not cover horns), but most seemed genuinely curious and did not mean to be offensive. My non-Jewish friends didn't understand why I bought into the construct of religion at all, much less Judaism, or why I felt the need to defend Israel when it was unpopular to do so. There were times when it was simply lonely to be different.

The Arab students who raged against Israel in a political theory class.

The theatre call-backs held on Yom Kippur.

The religion textbook that proclaimed Jews were "endowed by nature" with a talent for finance.

My first day of grad school was on Yom Kippur. I was not as brave or bold as Sandy Koufax; I attended class. When a North Shore suburban Village Hall refused to provide information to me or the student who was African-American, saying they would only work with our white classmate, I was not courageous or confident enough to demand the university take action -- or to use my journalism chops to write an expose about the incident.

In two of my three positions before coming to work for the Jewish community, I also faced some measure of anti-Semitism in the workplace.

The boss who continually grudged my taking a personal day for Yom Kippur, and deliberately ordered sandwiches instead of salads for lunch meetings during Passover.

The supervisor who questioned the expense of sending news releases to Jewish publications.

The coworkers who told Jewish jokes every time they saw me.

When I came to work for Chicago's Jewish Federation, it was a more than a job: it was a vow to never again have to explain, defend or tacitly apologize for who I was.

And now, working with a group of co-workers on a community memorial service for the French Jews murdered in Paris, I taste metal again. And I am angry.

As we talk about the events in France, my younger colleagues are chalk-faced. Seeing them frightened makes me angrier.

I will admit that in some small measure I am incredulous, even jealous, that they have never before felt threatened as Jews. In larger measure, I cannot believe we are fighting the same battles as when I was a preschooler.

I think about my grandchildren and my heart hurts.

As Sholem Aleichem said, sometimes it's hard to be a Jew.

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