Rachel Freeman, communications and website manager, shares the impact of anti-Semitism on her everyday choices.
If your house was burning down and you had time to grab one item before leaving, what would you take? Would you take your birth certificate or passport? A family photo album from a time before the digital era? Or maybe your laptop, tablet, or other important electronic device? For me, that item is a necklace.
When I was 12 years old, I took a trip with my parents, sister, and grandparents to see the Nordic and Baltic countries in Europe. We traveled by way of a cruise ship, which gave us the opportunity to see six different countries in just over a week. On our stop in Helsinki, Finland, we disembarked the ship to a flea market in the cruise ship terminal parking lot. I had never seen a flea market before. It was so fun to see all of the booths and art and tchotchkes (one of my favorite Yiddish words) and treasures. My grandma told me that she would buy me one thing from the flea market and I took my job of picking out the right thing very seriously.
After browsing up and down the makeshift aisles, we came across a man selling coins that he had carved into, leaving behind a 3-dimensional image of the focal point of the coin. At that moment, I saw one that caught my eye, a perfect gift to connect my grandma and me. It was an old Israeli coin, an agora, which had stopped circulating in 1986. The coin features the state emblem of Israel: a menorah with seven branches surrounded by olive branches, a symbol for peace. Running along the bottom of the coin, inside the outer circle, is the word Israel written in Hebrew.
This coin, turned into a necklace by the man running the booth, made me swell with pride. My grandma was born in 1925 in what is now Israel, and throughout my childhood she shared stories of her time growing up there. I felt connected to her through this coin. I also felt connected to my Jewish culture and religion, as the menorah is an important Jewish symbol. I was proud to wear something that tangibly depicted the pride I had in my familial and cultural heritage.
Since the day my grandma bought it for me, I wore that coin necklace almost every single day...until recently. The Tree of Life synagogue shooting in 2018—the deadliest attack on Jewish people in the United States—laid bare to me the precarity of my sense of safety. For the first time in my life, I felt scared and vulnerable sharing my Jewish identity with those around me.
Of all my identities—among them, female, queer, and Californian—my Jewish identity is the one that has most profoundly shaped who I am and how I live my life. Having to choose to hide this part of myself has been overwhelming. It reminds me of the time before I came out, living in the closet with the fear that people would find out who I am. And yet, wearing the necklace feels like I’d be placing a target on myself, one that recently has grown once again.
While I have the privilege of “hiding” my Jewish identity, it has been heartbreaking to choose not to wear my necklace. I feel sad that this part of me—the part that most closely connects me to my grandma (of blessed memory)—is something I’m afraid to share.
I keep this necklace in a drawer beside my car keys. I see it every day, and every day I make the decision to wear it or not. And every day, when I look at the necklace, I repeat the words of a well-known Hebrew song, which says,
כל העולם כולו גשר צר מאוד והעיקר לא לפחד כלל
Kol ha’olam kulo gesher tzar me’od veha'ikar lo lifached k'lal.
The whole world is a very narrow bridge and the main thing is to have no fear at all.
Maybe one day I will be able to walk across the narrow bridge without looking down and make the choice to wear the necklace again.