My 6-year-old son was under my desk when he asked if he could lie about being Jewish.
He loves the overstuffed brown chair by my door, but that Saturday morning in October he bypassed the chair and climbed under my desk. He knew why I was crying. People had been shot in a synagogue in Pittsburgh, the one around the corner from my aunt’s house where my cousin was Bat Mitzvahed in 1996 and where my grandma had worked for the rabbi all throughout my childhood. It was early in the day, and we didn’t know the extent of the carnage. We didn’t know members of my extended family, David and Cecil Rosenthal, known to me and all of Squirrel Hill as “the boys,” would be among the dead. But we knew the man with the gun wanted to “kill all these Jews.” My aunt was listening on her police scanner and feeding me information before it was public knowledge.
My 9-year-old daughter wanted to know why someone would kill Jews, but my son had a much more practical question: Can I lie about being Jewish?
Being an American Jew in a small city in south-central Pennsylvania means I wasn’t surprised by his question, but I was devastated. My first impulse was one of swagger and bluster. I wanted him to feel safe. I wanted to tell him that being Jewish was nothing to hide because hiding is weak, and I didn’t want to feel weak that morning. I wanted to tell him we would never lie about our heritage. Wasn’t I the one who always explained to the nice cashiers at the grocery store that we didn’t celebrate Christmas? But that morning, as I wiped away my own tears, I realized if he did tell that lie, he wouldn’t be the first in my family to do so.
My whole existence, my own origin story, is predicated on a version of the exact same lie. The story I’ve always known is that my father’s paternal grandfather was turned away from the United States border in the early 1900s because of quotas placed on incoming Jews from Europe. He eventually made his way into the United States via South Africa. The family lore implies that ships coming from South Africa weren’t checked for Jews, and therefore he got in on a technicality — a technicality that denied his Judaism; a lie of omission that erased his religion. I have no idea if this story is true, but I do know various branches of my father’s family, who agree on little else, agree on this version of our past.
Before the shootings in Pittsburgh, I knew the U.S. government had turned my family away, but this knowledge didn’t affect my daily life. I didn’t take it personally. I had never been in a situation in which I’ve felt compelled to hide my Judaism. Though I’ve experienced low-level anti-Semitism in a variety of mundane ways my whole life, I have never felt fear because of my Jewishness.
Now, that’s all changed.
Have we reached the point where I should keep this information quiet, the way so many of my ancestors did? Did my great-grandfather resent having to deny his heritage for a chance at a better life? Or is resentment a privilege of those who still feel comfortable? Would I lie if it meant saving my own children and future progeny? If it makes my son feel safer to lie, should I let him? And how can I, an American Jew, stand by as my own government thwarts the entry of thousands of refugees and asylum seekers, launching tear gas at mothers and children over our Thanksgiving holiday?
Sometimes people are surprised my aunt in Pittsburgh has a police scanner, but it makes her feel safer. A survivor of the National Guard shootings at Kent State in 1970, she knows the toll of gun violence and has firsthand experience of her government turning on her. This is also a story I’ve always known but haven’t understood until now. Inspired in part by my aunt’s generation, I frequently attend protests and demonstrations. I’ve never considered that I could lose my life in pursuit of my free speech, but if we can tear-gas a group of people who pose no imminent threat, how far are we from turning on each other? How many in our communities have been feeling this threat for some time?
I’ve been looking away from the pictures of refugees in my social media feed. I can’t watch the videos. I don’t read past the headlines. It all feels too close. It’s the story of Central American families now, but it was the story of my family in the early 20th century. And it was my family in Pittsburgh on Oct. 27. These things are connected by xenophobia, anti-Semitism, racism and violence, and those things are part of my history as much as they’re part of the present.
I went home to bear witness at David and Cecil’s funeral with members of my family who were there to support those in our extended family who were more intimately connected to the heartbreaking losses left by the massacre in the synagogue. But I’m having trouble bearing witness now, fresh off Thanksgiving, when our country is all too eager to gloss over the truths of our own origin story and original sin. What will I say the next time to cashier wishes my family a merry Christmas?
My son’s impulse to hide his Judaism is one of survival and one he shares with ancestors we never met. While some days it feels like the frequent comparisons to Nazis are exaggerated and overblown, other days they feel desperately, despicably real — and far too close to home.
Jamie Beth Cohen is a writer, storyteller and community organizer. Her debut novel, “Wasted Pretty,” about a girl who faces wanted and unwanted attention after she inadvertently goes from blending in to standing out, will be published in April 2019. Follow her on Twitter @Jamie_Beth_S.