I Used To Be Jewish, Now, It’s Safer To Say I Am Jew(ish)
Written by Sidney London
March 16, 2023
When I was growing up, it was an inside joke that my mom would always whisper the word “Jewish” when we were in an unfamiliar public setting. My dad, sister, and I would laugh as she tried to articulate her sentence, only for parts of her speech to be practically inaudible. “We can’t hear you,” my sister would say with a laugh. “Say it again,” my father would add with a smile. With time, I came to realize the sad reality of this memory: my mother was scared to reveal our Jewish identity because she never knew who might hear.
I’ve always been proud to be Jewish. In fact, it is probably my favorite part of my identity. As a kid, I attended Sunday school at a conservative temple weekly, and grew very fond of my community. Therefore, the juxtaposition of being proud of my religion, but also feeling as if I had to hide it from people who would not be accepting of it was always confusing to me. This sparked inner conflict when my mom would whisper the word “Jewish,” or my grandparents would mention the most recent hate crime, or my Rabbi would encourage us to come together as a community to unite against anti-semtism. I couldn’t help but wonder: why was I meant to hide a part of myself from the world?
Truth be told, I don’t think I really understood anti-semitism up until recently. I assumed it was something society had outgrown, something my parents and grandparents only spoke of as a cautionary tale. So when my middle school bathroom was vandalized with swastikas, I felt confused and hurt. To cope, I quickly decided that this was an anomaly, a bad joke, and decided to shrug it off. In my mind, none of my peers could possibly hate me for my religion. After all, most of my social circle at the time consisted of the people who attended Jewish preschool with me.
Now, after moving 8 hours away from home, I’ve diversified my horizons and branched out beyond my preschool classmates. Finally, I am able to see the harsh reality of the world and escape from the bubble I grew up in. Anti-semitism exists, and it is an issue that is rapidly spreading through our society today like an epidemic.
My wakeup call came from none other than Kanye West. Over the past few years, West has made many anti-semitic remarks, including a tweet featuring the Star of David with a swastika inside and an interview where he praised the actions of Hitler. While there are only about 15 million Jews worldwide, there were 31.4 million people on Twitter following West. Let that sink in. His hateful ideology reached over two times the size of the Jewish population. The same ideology I once considered distant was being perpetuated from a prevalent public figure in real time, likely playing a big role in the recent spike in anti-semitism.
Whatever view you may hold on the situation boils down to if we can separate the art from the artist. For much of the Jewish community, I think we put our foot down and say absolutely not. When there is a person out there praising the man who led to the horrific death of so many of your ancestors, how could you possibly still support him? To me, simply listening to his music is defending his character. When I am with people who play his music out loud, or when I am listening to a friend’s playlist and his music comes on, I cannot help but feel uncomfortable. Yet for many people who are not Jewish, listening to his music has no effect on them. His music is just music, rather than a reminder of a tragic history or present threats.
Is listening to Kanye’s music denying the presence of anti-semistism? Am I meant to avoid people who cannot understand the gravity of this situation? I constantly grapple with these questions. Sadly, I think the answer to both of these questions is no. Because of Ye’s widespread influence, and the fact that anti-semitism is constantly overlooked, I cannot blame people for not understanding how impactful the actions of Kanye were. Truth be told, anti-semitism is so normalized in today’s society, it is not treated like a real problem. On top of such, the only people who seem to treat it as though it is a legitimate issue is the Jewish population. While we may learn about the Holocaust in school, this is not enough to understand anti-semitism today. It is not something that ended when people were freed from concentration camps: it is still something we all carry with us today, something constantly looming over our shoulders.
I can’t sit here and tell you not to listen to Kanye’s music, and not to give into the ways in which anti-semitism is so normalized in pop culture. It is entirely your choice what you do – all I can do is give you my perspective on the matter. Kanye grew famous for his musical genius, but this praise should not carry over to his ideology. What I do want to reiterate is that anti-semitism is a very real issue. My mom should not have to whisper the word “Jewish,” my grandparents should not be reporting on the most recent hate crimes, and my Rabbi should not be telling my congregation that we need to unite against anti-semitism. I want to live in a world where I am proudly Jewish, not where I am timidly Jew(ish).