A few weeks ago, “obviously identifiable” sounded like a phrase from a bird-spotting book. Now, it’s part of our everyday vernacular — and it not only relates to the kippah, the blazer, or the Magen David necklace, but even how you like your burger. Last week, a university student was started on by a gang of young men because he’d ordered his without bacon.
We have entered a different zone, an era of discomfort and suspicion. I don’t want to call it “fear” because the f-word hands our haters victory. But every day we’re hearing things that are hurtful and deeply troubling.
We’re constantly on high alert. Anyone else find themselves panically swiping the Israeli flag off their screen when checking their phone in public? Or looking around in a crowd and wondering who might have been out with a placard calling for us to be “cleansed”? Or instinctively changing the subject when their child blurts out something Jewish in an environment that is not?
As parents we’ve also begun a new balancing act — making our children aware enough, while keeping anxieties at bay. Ensuring our kids have their wits about them, without feeling fearful on our streets. Putting their safety first, without diminishing their Jewish pride. Calibrating that perfect balance is no simple challenge.
How can we say: don’t wear your kippah in the street but always be true to who you are? Or in one breath: tuck your Magen David in, then, in the next: always be a proud Jew? At what point does protecting them from harm start harming their identity? At what point does warning them of danger become a danger to their wellbeing? If only there was one right answer. But there never is. We’re all just trying to figure it out — weighing up our own priorities and our children’s needs with some help from each other. That invaluable sense-check from friends you respect and trust.
For me, having spent much of the last 13 years reminding my son to put his kippah on when (and if) he goes to shul, when last week by some miracle it appeared on his head without me asking, I could not bring myself to suggest it goes in his pocket instead. But neither did I feel happy about him wearing it while walking around on his own. So I walked with him instead, on the pretext of getting some fresh air. But he takes the train to school every day and although he doesn’t wear anything “obviously identifiable” I’ve had to tell him to be more aware: be careful what you talk about out loud. Don’t mention being Jewish. Don’t draw attention to yourself. I hated the sound of it as it came out of my mouth, but I felt it would have been irresponsible not to discuss it. For my daughter, who goes to a Jewish school, I’ve decided not to tell her to take off her blazer for the short walk home each day. But if she goes anywhere else after school, that’s a different story. On the weekends, when there have been demonstrations, she’s not gone “out out” in the evening, but gone to friends instead.
As parents we are used to weighing up the threats to our children’s safety, calculating it in terms of their need and desire for independence, for adventure or for fun. This is just a new frontier. We’ve tasted this threat before, but never quite like this.
Ironically, it’s taken me until my forties to be more open about being Jewish. I can’t tell you how many Christmas magazine features and food and gift specials I’ve edited without admitting that I’ve never actually cooked a Christmas turkey or owned a Christmas tree. But I’ve made a conscious decision in recent years not to be ashamed to talk about being Jewish. Not for any other reason than the inclination to be “real”. I guess in midlife we all become a bit more self-assured about who we are and perhaps I’ve also absorbed some of that philosophy in the ether that diversity is to be celebrated. In fact, just recently I found myself in a meeting at work, saying: “When I’m Chanukah shopping…” rather than talking in terms of Christmas presents, and I noted the change in myself. I wouldn’t say I’d faked it in the past, just skirted over the things that might identify me as different.
When I was younger and would visit my dad at work around Christmas time, I remember him telling me to just play along if people asked me about Christmas presents and plans. The son of a Buchenwald survivor and the only grandchild of an Auschwitz and Mauthausen survivor, his modus operandi has always been to be fairly low-key with his Jewish identity in public. My mother, whose parents were from Mashad in Persia where they lived their Jewish life in secret under threat of execution, has unsurprisingly always been of a similar mentality — as so many others of their generation are. My parents still never declare their religion on any form, not uncommon among Jews, but something I used to mildly tease them about.
So it struck me as ironic when I had an appointment with a nurse last week and I found myself wondering: had I declared anywhere that I was Jewish? Did she have it on her screen? Would it change the way she dealt with me? It was a momentary concern and I soon switched off that train of thought. But it occurred to me that these fears,which have taken two generations to wipe out, are creeping back in. And I, for one, don’t want to let them.
But if we need a boost of courage right now, here’s one for all of us. In what I can only describe as a beshert moment, as I’ve been writing this column, a letter has arrived at my door. It’s from Adi Efrat, a survivor of October 7 from Kibbutz Be’eri, whom I interviewed during her time in the UK the week before last. She was held captive by Hamas for 12 hours and would most likely have been taken hostage to Gaza, had the IDF not fought off her captors. Her home was burnt down and her only possessions that weren’t destroyed were the pyjamas she was wearing that catastrophic morning. So before she flew back to Israel, I dropped off some clothes for her with a note offering any help. She writes: “The only help we need is — stay true, don’t ever be anything else but you, don’t ever be afraid to be a Jew.”
The right words at the right moment. Bon courage to you all. And thank you, Adi.