The other day, my husband took my middle son, who is almost five, to a Whole Foods near our home in New York. When he came back, he told me he’d felt uneasy there. Usually, strangers smile at my son while he’s skipping down the aisles; that day, they shot angry, wary glances his way. Could it be, my husband wondered, because our son was wearing a kippah?
Two months ago, I would have dismissed this as mere paranoia. To be a visibly Jewish is to live with a constant, low-grade fear that people are judging you, but more often than not, in my experience, that fear turned out to be unfounded. But these days, I believe any Jew who says they feel scared.
In recent weeks, thousands of people have marched through the streets of New York City chanting “from the river to the sea”; posters of those kidnapped in Israel — including babies and the elderly — have been torn down from city lampposts. At a university in downtown Manhattan, pro-Palestine demonstrators beat on the locked doors of a library where Jewish students were holed up. Over the past few days, stickers have appeared on mailboxes in my neighbourhood that read: “Resist the occupation by any means necessary.” What is meant by this, I can only surmise, is that killing children like mine is justified.
Meanwhile, we’ve seen our places of employment and our alma maters issue mealymouthed statements about the October 7 attacks. A friend of mine runs a small business that often donates proceeds to local causes such as food banks — causes that, despite having nothing to do with the conflict in Israel and Palestine, have felt it necessary to state their allegiance on social media. (No prizes for guessing where that allegiance lies.) “I don’t know what’s more painful,” she told me. “Being sad about the actual attacks, or seeing everyone you thought cared about you just disappear.”
We are on our own, we say repeatedly. The feeling is familiar. “It is not because you are the most numerous of peoples that God grew attached to you and chose you — indeed, you are the smallest of peoples,” it says in Deuteronomy. Our vulnerability is part of the package; it has, so far, failed to diminish our indefatigability. “All things are mortal but the Jew,” Mark Twain wrote in his 1899 essay “Concerning the Jews”: “all other forces pass, but he remains.” In these last weeks, Jews have rallied to help one another, cooking meals for families with a parent serving in the Israeli army, bussing visitors to those sitting shiva for victims of the October 7 attacks, sending truckloads of supplies.
My family and I are part of a Modern Orthodox community, which is dedicated to the principle of Torah Umadda, which combines the best of both secular knowledge and Jewish practice. A synonymous label, “social Orthodoxy”, has been proposed, because Modern Orthodox Jews have high levels of civic engagement: while we largely keep kosher and shabbat, we also usually attend university, excel in professional fields, and have more diverse social circles than our brethren in the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) world. Trying to walk the razor’s edge between tradition and modernity, as a neighbour once put it, is challenging under normal circumstances. But lately it’s become a nightmare. “The way things are now, I would never send my children to college,” the mother of one of my eldest son’s best friends — herself a graduate of a prestigious secular university — whispered to me while our children played in the yard at synagogue.
Not that this would necessarily make them safe. Our Jewishness is on display, obvious from the clothing we wear and the languages we speak; we gather together frequently in synagogues, send our children to Jewish schools, and often live in clusters. If someone wanted to hurt Jews, they’d aim for maximum impact, and target one of these places. Multiple times a week, while shopping or praying or even just ordering something to be delivered (a mezuzah on my door means anyone can tell that Jews live here), I think to myself: “We’re sitting ducks.” Perhaps I sound paranoid, but these things of course do happen.
This feeling of being at risk isn’t entirely new. It’s been three years since we moved to our fairly Orthodox neighbourhood, and this is not the first time the police have been stationed outside my children’s school since then. They appeared in early 2021, for instance, around the time that a local man was arrested for throwing bricks through the windows of synagogues in the dead of night. But this feels bigger, scarier, more isolating. A kosher restauranteur wonders if he needs to hire formal security for his tiny cafe; a friend who describes herself as a “lifelong anti-gun person” has decided to apply for a permit. I was recently thinking about taking my sons for a day out in the city, but then caught myself: what if someone sees their kippot? What if someone says something to them, or God forbid, worse?
Walking down the street recently in a different area of New York City, my infant son in tow, I watched as two well-dressed 20-somethings ripped the posters of the kidnapped off a building’s scaffolding, and I shrunk into myself. A black man stood next to me with his young family. “What are they doing?” he said, enraged. “They don’t have a right to do that!” I said nothing to him, afraid of calling any attention to myself and my baby, and I’ve regretted it every day since. Maybe it’s safer to stay home.
I don’t know how to talk to my sons about this. I was born a non-Jew into a non-Jewish family. I knew only a handful of Jews growing up in the WASP strongholds of suburban Connecticut, and they seemed exactly like me, only with bar mitzvahs: what hardships could they really face? Some of my Jewish friends speak of being harangued by grandparents, throughout their childhoods, to remember that antisemitism lurks around every corner, but until my conversion eight years ago, I had no idea what it was like to live as a member of a visible, hated minority. Even now, I worry that I carry less of the burden than other Jews: for professional reasons, I go by my maiden name, which isn’t identifiably Jewish.
It wasn’t even my conversion that woke me up. Back then, I was living in a fun bubble of quirky Orthodoxy in Brooklyn: attending kosher supper clubs, women-only dance parties and Torah-infused yoga classes. I could be Jewish and modern. Instead, my realisation was like a slow-burn horror film: when we moved to London, we attended a synagogue that checked passports upon entry; after we moved back to Brooklyn, swastikas were chalked onto my neighbours’ doors one night. One day, my son’s Jewish preschool director showed me the new door camera they had installed after a shooting at a kosher grocery store in nearby Jersey City. A few years back, so many Orthodox Jews were being randomly beaten up on the street in New York City that a march was organised across the Brooklyn Bridge. None of my non-Jewish friends offered to join us in solidarity.
Some Jews, it seems, are easier to defend than others. On a few occasions, when the war has come up with my non-Jewish friends, they will lament that a liberal Jewish person has, say, been called a name online because she called for peace. I love my fellow Jews and believe we should strive for unity, and I too desperately want peace in the region. But I can’t help but feel that many people seem eager to deflect attention from the Jews actually harmed — “bad” Jews, because they live in Israel or support Zionism — and towards the less material pain of “good” Jews whose views are more politically palatable in America. I respect the rights of Jews, and of people more broadly, to have different opinions. But in moments of rising antisemitism, and this is most definitely one of them, it is not the secularised Jew who is at real risk — but the observant one.