Passing as a Non-Jew Has Been Easy for Me — Until Now
Passing as a non-Jew is easy for me. Yes, I have dark curly hair and the distinctive nose of my parents and grandparents and the generations of Jewish ancestors that came before them. But other than that, nothing indicates I’m Jewish. My last name, Daalder, is a Dutch gentile name. I don’t wear a Star of David – I don’t even own one – and for the most part live a completely secular life. I could easily go through life keeping my Jewish identity a secret in public forums – that wouldn’t change my life in any major ways.
This isn’t something everyone can do. Orthodox Jewish men, for example, can often be identified by their yarmulke or prayer shawl, or other aspects of their dress. Jews with stereotypical surnames – Greenblatts, Goldbergs, and Cohens – also struggle to pass whenever their names are known. Then, of course, there are prominent Jews, those who have no hope of passing as soon as anyone recognizes them. These are the celebrities and TV hosts and public figures – Adam Sandler and Natalie Portman, Jon Stewart and Wolf Blitzer, Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Bernie Sanders – who we are so proud to name and claim as our own.
I was reminded of my ability to pass when, a few weeks ago, I was attacked by a Nazi troll and Trump supporter on Twitter. You see, I wasn’t attacked because of anything I’d written, or even because of the reference to the Forward in my bio. The assault, which consisted of disgusting anti-Semitic invective threatening to turn me into a lamp or throw me into an oven if Trump is elected President, was motivated by the triple parentheses surrounding my name on Twitter – a sure sign of a Jew, or someone who supports Jews.
Jonathan Weisman wrote in the New York Times about the attacks he experienced as a result of his daring to tweet an anti-Trump op-ed while bearing the last name Weisman. Like me, Weisman isn’t notably religious, but even his name was grounds for assault. More prominent Jews like Aly Raisman – who performed the Hava Nagila at the London 2012 Olympics – or Bethany Mandel – who writes often about Judaism and Jewishness for a variety of publications – have faced similar online hatred. These people don’t have a choice about being seen as Jewish, but as a college student and a smalltime journalist, I do.
Indeed, there are certain countries in the world where I would seek to pass as an American gentile. I have found myself in professional or academic or even activist situations where I have kept silent about my Jewishness. I work in the campus dining hall part time, and on my second day of work, I was confronted with a co-worker expressing what were essentially white nationalist views. Although he didn’t mention Jews, I wasn’t keen on discovering if his bigotry would extend to me as well – so I kept quiet.
This sort of situation is rare, but yet I still refrain from mentioning my Jewishness – not because I expect everyone to be a Nazi, but because I don’t know what the reaction to my disclosure would be, and because there’s no harm in keeping quiet. When I asked my supervisor at work about taking home some honey for Rosh Hashanah over the weekend, the bewildered look he gave reminded me why I prefer to pretend to be a gentile. There was no aggression there, but the sense of cultural (and possibly social) alienation that struck me was reason enough to shut up. That then raises the question – why don’t I keep quiet in every public situation? In part, the answer is that a primary way of connecting with one’s identity is, well, identifying with it. Seeing as I don’t go to shul and rarely pray, I do root some of my Jewish identity in being seen as a Jew, and in acting Jewish. But that’s choosing to identify as a Jew on my own terms, within my own parameters.
When the anti-Semitic tweets first began coming in, I posted about them on Facebook, including screenshots of some of the worst ones. Yet, afterwards, as I made my way around campus I remember feeling as if I had a yellow star of david knitted to my forehead – I was worried people would see me as a victimized Jew, or worse, the hook-nosed creature from the Nazi propaganda I had shared. I considered stripping the parentheses from my name on Twitter, and even removing the reference to the Forward in my bio.
That is, of course, what the Nazis on Twitter and their real life counterparts across Europe want. They want me to be nervous about identifying as Jewish. They want an end to people being able to say, “Yes, I’m Jewish and I’m proud of it.” They want us to cower and conceal our identities so that they can victoriously brand us with triple parentheses and yellow stars of david emblazoned with the word “Jude.” Needless to say, that’s not at all how I wish to be represented. I am proud to be Jewish, and I’ll broadcast that by maintaining the parentheses, continuing to write about Jewish issues for the Forward and a host of other publications, and doing everything else the same way I always have. The Jewish identity I treasure won’t be subdued by Nazis on Twitter.
And yet, so long as I’m passing voluntarily and on my own terms, doing so to avoid unnecessary strife, hardship, or anxiety is no crime either – I’m not likely to mention Simchat Torah at work next week, after all.