The Culture Of Hiding: What I Learned From Concealing My Jewish Identity In Germany
A few weeks ago, as I walked with my mom through a jewelry store in my hometown of Randolph, New Jersey, she directed me to the Judaica section.
“Look, Arielle,” she said, pointing at a beautiful chain with a Star of David hanging off of it. I stared at the blue-tone rhinestones which covered the face of the silver pendant. “The star would match the color of your eyes,” she said.
My mom said if I wanted the necklace, she’d get it for me. I didn’t know if I had ever seen such a dazzling Jewish Star pendant. I sighed. “I just don’t think I’d wear it,” I said.
When we walked out of the store, my mom asked me why I didn’t want the necklace. I told her that I had hardly worn a Jewish Star necklace since my year in Germany.
Three years ago, before I spent a year in Germany on a Fulbright scholarship, if you would have asked me if I wanted that necklace, I would have said yes immediately.
When I was in college, I wore a beautiful Star of David necklace to class every day — each triangle on the pendant was covered by a different colored birthstone. I had received this pendant for my Bat Mitzvah; it was one of the only pieces of jewelry my grandfather gave me before he passed away. I never thought twice about wearing my Jewish star necklace on the streets of Baltimore. I wore my star on campus, on public transportation, and in every neighborhood I walked through. Fear never crossed my mind when I wore my star.
But then I spent the summer after my junior year in France and Germany researching the current state of both country’s Jewish communities. It was 2015, and I had already read lots of articles about the rise in Anti Semitism in western Europe. According to what I had read, the anti-Semitism stemmed from three causes: the rise of populist politicians on Europe’s far-right, the anti-Zionism in leaders on the far-left, and the anti-Semitic views held by some members of Europe’s Muslim community.
When I got to Europe, for the first time in my life, I started to fear displaying my Jewish identity publicly. I didn’t meet a single western European Jew who felt comfortable wearing a kippah or a Jewish star on the street.
“I don’t wear a kippah [in public],” a young Jewish Frenchman told me in an interview. “Not because it’s dangerous… but because it’s keeping you apart from the French society. People look at you like it’s strange and you don’t want people to look at you as though you’re a stranger.”
“I feel so French,” an elderly Jewish woman who was making Aliyah told me, “but I have to leave.”
The people I spoke to in Berlin and Paris weren’t solely afraid of violent white nationalists or angry, disenfranchised, male Muslims attacking them. Rather, they felt like they lived in a society that didn’t know them, stand up for them, or genuinely care about their well-being.
Before my summer in Germany and France, I had never seen armed security guards standing in front of synagogues. I had never heard of a Jewish school considering installing bulletproof glass.
What kind of Jewish culture is this? I asked myself as I noticed that it was easier to spot a Jewish institution in France or Germany by the police officer standing in front of it, rather than by a Jewish symbol on the organization’s door. It was as if these Jewish communities didn’t want to be seen anymore.
Was this fear even a form of Jewish culture at all? I wondered. Or was it a culture of hiding?
When I came home from my summer in Europe, I was scarred by my experience. I thought that American Jews took it for granted that we lived in a society that for the most part accepted us. I went back to wearing my Jewish star every day during my senior year of college. When I returned to Germany the following summer to research post-War German Jewish life and started living in Marburg, all my fears returned.
I had been signed up to live in dorms and commute to the local university to study the German language. When I moved into my dorm, I met one of my floormates, Ahmed, who came from Palestine. As Ahmed told me about his former home during our first conversation he said, “It’s like a jail there. It’s the Zionists that are the problem.” He paused and looked at me sternly. “Not the Jews but the Zionists.”
I wondered if Ahmed could see my cheeks turning red. Could he tell I was Jewish by my name? Why did he make that specific distinction between Jews and Zionists? I thought. Was he trying to be politically correct? Was he trying to impress me?
I hadn’t told Ahmed that I was Jewish — I didn’t know if it was safe for me to do so. Had Ahmed had ever met a Jew before outside of Israel? Would he blame me for the entire Israeli-Palestininan conflict? If he did, would he harass me about it or physically hurt me?
Later that week when I heard Ahmed speaking negatively about the occupation, using the words “Jews” and “Israelis” interchangeably, I decided that I wouldn’t tell Ahmed or any of my Middle Eastern floormates about my Jewish identity. I didn’t want them to turn on me.
Hiding my Jewish identity in my Marburg dorm was more difficult than I thought it would be because when I spoke to my neighbors, I knew I was lying. These neighbors were in fact very nice men and I think they genuinely wanted to get to know me. Yet when my Iranian neighbor Amin asked me what I was going to do in Berlin when I moved there, I told him I’d be reporting on the state of Europe’s politics, not the sustainability of the German Jewish community. When Khalid, a young man from Syria, asked me what I had studied in college, I lied and told him I studied English literature instead of Creative Writing and Jewish Studies.
Lying about my Jewish identity was the most painful part of my time in Germany because I never knew if I was making the right decision. I actively knew I was judging my neighbors for thinking that they’d judge me. I’d have conversations with my mom and my grandma each night, asking them what to do and they told me to do whatever my heart told me. Yet I didn’t know what my heart was telling me. Was it right for me to listen to my fear? Or was I being weak by hiding?
I kept wondering what it would be like to tell my neighbors that I was Jewish. What if we could have meaningful dialogue about our religions? I thought. Would they accept me because of my faith? Or reject me for it?
As I continued to lie to my neighbors about my religion, I thought about their lives and about how they — unlike me — could not hide their ethnic or religious identity in Germany. Everyone in the country knew that my neighbors were most likely Muslims simply because of the color of their skin. I wondered what experiences these men had lived through while migrating to Germany. What traumas and pain were they hiding?
On one hand, while I knew my ability to hide my Jewish identity was stressful, I also knew it was a gift. I didn’t have to be openly “different” in Germany if I didn’t want to. Yes, I was American and spoke German with an accent, but if I didn’t speak, no one would know that I was a foreigner. The only issue was that I wanted to express myself. I was used to being Jewish publicly. I felt ashamed for hiding an identity that previously I had no problem revealing.
It seemed like there was no right answer for me in Germany. Whatever decision I chose, I was putting my heart, my pride, and potentially my safety at risk. I never wore my Jewish star necklace while I lived in Marburg or Berlin. Making this decision was particularly hard at the beginning of my year in Germany because I was so used to wearing my Jewish star necklace in America. I would look at my Star of David necklace every morning in my jewelry box. I missed it as if it were a member of my family.
Eventually, though, I got used to hiding my necklace. After a couple of months in Germany, I didn’t stare at it in my jewelry box anymore. I wondered what was changing in me — was I accepting this practice of hiding? Was I failing myself and my people for conforming to this fear? Or was I being wise in concealing this part of me?
In Berlin, I attended a Muslim-Jewish conference because I wanted to be in a situation where I could talk to Muslim people and be open about my identity. I knew that we were two very important minorities in Europe and we were much better off if we stood together. I ended up making two Muslim friends at the conference who also lived in the city. It was great to see how much we had in common — how we could put our differences behind us. Why can’t all Europeans be like this? I wondered.
After the conference, though, I still didn’t feel comfortable enough to wear my Star of David necklace publicly. What will make you be brave enough? I wondered when I returned to my Berlin apartment. I still wonder about this question to this day.
Even though I’m back in America now and it’s technically safer to be openly Jewish here, I’m surprised by how much I’ve still felt compelled to not wear my necklace publicly. Over the last three years, I’ve hardly worn it at all. I don’t think it’s because of Donald Trump and I don’t think it’s because of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting. Rather, I think it’s because I’ve gotten used to it — this act of hiding, this feeling that it would just be better off if I wasn’t different, if I faded into the crowd.
Still, going to the Judaica store with my Mom reminded me that I don’t want to be a part of this culture — this painful culture of hiding. I firmly believe that the cultures that will continue into the future are the ones that are open, the ones that are celebrated and shared with younger generations. How can I ever tell my future children that it is the better decision to keep their Jewish identity a secret? I’d rather move to a new place where it’s safer to be Jewish than ever feel like hiding was the best option.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve started to wear my Jewish star more often. Living in New York City, I don’t feel afraid as I once did in Paris or Berlin. Moreover, I know that by being public about my Jewishness I am contributing to society’s greater knowledge about Jews. While this may sound idealistic, part of me still believes that if people truly get to know us — and see that we are like them, then they may not dislike us anymore. If all Jews hide who they are then how will society ever accept us as ourselves? I think everyone who is willing to be public about their faith is playing an important role in creating peace amongst the world’s religions.
If there’s another thing I’ve noticed about finally wearing my Jewish Star Necklace again it’s that every time I’ve worn it, the next time I’ve put it on has become easier. The first time — when I was travelling to work on the subway a few weeks ago, I was terrified about who might see me. Now I’ve worn it a few times on the subway and I don’t feel as afraid.
In truth, I think my fear of anti-Semitism will always be there. I would be lying if I told you that I will continue to live the rest of my life as a Jew completely fearless. But I’ve also learned that there are ways to react to fear — you can either conform to it or fight it. For the first time since my year in Germany, I finally feel like I am fighting it.
Arielle Kaden is a writer based in New York City whose work has been featured in the Forward and Columbia Journal. She is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University and a recipient of the Fulbright Scholarship. She is currently earning a MFA in Nonfiction Writing at Columbia University and interning for the Opinion Section at the Forward. You can visit her website and follow her on twitter here.