Pride And Anxiety: 23 American Jews on choosing to wear their Jewishness
A middle-aged man tattooed a Star of David on his forearm. A secular man put on a kippah outside of synagogue — for the first time in his life. An Orthodox woman chose to wear a headscarf instead of a wig — to ensure that her identity is clear. A Jewish Sunday school teacher designed an “Angry Vest of Jewish Spite.” A father in New Jersey created a facsimile of the armband Polish Jews had to wear in World War II — and plans to wear it now.
Last fall, an American Jewish Committee poll found that 31% of American Jews avoid displaying their Jewishness in public, out of fear. But a few months and dozens of high-profile anti-Semitic attacks later, it seems there has been a counter-trend, of people purposely showing their identities in response to the violence.
Inspired by the AJC’s recent #JewishandProud social media campaign encouraging Jews worldwide to share selfies of their symbols, we asked readers: Are you wearing your Jewishness on your sleeves?
We received 82 answers, from people ages 19 to 80, and from every major denomination, across 25 states. We were struck by the range of responses, in style and in sentiment: Some opted for jewelry or tattoos, others kippot or long skirts; and some were unwavering while others were definitely wary of whether they were doing the right thing.
Below are 23 of these readers’ stories, edited for length and clarity.
“We’re staying. And we won’t be quiet about it, either.”
I had not worn any expression of Judaism since my bar mitzvah — until Charlottesville happened, and I purchased a Chai necklace and have worn it ever since. After seeing people chant “Jews will not replace us” in the streets, I wanted a way to honor Holocaust survivors and also to express my identity.
I also started attending synagogue more regularly and decided to take my son with me —he had had no religious education, experience, or exposure prior to that, and was only vaguely aware that we are Jews. Since Monsey, I have worn my kippah outside of shul several times, most often during my commute, but this feels a little strange as I am not at all observant. — Frans Koster, 34, New York, N.Y.
“Once I started law school this past fall at an institution that openly allows for leftist anti-Semitism, I began wearing a Star of David around my neck most days.” — Rafaella Gunz, 26, New York, N.Y.
I started wearing a Magen David every day after the Pittsburgh shooting. I never thought much about being Jewish until I realized things were getting bad for us again, which inspired me to turn to studying Torah. After the most recent bout of anti-Semitic attacks, my boyfriend, who is completely secular, started wearing a kippah to show visible pride in his Jewishness and that he was not afraid of anti-Semites.
I’ve gotten anti-Semitic comments and vandalism, but I’m not just going to pretend the Jews have gone away. We’re staying. And we won’t be quiet about it, either. — Jasmine Lewin, 19, Eugene, Oregon
I study counter-terror, with a specialty in the far-right. I like to work outside my apartment – or I like to read while walking, or I check out some very odd books from the local library – and the materials I often carry around in public tend to be…well, covered in swastikas. My apartment is in the geographic center of three synagogues, and I’ve started wearing kippot as a sign to other Jews in the neighborhood that I am not, as I may seem at first glance, an incredibly dedicated anti-Semite. (Though I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t also a “fuck you” to the people whose indescribably terrible writing I have to slog through for hours each day.) — W., 28, Washington, D.C.
I wear an “Angry Vest of Jewish Spite™,” which has Jewish pins on the front, and a bunch of Jewish patches and Am Yisrael Chai written in Sharpie in the back. The vest was prompted by the aftermath of the Tree of Life shooting — I wear it I teach Sunday school, and students are very curious and ask questions about it. It’s also what I wear to a lot of activist events. I did get screamed at by a man who accused Israelis of murdering children as I was leaving a vigil for the anniversary of the Tree of Life shooting. — Elena Gormley, 30, Chicago, Illinois
I plan to wear a facsimile of the armband Polish Jews had to wear in World War II. I’ll add it to my jackets and bags. — Joshua Katz, 43, Montclair, New Jersey
Every day since I was 18, I have worn a silver Magen David around my neck. After the shooting at Tree of Life, I became a lot more cautious. I put it on a longer chain and started being careful to wear it inside my shirt. But then, I read an article about how one in three American Jews has taken steps to reduce the ways in which they were viably Jewish.
I realized I was one of those, and it sat heavy in my mind…Since then (shortly before Chanukah) I’ve been wearing a kippah every day, something I haven’t done in a very long time. While my motivations for increasing my Jewish visibility were originally colored by defiance, anger and indignation, that has changed. This has been more than an outward transformation for me. Since beginning to wear my kippah, I find myself praying every single day. I engage in more Jewish rituals at home. I am more conscious of my engagement with mitzvot. I care more about going to services. Like many aspects of Judaism, wearing a kippah for me has benefited me in many areas. It has connected me more deeply to my community. — Matan Shechter, 26, Falls Church, Virginia
“I don’t want to leave Jewish pride — and the dangers that come with it — solely to the Orthodox”
A yarmulke, a Magen David (outside my shirt, not inside anymore), and tzitzit. It was the rising anti-Semitism back in 2016 that caused me to publicly re-embrace Judaism by going to shul and posting more about it online. But the recent spate of violence in Brooklyn and beyond has caused me to think more about how anti-Semitism isn’t solely a Trump- or alt-right-made phenomenon, even now. I plan to be more visibly Jewish, because I don’t want to leave Jewish pride — and the dangers that come with it — solely to the Orthodox (I’m Reform). It’s particularly hard for me to believe that this is going on in Brooklyn, my home of more than a decade. — Daniel Margolis, 43, Worcester, Massachusetts
In September I learned that my name, Twitter handle, and photo was on a Telegram list of Jewish Twitter users who either had tweeted against racism, or are LGBTQ. The list is maintained by an apparent neo-Nazi, has currently 7,000 white supremacist followers, and contains 1,300 Jewish names. This seemed however inconsequential in comparison with the actual physical violence going on — but it paradoxically made me more comfortable in displaying this rainbow star heart on my handbag in solidarity with those who have suffered these terrible attacks in New York and New Jersey, and also with those who are visible 24/7 due to their practice. It is double visibility — as I am also lesbian, and I and the love of my life Mary have been together since 1995 and legally married since 2014. No hate, no fear. — Laurie Pollack, 61, Lansdowne, Pennsylvania
I wear a visible Magen David necklace everyday and I have tzitzit tied on many of my shawls. I began doing this after the events in Charlottesville, because people of color cannot hide in plain sight and I wasn’t willing to be unseen. — Ketzirah, 46, Washington, D.C.
“A way to open myself to inquiry”
I wear a kippah every day. I was ordained in August 2019 as a Kohenet and began the practice of wearing a kippah a few days after that. I felt it was a way to acknowledge my new clergy status, open myself to inquiry, and show defiance toward the threat of anti-Semitism. I have noticed lots of new questions and many comments, both from people I had already known who weren’t aware of my Jewish identity or commitment, and from strangers. A great deal of the comments are focused on the idea that “women don’t wear yarmulkes”—mostly from non-Jews. I haven’t noticed any actual aggression directed at me, but I am a bit more vigilant about my surroundings. I have had friends admire my “courage” but I just feel like it’s the right thing for me at this time. — Liviah (Laurie) Baldwin, 59, Herndon, Virginia
I always wear a silver Star of David necklace, and do my best to see that it shows. I’ve worn it since I chose Judaism ten years ago, and the reactions I’ve gotten (in California) have all been very positive. I’m about to move to Texas, and am looking for a couple of T-shirts with Magen Davids or Hebrew lettering to wear in my new home. I feel that most prejudice is built on ignorance, and so being visibly a Jew — a reasonable, friendly, normal human being — is the best way for ME to combat that ignorance. — Annye, 56, Thousand Oaks, California
I decided to wear my kippah in public for the month, as a show of support following the surge in recent attacks. I haven’t noticed any changes in external behavior thus far, but I do feel changes in my personal behavior. Once visibly marked, I find myself both more self-conscious about how I may be perceived and how my actions may reflect on all Jews, and more defensive about people’s motives or thought processes as they engage with me. — Benjamin Myers, 36, Washington, D.C.
I have been wearing my Magen David necklace since the AJC #JewishandProud day of unity on January 6. As a Rockland County, NY resident, I was left feeling shocked, frustrated and depressed following the anti-Semitic attack in Monsey, a town where my dad used to teach in local yeshivas. I realized that wearing the Star of David as a sign of worldwide solidarity for one day is great, but wouldn’t it be even more impactful to wear it regularly! I saw a co-worker glance at it in the office, but I haven’t experienced any other reactions. — Leslie Kogan, 42, Nanuet, N.Y.
“I wear my Jewish identity permanently”
On Birthright, I encountered Kabbalah at the Tzfat Gallery of Mystical Art. I found Avraham Loventhal’s depiction of Tashuv-Hey, the idea that the divine can be felt through unconditional love, to be beautiful. It was at this point that I first considered getting a “Jewish” tattoo.
After Birthright, I returned to college — and to spates of local and national white supremacist anti-Semitism. People claiming to be affiliated with the KKK placed flyers advocating against race mixing and LGBTQ relationships in the city surrounding my small upstate New York liberal arts college. Not long after this incident, I studied at a university in Washington, D.C., where individuals put up posters directing people to neo-Nazi websites. These events so close to home shook me to my core and caused me to internalize what my Jewish identity means to me. Finally, the Tree of Life Shooting pushed me to a new level of understanding of my Judaism. I decided the next day that I would wear my Jewish identity on my shoulder permanently. — Max Fleischman, 22, New York, N.Y.
Star of David tattoo on left inside forearm with barbed wire strand through center, to remember the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, including my relatives lost. People seem to be mostly respectful of the meaning and the reasoning. — Ken Wolf, 64, Columbia, South Carolina
I got a tattoo of a star of David and Hebrew words on my wrist last October. — Laura Solomon, 51, Brooklyn, N.Y.
“I’ve become less interested in fitting in”
I now often wear a kippah that stands out on my head, so that people can see more easily that I am joyfully Jewish. — Rabbi Joshua Stanton, 33, New York, N.Y.
I’ve certainly felt more self-conscious with the spike in anti-Semitic incidents, but didn’t feel like I stuck out with my curly wig and more modest clothing that blends in more during the winter months.
On the day following the brutal attack in Monsey, I felt like I wanted to express unity with my ultra-Orthodox brothers and sisters whose Judaism is seen from down the street, and I spent that Sunday around town in my mitpachat (headscarf) instead of the wig I usually would wear, and have been wearing it more often. I’m not scared to show that I’m Jewish. — Liatte Lasher, 30, Stamford, Connecticut
I’ve definitely become less interested in fitting in by wearing shorter skirts and have started to wear longer skirts and tichels [scarves] more frequently.
I remember after they found Leiby Kletsky back in 2010, I happened to be on the train and wearing a long skirt. Strangers kept coming over to me and saying, “I’m sorry for your loss,” and I felt so connected to my Jewish kin at that time. Now that I’m married with a Hasidic husband who bravely walks around on Shabbos with his streimel in Brooklyn, I’ve been feeling so inclined to recapture that spirit for myself.
It’s sort of a combination of feeling like “come at me, I’ll fight you” (stupid, I know) — and just wanting to make sure that people who see me know that I’m Jewish and proud. I feel so irked by people who get to take off and put on their Jewishness at will, and then claim to be in the same boat as those of us who wear it all the time. — T, 26, Brooklyn, N.Y.
“I admit that I’m scared”
I have worn my Jewish star since my husband bought it for me and removed it only once in fear, when I was alone on a Polish train traveling from Krakow to Warsaw in the middle of the night. For the last eight years, I live in the Pocono Mountains, where Jew-hatred and racism thrive, and I do not remove it. — Jeanette Friedman, Paradise Valley, Pennsylvania
I’m a proud progressive secular Jew, and I’ve never been comfortable wearing a yarmulke in public, in part because that would make me unable to be invisible. I’m proud to be a Jew, but I admit that I’m scared. I’m 72 years young this month, and I don’t want to invite anyone to perpetrate violence against me. — Eric Lessinger, 72, Gloucester, Massachusetts
Growing up, I was discouraged from displaying Jewishness. My family moved from the East Coast to a small, conservative town with a predominantly Christian population, where we were literally the only Jewish family. We were overtly harassed and discriminated against, and couldn’t really celebrate holidays since the closest synagogue was two hours away and our school and extracurriculars didn’t accommodate for Shabbat or holidays.
Over the years, our family stopped eating kosher, stopped keeping Shabbat, stopped speaking Hebrew, and essentially tried our best to assimilate without realizing it. I had been very proudly Jewish before, but the way the other students ostracized me made me feel subhuman; to them, I was not “Jewish”, but “a Jew.”
There were times where, feeling a desperate need to reconnect to this part of myself, I asked my mom if I could have a Star of David necklace, but my mom said that she never wanted to see any of us wearing a gold star after what her grandma went through in the Holocaust. So I was surprised when my mom bought me a star of David necklace this past Hanukkah. I told her then that I would wear it and never take it off. But the first time I wore it to school, I felt incredibly exposed and uncomfortable. I kept thinking of all the attacks in New York and asked myself if my Jewish pride was worth my life. I took it off after an hour. — Maya Lyubomirsky, 22, Irvine, California