Each baseball season, I occasionally get this slightly amusing accusation from a few friends and my younger sisters. After all, I have lived in Baltimore for almost 18 years, and I still cannot bring myself to root for the Orioles. Instead, I am a huge Red Sox fan. This is true even though I have no particular connection to the city of Boston, except for my mom’s best friend who is a Bostonian and fellow Red Sox fan, and who I affectionately refer to as Aunt Julie. As I finished some last-minute packing for my high school graduation trip to Europe last month, I shoved my navy Red Sox baseball hat into the backpack I was taking with me — not so much out of pride for my favorite team, but because I knew my personal safety and possibly even my life could depend on that hat during my upcoming travels.
Along with my mother, I was about to spend two weeks touring Berlin, Germany and Krakow, Poland with a day visit to Auschwitz. Unfortunately, there had been recent reports of tension as relates to Jews in both locales. In particular, in Poland in February, a newly legislated “Death Camp” law, which made it a crime to blame the Polish nation for the crimes of Nazi Germany, had caused severe controversy between Poland and Israel. Many Israelis and Jews viewed the law as Holocaust revisionism and potentially a catalyst for Polish anti-Semitism. Similarly, in Germany there was an attack in Berlin in April on a young man wearing a yarmulke by a Syrian asylum seeker. This attack was caught on video, went viral and was roundly condemned around the world. Shortly thereafter, there was a solidarity rally of 2,000 participants in Berlin under the motto “Berlin Wears Kippah” to protest anti-Semitism and intolerance.
However admirable this demonstration was in its scope and sincerity, it brought little comfort to my parents or me since, as an ultra-Orthodox Jew, I wear a black velvet yarmulke and tzitzit each day. In an interview with Radio Berlin, Josef Schuster, the president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, basically told German Jews “not to wear yarmulkes in public” and to instead “wear a hat or other head covering.” My parents were in total agreement with Schuster and explicit with me. “You’re wearing a baseball hat when we go to Europe,” my mother informed me many weeks before our flight. “And tuck in your tzitzit, too.”
I, however, was conflicted. I understood intrinsically that just as in the past, there are groups of individuals and people today that despise Jews and would never tolerate our presence or existence anywhere. This irrational hatred is simply a reality which I do not believe Jews will ever totally overcome. As my beloved Lakewood rebbetzin often quotes, “Esau hates Yaakov.” At the same time, it seemed immensely immoral to me that 70 years after the Holocaust, a person would have to fear walking the streets of Berlin or Krakow as a visibly identifiable Jew. One would think that after Auschwitz, all hatred of Jews should have simply disappeared. Yet, inexplicably, anti-Semitism still exists.
Similarly, ever since I was three years old, I have proudly worn a yarmulke and tzitzit as a sign of my religious faith and as a metaphysical bond with my creator. Growing up in Baltimore, I have walked alone through many high-crime neighborhoods without fear and never once did I consider removing my yarmulke. I attended an inner-city Baltimore public high school for four years and never experienced any anti-Semitism or felt threatened or teased due to the outward display of my Jewishness. Even when I was assaulted and carjacked in January in my school parking lot, my assailants did not mention anything about me being Jewish; I was clearly a victim of a violent crime, but it was not a hate crime. Therefore, I reasoned being visibly Jewish should not offend anyone in Europe. Yet, I was not totally prepared to get injured or killed trying to convince irredeemable haters not to take offense at my religion or to accept me for who I am.
On the Icelandair flight over to Berlin, I was still going back and forth in my head whether or not to wear my yarmulke. I did not know what to expect in Germany or Poland, and I admit, I was a bit scared. My father had probably sensed that I was disturbed about this matter, but he was sure to text me a strict warning before the plane took off from Dulles Airport: “Don’t forget to wear your hat. You don’t need to be a martyr.”
Honestly, this really was not about being a martyr or baiting anyone. Wearing a yarmulke and tzitzit is who I am. Observant Jewish men have worn these types of distinct religious garb for centuries, even as they marched toward the very gas chambers in Auschwitz which I was about to visit on my trip. I sincerely felt that if I hid my tzitzit or removed my yarmulke, I would be betraying my faith; I would be a real traitor. I guess I could have picked other destinations to visit. I chose to travel to Germany because I had studied German each year of high school and wanted to see firsthand all the aspects of a country and culture I had spent so much time learning about. In the same way, I wanted to visit Poland, specifically to see Auschwitz because my paternal great-grandfather was a survivor of that camp. In 10th grade, as part of a school project, I made a 20 square-foot-model of Auschwitz-Birkenau out of wood as a memorial to him.
As soon as the plane touched ground at Berlin Tegel Airport, my mother told me to pull out my hat from my backpack. “I will, don’t worry,” I mumbled back, knowing I had no choice but to comply with her wishes despite my own feelings. When the seatbelt sign was turned off, most passengers began to stand up and wait impatiently for the doors to open. One elderly gentleman suddenly stood up, looked directly at me across the aisle and proclaimed loud enough for the whole plane to hear, “Kol hakavod, you’re wearing your yarmulke in Germany.” My mother, a few other passengers who actually understood him and I were all momentarily stunned. As we exited the plane down some steps to the tarmac to catch a bus to the terminal, my mother must have quickly processed the impact of what that man had done. Descending the steps directly in front of me, she remarked over her shoulder in my direction, “You’re not going to wear that Red Sox hat are you?” It was more of a statement than a question.
“Nope,” I confirmed with a confident smile.
My first impression of Berlin was that it is a sprawling city with monuments everywhere to its long and tumultuous history, from the Brandenburg Gate, which was built as an 18th-century neoclassical monument to commemorate the Seven Years’ War, to large displayed remnants of the Berlin Wall, which attest to the end of the Cold War. In addition, there are memorials to persecuted and murdered people wherever you turn. Not far from the Brandenburg Gate, 2,711 gray concrete slabs make up the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. An imposing statue of a Russian soldier towers above the Soviet War Memorial which commemorates the 80,000 Soviet soldiers who died liberating Berlin at the end of WWII. Neighboring gardens contain memorials to persecuted homosexuals and Gypsies. In front of the Reichstag building, there is a small plaque to Weimar Republic parliamentarians killed or sent to concentration camps by Hitler. Our subway stop of Wittenbergplatz has a memorial listing many infamous concentration camps. Even the zoo had a pavilion to memorialize Jews who were forced to sell their shares in the zoo and could no longer visit the zoo once Hitler took power. With all these constant and glaring reminders of the evils of prejudice, how could anyone be intolerant in this city?
Our daily routine while in Berlin consisted of taking the subway to visit tourist sites and tons of walking. Whenever we were in public, my mother would always glance around to see who was watching us, or watching me, in particular. “I feel like I work for the secret service,” she would often complain. The overwhelming majority of people ignored me and my yarmulke — which was a good thing, since I did not want to be the focus of any negative attention. At the same time, I did get plenty of angry glares and harsh stares on certain subway rides and in the streets. In particular, we visited the Jewish Museum of Berlin located in the Kreuzberg section of Berlin, which is considered “Little Istanbul” due to its large Turkish population. A Turkish-looking man gave me such a scowl as we exited the museum that if looks could kill, I would have been buried right there in front of the museum. Similarly, another young Middle Eastern-looking man brushed up against me quite hard from behind as we exited a subway one morning. I almost stumbled forward from the impact of his shoulder into my back. My mom told me he was probably in a rush, but I think she was lying.
I obviously understand that not all Muslims or Arabs hate Jews or would commit acts of violence against us. Both my mother and I have Muslim and Arab friends; my mom is still in touch with a Palestinian friend from her college days who is a professor at Princeton. At the same time, there is plenty of hostility to go around between both sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict. The funny thing is that my family is not particularly Zionistic — we do not vacation in Israel annually or at every opportunity like other ultra-Orthodox Jewish families. We appreciate the religious significance of Eretz Yisroel, but my family probably disagrees more with the Israeli government’s political positions on multiple issues than we agree with it. The problem is that all of this personal background would be impossible to explain to any potential assailant yielding a belt or knife to avenge Palestine. I would always be judged solely by my yarmulke, regardless of my personal or religious views. As my mother sarcastically reminded me throughout our week in Berlin, “Thank you for introducing me to the wonderful world of anti-Semitism.”
The one thing I did not expect while traveling in Berlin was all the random Jews who did not look visibly Jewish who came up to us to introduce themselves in the street. I naturally encountered Jews with yarmulkes in shul and at the two kosher restaurants we dined in. However, I never expected bare-headed Russian gentlemen to greet us in front of the LEGO store in broken Hebrew, or a Jewish student on his way to Humboldt University to ask us questions about the United States, or an Israeli man to approach my mom on the subway and ask her if I was scared to wear a yarmulke in Berlin. She responded in fluent Hebrew that I was “young and dumb” and he agreed with a laugh. On our last day in Berlin, we walked in the center of Berlin’s main shopping street, Kurfurstendamm, which consists of broad avenues of famous designer stores on either side of large grassy traffic islands. Walking down one of these islands, my mother muttered to me, “Now we’re a great target.” As if on cue, a car drove up beside us and honked, and a man yelled out the car window, “Shalom aleichem!”
In contrast to Berlin, I felt completely secure in Krakow. There were no glares, no harsh stares, and my mother was even able to drop her secret service routine. I expected Krakow to be more hostile to Jews, because that had always been the narrative throughout Jewish history. Poles take in anti-Semitism “with their mother’s milk,” was an accusation of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir made back in 1989; I am sure many of my co-religionists would agree with that highly bigoted observation even today. However, my experiences in Krakow were all positive. Everyone we encountered, both young and old, was friendly and spoke English better than the Germans. We felt so safe and relaxed in Krakow that my mother allowed me to walk back to our hotel alone (a 20-minute walk) after I got bored with our visit to the famous Wawel Royal Castle with its fire-breathing bronze dragon statue.
More so than Berlin, Krakow had the worst reminders of the Holocaust. There were all the scenes from the movie, “Schindler’s List” — the Schindler Factory, Płaszów labor camp, one remnant of the Krakow ghetto wall and the deportation site from the Krakow ghetto now turned into 33 iron and bronze memorial chairs renamed the “Ghetto Heroes Square.” There were additional reminders of the devastation to Jewish life particularly significant to ultra-Orthodox Jews — a multitude of destroyed tombstones were near the famous Rema’s (Rabbi Moshe Isserles) grave and shul. Similarly, the Old Synagogue and very first Bais Yaakov building all stood empty; their pre-war photos and patrons feature prominently in the well-known ultra-Orthodox memoir about the Holocaust, “To Vanquish the Dragon,” which is set in Krakow.
Finally, there was the tour of Auschwitz; we were the only Jews on our particular tour and I was the only person wearing a yarmulke there that particular time of day. There are no words to accurately describe the experience of standing at a place where millions were mercilessly killed. Like the biblical high priest Aaron upon learning of the sudden death of his two sons, silence is the only appropriate response.
One final Jewish anecdote from my trip. Since we were flying Icelandair, my mom thought it would be a good idea to stop in Reykjavik for one day. While we stood in line in an Icelandic gift store purchasing totally unnecessary souvenirs for my mother’s coworkers, a man came up to me and asked me if I was Jewish. My eyes instantly met my mom’s somewhat nervous glance and I responded affirmatively. “Can I shake your hand?” he asked and I let him. He was so excited, he actually shook both my hands. I was over the moon. “See, people like Jews in Iceland,” I proudly told my mom as we left the store. “Don’t be ridiculous,” my mother was quick to correct me. “He was probably drunk. And make sure you wash your hands when you get back to the hotel.”
Overall, my European adventure as a yarmulke-wearing teenager was very successful, though I think to be safe our next family vacation will be to Canada. By not wearing my Red Sox baseball hat in Europe during my trip, I know I missed a unique opportunity to share some Beantown baseball pride with the German, Polish and Icelandic nations. Somehow, though, I think Aunt Julie will understand.