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Why I Want a Giant Lawn Menorah
On Jewish pride.
This is a simpler installment after last week’s doozy. This is just about a necklace. I wear a Magen David, a Jewish star.
I started wearing it almost immediately as I began to convert. First I stole Bari’s. Now I have my own.
Recently I’ve wondered if we might put a Magen David bumper sticker on the car. Is there a way even to display a menorah year-round here?
And it’s gotten me thinking about Jewish Pride — how strange it is to talk about that and try to understand it, to feel it as I convert — and my own experience with gay pride, as it were.
I have a personality that very much wants to show pride, especially when confronted with a situation where I’m told to feel a little shame.
When I came out as gay, I was the only out gay person at my boarding school at the time (out being the key phrase there). This made me the object of curiosity and some mild-to-moderate mockery from the lacrosse bros. A few would call me raunchy names in the cafeteria before I’d even done much anything raunchy. In response: I cut off my hair. I started wearing steel-toed Doc Martens and a chain to my wallet (odd looking get-up on 14-year-old girl, on a warm day in Santa Barbara). I put a rainbow on the back of my iPod, a pink triangle on my backpack, Indigo Girls on the speakers. I wrote in to a national gay youth group of some sort and they sent me a huge package of rainbow flag stickers, and my (wonderful, lifelong) high school friends and I circulated them to be put on dorm doors. A gay-straight alliance emerged (thought of by two really sweet guys a few years above me), and we held meetings to discuss the gay news of the month. I wrote paper letters to high school guidance counselors in the region asking if they knew of any gay kids at their schools, and that led to a gathering in our school library one rainy Saturday with all the rag-tag gay student groups in the area. That afternoon gave me a preview of what my future would hold and, crucially, it gave me my high school sweetheart.
Over the years, as more kids came out and the environment softened, I did too. I didn’t need to go to battle every day. National mood shifted fast, and it came to our little school. I grew my hair out. I relaxed into who I actually am (more of a Teva than a Doc Marten, if that makes sense to you). Those very same lacrosse bros became the guys I’d hitch a ride with when they played away games at my girlfriend’s high school, which otherwise required a ride from a teacher into town and then two hours of buses. They’d text me when the game was done.
So we come back to the Jewish star. And … the bumper sticker.
When I started telling people I was taking Jewish 101 classes, one colleague’s first reaction was: “Oh god, you’re not converting to Judaism, are you?”
At dinners, people (Jews and non-Jews alike) would balk. It was weird for sure (why do it?). One super-lefty friend kept cornering me to ask my take on Israel, not taking ignorance for an answer.
There is pressure in American liberal culture to downplay religiosity, which in progressive circles is considered either regressive or maybe a little low-class, often both. (There is a deep snobbery in the progressive intelligentsia, an essay for another day and place.) Also, religiosity is earnest, which my generation — whose personality and art is crippled with irony, snark and exhausting self-hate — is allergic to.
Then there are the knottier issues of Jewish chosen-ness, of Jewish success and of Israel. There is the tingling sensation that any effort toward Jewish life is somehow a statement on all of the above, and so there is pressure to downplay Judaism, especially Jewish pride.
I remember sitting at a Jewish friend’s ultra-progressive coffeeshop and event space in San Francisco a couple years ago, my back to the glass wall, while protestors gathered on the other side to shout with bullhorns: “Zionism is racism.” And that Zionist gentrifiers have got to go. They came to protest every week. They broke the windows one night. There was little outcry. My friend didn’t want to make a big deal about it, lest more come his way.
My reaction has been — like the Doc Martens — probably a little over the top. Not only will I wear the Magen David, but I’ll put a giant Jewish star bumper sticker on the car.
Recently I’ve seen an enormous blow-up menorah on a front lawn in Los Angeles and thought — “I like that. That’s good. Where could it go? Where did they get it?”
I read about Jews in Berlin not feeling safe wearing kippah (religious skullcaps), and I’m shocked we’re not all more shocked. I read about the hate crimes against Jews in Brooklyn and see how much private security every Jewish space I go to requires, and I think — it’s time for the blow-up lawn menorah. Like, if the pre-school needs armed guards, you know something’s going wrong in your society. I’m infuriated by the financial tax on the Jewish world hiring all the security is.
Bari’s had to slow me down.
But here’s the thing: Pride works. It befuddles bullies. It comforts those who are hiding and, over time, gives them courage. And it builds alliances. When I’m out in the world, I wear my Magen David, and I hope people notice it. I love wearing it. It says what I need to say. I keep the chain short, so you can see it even when I’m wearing a t-shirt.
I come to living a Jewish life with all the sense of obnoxious entitlement I come to living the rest of my life — I deserve exactly what everyone else deserves. No more, no less.
As luck would have it, there’s a new book out next week on this exact topic. The book’s called “Jewish Pride” by a teacher named Ben M. Freeman, who draws a similar line from his experience as a gay man and as a Jew.
Jewish people have been forced time and time again to warp and change who we are to fit in. Despite this, we are still rejected. We have seen our identity and culture appropriated by the non-Jewish world, which then uses it against us. We are told that Zionism, the Jewish movement of self-determination in our indigenous homeland, is akin to Nazism – and that we are perpetrating the same crimes against the Palestinians that the Nazis committed against us. This is gaslighting, and, as such, only serves to wound us.
Yet despite what the non-Jewish world often tells us, we have a choice. We can reject who we are or we can reject the non-Jewish world’s idea of who we are. In order to heal our collective self-esteem, we must have Jewish Pride. That is not to say that we should isolate and ghettoise ourselves. Rather we should interact with wider society – but we must do so proudly.
We must never warp or change our identities to fit in. We do not need to make ourselves ‘acceptable’, because we are acceptable, just as we are. Yet we cannot force the non-Jewish world to see that. This is their journey. Our journey is one of Jewish Pride.
We must redefine ourselves through our historical cultures and our cultures today – and continue celebrating our resilience. Our people have survived multiple genocides and we have outlived those that attempted to destroy us. We must celebrate the incredible diver- sity in our community, heal where we need healing – and, above all, know that, despite our differences, we are one people.
This is a call for Jewish Pride.
The only people who get to define Jewish identity are Jewish people. Yet, understanding one’s self, and feeling proud of who we are as a collective, is not something that will happen overnight, particu- larly if we have been exposed to the repeated traumas of shame. This is a journey and it involves work but it is one that we must begin anew.
Our journey is not about fighting antisemitism. It is about reject- ing the shame of antisemitism. Rejecting the non-Jewish world’s inac- curate definitions of what it means to be a Jew. It is an exploration of Jewish identity, based on Jewish values, Jewish ideas and Jewish experiences.
I love being Jewish.
I want all our people to embrace and love our Jewishness – and reject the shame of antisemitism.
This is Jewish Pride.
And then it’s a whole book about it! Pick it up when you can.
That’s all for this week.
Keep on sending Convert Corner essays. Even just ideas, and we’ll work with you to craft those into gorgeous essays. I’m a little behind getting back to folks who’ve submitted ideas so far, so forgive my slowness. But new people, please do keep submitting notions here to our team, at Chosen By Choice!
Those who become paying Chosen By Choice members get the special privilege of commenting below instead of just trolling me on Twitter, which everyone can do for free.
In other notes, I’m taking a few months book leave from the Times to jump-start a book project that I’m beyond excited about.
The newspaper format has been my scaffolding since I started at the San Francisco Chronicle right out of college. It’s all I’ve ever done professionally, really. This blog has reminded me that I can write outside of that form and, actually, that I might love it. So to all my readers — ranging from my Mom and Dad to Bari’s Mom and Dad: THANK YOU.
To my book editor: I promise I won’t start any new Substacks. And, lastly, I’m already late on what I told you I’d file this week.