When tragedy or terror strikes, many of us — parents especially — instantly search for ways to reassure ourselves, grasping for reasons that such horrors couldn’t happen to us, to our families, to our children.
We take comfort in thoughts like, that war-torn country is thousands of miles away from me — I’m safe. I never venture into that dangerous neighborhood on the other side of town — I’m safe. My children know not to talk to strangers/not to wander alone at night/to keep their phones on them at all times/to look both ways before crossing the street — they’re safe.
Some of our reasoning is rational; much of it isn’t. Recently, the latter crossed my mind: At least the kids have their father’s last name. They’ll be safe.
I am Jewish. My husband is not — and his last name is as un-Jewish as it can be without being, say, Christianson or DeJesus.
We’re raising our children to take part in both of our religious traditions, but they have their father’s last name, which means anyone who doesn’t know us could easily assume they are Christian. It never occurred to me, years ago, to take comfort in this idea — that if necessary, if the worst-case scenario came to pass, my children could hide their Jewish backgrounds.
Given the dramatic resurgence of anti-Semitism around the world, though, I’ve had a reluctant change of heart. The destruction of Jewish businesses in France, the brutal beating of a Swedish woman wearing a Star of David necklace and, right here in the US, the attack on a Jewish couple in New York are just a few of the incidents making headlines with alarming frequency as extremists use the conflict in Gaza as perverse justification for exercising hate against anyone identified as Jewish.
Until recently, I’ve had the luxury of associating anti-Semitism with a bygone era. My parents, Soviet Jews who immigrated to the US as refugees in the late 1970s, experienced it in Ukraine as part of their everyday lives, facing discrimination as they pursued education and careers. Before that, their childhoods were punctuated by slurs, lost friendships — certain parents didn’t want their children associating with “dirty Jews” — and the occasional bloody nose courtesy of bigoted schoolyard bullies. My parents, of course, had it good compared to my grandparents, who just managed to escape the Nazis’ bloody purge of Jews in Europe and Russia during the Holocaust and World War II.
My family’s stories always saddened and unnerved me, but again, I took comfort in knowing that what happened to them happened way back then, over there — and here, in this country, in this time period, my family was safe.
I won’t go so far as to say that I actually feel threatened now. I’m not worried about someone spray-painting a swastika on my house or shattering my windows when I light my menorah this winter. I don’t fear that my sons will be subject to the same slurs that dogged their grandparents. And I’m well aware that my concerns don’t hold a candle to those of parents whose children live in immediate danger in war zones or whose quality of life is hampered every day by racism, sexism, harassment and persecution.
But in my head, I can’t help but play the “what if” game. What if the anti-Semitic incidents become even more frequent? What if they happen in my neighborhood? Or somewhere that my sons visit? What if — and here’s me going out on an unthinkable limb — anti-Semitism becomes institutionalized as it once was in my parents’ lives? What if discrimination and violence against Jews is condoned again?
Well, I’d be in trouble. But my sons … if they had to, they could pass for gentiles. With their last names, few would question it. No one would have to know that their mother is Jewish, that they love latkes and that once upon a time, bar mitzvah plans were on the horizon.
And then, they’d be safe … at least I’ll keep telling myself that.