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When Being Jewish Means Being Afraid When Being Jewish Means Being Afraid
(about 1 hour later)
Growing up, my brothers and I often teased my mom for having what we thought was an irrational fear of being identified as a Jew.Growing up, my brothers and I often teased my mom for having what we thought was an irrational fear of being identified as a Jew.
She said she painted over the Star of David on a duffle bag because when we were traveling, she didn’t want people “to know.” She warned my dad not to drive fast to my aunt’s house on Yom Kippur because she thought more speed traps were set during the Jewish holidays. She painted over the Star of David on a duffle bag because when we were traveling, she didn’t want people “to know.” She warned my dad not to drive fast to my aunt’s house on Yom Kippur because she thought more speed traps were set during the Jewish holidays.
If we said a word like “Shabbat” in a department store, she seemed to hear it from aisles away. We were not to say Jewish things too loudly in public, she taught us. Better to be safe.If we said a word like “Shabbat” in a department store, she seemed to hear it from aisles away. We were not to say Jewish things too loudly in public, she taught us. Better to be safe.
These things did not make sense to us, three brothers extraordinarily lucky to have grown up in a New York suburb where safety was hardly a worry at all, where any kind of violent crime — let alone violence against Jews — was so rare it was almost unfathomable. But my mother had her own reasons, and they were valid, for she grew up not in the United States but in Baghdad, Iraq — watching, through the wide and curious eyes of a 6-year-old in the early 1970s, as 2,000 years of peaceful Jewish life there came crashing down around her. These things did not make sense to us, three brothers extraordinarily lucky to have grown up in a New York suburb where safety was hardly a worry at all, where any kind of violent crime — let alone violence against Jews — was so rare it was almost unfathomable. But my mother had her own reasons, and they were valid, for she grew up not in the United States but in Baghdad — watching, through the wide and curious eyes of a 6-year-old in the early 1970s, as 2,000 years of peaceful Jewish life there came crashing down around her.
She doesn’t like to talk about Iraq much, but my grandmother Fortunée and my aunt Cynthia do. Some of the most memorable moments of my childhood were spent in Long Island living rooms, sitting beside them as they told me, in a spellbinding mix of English and Arabic, stories of life in a country that ultimately rejected them after such a long and rich history of coexistence.She doesn’t like to talk about Iraq much, but my grandmother Fortunée and my aunt Cynthia do. Some of the most memorable moments of my childhood were spent in Long Island living rooms, sitting beside them as they told me, in a spellbinding mix of English and Arabic, stories of life in a country that ultimately rejected them after such a long and rich history of coexistence.
They shared tales of my great-great-great-grandfather, a trader who famously owned a caravan of more than 1,000 camels and traveled the Silk Road from Baghdad to Aleppo and Isfahan and beyond; of my great-grandfather, who built Iraq’s first cinema and movie studio; of the family house, with courtyard gardens so luscious they attracted wedding parties from all over the city.They shared tales of my great-great-great-grandfather, a trader who famously owned a caravan of more than 1,000 camels and traveled the Silk Road from Baghdad to Aleppo and Isfahan and beyond; of my great-grandfather, who built Iraq’s first cinema and movie studio; of the family house, with courtyard gardens so luscious they attracted wedding parties from all over the city.
In the summertime the children flew kites and slept peacefully on the cool roof. Jews were jurists, government officials, one was even the first minister of finance. They lived side-by-side with Christians and Muslims; they were business partners, neighbors, close friends who supported one another. In the summertime the children flew kites and slept peacefully on the cool roof. Jews were jurists and government officials; one was even the first minister of finance. They lived side-by-side with Christians and Muslims; they were business partners, neighbors, close friends who supported one another.
But these stories were always set up as the beginning of the end. Sprinkled throughout paradise were the warning signs, each worse than the next, until there was no choice but to leave. In the 1930s it was mainly political rhetoric; then in June 1941 it was the “Farhud,” a pogrom that killed nearly 200 Jews and injured hundreds more. By the 1950s more than three-quarters of Iraq’s Jews had fled the country; just over a decade later, around the time my mother was born, the few remaining Jews saw their assets frozen and their passports revoked.But these stories were always set up as the beginning of the end. Sprinkled throughout paradise were the warning signs, each worse than the next, until there was no choice but to leave. In the 1930s it was mainly political rhetoric; then in June 1941 it was the “Farhud,” a pogrom that killed nearly 200 Jews and injured hundreds more. By the 1950s more than three-quarters of Iraq’s Jews had fled the country; just over a decade later, around the time my mother was born, the few remaining Jews saw their assets frozen and their passports revoked.
My mother remembers when they imprisoned her father along with other Jews, remembers her mother going every day to the jail where he was being held, remembers the emptiness the family felt the morning after her cousins escaped over the border to Iran. When she was 3 years old, in January 1969, nine Jews were hanged in the main city square. By 1972, my mother’s family was among some of the last to leave, bound for the United States. As recently as November, the number of Jews remaining in Iraq was reportedly in the single digits. My mother remembers when they imprisoned her father along with other Jews, remembers her mother going every day to the jail where he was being held, remembers the emptiness the family felt the morning after her cousins escaped over the border to Iran. When she was 3 years old, in January 1969, nine Jews were hanged in the main city square. By 1972, my mother’s family was among some of the last to leave, bound for the United States. Today, the number of Jews remaining in Iraq is reported to be in the single digits.
This is the story my mother remembers, the story she has always feared would repeat itself. That no matter how comfortable we as Jews may feel today, it only takes a small group of people (and a large group of people to sit idly by) to turn everything on its head. I remember watching with her in our living room as Donald Trump assumed the presidency in 2017. It was on her mind. As he approached the podium for his oath she asked me, with tears welling in her eyes, “Are we going to have to leave?”This is the story my mother remembers, the story she has always feared would repeat itself. That no matter how comfortable we as Jews may feel today, it only takes a small group of people (and a large group of people to sit idly by) to turn everything on its head. I remember watching with her in our living room as Donald Trump assumed the presidency in 2017. It was on her mind. As he approached the podium for his oath she asked me, with tears welling in her eyes, “Are we going to have to leave?”
At that point I didn’t think the answer was yes; I’m not sure I do now, either. But with each incident that has followed, family conversations have become more frequently wrapped up in those kinds of questions. First there was “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville. Then the attack in Pittsburgh, on a synagogue that looked an awful lot like ours. Then San Diego, Jersey City and other smaller but significant incidents in between. At that point I didn’t think the answer was yes; I’m not sure I do now, either. But with each incident that has followed, family conversations have become more frequently wrapped up in those kinds of questions. First there was “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville, Va. Then the attack in Pittsburgh, on a synagogue that looked an awful lot like ours. Then San Diego, Jersey City and other smaller but significant incidents in between.
Jewish students’ experiences on college campuses are becoming increasingly uncomfortable. This fall, swastikas were drawn in a school in our district, and in another one nearby. And in December, there were several anti-Semitic attacks in a little over a week in New York — arguably the Jewish capital of this country — ending with the Hanukkah stabbings in Monsey.Jewish students’ experiences on college campuses are becoming increasingly uncomfortable. This fall, swastikas were drawn in a school in our district, and in another one nearby. And in December, there were several anti-Semitic attacks in a little over a week in New York — arguably the Jewish capital of this country — ending with the Hanukkah stabbings in Monsey.
Now is the first time that I have truly felt, in my (admittedly few) 23 years of life, such an overwhelming fear of impending doom. It seems to be all anyone talks about anymore, perpetually swirling around us, and for good reason. If war won’t destroy the world, climate change will. And now to add to it, the wave of anti-Semitic attacks over the past year are instilling the seeds of fear into many millennial Jewish-Americans for perhaps the first time. Not even, perhaps, because we fear for ourselves — but because we fear for the future of our children and our grandchildren. I can’t help but think this is unnatural: We are so young! Many of us have yet to figure things out for ourselves, have yet to hold our own in the world. Now is the first time that I have truly felt, in my (admittedly few) 23 years of life, such an overwhelming fear of impending doom. It seems to be all anyone talks about anymore, perpetually swirling around us, and for good reason. If war won’t destroy the world, climate change will. And now to add to it, the wave of anti-Semitic attacks over the past year are instilling the seeds of fear into many millennial American Jews for perhaps the first time. Not even, perhaps, because we fear for ourselves — but because we fear for the future of our children and our grandchildren. I can’t help but think this is unnatural: We are so young! Many of us have yet to figure things out for ourselves, have yet to hold our own in the world.
And yet we wonder and worry for those who will follow us because we are so palpably and devastatingly confronted with hints of what they will face if we do not act.And yet we wonder and worry for those who will follow us because we are so palpably and devastatingly confronted with hints of what they will face if we do not act.
My mother, I now understand, has carried that very same fear with her all along. Well before any of the warning signs of the past few years, before anyone else seemed to be concerned, she was, because she had lived it. She was part of a community that had once felt exceptionally durable and perfectly coexistent, but instead fell apart before her eyes.My mother, I now understand, has carried that very same fear with her all along. Well before any of the warning signs of the past few years, before anyone else seemed to be concerned, she was, because she had lived it. She was part of a community that had once felt exceptionally durable and perfectly coexistent, but instead fell apart before her eyes.
The answer, of course, is to act. (We are all guilty of not acting.) To push back on our suffocating culture of complacency — that if we’re not directly in harm’s way, right now, we do nothing — and be the ones to go against the grain until the grain goes in the right direction. Make people uncomfortable when they say or do something they shouldn’t, no matter how innocuous it may seem, so that we may look back upon these decades not as the moment when more could have been done, but as a mere malignant spike in a generally positive direction.The answer, of course, is to act. (We are all guilty of not acting.) To push back on our suffocating culture of complacency — that if we’re not directly in harm’s way, right now, we do nothing — and be the ones to go against the grain until the grain goes in the right direction. Make people uncomfortable when they say or do something they shouldn’t, no matter how innocuous it may seem, so that we may look back upon these decades not as the moment when more could have been done, but as a mere malignant spike in a generally positive direction.
Our children will thank us for looking out for them. For understanding all that is at risk. I now thank my mom every chance I get.Our children will thank us for looking out for them. For understanding all that is at risk. I now thank my mom every chance I get.
Jordan Salama is a writer and journalist. He is a recent graduate of Princeton University. Jordan Salama is a writer and journalist.
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