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When Being Jewish Is a Choice (And What That Means in the World We Live In)

What It’s Like to Choose to Take on A History of Persecution

Over a year ago, we went to a barbecue at one of my fiancé’s friend’s houses. I can’t remember exactly the context of the comment, but one of my fiancé’s friends said something to the effect of, “it’s not like I drew a swastika.”

I flipped out. I was angry, hurt and shocked. I ended up sitting in my car, trying to calm down, deciding whether I was going to stay or leave the party. Ultimately, I stayed, but only after having a long conversation with my fiancé’s friend about why the comment was out-of-line. I tried to explain to him that he knew he was going to get a rise out of someone, and that wasn’t OK.

Did he fully understand the gravity of his actions? I’m not sure whether my explanation of why it was so hurtful and offensive had an impact, but I knew I couldn’t stay silent.

My fiancé, on the other hand, could and did stay silent.

The difference is, I’ve dealt with this before. In terms of religion, my fiancé hasn’t had to deal with those types of comments. Despite growing up somewhat sheltered in Huntington Woods and surrounded by many Jewish families, on my first day at Berkley High School, we were doing a getting to know you exercise and suddenly the kid in front of me turned around and said, “I’ve never met a Jewish person before.”

I was stunned by this. While I didn’t think it was true that a kid from Berkley, Michigan had truly never encountered a Jewish person in his whole life, it was the first time I had come face-to-face with someone who had made a claim like that. It was the first time I had that kind of comment directed at me. With those words, this student implied that I was somehow inherently different because of my religion and was to be marveled at (or even hated) as a result.

After the encounter at the barbecue, my fiancé and I had a long conversation about my fiancé’s desire to convert. Together, we discussed the fact that part of converting will mean owning a history of oppression and persecution and taking that on as a member of the Jewish community. Just as the Jewish community is strong and vibrant and supportive, there are many parts of our history that are dark and painful.

This is where it gets hard.

It’s not the religious aspects so much as it’s the history of persecution that is clearly still present in America, and around the world, today.

I think back to the fact that my great-grandparents came to this country in search of a better life. Back then they found it. But today, the underbelly of their experiences has resurfaced. It’s a scary time to be Jewish in America.

I wonder what kind of world my future children will grow up in. I hope they will be proud to be Jewish and not afraid. I hope that if they encounter prejudice directly, they will not be silent. And if violence or discrimination befalls other members of our community, I hope they will be supportive.

I’m heartened by the fact that this is a strong and supportive community. I’m also heartened by the fact that I’m marrying someone who understands the cultural aspects of Judaism, and along the way has tried to absorb all that he is taking on in joining this community.

I hope that words and acts of loving kindness are more powerful than the semi-automatic weapons that have become such a devastating part of our everyday lives. I mourn for the lives lost in Pittsburgh. I pray that as a community, as a country and as a world, we can become more tolerant and more accepting of our fellow human beings.

Love is stronger than hate.

Leslie Rott

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