Hello from North Haven.
The news yesterday of bomb threats called in, once again, to more than 30 East Coast Jewish organizations sank my heart a little further down in my chest. It’s been dropping slowly since early November, bobbing back up with hopeful tidbits of effective community action, dropping again with every rock thrown through a halal market window. One of the affected organizations was the Jewish Community Alliance of Southern Maine, which evacuated preschool kids into the snow following the phone call.
I am Jewish and I live in Maine, as I have for 4/5ths of my life. I enjoyed the privilege of a nice home, delicious food to eat, and parents dedicated to fostering a love of learning and education in my sisters and I. My childhood and adolescence was also tinged with fear. Fear inspired by kids in my fifth grade class drawing swastikas to show me. Fear inspired by being kicked up the stairs to the bus by a classmate who then hissed “Jew” in my ear, and reminded me that she owned a gun and could cross-country ski to my house – a uniquely Maine threat, but terrifying. Fear inspired by classmates with perhaps better intentions, who told me if I didn’t convert to Christianity, or at least become a Jew for Jesus, I’d go to Hell. And that made them sad for me.
In college and grad school, being Jewish stopped being a big deal. But then I moved back to Maine, and to an island, at that. I love it here. I love my job. I love my community. But that whiff of fear, just around the edges, has come back, and it creeps closer every day in this new age of emboldened bigotry. While nobody’s ever done anything to harm or threaten me personally, a neighbor has a swastika tattoo, and a former student of mine wrote “F— Jew” on his belt. Why? I have no idea. Maybe just because it rhymed with “you”. Maybe out of some actual animosity towards Jewish people.
I’ve been writing a lot, lately, for Working Waterfront and Kveller, about being Jewish out here and the complicated task of raising an inter-cultural Jewish kid without anyone other than me sharing her background. I learned recently that some of my writing struck a nerve with some other islanders, who determined that I was “waging a war on Christmas,” and enjoying some special privileges to boot, both of which are patently untrue, and would be funny gossip if not for the climate right now. Telling inflammatory lies about Jewish people is historically the match for the bonfire of anti-Semitism that still seems ready for conflagration as soon as someone gives permission, explicitly or implicitly.
So that fear is there. And as I imagine preschool kids in Portland out “for a walk in the snow,” as their teachers framed it, according to this newspaper, I fear for my own Jewish preschooler. I fear for African-American children, I fear for hijab-wearing women, I fear for wearers of rainbows, I fear for anyone whose identity is on display.
I am secular, and only mildly observant, and I wear a tiny hamsa necklace primarily as a touchstone to ward off my airplane phobia. I have curly brown hair and a slightly aquiline profile. I’m short. I’d guess that I was Jewish if I saw me walking down the street. Sometimes I wonder if I should take off the necklace, not post pictures online of us lighting Hanukkah candles, or stop writing about Jewish life in rural Maine, but that’s who I am. And despite the fear licking at the edges of the joy I experience in teaching our culture to my daughter, or sharing holiday food with non-Jewish friends, I won’t let it stop me from writing, talking, sharing, and teaching. Maybe the more people who have opportunities see the individual identity within the cultural markers, the more accepting and allied we will all become.