Giving a voice to Jewish culture in our communities

From Europe to North America, anti-Semitism is still pervasive

In the face of ignorance, it's vital to speak up about your beliefs.
Credit: 
Supplied by Madeline Roitman

I’ve always been aware of anti-Semitism in my community.

While often subtle, I grew up receiving comments like “You look Jewish because of your nose,” and “That sounded Jewish.” I constantly felt the need to teach others around me the things they didn’t know about my culture. In elementary school, my mother even came into my class to read a book about Hanukkah, a holiday that many of my peers knew little about.

While I always knew I wasn’t in the Canadian religious majority, I never used to feel physically unsafe. It wasn’t until a shooter killed 11 people attending a Saturday morning Shabbat service in Pittsburgh on Oct. 27, 2018 that I recognized violent anti-Semitism in North America. The following week, my friends at Queen’s found a swastika carved into a pumpkin outside their apartment. This anti-Semitism wasn’t just real and scary—it was also close to home.

Growing up, my family taught me the Jewish value of Tikkun Olam (Hebrew for repairing the world). Small actions, such as helping someone in need or planting a tree, can make the world a better place. Following these instances of anti-Semitism, the world’s need for this spirit seemed more apparent than ever.

The semester after both those incidents took place, I embarked on a semester abroad in Cardiff, Wales. Before leaving for exchange, my mom told me not to wear my Star of David necklace and to be especially careful while visiting places like Germany. However, for years I’d learned about the rich Jewish history in Germany and Hungary and, despite my mother’s warnings, I was eager to go. So, over my school break, I planned a trip to both places.

When the time came for me to visit Berlin, I couldn’t help but feel nervous because of my mother’s advice. As I arrived at the Brandenburg Gate, all I pictured were the videos I’d seen in my Hebrew Sunday School of Hitler speaking to crowds in that same spot during World War II.

Following our tour of the gate, we entered the Jewish Museum of Berlin. The most striking exhibit in the building was an empty, dark room meant to represent the Jewish culture missing in present-day Europe as a result of the Holocaust.

After the museum, we visited an untouched, destroyed synagogue with a broken Torah on display. The curator told us they chose not to rebuild the synagogue so it could remind people of what took place during the war. Against my expectations, Judaism in Germany seemed to be a large part of their historical narrative, and this shone through the memorials I saw.

A few days later, I arrived in Budapest and immediately noticed that the country took a drastically different approach to remembering the wartime oppression and genocide of Jewish people. One famous synagogue in Budapest still stands, and is the second-largest in the world. The Jewish quarter in the city is vibrant, even though it’s where Nazi-enforced ghettos used to separate Jews from the rest of society once existed. Throughout the Second World War and communist occupation, those in power destroyed these buildings. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the broken city chose to turn the destroyed buildings in this area into makeshift drinking bars called “ruin bars.” They transformed something terrible into something that makes Budapest unique.

Germany and Budapest present Holocaust history in drastically different ways. However, in my view, both approaches are impactful and equally crucial to the historical presentation of the Holocaust.

Recently, someone asked me why my Jewish friends and I talk about being Jewish so often. I’ve thought a lot about this comment because, initially, it seemed confrontational. I didn’t feel like there was anything wrong with discussing my heritage. Before I was asked that question, I had never even realized how often I did so. It’s not until I reflected on my experience in both Germany and Berlin that I came to a better understanding of why I talk about my culture.

In the Jewish museums and synagogues I visited, I felt as though my culture and heritage were on display because of how foreign Judaism is to Europe. In these places there were plaques explaining holidays I celebrate with my family every year, and artifacts of menorahs similar to those I have in my house.

This drew my attention to the lack of general knowledge of Judaism within most parts of the world, specifically Europe, because it’s a small and historically oppressed culture.

In the past, Jewish people have felt the need to hide their identities due to oppression.  Therefore, Jewish people—including me—discuss Judaism frequently because it’s relatively foreign in most parts of the world, meaning it requires more explanation and context.

Additionally, we recognize that this freedom of speech is a privilege that our European ancestors didn’t have. The Berlin Jewish Museum only opened in 2001, highlighting that being able to safely broadcast our culture is a relatively recent phenomenon, and not one to be taken for granted. The dominant historical narrative excluded Judaism until quite recently.

When I think about the Pittsburgh massacre that took place last fall, or when I think about even my friends at Queen’s who found a swastika outside their apartment, I see that both violent and subtle anti-Semitism are still present in North America. I believe that all of this hatred comes down to ignorance and a lack of understanding of Jewish heritage and culture.

I speak about my heritage in North America to preserve it, similar to the way it’s preserved through memorials in Germany and Budapest. I do so, and will continue to do so, in the spirit of Tikkun Olam.

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