I don’t know how to talk about being Jewish.
Whether I want it or not, an ancestral fear lives in my body. Fear of being singled out, of being known, shamed, stoned, beaten, run out of town, killed. Somewhere beyond reason, I fear being discovered, shipped like cattle in boxcars, emptied under a cold gray sky, and separated. This fear creeps up the back of my arms, across my shoulder blades, making me tighter, wound, ready to spring.
In the past, we were the baby-eaters. The Christ-killers. The money-lenders. In the past we were the hook-nosed, brown-eyed snakes.
After Charlottesville, I went to Temple for the first time since I was in Israel, ten years ago. I took my three year-old daughter, and we sat on the lawn outside the temple with the congregants. Then I watched her dance to Hebrew songs that I recognized but never knew all the words to. This has been a hard time, the Rabbi said, and the tears came.
Then I took my family north, to an island in the middle of Puget Sound. I felt the urge to pack up everything and flee, but instead I called it vacation.
My family was not religious. We lit Hanukkah candles most years, at least once, but we also put up Christmas trees. I spent childhood mornings on the 25th of December swimming in red and green wrapping paper. We were secular, or as my mom liked to joke, “Jew-ish?” She said that last part with an exaggerated lift.
On the island, my family walked a boardwalk path, through a nature preserve, to the edge of the Sound. Far away from my house, my belongings, I found hiding places for my valuables in my mind. My grandmother’s engagement ring, my great-grandmother’s locket. Perhaps I could bury a small box in the backyard of one of my Christian friends?
I was not taught to speak Yiddish. I gathered a few words from my mother, secondhand. As a child, I watched friends studying for their confirmations and communions, going to catechism after school. It felt like another way I was weird, separate, doomed. I yearned for religion, for the clubbiness of Sunday school. When I was thirteen years old, I met a rabbi in a community theater production of Fiddler on the Roof.
Even though I was Bat Mitzvahed, I don’t know how to braid a Shabbat challah. I don’t remember how to observe Sukkot, or the rules of keeping Kosher. I don’t know all the many names for G-d, but I do know Jews don’t like to write the name of G-d, so they leave the little dash out, as though the naming itself is a spell.
At the edge of the water, we hunted for crab shells and picked through the rocks. My daughter told me what she remembered of her life so far, repeating back the stories I have repeated to her. “You’re my sweet daughter,” she says to me, with the same conviction that I say it to her.
Some Jews, including me, have white privilege. But if you ask the neo-Nazis at the citronella march, the Jews are the source of all the evil in the world. Jews are the ultimate threat to their twisted version of “white culture.”
I wish I could yell in their angry red faces that I grew up poor. “This Jew has no money? Maybe my whole worldview is flawed,” I imagine some Nazi white boy saying. I want to be someone who makes him stop and think, but this whole fantasy supposes his vitriol is based on logic instead of emotion.
And the truth is that I had enough, and my Jewish grandparents had more.
As my husband and daughter scampered ahead, I lingered in the forest on the walk back, distracted by the trees and light. I was trying to be, anyway. In between plotting my escape routes, the burying of my handful of heirlooms, the mental exhaustion, the sadness, the rage, the ever-spinning wonder: Is this the moment when I need to stand up and fight? And if it is, how? How with my mom-soft body, my useless degrees? How with my daughter on my back? When we play hide and seek, I worry about attics. She can’t stop whispering, and I can’t tell her why I’m so filled with dread at the thought. What if they find us? What if she can’t get out?
My great grandparents left their families behind in Budapest, Hungary in the 1920’s. During the early stages of Hitler’s invasion, the rumors were that Jews were being resettled, and that the first families to cooperate and get on the trains would be the ones to get the nicer housing. My Hungarian family was eager. They got on the trains first.
Even writing this, I’m drawn away. A little voice inside saying that I shouldn’t write it, that I don’t know enough. That I need to do more research.
The imperfect words back up in my throat. I don’t know.
The thing I don’t want to write is: I would probably be first in line to get a on a train.
I lie to myself, and pretend I’m a fighter. I imagine my body as a blaze of resistance. What I know about myself is this: I’m impatient to the core and I get anxious about lines. If someone told me that the first people on a train would get nicer housing, I would be one of the first people on the train. I’m afraid that I wouldn’t be one of the forest Jews, shooting guns and killing Nazis. I’m afraid I’d march my family onto a train, like lambs in a slaughter car.
Since the election, a record number of American Jews are reclaiming their German citizenship. Germany is now a safer home. I know American Jews who have purchased their first firearms, and are practicing at the shooting range. I know American Jews who keep thousands of dollars in cash, stored in the freezer beside the peas in case they need to flee.
My ancestors thought they were Hungarians first; Jew-ish.
I stood at the base of a tree with nine trunks, maybe more. It was hard to differentiate the trunk of one tree from the roots of another. My husband, like my father, is not Jewish. Can we pass as Christians—with our Christmas trees and half-assed Hanukkah candles—like I’ve been doing all along? Judaism can be hypervisible and invisible at the same time. To be chosen and to be singled out are two sides of the same coin. Our wound is our superpower.
I looked up the application for Hungarian citizenship. I would need a Hungarian lawyer, and the process takes years. My head hurt and I closed the page.
America is my homeland. I know no other place to wander.
If they come for us, as they’ve come for so many others, will I quietly board a train, holding my daughter’s small hand and whispering in her ear that it will all be OK?
The tree’s form is serpentine, but I can’t say for sure whether the trunks are spiraling up toward the sky, or twisting its way back down to the earth.
Arbeit Macht Frei. Work sets you free.
I cannot work this out, no matter how hard I try.
Marissa's featured column Backbone is a 6-month series on Corporeal Clamor. More of her work can be found in The Rumpus, The Manifest Station, Nailed Magazine, Under the Gum Tree, and The Establishment, among others. Her essay, "No, Lolita," was named one of Entropy Magazine's Best Online Articles & Essays of 2016. Her poetry has been anthologized in Only Light Can Do That (PEN/ The Rattling Wall 2016) and Things I Have to Tell You (Candlewick, 1998). Marissa is currently writing a collection of lyric essays and revising an experimental memoir. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her partner and their toddler.