I come from a very Jewish family. My great-grandparents were involved in the foundation of the Zionist movement, and my mother is Jewish clergy. Hebrew was apparently my first language when I began talking at 2 years old during the time we lived in Jerusalem (unfortunately, I can’t really speak it anymore), and my pre-teen years were encapsulated by Bat Mitzvah tutoring. The thing is, I’ve never really felt Jewish, at least not in the religious sense. As I grew into a cynical teenager, my beliefs about God went out the window, and I felt disconnected and bored by most facets of Judaism.
Culturally, however, it’s a different story …Growing up in New York City, it felt like everyone was a non-believing Jew. For many, being Jewish was more about outside appearance. I’ve always identified with the label in this way and am absolutely ashamed that its connotations for me had more to do with class—intelligence, education, style, wealth, good breeding—than spirituality or anything else. To be Jewish on the Upper West Side of Manhattan meant you bought bagels and lox from Zabar’s, had a country house upstate, and went swimming at the JCC.
Things began changing for me as I started growing into my own person and developing my own beliefs. I still don’t believe in God (at least not yet), but after a trip back to Israel last month, I had a huge reconnection with my roots, and felt proud of where I came from. I returned, savoring my memories and wearing a gold Star of David around my neck, knowing that it would become a piece of jewelry I’d never take off.
I didn’t expect the necklace to become such a conversation piece, and doubt that it would be were I living in the United States. But I live in France, a country dominated by Catholicism, where Jews make up a small one percent of the population. I’ve noticed that this simple piece of jewelry immediately makes me different, which, again, brings a certain amount of pride. Yet, it’s also brought confusion and separation.
If I’ve established with a new French acquaintance the fact that I’m Jewish, the second part is, “So you’re pro-Israel.” Just like that. No question mark at the end. The worst part is that I stand there thinking, Am I pro-Israel? It’s such a complicated situation … am I supposed to be defending myself now? What am I supposed to say? I’m Jewish, is all. I love Israel. I don’t love everything that goes on in Israel … and on and on this anxiety-ridden dialogue goes. All I wanted was to wear my necklace that means something to me, to hold my sentimental token close to my heart.
Apparently, I’m not the only one these days sporting jewelry that’s sparking controversial discussions about the Holy Land. A Judaica e-commerce store recently started selling “My Israel” necklaces. The gold pendants are shaped like the country, only Gaza and the West Bank are carved out. According to TheGloss.com, the vendor and designer have received tons of complaints, which is unsurprising both because of what the symbol represents and because of the recent increase in conflict over the West Jerusalem territories. When I saw this necklace, I wondered for a moment if my own Star of David could appear to have the same symbolic weight.
I’m not ready to take off my necklace anytime soon just so I don’t have to deal with these unexpected dialogues. To assume that wearing a symbol of any kind could go unnoticed or remain neutral was naive. Yet, in a way I’m glad, because it is forcing me to develop my own opinions, defenses, and beliefs. Things that were slow to come in the first place.