I was never Jewish — or rather, I was always Jewish, but never seen as a "Jew." My light-brown hair and green eyes deceived xenophobes, as did my exceptionally German name, Elisabeth Becker. So too had my mother's long red locks in her childhood; she was "too rubia" to be a Jew, the boys in her Puerto Rican neighborhood asserted.
It's not that I didn't know about anti-Semitism, though: After reading Anne Frank's diary, I made sure to close our shades on Hanukkah in case a Nazi/neo-Nazi/violent anti-Semite saw our burning Menorah. I also grew up with a grandmother who consistently reminded me of the Holocaust: When I decided to study in Germany, for instance, she assured me that they would "do it again, given half a chance." I lived in the former Jewish quarter of Berlin, surrounded by memorials, signs that explained old regulations, and golden plates inlaid in city streets that commemorated deportations.
Last year, swastikas popped up in the playground by our home in New Haven, and then again on the 1 train in New York, which I had ridden all of my life — strapped to a snuggly on my father's chest, at midnight with my teenaged friends, with my husband-to-be at 22, and as an adult, holding my own child. It unsettled me, the changing atmosphere.
The political climate in which men who torture immigrants are pardoned and white supremacy is endorsed sanctions these small acts of violence — acts that compound and spread, multiply and injure in myriad ways.
But only this year, in my 33rd year of life, living in upstate New York on a peach farm near the summer house of close friends, did I experience anti-Semitism firsthand.
One day, my Muslim husband, my son, and I decided to buy peaches. (They're my favorite fruit.) I was happy in that simple way that's fueled by summer and good friends — that is, until my son spots hotdogs.
As soon as my husband asks the woman at the counter if the hotdogs are pork or beef, a look of disgust passes across her face.
"They have brats," she responds aggressively. It seems small, an insignificant rudeness. But the distaste, her disgust, is so obvious, so palpable, that my husband and I look at each other in shock. She must assume we are a Jewish family, as the area has a large Jewish population. (In fact, we had just come from another farm where Orthodox Jewish families fed goats beside my son, handing him the pellets of feed they had bought so the animals could lick his hands. He squealed in delight, breaking into hysterics when we departed for the peach farm.)
My husband wanted to say something to the woman at the counter, but what do you say when someone looks at you that way? I stand there, a bag of peaches hanging from my arm, both sweetened by the sun and made bitter by a single glance.
The political climate in which men who torture immigrants are pardoned and white supremacy is endorsed sanctions these small acts of violence — acts that compound and spread, multiply and injure in myriad ways. Just last year, to give another example, a male professor confided in me "as a Christian woman," having mistaken me for a sympathetic ear as he complained about religious minorities in Europe. Another asserted that it was paradoxical how Jews were concerned with social welfare even though they were "the richest 5% of the US population." I assumed ignorance, waving the comments away.
But maybe it was something more.
Was it shock or discomfort that has kept me silent in these instances? Did I want to remain a gray figure of vague German origins, like so many people in the United States? Was I afraid? I have no trouble speaking up for others, correcting those who claim Muslims are dangerous with a long list of facts that proved them wrong. I've embroiled myself in endless discussions about Islam, digging deep into both history and theology to forge an elevator speech that wars off baseless xenophobic claims.
Yet there I was, silenced on a peach farm.
When we returned home, I joked about the anti-Semitic peaches in our kitchen and we laughed. As a Muslim in contemporary society, my husband has faced far more discrimination than me. He is outraged, but it is yet another instance among thousands of instances. For me, it is a first — the first time I sense that I do not belong.
I was shaken to my core. I don't know what to do with them, those peaches, so I baked them deep into a cake covered in brown sugar frosting. It was delicious, moist, sweet — a perfect confection. If there is one thing that I learned from my Jewish mother, it is the transformational power of food.
But for once, cooking doesn't help. I couldn't bake the hate away.