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Phenomenal Jew, That’s Me

An Unapologetic Homage to my Jewish Identity

Taken at the Los Angeles Vigil for victims of Pittsburgh. October 28th, 2018.

Early Saturday morning I woke up before sunrise and immediately put myself back to sleep. I was pleased to snag the extra 3 hours after a late night; the problem was, I was deep in a dark, dreadful dream. It was modern day and I found myself surrounded by familiar Jewish faces. The scene quickly revealed that we were some sort of Jewish prisoners who had just survived something catastrophic. Liberated and free, we didn’t know where to go or where was safe. I quickly realized that we were being chased, someone was trying to hunt us with hate and harm…again. I remember Dream Darah thinking, “Why in the world would they want to hurt us? With so little of us on this earth, why isn’t that enough for their sick hatred?” I woke up at 9AM, unsure how the dream ended, relieved to find myself safe in bed from the cruel world that lived in my subconscious. Only thing was, I soon realized after waking up, there wasn’t any escaping up from my nightmare.

After coming into my consciousness, I snatch my phone to find 2 notifications of “Mommy Missed Call.” I call her back, ready to hear she’s on her walk with the dogs or how much she loved or hated the movie she saw the night before. Instead, she answers with a sad somber tone. I ask her what was wrong. Unexpectedly— and different from our ritual Saturday morning chats, she told me to turn on the news. There it was. 11 Jewish souls were murdered in Pittsburgh at the Tree of Life Synagogue on Shabbat, celebrating the blessing of a baby boy. I turn on CNN and immediately see faces of terror, news correspondents discussing white supremacy, the rise of Anti-Semitism at 56%in the last two years and more of this nightmare from which I never seem to awaken. According to the Washington Post, in 2017, incidents spurred by hatred of a particular religion and Anti-Semitism was again the leading cause of hate crimes, motivating about 55% of those episodes.

Immediately I cry, angry, devastated, scared and sadly, not surprised. I say to my mom, “I don’t think we’ve ever had such a big single handed attack on the Jews in the US… ever.” I spent the morning calling friends, loved ones and fellow Jews to alert them of the news. Mind you, I knew none of the 11 Jewish souls gone personally, but as a Jew, those people are part of my community, an extension of me. We all mourn as one tribe in a deep, heartbreaking, shattered into shreds kind of way. When one Jew is victimized, thousands worldwide sit with the sadness and anger because it could be each and any one of us.

So there I was—awake from one nightmare, only to find myself in another. In both narratives, my life was at risk. My safety was threatened. My beliefs, values and identity were targeted for being who I am, who I was born to be. I am a proud, energetic, sassy, sensitive, smart, clever, impatient, full of moxy, stubborn, firecracker, phenomenal, JEW. That isn’t changing, from dream to real life. I will always be this Darah. When will I wake up in a world where who I am isn’t at risk? Where I can walk into work without a metal detector and x-ray machine? Where my father isn’t constantly looking over his shoulder to see if someone suspicious walks through the door of his loyal synagoge of 40 years? Where my nieces can go to Jewish Day School and grow up without fear of persecution?

In Israel, Israelis experience a “mentality shift” in their everyday life. They mourn a fallen soldier hours before a wedding or Shabbat. They go from honoring Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Official Memorial Day for fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism, to celebrating Yom HaAtzmaut (Independence Day). They cry, mourn, pray and quickly shift to celebration, gratitude and living. In a nutshell, this is Israel—and most importantly, its people. The country was born immediately after the Holocaust. My ancestors didn’t sit in mourning; they urgently built this resilient country, despite losing family, friends and barely surviving such massive destruction. They didn’t play victims, they picked themselves up and began to rebuild their strength after it was ripped away. Israel’s significance and history is the ultimate definition of mentality shift.

Recently, I’ve experimented with how to perfect mentality shift, and on Saturday, I did just that. I spent the morning angry, sad and feeling powerless about what had just happened. I met with my oldest friend, laughed, kibitzed and embraced. Years later, being Jewish still bonds us since we and our families met as young kids at our local Temple. Later that night, I decided to get festive and dress up as The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel for Halloween: a pop culture TV character who is an outspoken, adorable, and Jewish comedian living on New York’s Upper West Side in the 1950s. I took on her identity with more pride than predicted, mentally switching out of my grief and leaping into joy. I danced and sang in costume with friends until early morning. I embraced Jewish culture through the persona of a beloved, and celebrated, fictional Jewish character. Unapologetically me, being unapologetically her. My mom, too, dressed as her that same night, both of us bonding over our love of this character who we believe joyfully represents our culture that we hold so dear.

Temple, church bible study, mosques, nightclubs, a work place, concerts, schools and theatres were built as safe spaces, shielding us from cruelty and terror. How and why is the world still a place where we are constantly scared, anticipating media coverage of yet another innocent black man fatally shot or another Jewish cemetery defaced with swastikas overnight? The truth is, for thousands of years the Jewish people have not known life without knowing persecution, adversity and hate. It has a l w a y s been there. Simply put, we have consistently lived in a world where some refuse to look at us with humanity, compassion or tolerance. This paradigm is so persistent, it has shaped our reality— and our dreams.

Yet, we live for the moments where we have Shabbat, Bat Mitzvahs, simchas (celebrations), holidays, and all that our tradition calls for in life. We take moments to have moments. Our mentality constantly shifts. When this hatred is demonstrated onto my people, my blood boils, my heart aches, and my arms reach out to the ones I love who share this feeling of vulnerability in the exact same way. We’re proud to be Jewish, and always absolutely terrified of those who don’t see it the way we do.

One of my oldest and closest friends who’s not Jewish texted me from Mexico Saturday saying, “I love you. Take care of yourself today. Know that I am holding you close in my heart & all the 11 souls whose lives were stolen from them.” She got it. She knew how much this hurt. She knew that this act of hate was to a whole group of people, not just the beloved 11. When 49 lives were murdered in Orlando in 2016, I reached out to my friends in the LBGTQ community, telling them I loved them, I care for them and I will do my part in the world to share kindness and pray for their safety. We are all vulnerable.

Living as a Jew is existing among Anti-Semitic rhetoric that is synonymous with statements of microaggression. Over the years, I have been triggered hearing statements like, “Oh Darah, you’re so Jewish.” This comment may sound innocent enough, and I can understand those who would not think twice, but for me, sometimes hearing this can make my stomach turn. Is it a compliment? Is it a judgement? What are you really saying? Often, the negative implications dripping from “so Jewish” give rise to stereotypes about my culture and my community that I do not subscribe to— and it worries me that my personal identity is being confined to an assumptive statement. Yes, I am Jewish. I am also a powerful American woman, a dancer, a storyteller, a loyal friend, a movie and TV connoisseur, a traveler and adventurist, a good soul, a big heart, an aunt, a sister, a daughter—and a human being. I love being Jewish because of my family, my tribe, the food, camp, community, Mel Brooks, homemade latkes, Israel, Passover, the Upper West Side, Nanny Fine, the movie Yentl, Canter’s, Wexler’s and Langer’s Deli, my formerly curly hair, my loud cackle of a laugh, my Brooklyn roots, my Ashkenazi and Greek blood, my craving for challah on a Friday evening, memories of chasing boys at camp, dancing on Shabbat, hug circles, my first love, my last love, New York accents and because it’s who I was born to be.

While I am proud each and every day I get to wake up and be myself—be Jewish—I do not expect others to see the beauty I see. Yes, I am proud to be a Jew, and sometimes I am so unbelievably terrified. I live for the day where hearing, “Oh, that’ so Jewish” is only a positive and complimentary statement. I strive to help create a world where being Jewish isn’t a threat, where neighbors embrace each other regardless of our differences. I truly believe we can get there. After the horrifying tragedy in Pittsburgh, people came together and kindness prevailed—from the Jewish doctors who cared for the terrorist shooter to the Muslim, Christian, and American neighbors who stood with us in mourning.

I still can’t remember how my dream ended Saturday morning. Did I survive? Did we fight back? Did I live safely happily ever after? I’ll never know. Instead, I will keep living my life, unsure how the dream ends or when we wake up from this very real nightmare. I have often been told that I am unapologetically myself. I encourage you to be the same. Whatever and however you choose to define that. Make your voice heard, celebrate your authentic self and don’t ever let anyone take away from you what makes you special in this world. There is only one of you, so no apologies needed. Even in this time where our world is absolutely on fire. Even when there are hopeless days. Even when it feels like it keeps getting worse. We will not fade into the darkness; we have the power deep within us to be the light that refuses to go out.

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