HIDE: the jewish-american experience

I’ve never understood why Jews were considered a race. When I, with my ski-slope nose and blue eyes and light brown hair, walk down the street, no one will know I’m Jewish, and in some ways I resent it. It’s part of who I am, so why should it be something I hide away?

On my last birthday, when I finally turned ten, I got a Star of David necklace. Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple triangles sparkle around a little empty hexagon. I wear it everyday. None of the other kids get what it’s for. The nicer ones ask me what it means; some of the others ask me why I’m wearing a devil’s symbol around my neck. Maybe if I was older I would understand why people use their words so carelessly. At least by now though, since I’m almost eleven, everyone in my grade knows I’m Jewish, and I’m happy. Maybe the longer they know, the more they’ll start to understand, like Shang when he finds out Mulan has been deceiving him. He learns to love her for everything she is, even the parts she had to hide away.

Today, I walk into the lunch room. It smells like square pizzas and soggy brown messes slopped onto disintegrating buns. I hear the usual sounds of dirty tennis shoes scuffed on a dirtier floor, long table benches squeaking down into place, and my friends, laughing and smiling and teasing each other. John is there, laughing the loudest, but he stops when he sees me. He’s my best friend’s crush, so he’s started sitting with us, but I don’t like him. I’m not sure why, I just don’t.

“What are you guys laughing about?” I ask. I hate being left out of things, so I stand there, over the table where they’re all sitting, waiting for a response. “What was the joke?” I ask again.

My question is met only with a little nervous laughter, until finally John answers, “What do Jews and pizza have in common? They both belong in the oven.”

I stand there, completely still. I can’t process what’s just happened. Me, with, more Holocaust education than all of the kids in the room combined, and I still don’t even get the joke. It’s not that I don’t know what happened to my people. I just don’t understand how anyone could be sitting here, laughing about it. I think I must be in shock, but somehow my legs move, walking away, away, away.

I don’t remember sitting down at another table but here I am, my lunch box closed in front of me. The girl sitting next to me is eating a slice of pizza and I stare at it. There’s a burnt edge of it, burnt like my people, brutalized and destroyed for what they believed in, burnt like me. Because I am Jewish, I sit here burning, the edges of me falling away into smoke and crisping up like an extra thin crust. My faith has made me into an object, to be eradicated from the Earth like a plague while people watch and laugh.

I want to cry, to scream, to do something, anything. I can’t. I feel nothing; there is a disconnect; I can’t understand this casual cruelty. Somehow, I make it home and tell my mom what happened. She asks me if I want her to tell the school, but I say no. In 5th grade, being a snitch is almost as bad as being a Jew.

I look in the mirror and unclasp my necklace. Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple triangles fall onto my dresser, but all I can see is the empty hexagon in the middle. I can hide my necklace, fold it away between shirts and toys and never look at it again, but I can never hide from it, never hide from being a Jew, never hide from myself.

illustration by staff gd: Lia Ponciano-Diaz