How it Feels to be Jewish Me

I never felt Jewish. Jewish in the sense of minority, outcast, Diaspora, war in the Middle East. I knew I was Jewish just like my mother is Jewish—Jewish as in bagels, lox, Woody Allen and fading watercolor pyramids in my children’s Haggadah. All my friends growing up were Jewish. We were the Jewish-homosexual-liberal elite. We would smile from Pesach right through Simchah Torah, secure in the knowledge that as long as the Hudson lapped at our shores and security guards stood at the doors of our synagogues, we were safe. I was raised in a place where George Bush was never really president, where my father taught me that the code of law is our only sacred text and my mother taught me that only writers are prophets. I have visited Warsaw in the artificial cold of mid-July but I do not feel ghettoized in the least in my ivory tower. Separate but unequal; you think you are saved, but I know that I am enlightened.

When I was younger I assumed that I would date only Jews. I had friends that were gentiles, of course. I went to a friend’s confirmation and complimented her white dress; another friend brought cake to a Passover Seder, which we hid because it was leavened. But it’s always smart, I thought, prudent, to draw lines. I had been born into a place where I belonged, where I could watch the increasingly satiric interplay of American religion, diversity, and politics through a telescope from across the waters. I thought I knew the secret of the wire fence: it wasn’t to keep us in, but to keep them out. While I appreciate the novelty of your straight blonde hair and Aryan blue eyes, you could never understand the rites and rituals of the court of this Jewish American princess.

The first and only boy I ever fell in love with was a Shiite Muslim. I get it, my best friend Leah told me. You want something different; you want to rebel; it is summer after all. You naughty little Jew. When I told him I was Jewish, he shrugged. Who cares? And I wished it was that simple. Another Lebanese boy I met that summer read my full name like a slur. Amy Zimmerman. Zimmerman. He snarled. He knew who I was and my boyfriend, and he didn’t like it. Zimmerman, I repeated. Jewish, I smiled. Winked. He walked away.

I guess I expected ignorance from strangers, but never from my own people. When I told him I loved him I scared myself, because I was a teenage girl in love. But when I learned Arabic I scared my parents, in ways I didn’t understand because I was a teenage girl in love. They cited things like religion, history, and blood, as if this three-headed beast was lurking under the bed like some sort of relationship border control. When I arrived at JFK, my stories of love and Beirut were regarded like oddly shaped packages at an airport terminal. Explosive. I had grown beyond the little girl who once found solace in the waters dividing her from the world, and now felt the constraints of isolationism as I was warned not to stray. I found myself in hand to hand combat with the Golem of American Jewry, that very same protector that had once plied me with sickly sweet hamentaschen and whispered my reflection into my ear. You told me I would only ever be a Jew, should only consort with Jews, as if that is all I can ever be: a Jew. And history repeats itself.

It’s so easy to say you are Jewish and know you are Jewish at Zabars on the weekend or on fieldtrips to the tenement museum. It is so easy to cradle an identity when you are unaware of what identity is and how we naturally permeate its walls and flow beyond it. I feel in my bones that I am a Jew. I am Jewish like Sara when I feel that in the glow of my love I can live forever. I am Jewish like Moses when I stand before a burning bush of self-realization and lament that I am not worthy of revelations. I am Jewish like Ishmael who must break with his father and find his own path beyond the land of milk and honey. I pity anyone who does not understand my love, my love not for a Muslim, but for myself. You might think you know what it means to be Jewish, to hate Palestine, to donate your money and your judgment to the Zionist cause. But you do not know what I feel. I am a woman and a lover and a writer and a Jew, and in order to be one of these things I must fully be all of these things. Shame on you for saying I must deny myself in order to fit into your definition of what I should be.

Do not be so slow to admit it: you are afraid of me. Why else would you insist on calling me an anti-Semite, a self-hating Jew? Just because I say B7ibbak, I love you, in Arabic, a language you do not understand, does not mean that I am a traitor. I describe my world in colors and sounds and prayers beyond your comprehension; I want to live a life that soars over islands and boundaries real and imagined. When I hear a classmate say that all Palestinians want to kill the Jews I am astounded. I am amazed by the amount of religious fervor required to not only condemn an entire people, but to bind together an entire country as if religion dictates every urge in our id and every thought in our mind. You want to bomb and hate and fence not to keep them out, but to keep us in. You want to put a number on my arm like a tattoo, claim me as your own, a complacent soldier in an army of separatists. You want me to die within the ideological constraints that you see as the mark of the saved. But I have already risen.

Amy Zimmerman
Age 17, Grade 12
Trinity School
Silver Key

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