When I was in third grade, my teacher asked me to tell my class about the Jewish New Year. Not only was I the only Jewish student in my class, but I was also the only Jewish student (aside from my brother) in the whole school. As you might have guessed, my family was the only Jewish family in the whole town. My innocent eight-year-old self stood proudly in front of all my classmates and explained the meaning of Rosh Hashanah. I told them about how on Rosh Hashanah our fate for the upcoming year is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed. Just as I finished, one of my classmates snidely shouted, “I’m glad I’m not Jewish!” followed by a chorus of amused agreement from the other kids. In an instant, all of the pride I felt to be sharing my Judaism melted away.
That wasn’t the first or last time I would receive a comment like this. We lived in a small town in Texas with less than 2,000 people, and probably only about ten of those people weren’t white and Christian. I couldn’t tell you how many times we were asked, “When are you joining a church?” Growing up in that environment, I developed a hard shell to deflect all feelings of being different in any way. I wouldn’t dare wear my Star of David necklace to school, much less tell anyone outside of my closest circle of friends that I was Jewish.
I would save “being Jewish” for Shabbat services and Sunday school, when my family would drive over an hour to the nearest synagogue. Yes, an hour! The town wasn’t a very accepting place, and not just for me. I recall my brother once came home and told us that there was a new Muslim kid at school, and that his peers had already deemed him a terrorist. I knew that it was wrong even though the people around me seemed to not give it a second thought.
Flash forward a few years to seventh grade: I was in the bustling city of Austin. I had transferred to a new middle school that was far more diverse, where well over half of the students were people of color. I had never seen that many non-white people together in my life. The first few days of school were mind-blowing. I couldn’t imagine what my friends back home would think.
Among all of the changes I was experiencing, there were glimpses of hope. I remember the first time that someone told me it was okay to be Jewish. I was walking in the hallway with one of my new middle school friends and she asked me what I was doing for Christmas.
“Oh, I don’t celebrate Christmas. I’m Jewish,” I said. Then, I immediately panicked. “But I’m not even that religious or anything, so don’t worry.” I couldn’t believe I had accidentally given myself away. Her response?
“Oh. I don’t care.”
Just like that, hope manifested into reality, and my protective shell began to crack. It felt genuinely wild to me to think that people existed who didn’t care about my religion. I still hate the way that I tried to justify my identity by attempting to water it down, but no one had ever told me they didn’t care before. In my hometown, when people found out that I was Jewish, they would make comments like “I’m just so worried about your salvation” or “But Jews don’t believe in God.” Yes, they seriously thought that Jewish people don’t believe in God.
Over time, the acceptance I found in my new home healed me. A year later, in eighth grade, my Austin friends were thrilled to come to my Bat Mitzvah. I started wearing my Star of David necklace to school. Yes—for other actual humans to see! In high school, I joined Jewish youth groups. Considering how shocked I was at one friend not caring about my religion, you can imagine how I felt to be surrounded by a community that celebrated and embraced my Judaism. It was incredible to be around people my age that were so open and proud of their faith. I wanted to be just like them.
While I might have preferred to be surrounded by more Jewish people when I was younger, I can say that the special moments my family shared together, as the sole Jews in our community, are moments that I cherish. We didn’t have Jewish friends to celebrate Hanukkah with, so instead, my dad taught us the blessings and we prayed together as a family of four, our faces illuminated by the candles of the hanukkiah. My brother and I would skip school on the High Holy Days, and we would drive to the city for services with our parents, sitting in quiet excitement the whole way.
Sometimes I think that the shell I wore for so long might never fully go away. I’ll still occasionally feel the pangs of fear and insecurity that I experienced growing up; tucking my necklace into my shirt or silently freaking out when a stranger finds out I’m Jewish. Every day, I feel like I have to relearn that I’m allowed to exist as a Jew. The real shame is not me, of course, but that my childhood peers made it so clear to me that they would not accept me if I was honest about who I was.
I have lost touch with almost everyone from my hometown, but I am grateful to now be surrounded by wonderfully supportive friends. When I remember the embarrassment I felt looking down from the bimah and seeing the faces of some of my old friends at my Bat Mitzvah, who were extremely uncomfortable to be attending a Jewish service, I am glad I left that town. Some of my high school friends have told me, “I wish we could have come to your Bat Mitzvah!” Now that’s the kind of positive change worth waiting for.
I cherish my Judaism because it is mine, and because it has stuck close to my heart despite the fact that it is sometimes easier to say, “don’t worry, I’m not that religious.” In this New Year, the third grader inside me is prouder than ever to be a Jew. To finally experience that feeling, and to truly believe it, is sweeter than charoset.
Madelyn Pollack is a senior at Liberal Arts and Science Academy in Austin. She is a Staff Writer for Fresh Ink for Teens.