Wearing The Star

In May this year, I did a presentation about the Shoah for all the fourth graders at my daughter’s school (including my daughter). Starting the week before I struggled with the enormity of the task, deciding finally to personalize the story using details from my family history. I used a formal photograph taken 1931 in Dortmund, Germany, when my father was 6-months-old. Standing proudly behind my father is my Aunt Jeanne, aged 7. As I cropped and enlarged the photo I discovered something I had never seen before: My aunt was wearing a necklace with a Star of David. It was a gut punch. I knew that two years after that picture was taken, my grandfather’s store in Dortmund was looted and destroyed by the German Nazis; shop windows broken, goods stolen. In my PowerPoint, I transitioned from this picture to a picture of two young Lithuanian children about the age of my father’s siblings at the time, wearing yellow stars on their jackets. That was when I bought my star necklace.

At first, it felt good. I felt a connection with my family and my Jewishness that I had not felt before. After a bit, though, it chafed. The necklace was the first unambiguous marker of my being a Jew. Before, well, I could have been Italian, I could have been Middle Eastern … but now, a Jew. At a Middle Eastern restaurant, I sat next to a group of men speaking Arabic. I glanced them, they glanced at me. Not long after they all got up and moved outside. “Ah” the thought flew through my mind, “they know I’m Jewish”. Immediately I chastised myself, “of course not, they just wanted to go outside.”

On a recent trip to Italy with my children, my star was generally in full view: through open collar shirts and v-neck t-shirts, bouncing on my chest as I ran after my kids on the beach. I strained to hear the conversations whenever I noted someone looking at me, were they saying ebreo or ebrei (Jew, Jews)? Or were they using the more derogatory giudeo? Not that I heard. No, we were treated warmly, my children were given treats in the stores. Still I remained vigilant; after all, we were in the land of Mussolini.

The day before we left for Italy, Charlottesville happened. Our attention was elsewhere during our travels and so it wasn’t until I came home that the full awfulness of what had happened hit me. The Nazi rally and tragic murder of Heather Heyer stand for themselves. The presidential equivocation about the events requires a different response. Now more than ever, I felt, it is time to wear the star.

We live in curious times when wearing a Jewish star can of itself seem like an act of protest. But when the murder committed by a white supremacist is weighed equally with the protest against these hate groups, it is not a time to hide. Wearing a star is not simply a proud marker of identity, it is also a sign of solidarity with all who are targeted by hate groups – or at least it should be.

On August 12, 2017, Nazis and White Supremacists shouted as they marched, “The Jews will not replace us,” a slogan with roots in well-established conspiracy thinking about supposed Jewish control. For those marching, the rally seemed to be an exhilarating show of force and defiance, with the car-borne attack killing Heyer and injuring 19 others being the triumphant climax. The marchers were armed, not only with weapons but with a dizzying array of symbols: In addition to the Swastika, there were 13 others, all representing an identity associated with being white, European, Nordic, Aryan, Nazi, National Socialist, etc. Importantly, these symbols do not just mark identity, they also mark the supremacy of self and subjugation or eradication of the other.

Against this backdrop, wearing the Jewish star surely is an act of protest. Our star is not exclusionary or triumphalist or supremacist or militant. It is simply Jewish, representing a distinct, visible and vocal minority. To wear it is to protest against anyone that would silence our voice or the voice of any other. To wear it is to protest against anything that would obscure our light or the light of any other. And if there is defiance in wearing the star it is to remind ourselves that once our light was nearly extinguished, and that this will never happen again.

Alex Treitler is a native of Boston and New York City and has lived in St. Paul since 2007. He has three young daughters and is an active member of Beth Jacob Congregation. He is currently a freelance translator and recently contracted with Jewish Family Service of St. Paul (JFS) to help start their Para-Chaplaincy Program. He currently serves on the JFS board.

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