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August 15, 2017 by

I’ve Never Felt More Jewish Than I Did at Charlottesville

Photo credit: Evan Nesterak

Photo credit: Evan Nesterak

Three weeks ago, I was in Israel on my Birthright trip. The program did what it was supposed do, I suppose. I felt very connected to my Judaism, to my Jewish identity, especially as a secular Jew from a mostly non-religious, non-practicing family. I thought about maybe attending synagogue when I got home.

Two weeks ago I bought Shabbat candles, which they actually do have in grocery stores in Virginia, go figure, and promptly stuck them into a drawer, with a vague notion of maybe lighting them the following week and staying off Netflix for a day.

And then this Saturday, the Nazis came.

I heard the helicopters first, whirring through the apartment, getting farther away then circling back again. I was half asleep, unsure if it was someone mowing the grass or something else, and then I heard the muffled chanting in the distance, between the helicopter blades, and it hit me all at once.

The Friday before I was on the phone with my cousin, talking about how I wasn’t sure if I was going to go, that I’d never been to a protest before and while I was sure G-d would give a Jew a dispensation on Shabbat to fight Nazis, maybe I was safer staying home. At most, I could hand out water bottles to the protesters, not really commit to anything.

But hearing the chants and the persistent whirr of the blades I knew I couldn’t stay inside. I looked up “what to bring to a protest” and headed out, with only my water bottle, my ID and a hoodie.

My first stop was going to be the local synagogue. Surrounded by churches, Congregation Beth Israel serves the entire Jewish population of the Charlottesville, Reform, Conservative, you name it, it’s the one-stop shop. I had to look up the location on Google maps.

On the way, some helpful woman told me that I should go down this street, as there were white supremacists with AK-47s down that way, which is when I knew the day was off to a good start, but I made it to the synagogue no problem.

There was a single police officer and a man with a thick beard standing in front of it. Assuming this was the rabbi, I introduced myself, explained that I was looking for the Jews and if there was anything the Congregation had organized that I could maybe join. He explained that the Jews had held their minyan in the morning and all gone home, where it was safe. He wasn’t a rabbi himself, but he was there in solidarity as a fellow member of the clergy.

I can forgive him for assuming the Jews had “all gone home” but being a Jew I knew my people were out there somewhere, what with Nazis in town. And sure enough maybe ten minutes later I ran into the rabbis, one man and one woman, by accident.

There was no formal organization, they said, but their congregation was spread out in groups here and there, and both rabbis had turned out to support the other clergy. Every variety and denomination of Christian was there, and the two rabbis, representing all of us out on the line.

He handed me his business card, said to shoot him an email and he’d put me on the mailing list. They had Conservative services, Shabbat programming, they were always open to new members. I thought “I bet.” But then again, what do I know of the Jewish community in Charlottesville? I’ve been here a year, and I had to google the location of the synagogue.

But if I had ever in my life forgotten I was a Jew, it was impossible to that Saturday. As I stood by the side of the street, filming the Nazis proudly waving their flags, chanting “Jews will not replace us” like a fervent prayer, when I saw a Nazi stop and ask a middle aged white woman in front of me “are you a Jew? Are you a Jew?” I guess because she had frizzy black hair and a prominent nose, and to hear her grit out between her teeth, so angry “No, I’m not a Jew. I’m not a Jew,” like she was spitting the denial in his face, when I heard the word “kike” said aloud for the first time, a casual invective overheard as I walked by a parking lot, I could not forget.

That day it didn’t matter if I was barely Jewish, that I’d never been bat mitzvahed, that my mom was a completely non practicing Christian. I was a Jew, and there were Nazis, white supremacists, klansmen, white nationalists with guns and flags and big sticks to beat you with casually wandering the streets. And I understood distinctly that insomuch as we define ourselves as Jews, it is the hatred of others that defines us just as much.

I did not have the luxury of not being fully, completely and unequivocally Jewish, as Jewish as someone who attends synagogue every week and strictly keeps Shabbat, because there were people in my town, a block from my apartment, who did not see the distinctions we make for ourselves.

To a Nazi, there is no such thing as “not Jewish enough.”

I’m painting a picture of a town overrun. Nothing but swastikas on every street. That’s how it was, but that’s not how it was. As I was sitting there, watching the shame parade, all I could hear were the chants of my fellows “No Nazis, no KKK, no fascist USA.” Black Lives Matter marched straight through the crowd, cutting a group of white nationalists in two as they walked by.

The socialists came down a side street with their big flags and their anti-fascista chants and I was surrounded, in the bosom of red waving flags that stood in contrast to the other red flags at this particular parade.

A young black man bought me a lemonade at the CVS on my way home, since I had forgotten my wallet. When I got hit by errant pepper spray, a protest medic yelled out instructions and washed my eyes out.

As I was kneeling next to a kid with two head wounds and gashes on his legs, near the wreckage of two smashed up cars and so many bodies, there were volunteers doing chest compressions. I washed out a head wound with my water bottle and when the cops and the EMTs and the ambulances showed up ten minutes later, I swear the reason there was only one dead was thanks to the volunteers on the ground, with their cobbled together med packs and duct taped red crosses on their arms.

Among all the fear and the hate, the big white men with swastikas and guns, the police who lined up in full riot gear, facing out against no one, but were absent when they were needed most, I did not feel afraid. I felt pissed off, determined and Jewish as fuck.


 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.  


  • Barbara Ostfeld

    “Jewish as fuck!” I love that in the context of this week’s events and given the reality of life in Trump’s America.