In Sex and the City 2, the four main characters travel from New York City to Dubai. One of them, Charlotte York Goldenblatt, opts to use only her WASPy maiden name while she’s traveling, rather than her Jewish married one in order to “avoid issues.” As a Jewish woman and a travel writer, I understand Charlotte’s desire to downplay her Jewishness abroad. But where Charlotte and I differ is in our options — unlike her, I don’t have a “safe” name to fall back on.
For the past several years, my work has taken me all over the world, from Santa Fe to Seoul to Santiago. And every trip just highlights how much more of the world there is to see. But throughout the years I’ve had to make choices about where to go and how based on two major factors — Can I go there as a white woman alone? and Is it safe to go there as a Jew? And these days, as global anti-Semitism again rears its ugly head, the answer is more likely to be “No. I can’t”
In the past, it was safe — if not fortunate — for me to be a Jewish traveler. At the synagogue in Buenos Aires, visitors are asked to come a day in advance and let the synagogue security make a copy of their passport photo page so that they can be screened. But when the guard took one look at my name and the stamp from a recent visit to Israel, he waved me in, no check-in process needed, and made sure I got a VIP tour. No matter where I was, if I was recognized as Jewish I’d likely get an invite for a Shabbat meal or even a free place to stay, always a plus for a money-conscious freelancer. I met one of my closest friends when we heard each other’s Hebrew names mispronounced over communal breakfast at a hostel in South America, and we bonded over being lone Jewish travelers.
But in the three years since I started pursuing travel writing full time, I’ve felt the leash tighten and tighten. When I was offered a spot on a free press trip to Bali, I turned it down when the online forum I visited had a scary list of admonitions for Jewish travelers to Indonesia. (“Don’t wear any Jewish symbols or amulets.” “Try to Anglicize your name.”) And that too-good-to-be-real $200 one-way ticket from London to New York? It was on Air Kuwait, which reserves the right not to let certain passengers (read: Jewish ones) on its airplanes. I ponied up the money for British Airways instead.
Recently, I applied for Global Entry, a program run by the U.S. Department of State that lets pre-screened regular travelers skip some security lines and deal with less travel hassle at the airport. For domestic flights, it means no taking off shoes or removing laptops from bags. After filling out my application, I had to do a short interview with a rep from the TSA. He asked me exactly two questions: have you ever been arrested for a felony? And: Do you have an Israeli passport? The woman ahead of me had been asked if she had passports from any other country. But I was asked if I had an Israeli passport. My obviously Jewish name made the TSA rep think that there was only one other country I could have possibly been from or had dual citizenship with. If he could spot me so easily, I thought, then what airport gate agent or customs official anywhere in the world wouldn’t be able to identify me too? I got the global entry card and can now sail through airline security. But I still don’t feel any safer.
Many Jewish people have gotten used to the admonitions about hiding their Star of David when traveling internationally, the same way, at the height of the Bush years, my college friends and I were encouraged to lie and say we were Canadian when we studied abroad. I don’t lie, but I do make careful, delicate choices about what I tell people about myself. When people ask what part of the States I’m from, I say “North Carolina” (where I grew up) and not “New York” (where I live). Many people in other parts of the world are familiar with New York’s reputation as “Jew York,” but they don’t think that Jewish people live in other parts of the U.S., especially not the South. I won’t lie if directly questioned, but I make conscious decisions about which stories to tell.
Because I have red hair, I have been able to pass as not-Jewish in many situations, but that doesn’t make it any easier to walk past anti-Semitic graffiti or to overhear negative comments about Zionists. Passing didn’t make it any easier for me to walk through the main tourist street in Athens and see multiple souvenir shops with large caches of Nazi memorabilia on offer. And it didn’t make it easier when I asked the front desk clerk at my hotel in Montevideo if she could give me directions to the synagogue and she said, “What are you talking about? We don’t have Jewish people here.” She suggested I visit a cathedral instead, assuring me that the architecture was “very beautiful.”
I’ve been to dozens of cathedrals. I’ve also been to mosques, to Buddhist and Confucian temples, and to Quaker meeting-houses. But the only houses of worship where I ever needed to go through a metal detector were synagogues. The shul, I always heard, is every Jew’s home. But when every home in the world we have is precarious, I could travel forever and never find sanctuary.
Lilit Marcus is a New York City-based writer and tea addict. Her first book, Save the Assistants, was published by Hyperion. You can also look for her work in the Wall Street Journal, Teen Vogue, and Today.com.