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Wearing My Jewish Star

I haven’t worn my Star of David since I was in high school years ago. Now, I’ve started wearing it again.

I’ve always preferred to be private about my religion. When I was a child, my family name didn’t “sound” Jewish, and people always said I didn’t “look it.” That was fine with me; what I was was nobody’s business. Besides, virtually everyone was Jewish in our neighborhood; gentiles were “different,” not us. Things changed, however, when I was 14, and my family and I moved to a religiously mixed community. In my new high school, many teenage girls wore gold religious crosses, which bounced and glittered against their pastel-colored sweater sets.

“I want a Jewish star,” I told my parents. For the first time in my life, I felt like an outsider. Wearing a Star would be my quiet way of saying I was Jewish. Now I realize not only did I need to identify my religion to my classmates, I also needed to identify myself to me.

Other Jewish friends recount similar stories of adolescent interest in religious trappings. Interconnected with the desire to establish our independence from our families was the need to assert our identities, as well as the deep-rooted realization that no matter what we did or said, the rest of the world would always see us as Jews.

I wore my star throughout high school, and put it away when I entered college. By then, I was more secure in my self-concept, and didn’t need a visible symbol to tell people who I was. For a long time, my star remained inside my jewelry box, next to other cherished pieces I don’t wear anymore but would never throw away.

Today, I’ve taken out my star again, but unlike those people who always wear religious jewelry, I remain conflicted and ambivalent. Wearing a Jewish star in temple is one thing; wearing it to a Christmas party or job interview is something else. (“Tuck it inside,” says a small voice in my head, “and you won’t make trouble for yourself.”)

Now I sometimes wear my star for my original reason— to respond to all the crosses I see. This year, crosses have become a major fashion statement. Designers such as Donna Karan string them on jet black rosary-like chains, and an upscale department store catalog proclaims that “the new accessory of merit is the cross.”

A Christian friend tells me she’s offended by this crass commercialization because it debases her serious religious feelings. She also wonders—”Do Jews buy this jewelry? How do they feel about wearing a cross?” I hope they’d hate it. People who put on glitzy oversized crosses and think they’re just being “fashionable” are wrong. I’m angry with retailers and fashion designers who think it’s okay to take anything—no matter how sacred—and turn it into something money-making and tasteless.

My filigreed Star of David hangs from a fine gold chain. Sometimes I wear it so people can see it; other times I wear it for the comfort it gives me. I tuck it inside my blouse and like amulets worn since ancient times, it’s my little secret, sending out invisible rays of protection.

“When do you feel particularly Jewish?” asks my rabbi, encouraging my study group to reflect on living in a predominantly Christian society.

“When I’m with a group of people and everyone’s Jewish,” I realize. “And when I’m with a group and no one’s Jewish but me. And . . . when I’m wearing my Jewish star.”

Wearing it in public, of course, can be risky. You wear your star on a public bus and somebody shoves you; is that why? . . . or you argue with a dishonest shopkeeper, see him look at your star and know he’s probably thinking. Humph! She’s Jewish, so no wonder she’s haggling and complaining about the price!

Not long ago, as I packed for a two-week trip to Europe, I debated if I should take my star. Should I be wearing it in airports? In foreign countries, where who knew who might be looking at me? Okay, I thought, I’ll wear it inside my clothing, private and safe, and just for me. But feelings of comfort couldn’t compete against deeper gut-level fears of being identified, and putting myself at unnecessary risk.

This fear of being “found out” to be a Jew is, unfortunately, very old and very real. Even if you don’t announce your “Jewishness,” you’re always at risk for being “found out.” I thought about Islamic terrorists singling out Jewish hostages on captured airplanes, and Jews I knew who owned two passports—one filled with customs stamps from Israel, and the other for the rest of the world. Paradoxically, at the same time talismans are supposed to be protecting us, they also can expose us to potential harm.

That doesn’t stop me from wearing my star, although I do pick and choose when and where this happens. For the past few years, I’ve been volunteering at an after-school tutoring center for homeless children. Most of the children are black. None are Jews. According to a recent survey by the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, more than a third of all American blacks are strongly anti- Semitic. The less educated, the more prejudiced they are likely to be. With so many tensions existing between blacks and Jews today, it’s no longer enough for me to be “just” a volunteer. Some of the families were evicted from houses owned by Jewish landlords, but how many Jews do these kids actually meet? They already know I care about them. Now I also want them to know that I’m Jewish. Wearing my Star of David is my silent way of telling them.

When I was growing up, my parents were divorced, and that made me “different” enough. All I wanted was to blend in. But the homeless kids I tutor can’t do this. In some ways, their black skin is their “star;” it’s an undeniable thing that they can’t remove.

But—I don’t see their color anymore. They’re not black kids. They’re just kids to me. Our colors “reappear” when we go outside the building. Walking down the street, we are a distinctive group. Passersby barely notice me, but the children are “those black kids from the welfare hotel.”

Considering how bleak and sad their lives have been, most of the children are remarkably resilient, Their young eyes are still soft-looking and gentle, and are not hardened with anger at the system which lets them down. There is still time for me to make a difference in their lives.

I have been wearing my star to the tutoring center every week; for quite a while, no one said anything about it. Then a little girl was interested. She touched it gently and asked me what it was.

“It’s something Catholics wear,” said her big brother right away.

“No way,” said his friend, shaking his head. “It’s a Jewish star, right?”

I nodded and smiled.

“Are you Jewish?” they asked.

“Yes,” I replied.

And that was it. No great conversation; just an acknowledgment. So even if we never talk more about it, I hope they will remember me and my star. Their mothers notice it, when they drop by the center. We chat for a while and they glance at my star. And although nothing is said, something has been said after all.

Susan J. Gordon, a freelance writer living in White Plains, NY, writes for many national magazines.

Wearing My Pink Triangle/Jewish Star
by H. Hadar

I take off my Jewish star earring and slip it into my pocket. This isn’t about antisemitism—I’m entering the Jewish Federation building where I work part-time. This is about homophobia—the earring has an enamelled pink triangle overlapping the Jewish star.

I don’t need to wear jewelry which says that I am a woman, that I am white or that I am young—these are visible aspects of my identity. Being a Jew, and being a lesbian, these are identities which are not as visible, identities which can be denied or hidden. Wearing my “identity jewelry”—my Jewish stars, my labryses, pink triangles, double women symbols—is a conscious choice of identifying myself to the world, of making myself visible.

Visibility is about pride. I always felt proud wearing my Jewish star, but when I first came out as a lesbian, I was too scared to wear my pink triangle outside of the lesbian community. As my lesbian self-loving and pride grew, i became more confident wearing my lesbian jewelry around town.

Visibility is also about safety. I rarely remove my Jewish stars, but there are times when I will take off or hide my lesbian jewelry. I don’t always feel safe being a lesbian in the world—I fear the threat of harassment, of violence and discrimination. Even within the “progressive” Jewish community, the message is often “a good lesbian is a closeted one.” Choosing to be visible as a lesbian is always a calculated risk.

But visibility is about risk-taking, too. Often I wear my jewelry as a symbol of difference—in lesbian crowds I’ll wear my Jewish jewelry, and in Jewish crowds I’ll wear my lesbian jewelry. “Don’t assume we are all the same,” my jewelry whispers. Sometimes I wear the symbols even when I’m not comfortable doing so, because I want to make a political statement, to push the boundaries and push buttons.

As small as it may seem, these Jewish stars interwoven with pink triangles and women symbols are, in fact, small hammers working away at the stereotypes, at the antisemitism and at the homophobia. And one of these days, I’m going to be able to step beyond my fear, and wear my triangle into the Jewish Federation building.

The Jewish Star in History— Not Always Jewish
adapted from The Encyclopedia Judaica

From as early as the Bronze Age, the six-pointed star was used as a magical sign in many civilizations, in regions as far apart as Mesopotamia and Britain. During the Second Temple period (until 70 C.E.), the hexagram was used by jews and non-Jews alike alongside the pentagram (the five-pointed star). In the synagogue of Capernaum in Israel (2nd or 3rd century C.E.), it is found side by side on a frieze with a pentagram and a swastika.

Through the Middle Ages, it appears both in synagogues, and in Byzantine and European churches. As a talisman, it became common in many magical versions of the mezuzah between the 10th and 14th centuries. Still, it had no general Jewish connotation.

Between 1660 and 1770, it was incorporated into the coats of arms of several Italian families, both Jewish and non-Jewish. As an alchemical symbol (which did not influence Jewish circles), it began to be used in the later 17th century to denote the harmony between the antagonistic elements of water and fire

It wasn’t until the 19th century, however, that the hexagram began to be used specifically (and widely) Jewishly—this is because Jews were looking for a striking and simple sign which would “symbolize” Judaism in the same quick way that the cross symbolized Christianity. (By 1799, the star had already appeared as a specific Jewish sign in a satirical anti- Semitic engraving.) In 1822, it was used on the Rothschild family coat of arms when the Austrian emperor raised the family to nobility.

From growing general use, the six-pointed star was taken over by the Zionist movement, connoting new hopes and a new future for the Jewish people. When the Nazis used it as a badge of shame which was to accompany millions on their way to death, it took on a new dimension of depth, uniting suffering and hope.