By Zoë Groff
Growing up in a family of liberal Reform Jews, religion always felt like a long-term open relationship; low commitment, but always there when I needed it. We attended synagogue on the High Holidays and used Hanukkah as an excuse to eat latkes and give each other presents. That was the extent of our religious practice.
I didn’t understand how someone could possibly dislike me purely because of how I expressed my spirituality. It wasn’t something we discussed at home. We didn’t necessarily believe in God, but we believed in being good people.
The harsh realities of what it meant to be Jewish were introduced to me during my elementary school years at The Jewish Day School of Metropolitan Seattle. There, we were inundated over and over again the terrors of the Holocaust. We were shown the clips of men, women and children of all ages sickeningly thin, wearing striped rags with yellow Stars of David embroidered on the chests. We saw the trucks full of dead bodies haphazardly thrown on top of each other. We saw the gas chambers and the piles of ashes. We were told that anti-Semitism still existed, and that we should be careful. I looked at myself in the mirror, a girl with smooth light brown hair, hazel eyes, and a button nose and thought, “I don’t have to be careful.” Embedded in that was the certainty that if history were to repeat itself, I would be safe because I could pass for Christian. In the years since, I’ve learned that isn’t true.
I’ve only directly experienced prejudice for being Jewish twice in my life. Once was when I was playing basketball with three kids who lived down the cul-de-sac. Two of them were siblings, a boy and a girl with blond hair and blue eyes; the other was a Chinese American boy named Henry. The four of us were playing, but I couldn’t help but notice they would never pass me the ball. Finally, I stopped them to ask, “Why won’t you pass me the ball?”
The brother and sister looked at each other and smirked. “Because you’ll get it all Jewwy germy.”
I looked at Henry, assuming he would step in. But when he finally met my eyes, I saw a look that read Finally someone else is the different one.
The next time was on the subway in New York City. I was standing in the doorway on a very crowded 1 train, when an angry white man with greying hair tried to push past me to enter. People were filling the car to the brim and there was simply no room for him. He looked at me, grabbed my right shoulder, and said, “Move it, sleepy eyes.”
I was startled mostly by his hand on my shoulder, not by the slur “sleepy eyes.” I thought he just said that because I looked tired. When I called my mom that night for our regular check-in, I told her what happened, and she explained that “sleepy eyes” was one of the many horrible names Hitler called Jews. Besides the stereotypical dark curly hair and big noses, many ethnically Jewish people have large, droopy dark eyes. I realized that maybe I don’t pass for just regular Christian white as well as I thought I did.
Since then, I started to pay more attention to the anti-Semitic things I heard from my Jewish friends and on the news. I was struck when Trump nicknamed Chuck Todd of NBC’s Meet the Press “sleepy eyes.” I noticed a similarity in the way our eyes drooped, despite how awake we were. When the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally happened in August 2017, I prayed to the God I wasn’t sure I believed in that the neo-Nazis would disappear, change their ways, or at least not migrate away from the South. Then the shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue took place.
Most of my mother’s side of the family lives in Pittsburgh, and four of my cousins were bar mitzvahed at The Tree of Life. I attended every single one, despite never being bat mitzvahed myself. My family was always greeted by two brothers, Cecil and David Rosenthal, “Hello, hello, Shabbat Shalom,” they’d say to every person who entered the lobby. They were both developmentally disabled and I was touched that the synagogue gave them jobs. Rabbi Chuck knew my name and always remarked on how much I had grown since the last time he saw me. The Tree of Life was one of the only synagogues I had an emotional attachment to.
I had heard about many mass shootings during my nineteen years. Every time another one pops up on the news, I’m not at all surprised. I’ll talk about it with my friends, one of whom always knows somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody that was killed. Then I move on. Barely phased, while somewhere, a family is mourning at the loss of an innocent person whose life was taken too soon.
It wasn’t that I didn’t care about the tragedies I heard on the news, rather that I’d become numb to it. I realized after the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012, it took too much mental and emotional effort to allow myself to be sink into a depression every time somebody shoots up a school, concert or nightclub. Yet this time was different.
The image of Cecil and David standing in the lobby, waiting to greet people, keeps burning through my mind. I picture them as they watch a man come through the door. “Hello, hello, Shabbat Shalom!” they might say, before they notice the gun. Before they notice the swastika tattooed to his scalp. Before they were dead.
I know now that I should be careful. That my teachers and rabbis back at The Jewish Day School were unfortunately right, and that as hard as I’ve tried to hide from my Jewish roots behind light straight hair, it won’t work.
The fear of the unknown and the desire to have someone to follow is what got Hitler his army. If we’re not careful, if we stop talking about what happened 85 years ago, it will happen again.
Zoë Groff is a writer and ballet dancer based in NYC, attending The New School and the conservatory at Alvin Ailey. You can follow her on Instagram @zoeshoshanamama.