My Mom Told Me To Hide The Fact That I Was Jewish. Now I Understand Her Wisdom.

History is trying to repeat itself.

When I started kindergarten, my mom gave me the usual slew of behavioral directions: be polite, say please and thank you, be kind to the other kids. She included a few specific things not to do. Don't ask people their age or their weight. Don't make fun of people because of how they look. Don't tell anyone you're Jewish.

Before too long, that last one began to stick out. Even though my suburban Atlanta school was predominantly Christian, the other Jewish students had no qualms about identifying themselves, and they were welcomed with open arms. I, however, began to feel like an outcast. When people saw my blond hair and blue eyes and asked what church I went to, I had nothing to say. But neither could I ask if any of my classmates would be going to Chabad for High Holiday services.

So I asked my mom why I had to keep it a secret. She explained that, before I was born, there were times when Jewish people had been tracked down and killed for no reason other than being Jewish. I couldn't reconcile that idea with my experience at school, where I'd never seen a single instance of even the most harmless anti-Semitism. I asked her if she had any reason to think that people these days would mistreat us simply for being Jewish. No, she told me, but history tends to repeat itself.

Pure paranoia, I thought. My mom was, and remains, the smartest person I know, but in that instance I was convinced she was wrong. Sure, her parents had fled Romania 50 years earlier after narrowly avoiding the German army. Sure, my grandmother's siblings had never entirely regained their sanity after the things they'd lived through. But the world was different now. In my 6-year-old mind, 50 years was an unfathomably long time. In my school, in her office, in our city, in our country, that sort of religious persecution was gone. Extinct like the dinosaurs. I could understand why she was nervous, but it was time to let that nervousness go. She was so smart, she knew so much, but this time I knew better.

So, as I got older, I didn't keep my religion a secret. One day my mom quietly pulled me aside to ask me how my best friend knew she had been born in Israel, rather than Boston, as she told people. Another day, she wanted to know why the neighbor, whose kids I went to camp with, had wished her a happy Hanukkah. When I explained to her that I didn't want to hide my Jewish identity from my friends, she understood. She knew that she could cling to those fears herself, but she couldn't impose them on me.

Two decades have passed, and now, suddenly, I'm afraid. Rationally I know that religious intolerance has been percolating in this country for a long time, even though I was generally privileged enough not to see it firsthand. But somehow it took until this week to hit me: I now live in a nation that condones religious discrimination. Our Muslim residents are being mistreated simply because they're Muslim. They're being detained from entering our country for no other reason than their faith. My mother's laughably dystopian prophecy is starting to come true. After the events of the past week, how many Muslim women living in the U.S. will follow her lead? How many of them will instruct their sons and daughters to hide their faith before sending them to kindergarten?

As for me, Friday, January 27, 2017 was the first day of my life that I understood my mom's wisdom. The president's failure to mention Jews in his International Holocaust Remembrance Day address may not seem like the most overt display of anti-Semitism, but I'm worried it's an early step in a terrifying direction. An administration that is willing to vilify and mistreat an entire segment of the population solely because of their religion probably isn't going to be particular about which religion they're targeting. If it becomes politically expedient for that administration to discriminate against Jews, or Catholics, or Hindus, or atheists, I don't doubt that it will do so.

The only thing that can stop it is the exact same thing that can stop the current mistreatment of our Muslim brothers and sisters: UsThe people who grew up, like I did, believing that religious discrimination was, and should be, a thing of the past. We can stop it with our voices and with our votes.

Let's not wait for Jewish people, or Christian people, or any other group of people to become the next target. Let's help the people who are suffering now. History is trying to repeat itself.

This time, let's overcome it.

The author, who was raised in Atlanta, now lives and works in New York as a lawyer. He is proud to have been a part of two such tolerant and diverse cities.


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