Are you an inside or outside Jew? Are you comfortable being Jewish publicly or do you keep your Jewish star comfortably tucked under your shirt?
This question comes to mind as anti-Semitism’s shadow falls over Western countries. No longer in the closet, Jew hatred animates BDS activists, UK Labour leaders, newly-elected U.S. congresswomen, and Women’s March heads. Most claim to only oppose Israel criticism, but we know their real target. As Martin Luther King said in 1967, “When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews.”
Almost 30 years ago, I discussed anti-Semitism with a visiting professor and his wife from Hungary at the mid-western university where my husband and I taught. Since both the Polgars – Jozef, Anna, and daughter Julia (not their real names) – and we were Jewish, we became friends and invited the family over for a Friday night dinner.
That night, Anna noticed my daughter wearing a small gold Jewish star, and asked me, “Do you allow your daughter to wear her Jewish star inside?” Seeing my puzzled look, she added, “In the house?”
“Yes,” I answered, not quite understanding what she meant. I forgot about her question until the following week when Anna asked me to go shopping with her. When we entered one of our local supermarkets, Anna walked slowly, observing the filled shelves.
Her face took on a look of astonishment when we reached the produce section. “Is it a holiday?” Anna asked me.
“No,” I told her, understanding that grocery stores in Budapest looked quite different. “It’s not a holiday. You can go to almost any supermarket in the United States and you will find the shelves filled.”
“Did you tell them I was coming?” Anna asked, still not believing me.
I laughed at the thought that I could control supermarkets. “Go without me, here or to a different store. This is what living in America is like,” I replied.
Suddenly, Anna’s words tumbled out. “Jozef and I have good jobs teaching at the university. Yet, I have never bought new clothes – always second hand. We share an apartment with another family. We stand in line for what we want – shoes, stockings, jeans – American jeans! To be able to own jeans!”
She was shaking, the realization of what America was and the knowledge that, at the semester’s end, her family had to return home.
We loaded our groceries into my van. Suddenly, her daughter Julia saw the Jewish star around my daughter’s neck. “Mama, look at her Jewish star. She’s wearing it outside!” Anna turned around and said to me,” I thought you said she wore it inside, in the house.”
I nodded. “Yes, she wears it in the house and she wears it outside. What do you mean?”
Anna shook her head. “You don’t understand! If Julia or I wore Jewish jewelry – if we were openly Jewish, attended synagogue, supported Israel – we would lose our jobs, our apartment. Julia would not attend her good school. We are Jews on the inside, not the outside.”
Later, I tried to explain to my children, then about 8 and 10, what kind of life the Polgars lived in Hungary. For people who have never lived under communism, tyranny, or anti-Semitism, living as a Jew only on the “inside” is beyond our imagination.
My daughter wanted to buy Julia her own Jewish star. The next time we were with the Polgars, Julia received her gift. She excitedly opened the box. “Mama, can I put it on?” she asked.
Her parents looked at each other. “Of course, you can,” her mother said – and then added something in Hungarian.
“What did you say?” I asked Anna.
Anna hesitated. “I told her she could wear it openly here in the United States. Not at home.”
I was reminded recently of my conversation with the Polgars about inside and outside Jews. The Polgars’ Jewish dilemma is certainly not endemic here. Nonetheless, we seem to be creeping towards it. In academia, pro-Israel professors are often silenced or not promoted and students cannot speak up as their professors bash Israel if they want a good grade. Increasingly, anti-Semites and terrorists are supported by public figures. Liberals Jews find themselves having to choose between Jewish values and “progressive” values.
Yes, our supermarket shelves are still full. That has not changed. But the freedom to be openly Jewish, to be supportive of Israel, and to hold independent political views very much has.
When Julia came to say goodbye, she wore her Jewish star openly. I knew that by the time her plane landed in Budapest, it would be tucked safely inside her clothes.
We are still able to be outside Jews in America. How long will that last?