“Are you Jewish?”
I turned to see a fellow graduate student look at me as he lit his cigarette. Immediately, I was on guard. It was my first night socializing with my program peers at NYU and still uncertain if it was a group I was comfortable conversing with.
“Yes…” I said, unsure of where the conversation would lead.
“Oh, so am I, well half Jewish. It’s cool you wear that,” he said pointing towards my Magen David necklace. “I don’t see that much back home in Calgary.”
I looked down at my religious pendant, completely forgetting it was visible around my neck. Putting it on in the morning has become as routine as brushing my teeth and lacing up my shoes. But this wasn’t always the case.
Growing up in Toronto, I affiliated with the cultural practices of Judaism, but was unsure of how to navigate this aspect of my life in a predominantly Christian-oriented society. Being the only Jewish kid in my elementary school classes caused feelings of alienation and otherness.
Despite these feelings, Judaism was a constant companion throughout my childhood and adolescence. My parents wanted their children to have a strong Jewish identity. We lit the Shabbat candles on Friday nights, went to synagogue on the High Holidays, attended Hebrew school twice a week, and were bar/bat mitzvahed at 13.
In the summer of 2015, two years prior to my New York move, I decided to backpack around Europe with my friend Ella – the dream vacation for any young adult. But as I began my travels in Rome, the excursion became a personal reflection on the importance of Judaism in my life.
In each city, I was witnessing the aftermath of the decimation of Jewish communities in various European cities. This contrasted deeply with Toronto, a modern city that has a vibrant Jewish community. There are no visible scars of past persecution in my birthplace.
In Rome, Florence, Venice, Prague and Berlin I visited the Jewish quarters – neighbourhoods that once housed thousands but are now home to only so few. With each subsequent city I was learning about the history of Jewish persecution firsthand and how it manifested in modern day life. If the Holocaust never occurred, the Jewish population would be 25 million. Today it is 13 million, half of what it should be.
The extravagant architecture of the once greatly populated synagogues in Europe towered over the neighbourhoods. I had never seen synagogues that paralleled the awe and splendour of historic cathedrals. The stained-glass windows and intricate mosaic designs did not depict the resurrection and crucifixion of Jesus, but instead the stories of Jacob, Moses and Noah. It was indicative of a rich community, that occupied a prominent place in the city centre.
Rome’s Grand Synagogue had a dominant presence in the main square, but now the Jewish presence in the city, like the synagogue’s congregation, was a fraction of its former self.
In Florence, the synagogue had a rigorous security check due to anti-Semitic threats.
In Venice, the Jewish quarter was home to four synagogues for the four Jewish communities – French, German, Spanish and Italian. Each synagogue had a distinct décor, reflective of each nation. For Spain, the fabrics, a deep red. For France, the decoration was in gold. Now, only one synagogue is operational.
It was in this Jewish quarter, as Ella and I sat in the courtyard underneath a tree, I decided to buy my Magen David necklace. At one of the store’s window displays I saw a pendant with a mosaic flower design in the centre, encircled by a gold painted star. I would have glanced over it before, but as soon as my eyes rested on the object, I knew I had to wear it.
For the remaining week of my trip I wore the necklace as I walked through the Jewish quarter in Prague. In one of the buildings, tens of thousands of names in black type were printed on white marble walls. The names represented the thousands who had died during the Holocaust. As I walked through the room, I felt the cold star press into me as my eyes started to water reading the names of Jews killed in the city 70 years ago.
In Berlin I wandered through the Holocaust memorial, the concrete pillars slowly surrounding me until I was encased in their shadows. The memorial is in a bustling part of the city with the architect’s intention being to integrate Berlin’s past with the present day – a preservation of historical memory.
I stayed in that concrete maze for some time, feeling the burdensome weight of a history that is entrenched in tremendous suffering and resilience. I felt the presence of my ancestors who fled Lithuania because of religious persecution. I felt the weight of six million lives, a number so great I will never be able to fathom the loss.
But I also felt the warmth of the Shabbat candles my family and I light every Friday night. I felt the happiness of familial togetherness during Passover and Hanukkah. And the warmth of childhood memories spread as my hand rested on my necklace.
In this moment, I realized my Magen David is an extension of my past experiences, my ancestors’ past experiences, the Jewish experience, all which make me who I am today.
Since my trip, people often compliment the design of my necklace and other times it receives a glance on the subway or goes completely unnoticed. But it is always there, proudly felt by me.