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Horowitz: The benefits of ‘performing Jewishness’

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Recent verbal and violent acts of anti-Semitism have many people evaluating how openly they want to display their Jewishness. Responding to reports that many Jewish people in North America and Europe have gone “underground” and concealed public displays of Jewishness, my colleague, historian Deborah Lipstadt, has initiated what she’s termed #OperationMagenDavid, promoting the wearing of a Jewish star as a public affirmation of Jewish identity.

I understand how fear drives people underground. Several years ago, on a visit to Barcelona, my husband and I were leaving our hotel to explore the city when the doorman stopped us. I was carrying a canvas tote bag from an exhibition on windows at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem that bore the silhouette of a cat on a window sill and the name of the museum in Hebrew.

“I have nothing against this personally,” the doorman told us, gesturing to the lettering, “but if you wander into certain areas of town carrying it, you might get roughed up.” We left the bag behind, exchanging it for a more anodyne one.

But it’s one thing to act with caution on a short-term basis on unfamiliar turf. It’s another thing to let fear govern at home.

Before moving to Toronto, I taught at a university in the United States with few Jewish students. One of my graduate students had an unmistakably Jewish surname. But she wasn’t Jewish – except when she sort of was. She was born to a Jewish father and a Catholic mother, and knew that she would not be considered halakhically Jewish – except within the Reform movement, which recognizes patrilineal descent.

She felt close to her Jewish grandparents, related positively to her Jewish heritage, but did not identify as Jewish – except when someone made an anti-Semitic remark in her company. Then she would look straight at that person and say, “I’m Jewish, you know.”

She called this “performing Jewishness.” In using that expression, she did not mean to suggest that there was something false about declaring herself Jewish. She understood that most of us have a complex and multifaceted sense of who we are. We might think of ourselves as some mixture of Canadian, American, French, Jewish, man, woman, married, single, divorced, straight, gay, childless, a mom, a dad, a lawyer, a teacher, a businessman and so forth. In particular contexts, one strand or another comes to the forefront. If, in a given situation, it is important to us that others know this aspect of who we are, we “perform” that aspect of our identity – by what we say, what we wear or how we speak.

The idea of performance implies that we have a choice in how others perceive us. We can opt to signal our Jewishness or not.

My father, who taught in inner-city schools in New York, wore cufflinks in the shape of  the Hebrew word chai. When his students – mostly African-American or Latino – noticed them, they would mistake the Hebrew letter het for a more familiar symbol that seemed appropriate for their math teacher. “Oh, Mr. Horowitz,” they would say to him, “that’s so cool – you have cufflinks with pi.” Depending on the student, and his relationship with him or her, my father might take the opportunity to explain what chai stood for, and perhaps how his own experience of Jewish quotas motivated his commitment to teaching students challenged by poverty and racism.


Notwithstanding the horrific attacks against Jews, most Jews today have the luxury of deciding when and how to “perform Jewishness.” You can wear six-pointed stars, chais, hamsas or other Jewish symbols. You can wear kippot or other religious garb. You can carry books in Jewish languages or with Judaic titles. Like my student, you can call out anti-Semitism. Like my father, you can explain how Jewish experiences shape you and how Jewish values impel you. There’s no Oscar for it, but it may be the performance of a lifetime.

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