The Only Jewish Kid
When I was in third grade, my teacher asked me to tell my class about the Jewish New Year. I was not only the only Jewish kid in my class, I was also the only Jewish kid (aside from my brother) in the whole school. My innocent eight-year-old self stood proudly in front of all my classmates and explained the meaning of Rosh Hashanah. I explained to them how, on Rosh Hashanah, our fate for the upcoming year is written and, on Yom Kippur, it is sealed. Just as I finished, one of my classmates shouted, “I’m glad I’m not Jewish!” and it was followed by a chorus of amused agreement from the other kids. In an instant, all of the pride that I felt to be sharing my Judaism melted away.
It wasn’t the first or last time that I received a comment like this. We lived in a small town in Texas with a population that was less than 2,000 people, and barely ten of those residents weren’t white and Christian. I can’t tell you how many times someone asked us, “When are you joining a church?” The town wasn’t a very accepting place, and not just for me. One day, my brother came home and told us that there was a new Muslim kid at school, and that his peers had already deemed him “a terrorist.” I knew that it was wrong, even though the people around me seemed to not give it a second thought.
Growing up in that environment, I developed a hard shell to deflect feelings of being different in any way. I wouldn’t dare wear my Star of David necklace to school, much less tell anyone outside of my closest circle of friends that I was Jewish. I would save “being Jewish” for Shabbat services and Sunday school, when my family would drive over an hour to the nearest synagogue. Yes, an hour!
Flash forward a few years to seventh grade: I was now in the bustling city of Austin, Texas. I transferred to a new middle school that was far more diverse, where well over half of the students were people of color. I had never seen so many non-white people in my life. The first few days of school were mind-blowing. I couldn’t imagine what my friends back home would think.
Among all of the changes I was experiencing, there were glimpses of hope for me. I remember the first time that someone told me it was okay to be Jewish. I was walking in the hallway with one of my new middle school friends and she asked me what I was doing for Christmas.
“Oh, I don’t celebrate Christmas. I’m Jewish,” I said. Then I immediately panicked. “But I’m not even that religious or anything, so don’t worry.”
I couldn’t believe I had accidentally given myself away. Her response?
“Oh. I don’t care.”
Just like that, hope manifested into reality, and my protective shell began to crack. It felt genuinely wild to me to think that there were people who didn’t care what my religion was. I still hate the way that I tried to justify my identity by attempting to water it down, but no one had ever told me they didn’t care before. In my hometown, when people found out that I was Jewish, they would say things like “I’m just so worried about your salvation” or “But Jews don’t believe in God.” Yes, they seriously thought that Jewish people don’t believe in God.
Over time, the acceptance I found in my new home healed me. A year later, in eighth grade, my Austin friends were thrilled to come to my Bat Mitzvah. I started wearing my Star of David necklace to school. Yes! For actual other humans to see! In high school, I joined Jewish youth groups. Considering how shocked I was by one friend not caring about what my religion was, you can imagine how I felt to be surrounded by a community that celebrated and embraced my Judaism. It was incredible to be around people my age that were so open and proud of their faith. I wanted to be just like them.
While I might have preferred to be surrounded by more Jewish people when I was younger, the special moments my family shared together as the sole Jews in our community are moments that I cherish. We didn’t have Jewish friends to celebrate Hanukkah with so, instead, my dad taught us the blessings and we prayed together as a family of four, lighted by the candles of the hanukkiah. My brother and I would skip school on the High Holy days and we would drive to the city for services with our parents, sitting in quiet excitement the whole way.
Sometimes I think that the shell I wore for so long may never fully go away. I’ll still occasionally feel the pangs of fear and insecurity that I experienced growing up, tucking my necklace into my shirt or silently freaking out when a stranger finds out I’m Jewish. Every day, I feel like I have to relearn that I’m allowed to exist as a Jew. I have lost touch with almost everyone from my hometown, but I’m grateful to now be surrounded by wonderfully supportive friends. When I remember the embarrassment I felt looking down from the bimah and seeing the looks on the faces of some of my old friends at my Bat Mitzvah (who were extremely uncomfortable to be attending a Jewish service) I’m glad to have gotten the heck out of that town. Some of my high school friends have told me, “I wish we would’ve gotten to come to your Bat Mitzvah!” Now that’s the kind of glow-up worth waiting for.
I cherish my Judaism because it is mine, because it has stayed close to my heart despite the fact that it’s sometimes easier to say “Don’t worry, I’m not that religious.” In this new year, the third grader inside me is prouder than ever to be a Jew. To finally experience that feeling, and to truly believe it, is sweeter than charoset.
This article is also published on Fresh Ink for Teens.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.
How to cite this page
Pollack, Maddy. "The Only Jewish Kid." 11 October 2019. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on January 21, 2020) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/only-jewish-kid>.