When I was 11 years old and sitting on the school bus, a boy came up to me and stuck his hand an inch away from my face. On his palm, lazily scribbled in pen, was a swastika.
He looked at me and said, “You and your family are gonna burn in an oven,” and then he walked away to take his seat at the back of the bus.
The conversation couldn’t have been more than seven seconds long; not even my best friend in the seat across from me noticed the interaction. Kids were still scrambling onto the bus, thrusting backpacks across the aisle to claim seats for their friends, yelling toilet-related obscenities out the window to the other kids walking past — and I was frozen. All I could see was that symbol, etched with purpose onto his small, sweaty palm.
I knew this boy.
In elementary school, less than a year earlier, I would sit at the back of the bus with him and the other boys while they traded “Yu-Gi-Oh!” cards. I was content to watch quietly and observe how they argued over whose player would win a duel. But one day he gave me his deck to borrow for the weekend. I spent Saturday and Sunday on the living room floor, playing fake duels against myself. That next Monday, I got on the bus and handed the deck back to my new friend, but he gave a couple of them back for me to keep so that I would have something to trade with the other boys.
I can recall his act of kindness just as vividly as his act of hatred. Both were seemingly small gestures, but their impacts were magnified by the intimacy of their interactions. The deck of cards he placed into my hand with a smile, the image of hate and his threatening declaration — all of it was personal.
Whether by birth, my own choice or the will of someone else trying to impose a stereotype or assumption onto me, being Jewish has always been a key component in how I’ve been identified. My relationship with my heritage has evolved over the past two decades from confused, to resentful, to apathetic, to thankful.
The abhorrent act of violence that took place at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on Oct. 27 left me shaken with feelings that were quickly followed by anger and frustration that intensified over the next few days. I was angry with the world, politicians and myself. I had spent so much of my life accepting anti-Semitism as a consequence of being who I was, but to accept prejudice and injustice is to comply with it. And to appease our oppressors and accept mistreatment is to say that it is okay. I am through with appeasement and compliance, and through staying under the radar when all I want is to stand from the rooftops and shout, “This is not okay!”
I longed for the moments I felt most connected to Judaism throughout my life. For example, riding on the bus through the streets of Israel with my new family, my “mispacha,” teaching dreidel to my friends from home and the prayers my grandmother would say over the Shabbos candles with a dish rag hastily draped on her head. At the core of the Jewish people is a community, one you can rely on whether or not you practice. Wednesday, Nov. 14 is the 31st Annual Interfaith Thanksgiving at the Student Activities Center, where all religious communities are welcome to share a meal together as well as donate non-perishable food items to the Stony Brook Food Pantry.
Rabbi Chaim Grossbaum of Chabad at Stony Brook reminds us that one of the most important values within Judaism is kindness: “Let’s not allow the spilled blood to become just a part of history. Let us bring their energy back with good deeds done by you and me.”
There was something one of my teachers at shul used to say to us every year on Holocaust Remembrance Day. Every year, while we all sat melancholy, listening to stories and accounts of things before our time that sounded like ghost stories, fables of the past that we couldn’t imagine as reality, she would remind us: “We must not forget. And we must never let it happen again.”
I have sat in the deserts of Israel where my ancestors, thousands of years ago, sought home. I have walked through the annex of Anne Frank’s childhood home in Amsterdam and felt the floorboards creak underneath the weight of my feet. I have seen my family’s original surname in print on my father’s birth certificate, the name my ancestors in Russia wore proudly and the name my great-parents had to abandon out of fear. I have forgiven the boy from the bus, and everyone who came after him, but I will never forget. And it is up to all of us, regardless of religion, to care for each other, and make sure we never let this happen again.