I found out about my Jewish heritage a couple of months ago after participating in a genetic study at a local hospital that left me with more questions than answers. After months of heavy research, talking to genetic counselors and professionals who educate people about familial dysautonomia, a rare genetic condition that almost exclusively affects those in the Ashkenazi Jewish population, and going through countless records to trace my family’s roots, I eventually learned I had Jewish ancestors who once lived in Poland, Germany, and Ukraine.
I’ve never known a lot about my family’s history, and the stories I do know are few and far between. Still, as I learned about the lives of the people who came before me, I couldn’t help but be both excited to learn more and also be very deeply saddened for people I’ve never even met — one of the things I had been warned about on one internet forum or another when it comes to researching Jewish heritage. Not only did I get to learn about all the wonderful things my ancestors did in the past, but I also got a taste of the harsh reality they faced simply for being Jewish.
Now, fast forward to the present, where a few months have come and gone since my initial discovery. I’ve done a lot more research, read a lot more books on the subject, and done my best to get involved with the robust Jewish community Cincinnati has to offer. I’ve met new people, learned things from those people I never imagined I would be learning about — like a variety of Yiddish words I can now include in my vocabulary — and have had the opportunity to experience a culture that spans not only this generation, but all the generations that came before. And, truth be told, there’s something really powerful in that, that despite everything the Jewish people have gone through in the past, they remain.
However, as the events of the last few weeks have unraveled, fear, uncertainty, and grief are emotions that have been heavy on everyone’s hearts and minds. They certainly have been on mine. I’ve watched the friends and acquaintances I’ve made over the past few months share posts about missing friends or relatives, I’ve seen the hard-to-watch videos of the Hamas attacks, and I’ve seen a rapidly growing amount of antisemitic sentiment on social media, including from people I had once considered friends. All of this weighs heavy on me and, I can imagine, on others as well. Especially those with family and friends in Israel or Israeli-Americans living in the States, but it also weighs heavy on college students like me, whose campuses are left polarized by current events and where blatant acts of antisemitism are so easily overlooked.
I haven’t know about my Jewish heritage for very long, and, up until this week, I have rarely faced any prejudice due to my religion or cultural background — something I am thankful for — but, as I carried an Allies Against Antisemitism yard sign towards a place I could store it at the University of Cincinnati until after my classes when I could drive my car across campus to pick it up. I was greeted with blatantly antisemitic statements, including how carrying a sign like that makes me a target for violence. I have never faced anything quite like this, but I couldn’t help but think about the incident all of the following evening.
I thought about the many people who have dealt with this their whole lives, maybe not so blatantly all of the time, but through micro-aggressions and in the casual day-to-day. I thought about the Jewish-owned businesses I’d seen photos of on social media with graffiti painted on them, like during the Holocaust. And I thought about all the hate I’ve seen towards Jews in the past week and all the hate history has shown them before. In a way, I found myself not only processing my feelings about what had happened to me but also the feelings about what had happened to others, and, in some ways, I’m still processing that.
What has brought me some glimmer of hope in this dark time, though, is the strength and resilience of the Jewish people and the support from allies and community partners. Even amongst these difficult times, there have been countless calls to action for Jews all over to continue lighting Shabbat candles and going about their daily routines despite everything going on, to sign petitions urging university presidents to take a stand against antisemitism and to continue to be advocates for justice and truth on social media and elsewhere.
Not only this, but over the past week, I’ve seen police, specifically the police on campus, step up to make sure Jewish students feel safe going to Shabbat services and dinners, and university administration having open conversations with Jewish students about reporting antisemitic acts on campus and how they can best make Jewish students feel safe. This certainly doesn’t fix everything, but it is a step in the right direction.
When I first started my family research, someone told me, “Think about all the people who put up a fight and carried the burden so that you could be here,” and with everything going on right now, I think that is especially relevant. I’m not only thinking of those in the past, but I’m looking at those in the present and imagining those in the future. What’s happening right now is scary, and antisemitism is unfortunately ever-prevalent. Still, the Jewish people have always put up a fight, and when I sit across from people I have grown to be friends with and break challah and light Shabbat candles, I know there is still hope.