His name was Shimon. We met at a party over twenty years ago. My boyfriend at the time, whom we will call Adam, invited me. A Jewish sailor who played bass guitar in a local hip-hop band, Adam was one of the most eclectic people I’ve ever met! There was never a dull moment with him! We could go to a rave, a cipher, and an Ethiopian house party all in one night! Adam loved being around people of various backgrounds, so I was never the only POC wherever we went. This party on a Saturday night was no different.
Though Adam and I were dating, we were never glued at the hip when we were out. So while Adam caught up with his bandmates on the patio, I was in the living room mixing it up.
“Excuse me,” a dark-haired man sitting across from me said, his voice deep and husky. “You have gorgeous eyes! So deep and intense!”
“Thank you.,” I replied.
“You’re welcome.” I noticed this man spoke with a pronounced Eastern European accent but could not place the country.
“What’s your name,” he asked. I told him.
“Nice to meet you! My name is Shimon. That’s my wife, Yulia”, he continued, gesturing to the slender redhead cradling a toddler nearby.
We continued talking, and Shimon hit me with a barrage of questions about myself. He wasn’t rude, but I was not used to this level of directness in Seattle. One of the questions Shimon asked was where I was from. He seemed incredulous when I told him I was born in Seattle and I was an American.
“Really,” he asked, eyebrows raised. I would have guessed you were from a Central African country; you look very Congolese!”
“Well, there probably was someone from Central Africa in my ancestral line at some point,” I shrugged. “So, in a way, yes, you could say I’m from there.”
Shimon nodded slowly, understanding what I was getting at.
“Indeed,” he replied. In America, all of us come from somewhere else”, he smiled.
“My family came in 1910″, Shimon went on. My grandfather was born in Russia, in the Pale. It was not good for Jews at that time…it was never good for us there. So, grandfather left. But his brothers stayed. Our family in Russia continued to grow. And then the Nazis came….” Shimon’s voice trailed off. An awkward silence endured for three minutes.
“There are times I watch Yulia and Natan. Nothing brings me more joy than my wife and my son! I love them because they are my family, yes this is true. But I look at them…and realize that none of us could have made it. Yulia’s family is Russian too. If our grandparents had not left Russia when they did? I would not exist. Yulia would not exist. Neither would my siblings. My grandfather was the only one who survived. The Nazis destroyed every member of our family that remained in Russia. It is the same for Yulia. ” Shimon stated matter of factly.
It was now my turn to be silent. The intense empathy I felt for Shimon mirrored how I felt when Adam revealed his maternal grandmother was one of the remnants of Lithuanian Jews who had survived the Holocaust. When Shimon and Adam spoke about their families’ experiences, there was such rawness and loss. What can you say to that?
“But you’re here,” I said gently to Shimon. “You are here!”
“Correct,” he nodded. “I do not forget the blessed memory of those who perished. We continue despite what we went through”. Shimon raised his glass.
“L’chaim.” I followed suit and repeated after him.
“L’chaim.” ‘To Life.’ We are still here.
Some conspiracy theorists insist the Jewish people are engaged in history’s longest-running act of cultural appropriation/identity theft. All Jews-Shimon, Adam, and the six million lives extinguished far too soon-are all liars. But I remember Shimon’s words of unimaginable loss.
I think of the suffering of the Jewish people. Their persecution is not measured in years, decades, or even centuries. It has lasted for two millennia. There is a reason antisemitism is referred to as the “oldest hatred.” It has endured for so long- as have the Jewish people. And I can’t fathom why the conspiracy theorists insist that these people would hold on to this identity if it weren’t theirs.
What exactly have the Jewish people gained from this alleged conspiracy? Throughout history, the Jewish people have clung to their identity and beliefs despite opposition from more powerful empires and religions. Persecution by neither the Greek nor Roman empires was enough to make them forget who they were. Even when the Romans expelled them from their homeland, they held on.
Throughout European history, they were reviled as foreigners, strangers, and the killers of Christ. Jews did not enjoy these same rights as Christians. They were scapegoats for any misfortune that occurred.
If a child disappeared or was murdered, the Jews were blamed.
When the Black Death decimated Europe, the Jews were blamed.
When political and economic strife broke out in Europe, the Jews were blamed.
Tolerated at best, Jews spent much of their post-exile existence with the threat of expulsion, confiscation of property, exclusion from certain professions, and massacre hanging over their heads. The Abrahamic faiths that Judaism gave birth to have eagerly oppressed Jews as well, bristling at their refusal to follow the Cross or the Crescent.
Throughout this long history, the Jewish people have occasionally been offered a way out:
Give up their faith. Abandon the ways of their forefathers. Despite the virulent hatred they have encountered, they have largely refused to convert and turn their backs on their heritage.
This is one of the significant reasons the idea that they are fake Jews does not add up to me. If this is not their identity, why endure 2,000 years of this treatment? Sure would have been a smoother ride to abandon that “stolen” heritage!
Millions of Jews have been persecuted and murdered simply for being Jews. For non-Jews to tell these people they are not “real Jews” is a vile desecration of the memory of every victim of antisemitism, from antiquity to the present. All those seeking to appropriate the history and the suffering of the Jewish people should be ashamed of themselves. Being ashamed of YOUR heritage and feeling that it is not exciting or exotic enough does not give you the right to appropriate someone else’s identity.