by Rebecca Snyder
I am proud to say that I feel I have been a loud voice for the Jewish faith.
I was always aware of the numbers; I was part of an ethnic group that only makes up roughly 2 percent of the US population. But in Larchmont, New York, a suburb of New York City where I lived until I was almost 13, being Jewish, or being of a non-Christian religion, was not a big deal. I never really understood until I was detached from this environment that in the big picture I was really part of a minority.
I moved to Old Saybrook, Connecticut with a lot of reluctance, none due to the fact that I am Jewish. No 13-year-old likes to move, especially one who's about a month away from her bat mitzvah. I was not surprised that my new house was surrounded by nothing but trees; nor was I surprised that my family joined a small temple whose services are held in a tiny former New England church, where a little blue Star of David replaces the crucifix on the steeple. What shocked me was learning I was one of just four Jewish students in my grade!
Like most things, you're surprised and then you get over it. At first I actually thought it was kind of cool. I have been, and may always be, one of those people who enjoy being different--and believe me, it was hard to be different in my New York class of 300 students from every race and religion. But now I was really a minority. I was different in ways I didn't anticipate.
I moved in February 2000, and in April came Passover.
"What are those big saltines that you're eating?" asked a boy whom I sat next to in science class.
"It's called matzah," I said, "It's like what you eat at church. You know those little crackers when you take communion? That's, in essence, matzah. The Last Supper was Passover. "
That day at our lunch table, I took out my matzah and so did my other Jewish friend. It was nice that I had instantaneously formed a close bond with one of the other Jewish kids in my class. By the end of the lunch period, our entire table was covered in crumbs, and everyone knew all about Passover.
That night I told my parents about sharing my matzah and explaining the story of Passover to the girls at my table. And after we had concluded our seder, I asked my mom if we had leftovers from our seder plate. She said yes, and I said I thought it would be neat if I could bring everything I needed to conduct a seder at lunch the next day so that my non-Jewish friends could see what it was like. My parents seemed thrilled.
And so, the next day, Old Saybrook Middle School had its first lunchroom seder. It was less than a half-hour long, and everyone enjoyed it. In fact, a great many students crowded around the table just to see what was going on! It was great. I felt so proud to have just made my peers a little less ignorant.
A few weeks later the topic of religion came up again at our middle school lunch table. While for the life of me I cannot remember how the comment came about, the statement "You killed Jesus" will never stop ringing in my ears.
At first I was in shock. Here was a 12-year-old girl accusing me of killing someone--not only someone, but a person to whom an entire faith is dedicated!
"Number one, I didn't kill anyone," I told her. "Number two, if you are referring to the claim that Jews killed Jesus, you need to check your Bible; it was the Romans, not the Jews." I can't even remember where I had heard that it was in fact the Romans who killed Jesus. Thank goodness I was right. Here was my first encounter with antisemitism. I was 13 years old, and the culprit was supposedly one of my best friends.
I will never forget my freshman year in high school. I was sitting in the library next to two sophomore boys who were supposed to be researching the Holocaust. They were flipping through a book and looking at the pictures. I understood that they weren't interested in the Holocaust. It's not as important to some as it is to others. But what really bothered me was what I heard them say: "Look at all these Jews; they all look the same....Yeah, even when they were starved to death, they still kept their big noses!"
That's when I got up, packed up my things, walked up to the boys, and introduced myself. "Hi, I'm Becca Snyder. I just wanted to let you know that I found your conversation very interesting, especially since I myself am a very proud Jew...." I started to walk away, but called back, "And, I don't think my nose is that large." The boys shut up after that. I never got an apology, but that's okay, I wasn't hunting for one. I just wanted to make a point, and I made it.
Next came the High Holidays. My mom had written a note at the beginning of the school year explaining to school officials that I wouldn't be attending school on certain days so I could attend religious services and observe the holidays. But when I returned to school after Yom Kippur, I faced teachers who were impatient to receive work that I could not possibly have completed while fulfilling all of my religious commitments the previous day. I was also called down to the administration offices and told I'd have to serve detention for cutting school.
Cutting school? I walked immediately into the vice principal's office, who continued to give me a hard time.
"You know what's funny?" I said. "We would not be having this conversation if we had school on Christmas and Christian children didn't attend!" I was given a long look, and then a check in the "excused" column.
We are all different. It would be boring if we were all the same, now, wouldn't it? It's important that we remain proud of these differences. I am very proud to be Jewish, and I am proud to say that I feel I have been a loud voice for the Jewish faith. I have spoken out against antisemitic comments, educated the uneducated, and corrected those who are unaware of such events as Jewish holidays.
But I think the biggest difference I've made is with my peers. My friends are now much more sensitive to people of other faiths and ethnic backgrounds. And I always smile when I get my "Happy New Year" card in October from my middle school principal.
We must all remember that many acts that are committed against us are often driven not by hate but by ignorance. It is our job as citizens of the world to educate the ignorant. We must all remember that we are all students and teachers. It is our duty to teach others who we are, and the obligation of tolerance is respecting people for who they are.
Rebecca Snyder is a junior at Old Saybrook High School in Chester, Connecticut.
Copyright © 2004, Union for Reform Judaism