You don't notice you're different until someone tells you that you are. Then, all of a sudden, this thing that separates you from everyone else becomes your primary identifier. If you're being viewed as "different" because of your race, ethnicity, or sexuality, the effects can be toxic. I'm privileged enough to say that I have never experienced bigotry based on these factors, but I still believe that the prejudice I did encounter is an important part of my life to talk about.
For all of my life, I lived in a school district that was mostly-white and Christian. A lot of my peers attended the same church, got confirmed together, and played on the same sports teams through the Catholic Youth Organization. Being a short, Shirley-Temple-haired, Jewish girl had made me somewhat of an outcast.
There were the larger, more apparent acts of antisemitism that I experienced. In the second grade, a boy sitting at my table told me that he hated Jews. Taken aback and unsure how I was supposed to react, I told him that I was Jewish, thinking this would change his mind. After all, up until that point, I'd thought we were friends, as most second-graders usually consider anyone they've said, "hello" to a friend.
He stared at me in disbelief, and said, "No you're not." I didn't really know what to make of this. He seemed so sure of himself that even I was beginning to have doubts. "Yes I am," I told him, and we went back and forth for a while on this pressing issue until he eventually paused, looked back down at his coloring, and shrugged, "I still hate Jews."
In the sixth grade, I was sitting on the bus one afternoon when a boy I recognized as my neighbor walked up to me and stuck his hand in my face. On his sticky, prepubescent palm, he had drawn a swastika. The activist in the present day I would've appreciated the commitment he was exhibiting by risking ink poisoning to get his message across, but eleven-year-old I was pretty startled. He then, with unwavering eye contact, told me that he hoped me and my family would burn in an oven.
These incidents have stuck with me for a very long time, even writing about them feels like revisiting a fresh wound. I've never really forgiven either of those boys, even though they definitely don't even remember saying these things to me.
But, honestly, it wasn't the blatant instances of prejudice that made me realize that my religion made me different. It wasn't even the years of online bullying, most of which occurred anonymously on those stupid websites like "Formspring" that we all were obsessed with for some reason. It was the little things, the microaggressions directed towards me by strangers, friends, and teachers alike. Projects and events at school were based around Christian holidays, I was turned to as the expert on everything Jewish by my Social Studies teachers during the obligatory Holocaust unit.
My fellow students would come up to me throughout the day to ask me riveting questions such as: "Do you speak Jewish?" and "Why did your people kill Jesus?" The intent was never malicious, but all the same, I was left feeling uneasy after every ignorant question and incorrect assumption.
I feel like it's also worth noting that I am barely a practicing Jew. My family doesn't keep Kosher, I didn't have a Bat Mitzvah, and the only reason my parents let me go to a really informal Shul program (think Sunday school but for Jews and on Saturdays) at a local recreation center was so I could meet other Jewish kids. Now, these microaggressions wouldn't have been justified if I was Orthodox, but it just goes to show that I was being identified so strongly by my religion without my consent.
Of course, Judaism is more than all of that stuff, it's a culture and a history that I now fully embrace. But back when I was in elementary school, being Jewish meant virtually nothing to me. It was just something I was, like loud and green-eyed. It wasn't until others made it a key part of my character that it even crossed my mind.
I continued to be treated differently through the middle and high school, but since most of the jokes and comments made at me were out of ignorance, and not spite, I learned to laugh it off and roll with it. When I started to find my sense of humor, being Jewish became my favorite punchline! Learning to laugh at myself and how to make smart jokes made me a better comedian and a happier person.
It wasn't even until I came to college that I began to fully comprehend the strange, mostly unintentional prejudice I'd experienced for the last 12 years. When coming to an Upstate, Liberal Arts college feels like falling into the melting pot of culture and diversity when you know your school was a little too white and a little too Christian.
Being ostracized for such a long time for something that was simply a part of me caused a lot of pain, awareness, and growth. It also helped me understand the importance of combating institutional racism, sexism, and other prejudice. I mean, if being "the Jewish kid" got me so much crap, I can't imagine what it could be like to be "the black kid" or "the gay kid" or "the trans kid" in school. To be honest, my childhood being the way it was taught me a lot about how easy it is be accepting and open-minded, and what a difference it can make.
And for the last time:
"Are you taking the pilgrimage to Mecca?"
Absolutely not, that's a pillar of Islam.
"I'm sorry about the Holocaust..."
That's a very weird thing to say, you shouldn't say that to people.
"Do you speak Jewish?"
Do you speak Catholic? No? Exactly. Religion is not a language, you know better than this.