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Reader Post: What Does A Jew Look Like?

beckah singer 2My name is Rebekkah Mary Singer, I was born in Calgary Alberta, in the fall. You haven’t seen beautiful until you have seen the foothills in the fall, the riot of colour in the trees,and the beauty of clear blue skies.

I grew up riding horses, having fun with winter, water and motocross sports with my older and younger brothers, playing with my dogs and doing all the things that every Canadian kid grows up doing. I think my childhood was pretty typical of a southern Alberta farm kid.

But sometimes there were things that reminded me that in fact I was not exactly like every other kid I knew. My mother had always instilled pride in being Jewish and until I was in school I didn’t realize what that really mean’t. I honestly didn’t realize until that point that everyone wasn’t just like me.

For instance, things that I felt were definite, were things that didn’t even register to my classmates. They just seemed to see the world differently than I did. Maybe it was the fact that I understood the need for a homeland for my people, and that I was aware of the Holocaust and its implications. I had never heard anything antisemitic until one day at school someone called me a kike. I went home and asked my mother what a kike was. My older brother had been bullied and my father had taught him to stand up for himself and he would tell us stories about when he younger and had to actually physically “fight for right” as he put it.

The reason im telling you this isn’t to whine and complain about bullies, it’s to help you understand some very important things. When you see a picture of my family, the word Jew doesn’t scream out at you. We do not have the stereotypical dark curly hair. I learned at an early age that my tribal identity isn’t worn on our skin by birth, it’s worn on our soul, and can usually only be spotted by one of our own.

Following the destruction of our second temple in 70.CE (like 2000 years ago) the Romans expelled the majority of the Jewish population, casting us from our homeland and cursing us as refugees. Jewish people spread despite the proscriptions against us owning land, and we found ways to be successful and contribute to the well being of the countries that welcomed us, even as second class citizens. We would often be persecuted for not fully assimilating, leading to pogroms and outbursts of antisemitic violence that often resulted in massacres and even wholesale genocide of Jewish communities.

My family for example is half Sephardi and half Ashkenazi, which means half my family is from Lithuania, and the other half is from Brazil of Spanish descent. My great grandparents met in France, after fleeing Russian pogroms. Following the invasion of France by Germany in WWII, my grandparents used our “non Jewish” looks to our advantage – they made fake papers and escaped to South America until after the Shoah (the Holocaust). They then immigrated to Canada when they got word that our surviving family had made it there.

I was 16-years-old, grew up in a Zionist home and I had still never been to Israel. My mom had gone back a few times but had never taken us kids, so when I heard through the Jewish grapevine that I could go to Poland and Israel on a trip called the “March of the Living” – where I would journey to Poland with a group to witness the evidence of the Holocaust, then would fly to Israel to see our holiest ancient Jewish sites – I was chomping at the bit. My mom and I talked about it and the three of us (my mother, father and I) went to an information night about March of the Living. Before the session finished I was selling my dad on the idea of sending me on the trip. I was pulling every angle I possibly could to try and convince my father that I would be safe.

I am not gonna lie; Poland was a trip. It’s crazy because like most Jewish people anywhere, I thought I had a firm grasp on the magnitude of the Holocaust. We think because we’ve read all the books seen all movies, documentaries and exhibits, and heard so many survivors tell their story (some of them our relatives). That we get what happened. I can tell you that the wave of cold fear that creeps down your spine as you walk through a death camp is not something one could ever “get” from anything short of experience. It was when I was in Majdanek extermination camp that I finally clicked on what Zionism really meant. I remember it as clear as day: standing in a still, fully intact gas chamber it was silent for a minute as our group entered, the silence shattered when someone started sobbing uncontrollably. We all started crying. Here we were a bunch of Jews standing in a freakin’ gas chamber where 60 years prior other Jews just like us were being slaughtered where we stood. I can’t explain how suffocating it felt to be in a room where masses of humans died. I walked out feeling emotionally crushed, then out of nowhere David Shebntow (our volunteer Auschwitz survivor) put his arm around me and my friend and said “Don’t be so sad. Here you are walking out stronger then you walked in. This won’t happen to us again Am Yisrael Chai.” And just like that he strolled away waving his little Israeli lag and moved on to go embrace another kid walking out of the chambers looking grey. That was it, I was done. I knew absolutely that Jews needed a country with borders that protected them. Because this was what happened when we didn’t.

I had a Rabbi tell me once that he was not a fan of the March of the Living because he felt it scared Jewish youth into Zionism. I would just like to say here that I agree 100%- and that’s why i know it’s important. Fear brings about action a lot faster then just mere awareness. and we should fear. We should all fear the evil that comes when good people stand by and do nothing and my people in particular should fear what happens when you have no place to go. What my rabbi didn’t understand was that we have a people who are attempting to steal our identity, negate our history and eventually deny us our homeland. Without the context of things like the March, people will accept these false narratives and we risk allowing events like the Shoah to happen again.  The state of Israel is what “never again” means.

beckah singer 1As soon as the lights of Tel Aviv were visible from my window seat, I started to cry. I had never been so excited in my entire life. Landing in Eretz Yisrael was a high I had never before experienced, a rush of excitement mixed with this crazy sense of arrival. The first place they took us was to the kotel. Watching the sun come up over the old city making the stones of the ancient walls glow gold touched a part of me I hadn’t felt before. Being in Israel surrounded by an exciting, thriving Jewish everything brought to my attention a love stronger then any I had ever experienced before. It’s this awakening in my soul, this realization that I belong. That I am part of a bigger story, the story of the Jewish people. Every direction I looked there were Jews of all different colors, nationalities, religious degrees, ALL THE CATEGORIES THAT PEOPLE USE TO DIVIDE US, TO SEPARATE US, EVEN FROM EACH OTHER, just walking around doing their thing. Everybody was different, but at the same time we were all Jews – Jews just being Jews – and no one was restricting us or trying to make us be who we aren’t. The thing was I never felt like I was a part of my local Canadian Jewish community, no matter how hard I tried. Yet here I stood in a strange land, where I didn’t speak the language and for the first time in my life I truly felt received by my people.

What a Jew looks like is simple, it’s a heart that beats for Zion, it’s a mind that dreams of peace, it’s a soul that yearns for the company of our our tribe. I am what a Jew looks like.

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