Identity, Life

I was afraid of being Jewish while traveling – here’s what changed

How often had I been quietly reminded that Jewishness was a hazard? And whether I liked it or not, I’d absorbed the warning.

“You know, it’s the game that counts,” Aziz said. He looked from me to the small TV screen in the corner of his youth hostel in Fez, Morocco, where soccer players ran in red and blue blurs.

“It doesn’t matter what race or religion or nationality the players are: black, white, Jewish…” he paused, “… Muslim, Christian. You support a team because they play well.” I cocked an eyebrow at the 20-something hostel owner, curious about the non sequitur.

“Sure,” I said, “Of course.”

Ten minutes later, we were happily chatting about languages. Aziz spoke five. “I want to learn Hebrew, though,” he added. “We have a lot of travelers who speak Hebrew.” He looked at me expectantly, waiting.

“Wow, cool,” I said.

I don’t know how Aziz knew I was Jewish. Maybe his X-ray vision zoomed in on the prayer book in my backpack, or, more likely, he just saw my last name and ginger Jew-fro. But he clearly wanted me to own up to my identity and have a conversation.

That night, I asked myself why I was silent. I’m an Orthodox Jew and an aspiring religion beat journalist. Talking about Jewish identity is what I do.

Talking about Jewish identity is what I do. Click To Tweet

It didn’t take much soul-searching to realize why I kept quiet.

Fear.

My entire life, I’ve learned to be wary of anti-Semitism abroad. It’s not a wariness that’s actively taught in our community so much as uneasily felt even today. It’s in our multi-generational muscle memory. Over the centuries, Jews have practiced the choreography of fight-or-flight too many times to forget its rhythm, even if we tried. And much of the Jewish community isn’t trying. I find it hard to blame them.

Jews have fallen in love with too many national identities over time, with devastating results. Over the course of history, Jews fell for Spain, Portugal, Iraq, Egypt, Germany… a long list of temporary homes that felt permanent before exile or execution.

So, I understood my community’s distrust – and whether I liked it or not, I’d absorbed it. Traveling in Morocco, I was in no hurry to admit to a religion and culture I was usually excited to share. How often had I been quietly reminded that Jewishness was a hazard? Family friends were concerned that I’d decided to go to Italy for a semester and Morocco for a week. A close friend warned me to keep my practices as quiet as possible.

How often had I been quietly reminded that Jewishness was a hazard? Click To Tweet

So, when Aziz pulled out a map the next day to circle Fez’s mellah, the Jewish quarter, I simply smiled. “Fez has a lot of Jewish history,” he told me. “There’s a Jewish cemetery and many synagogues… You’ll want to see it.”

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After I moved on from Fez, my silence left me feeling uneasy. Here was a guy my own age trying to connect with me about a central part of my identity. If I’d said, “You’re learning Hebrew? Awesome, I can help you practice,” it could’ve been the start to deeper, more real conversations.

Wasn’t that why I loved traveling in the first place?

This experience repeated itself. In a Berber textile shop at the corner of a windy, blue street in Chefchaouen, the man behind the counter asked which languages we spoke. My traveling companion outed me as Jewish. The shopkeeper turned out to be full of information. He told me excitedly that he’d known the last Jew to leave Chefchaouen, gave directions to the small Jewish cemetery that still remained, and shared lore about the synagogue that used to be there. “No one knows exactly where it is,” he said, “but people speculate.” He insisted I write a note in his guestbook in Hebrew and, in flipping through the pages, I noticed I wasn’t the first.

I find it hard to blame them. Click To Tweet

In Barcelona, a waitress turned around to show me a Hebrew tattoo on the nape of her neck. She bonded with me over a joint love of Jewish singer Sarit Hadad in fluent Hebrew, which she’d decided to pick up a couple years before.

In Lisbon, a friend and I chatted with two Ecuadorian evangelicals selling jewelry on the side of the road. They asked my friend our backgrounds in a flurry of Spanish. “JUDIA!” they exclaimed in the speech equivalent of all caps. With huge smiles, they insisted on telling me about Portuguese Jewish history.

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After a long conversation, they looked up at me with concern. “Shouldn’t you be going? Isn’t it getting close to Shabbat?” one asked, referring to the weekly Jewish holiday starting Friday nights at sundown. They were right. They gave me a bracelet for good luck and directions to the Orthodox synagogue in Lisbon.

These exchanges were some of the most memorable moments of my trip and they changed the way I travel. I learned that I could be open about my religion and, more often than not, expect open-mindedness in return.

I could be open about my religion and expect open-mindedness in return. Click To Tweet

That isn’t to say that anti-Semitism doesn’t exist.

In Florence, I walked past graffiti that read “ebraico morte” or “Jewish death” on my way to school every day. The week the graffiti appeared, city government posted two extra gunmen outside the Florentine synagogue. Our fear is well-earned.

At the same time, I felt I’d gained something essential by engaging with other people as who I was – an Orthodox Jewish woman with a love of open dialogue. In almost every instance, honesty about my religion didn’t lead to bigotry but mutual learning and meaningful conversations I won’t soon forget. Now, I rarely hesitate to share my Jewish identity while traveling.

And, when I do, I just think about Aziz, turning from his soccer game to remind me to take pride in my team colors.

Sara Weissman

Sara Weissman

Sara recently graduated from UC Berkeley with a B.A. in History and a minor in Religious Studies. She's currently a Handa Fellow in Interreligious Communication and pursuing a career in religion journalism. Her hobbies include coffee, feminist rants, travel, spontaneous Yiddish-isms, and more coffee.

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