ARTICLE

Being Jewish in a Christian World

While I share some aspects of my life with my students, one thing I don’t share is that I was born Jewish. I am ashamed of my shame, knowing that Jews, like many religious groups, have suffered because of their beliefs. My shame comes from growing up in a community that seemed to typify every negative stereotype about Jews. It also stems from being silent for years whenever someone made an anti-Semitic comment. 

While I share some aspects of my life with my students, one thing I don’t share is that I was born Jewish. I am ashamed of my shame, knowing that Jews, like many religious groups, have suffered because of their beliefs. My shame comes from growing up in a community that seemed to typify every negative stereotype about Jews. It also stems from being silent for years whenever someone made an anti-Semitic comment.

There isn’t much religious diversity at our school. The overwhelming majority of students and staff practice some form of Christianity. There are a couple of Muslims, a handful of Jews and that’s about it. Like many school districts, ours is only closed on Christian holidays. There are holiday decorations up in classrooms, but they only represent Christmas.

If I harbored any doubts about how some people felt about Jews, they were quickly confirmed the other day. Walking down the hallway, I overheard one student say to another in wide-eyed shock, “I had no idea you were Jewish.” And there it was, that disdainful tone that still makes my skin crawl.

Perhaps I should have kept walking. I certainly considered it. Instead, I gathered all my courage and said, “So am I.” My dirty little secret was out of the bag, and there would be no turning back.

News travels fast in our school, and it wasn’t long before a cluster of students entered the classroom saying, “Ms. Sofen, you’re Jewish?” as if I had kept my true identity hidden from them all this time.

It’s really nobody’s business what I practice, observe or believe. But here was a teachable moment, and I’m allergic to ignoring those.

“Both of my parents were Jewish,” I told them. “I don’t practice, but I used to be really ashamed of being Jewish.” Of course they wanted to know why. Middle school kids understand shame pretty well.

“There are a lot of people who hate Jews,” I told them, reminding them of when we discussed the Holocaust and Oskar Schindler. “I was embarrassed to be identified with a group that so many people hate,” I confessed.

Their eyes were wide and kind, and then they smiled. “We don’t hate you, Ms. Sofen. We don’t care what you are.” Part of me knew they would say that, but part of me was also relieved.

Sometimes we need to teach tolerance to ourselves before we can teach it to others. 

Sofen is a middle school writing teacher in Sparta, N.J.

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