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Out of the Closet

Out of the Closet

My mother the Holocaust survivor said: "Be a Jew on the inside, but not the outside." It's too risky.


Okay, I'll admit it. I'm a closet Jew.

You'd probably never know that I'm Jewish. I have blond hair and green eyes. I don't wear a Star of David – never would – that's what they had to wear in Nazi Germany. I really don't talk about Judaism to people outside of my community. I really don't make it public that I'm a Jew – and particularly don't disclose that I'm a religious Jew. So I live in the closet as a Jew. And until recently, I preferred it that way.

There are many reasons for my secrecy – but I realize now, they're mostly because of the Holocaust.

My mother and her sister are Holocaust survivors, and their parents were murdered in the gas chambers in Auschwitz. When my mom speaks of her parents, she still always cries, heartbroken, as if it had just happened yesterday. As if she were still that teenager that had her parents ripped out of her life, forever.

I didn't want to be a persecuted Jew. So I pushed the Holocaust and Judaism away.

I always had very mixed feelings about the Holocaust. On one hand, I was powerfully drawn to it and wanted to know more information about it. On the other hand, it caused Judaism to have such a horrible stigma. As a result, everything related to being Jewish had negative associations that I didn't want to have anything to do with it. I didn't want to be associated with being a persecuted Jew. So I pushed both the Holocaust, and Judaism, away.

To add to all this, I was hardly raised Jewish at all. My mother married a Catholic, and so I was raised with really no religion of which to speak. My mother always said, "Hitler was our matchmaker." In other words, had her family been alive, she never would have married a non-Jew. My parents agreed not to push either of their religions on my sister or me, and they kept with that agreement.

High Holiday Pain

In my WASPy public high school in suburban San Francisco, I never admitted to anyone why I missed school on the Jewish New Year. I certainly wasn't bat mitzvahed; it never crossed my mind. We went to temple just two days a year, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. In temple I recall my mother and her sister crying, or sitting with pained looks on their faces. No spiritual meaning for me, just more negativity. Every year, on schedule, I sat watching my mother and aunt who had suffered so much already, suffer yet again.

We celebrated both Christmas and Chanukah, but I always felt that Chanukah was a poor imitation/substitute for the Christmas that we celebrated with joy and beauty. I always felt sorry for my cousins who only celebrated Chanukah, with its dismal decorations. In our home, next to a beautifully-decorated Christmas tree, pathetically sat a tarnished, copper menorah with unattractive wax candles. To "celebrate" Chanukah, my mother always cried a Hebrew song that her father sang when he was alive.

As I got older, I searched for God and meaning in this world, but didn't get answers through religion. Since no Jewish education was available, I explored being a born-again Christian. I got into it for a while, but could never really buy the Jesus thing. (Why need a middle man?) The last straw came when I was at a Bible study class. I asked how they knew what Jesus exactly said and meant, since there had been so many translations and versions of the New Testament. They didn't like my question and basically said I should shut up and just have faith and not ask questions. At that point I threw in the towel with Christianity. Can't ask questions? Can't get answers? What kind of a religion is that? Blind faith wasn't my bag.

But neither was Judaism. Yet.

By sheer coincidence (AKA God's will) I stumbled into traditional Judaism through Aish HaTorah with my soon-to-be husband. Slowly, we made the trek of becoming religiously observant – first going to a few Shabbats, then moving along the scale. I learned the incredible beauty of Judaism. I found that every question I had, had a multitude of answers through Judaism. I felt that Judaism was – tragically! – an amazing, well-kept secret. Everything about it rang true.

I didn't want to be singled out as my family had been, looked at unfavorably as Der Juden.

I started learning and knowing about the religion that my grandparents had died for.

But still I was a closet Jew.

I still didn't want to be singled out as my family had been, and looked at unfavorably – a Jew. Der Juden! I didn't want to be persecuted in any way as my family had been in Poland by the Nazis. My mother always said, "You can be a Jew on the inside, but not on the outside." It was too risky to be a Jew on the outside.

But push finally came to shove, and although I didn't know it, this year I was about to get shoved out of my closet.

Gaining Perspective

Work was now conflicting with Shabbat. The daylight savings time change was about to occur, and I was no longer comfortable with the idea that I might miss candle lighting on a Friday night because of a work commitment.

But what would they think of me?! I can't expect to leave early just because I'm Jewish! Here I was, feeling that being Jewish is bad again.

But I knew I had to speak up.

Everyone has his or her tests. One of mine is work. I obsess over it, agonize over it, ruminate over it. My husband rightly said, "You should be as afraid of God as you are of your boss." He was right. I had to get my priorities straight.

This last Rosh Hashana I prayed that I could put work in perspective. God answered my prayers. I knew that I had to tell my boss that I'm a religious Jew and I need to observe the laws of my religion.

But I was so incredibly uncomfortable with this idea. How could I say this to my boss? How would he respond? I felt my Judaism conflicting with work, and being considered, once again, negative. But I had to be honest with what was more important.

I realized, in thinking what I would tell my boss, that I have two main reasons for being a religious Jew. One is because it gives enormous meaning, purpose and beauty to my life.

If I can practice the Judaism that the Nazis wanted to destroy, then my grandparents' deaths are not in vain.

The other is that it finally let me come to terms with my relationship to the Holocaust. If I can practice Judaism, the same Judaism that the Nazis wanted to wipe from this earth, then my grandparents' deaths, and those of 6 million innocent Jews, would not be in vain. I am carrying on that which they died for. The Nazis did not win. Those innocents did not die in vain. Judaism lives on, and is being carried on with me.

If people in concentration camps risked death to practice their religion, if starving Jews in concentration camps forfeited food to observe Yom Kippur, then certainly an extra hour of work on Friday was a sacrifice I could make.

When I picked up the phone to my boss, I asked God for the words. I started to explain my carefully thought out statement. I prefaced that this was a difficult discussion for me to have, because it's very personal, because it's very important to me, because – I'm Jewish. And I'm uncomfortable bringing this up because of my history, because being Jewish has never been seen as a very positive thing – that my mom had been in a concentration camp just because she was a Jew, and my grandparents were murdered just because they were Jewish. And then I burst into tears.

I burst into tears, for them, and also for me.

Finally accepting who I am.

Finally out of the closet.

Shining Lights

The phone call went swimmingly, and my boss was very accommodating. (I guess it's hard to say no to a woman bawling at the other end of the line.) And last week was such a relief when I didn't feel the need to go into hiding when Shabbat candle lighting came at 4:36 p.m.

I recently heard a rabbi say that the candles of Shabbat relate to the candles of Chanukah. He said that women light two Shabbat candles (to both remember and keep the Sabbath) and it's also a custom to light a candle for each child born into the family. When a child asks why the candle is lit for him, the rabbi said, we should make a point to answer that the reason is that each child, each person, brings his own special light to the family and to this world.

Similarly, we light our Chanukah candles, we send light out into the world, as we denounce our assimilation into the general society and proclaim our rededication to our faith.

Maybe this year my light got a little bit brighter.

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Visitor Comments: 25

(25) Anonymous, December 14, 2009 12:16 AM

we are Hitler's children

I was struck by the statement that Hitler was the author's Mom"s matchmaker; I expressed a similar sentiment in a poem about being a child of parents who met in Germany after WWII as dispalced Jews waiting to leave Europe.

(24) Anonymous, December 7, 2009 3:31 AM

A beautiful story,Debbie is right we (all of us Jew's ) must not only to remember the Sabbath and to keep it holy,but to remember what our grandparents and relatives lost in the Holocaust went through for the sake of the Jewish people. AM YISRAEL CHI .The chilkdren of Israel will live,an the Nazi have not won!

(23) Debra, December 7, 2009 12:27 AM

the hurt of the Holocaust

Debbie, I understand your fears, the Holocaust was a terrable thing, the Jews were powerless. I have not been able to asstablish my Mother's Jewishness, even though there is belief that she was, that her family went underground so to speak. With the changing of names etc. it is hard to find out for sure; this really effects me because I want to be Jewish by birth, not by conversion. I've been to the concentration camp at Dachu and Deb, the feelings I felt, the longing to be Jewish, to stand up with my brothers and sisters and show the world that the Nazis never won. It tears my heart apart to realize what was done to the Jewish people....I'm glad that you've had the courage to come out and be proud of who you are. May Hashem richly bless you and your loved ones.

(22) Debby, December 6, 2009 3:49 PM

Great article. I never knew this about you. What a beautiful story.

(21) Moshe Salkover, December 29, 2005 12:00 AM

Shomer shabbos at work

Thanks to Debbie Hirschmann for pointing out the difficulty of leaving early on winter Fridays in offices that typically run to 4 or 5pm. My boss knew I was a religious Jew, but when I was hired was initially unwilling to allow me to leave before 4. I was prepared to spend shabbos close to work instead of at home (15 mi. away). Due perhaps to a miracle, she changed her mind when November and the time change arrived. I find negotiating shabbos/yontif time with work at a non-Jewish company one of the biggest obstacles to a frum lifestyle, yet it's rarely if ever discussed. Thanks to the author for mentioning her experience.

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