Igniting a Fire of Jewish Identity

The events of Oct. 7 activated my DNA and ignited a fire of Jewish identity I didn’t know was there.
March 14, 2024
Women light candles in the shape of the Star of David during the symposium on fighting antisemitism on January 22, 2024 in Krakow, Poland (Omar Marques/Getty Images)

“Come with us to Israel,” my friend urged over the phone. “The temple’s doing a trip for B’nai Mitzvah families.” Our daughters, both singletons of single moms, had been friends since preschool. With my daughter’s bat mitzvah around the corner, there was no way I could take this trip right now. I’d have no reserves left. 

The next day, I received a call from the temple. “We hear you’re interested in joining us on the B’nai Mitzvah trip.” A full court press by my friend. “No, I’m sorry,” I replied, “I’m not in a position to do that right now.” The temple rep paused. “What if you purchase the plane tickets and the temple covers the rest?” Cornered by fate, it was a deal I couldn’t refuse. Three months later, in December 2022, my daughter Ruby and I boarded a plane to Israel.

Truth be told, I was not keen to go. I’d been to Israel as a child and carried treasured memories from that trip, but the idea of going back always felt, well, dangerous. A country forever on the brink of war did not seem like an ideal vacation destination. As a child in the late seventies, I half expected every bus I boarded to blow up. “Don’t pick up a stray pencil,” I’d been instructed. “It could be a bomb.” These were the possibilities drilled into our young minds at the temple day school I attended from preschool through sixth grade. I completed my bat mitzvah and confirmation, sang in the temple singing group and participated in Jewish youth activities. Nonetheless, I did not think much about my Jewishness. Surrounded by Jews in Miami, it was the air that I breathed. I sort of pushed it away. While many kids, including my own brothers, spent summers at high school in Israel, I opted for high school in Spain. 

When I enrolled at Dartmouth College, friends questioned why I’d chosen such a “WASPy school.” In fact, that was part of the appeal. I didn’t even apply to Penn: too many Jewish kids. Because the universe has a hilarious sense of humor, the first three people I met at Dartmouth were Jewish. My parents started calling it “Dartberg.” I never sought out the Hillel House nor participated in Jewish activities while there. None of my friends were Jewish. 

After graduation, I moved to Los Angeles to work in Hollywood at movie studios founded by Jews. It’s not uncommon to spot celebrities at High Holy Day services. Being Jewish here is considered an asset. Still, I never advertised my Jewishness. I didn’t think about it much at all. I stopped attending services for the better part of my 20s and 30s. 

Then I became pregnant with my daughter. Suddenly, I felt compelled to instill in her the same sense of belonging I’d had growing up. Judaism resonated with Ruby from the womb. While pregnant, I attended shabbat services where she danced inside my belly to the music. In kindergarten, she badgered me to join a synagogue. If she didn’t start Hebrew school pronto, how would she be ready for her bat mitzvah? Ruby attended Jewish camps and demanded we have shabbat dinners. Because of her, I returned to my roots. 

On our Israel trip, the scrappy ingenuity of Israelis captured my heart. They — we — had survived countless atrocities and persecution throughout history and yet still, we thrived. This tiny speck of a nation, surrounded by hostility and haters, represented the resilience of a people who valued life and love over all. I’d felt no real connection to Israel before, and now I considered it my homeland. My daughter talked about returning for Birthright.

Our group was led by an extraordinary guide with whom I became fast friends. On Oct. 7, when news of the massacre reached our shores, I reached out to him. “Are you ok?” I asked. “Yes,” he replied, “We are safe, however I’m worried about how to make a living now that tourism has shut down.” An idea popped into my head. This man’s charisma and expertise demanded an audience bigger than a tour bus. I encouraged him to consider a U.S. speaking tour. A month later, he spoke before large audiences throughout the Midwest and Canada. His second tour would begin in Los Angeles, where I live, and move across the country to my hometown of Miami. I agreed to produce the tour for him.

For the first time in my life, I announced my Jewishness out loud. As a result, I lost Instagram followers, friends and dates. It didn’t matter. 

Through the portal of this endeavor, I hurtled into a world of activism and demonstrative Jewish pride. I discovered a deep well of connection to fellow Jews. We clocked each other’s social media posts and wordlessly hugged in public. I’ve been embraced by people I barely knew at yoga class and by strangers in parking lots. We cried together, raged together. For the first time in my life, I announced my Jewishness out loud. As a result, I lost Instagram followers, friends and dates. It didn’t matter. The events of Oct. 7 activated my DNA and ignited a fire of Jewish identity I didn’t know was there. For weeks, I doomscrolled heart-wrenching footage and chilling antisemitic rhetoric. I knew I needed to speak up. It wasn’t a choice.

Then I remembered something alarming. A few years back, my daughter had wanted to do a DNA test. I did one too. Hers came back 50% Ashkenazi Jew, mine 100%. My instinctive reaction upon reading the report: “S—. Now we’re in a database.” I thought the test would identify countries. Instead, it branded our ethnicity. Of course. The Diaspora had scattered us across the globe. 

Sure enough, a few weeks after Oct. 7, news surfaced that the genetic testing company had been hacked to assemble a list identifying Ashkenazi Jews. I plunged further into a sense of panic and urgency. 

Producing the tour gave me a sense of purpose and provided the vehicle from which to educate others in the face of so much disinformation. Perhaps we’d never get in front of people who didn’t share our perspective. At the very least, we could arm Jews and allies with the tools to respond.

“I didn’t realize you were political,” said my brother. “It’s not political!” I fired back. Twelve hundred people were massacred, tortured and taken hostage. It could have been us. It might be us yet if we didn’t wake up. No one seemed familiar with the Hamas charter, clearly stating its objective like a Disney villain: Kill the Jews. Take over the West. 

Now, thanks to extremist PR geniuses who’d been planning this for decades, American students chanted slogans they didn’t understand, pitting their sympathies against Israel. The victims became the oppressors. The manipulation of Hamas spin doctors both impressed and enraged me. Kids earned their graduate degrees in Middle Eastern Studies overnight from TikTok University. I countered with posts of my own, stating facts reduced to Instagram memes. 

I couldn’t stop scrolling and posting. One friend asked if I’d lost my mind, another if I thought it made a difference. A few non-Jewish acquaintances who barely knew me checked in to express empathy, flooding my heart with relief and gratitude. Unfortunately, it also highlighted the fact that some of my closest friends had not shown the same concern. A few joked that they would hide me in their basement if it came down to it. Sadly, this was not a joke. Oct. 7 was the most well-documented atrocity in history and already, people were denying it ever happened. If Israel doesn’t win this war, we’re all screwed. 

The tour ended last week, and while the fire within me burns bright still, it’s at a simmer right now, conserving energy before the next battle. I pray it’ll be used instead to warm our home with Jewish tradition for years to come.

Pam Suchman is a writer and producer in film and television. Currently working on a book, she’s also published numerous articles.

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