March 26, 2019

Magen David & Me

“​I don’t think my father ever took off his Star of David necklace from the day he put it on in the infancy of the Carter administration. It was always there, resting in a copse of chest hair, a silver target in the V of his open shirt collar. I never asked, when he was alive, what it meant to him, but I imagined he had started to wear it simply because he could, having just escaped more than four decades of oppression in the U.S.S.R., where he couldn’t. Or, perhaps, wouldn’t. ​

The necklace had first belonged to me; my parents bought it for me when I was 14, when we were in Rome awaiting our entry visas to the United States. I had only recently learned of such a thing and its significance when my mother’s cousin Zhenya came to visit us in Odessa from Moscow just before we emigrated in August 1976. I had never before met this cousin, and when I first saw her what jumped out at me was her weird hair, a brown helmet of large immobile waves with a dullness I’d associated with dolls. Thankfully I had by then acquired some tact and didn’t blurt out my first impression. Zhenya wore a necklace, a darkly patinated metal circle, smaller and thinner than a penny, about the size of the old Soviet kopek. Into it was etched a shiny six-pointed star. When I asked my dad what it was, he said, “A Magen David,” the shield of King David, a symbol of the Jewish people. Although his matter-of-factness surprised me, I didn’t press him, thinking I must be missing something.

By the time we were readying to leave, I had spent almost half my lifetime with the awareness of being a Jew, though with no clue as to its larger meaning. At 7, I took a ballroom dance class at the Palace of the Pioneers because my mother thought it might instill some grace into my otherwise clumsy build. At the end of the first lesson, our teacher lined us up against a bleached wall, boys in white shirts and brown pants sagging from their scrawny frames like laundry on a line, girls with pigtails tied in exuberant white bows the size of parachutes, all performing a silent ritual of respectful attention. She instructed us to bring to the next class information about our nationalities. When I asked my parents about it that evening over dinner, my dad, staring into his bowl of soup, said, “We are Jews.””

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