A Secret Jew in Jordan
In the Peace Corps, I hid my Jewish identity. But that didn’t prevent me from experiencing anti-Semitism.
Sometimes, bad decisions turn into farces. If you’re unlucky, they can turn into tragedies; if you’re lucky, they become life lessons. I am, it seems, both lucky and unlucky.
Last week, the Jordanian Tourism Ministry issued a warning advising visitors to avoid wearing Jewish garb or performing Jewish rituals in public. It was a sad reminder for me of my own experience there. In 2006, I joined the Peace Corps, beginning a two-year stint in Jordan. The organization does not have any official rules about discussing religious identity, but during a pre-service orientation session in Amman, the trainer recommended that Jewish volunteers wait at least a year before sharing their backgrounds with locals, to get a full sense of what the response might be. A Jewish volunteer who’d served in one of the first groups to go to the country suggested that I tell anyone who asked that I was Christian.
The problem with this strategy became obvious when I showed up in my assigned village, where I would teach English to elementary and middle-school kids for the next two years, and found it brimming with Jordanian Christians as well as Muslims. Could I convince people of both faiths that I wasn’t a Jew?
Early on, in an effort to ease into village life and build social bonds with my new Muslim colleagues and neighbors, I tried to fast for Ramadan. I abstained from food while the sun shone and broke the fast most evenings at a Muslim teacher’s house. This confused the Christian teachers, though—none of them seemed to join the Muslims in their observance—so, in an effort to balance things out, I decided to attend the local church service on Christmas Eve. Alas, this did little to shore up my credibility as a Christian, since I didn’t know the words to the hymns and didn’t even know exactly how to cross myself. From this inauspicious start, it was clear that this was a misguided ruse of my own invention, and yet I felt I had no choice but to keep it up—for as long as I could.
When I was in college, I dreamed about working in the Middle East. I took Arabic courses in school, spent summers learning the language in Beirut and Cairo, and attended London’s School of Oriental and African Studies during my junior year abroad. Feeling idealistic about the region and my place in it, I joked that I would someday be the first Jewish U.S. ambassador to the sovereign state of Palestine. I thought two years in Peace Corps Jordan would mark the culmination of my studies.
Even though the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is more than 90 percent Sunni Muslim, the village where I served bore unusual signs of diversity: two mosques and two churches. There were no Jews, though—except for me. I had hardly mentioned Judaism in the village, and still stupendously weird conspiracies about a Jewish hand in world affairs popped up on a regular basis. I learned that Pepsi allegedly stood for “Pay Every Penny to Support Israel,” and that Israeli intelligence officials were, for some reason, assumed to be involved in the death of Anna Nicole Smith. I ignored it or laughed it off; I didn’t want to stir up any trouble. When Israel came up, I found myself defending the Jewish state—but subtly enough so that I wasn’t pegged as Jewish. I cryptically referred to Israel in my Peace Corps blog and emails as “Indiana,” in case anyone, even other Peace Corps volunteers, read them.
No matter how much I avoided the subject, though, Jewish affairs found their way into normal conversations. On a warm summer day about 10 months into my two-year term of service, I had lunch with a fellow Peace Corps volunteer and his Jordanian neighbor in a different village not far from Amman, the capital. It was a quiet Friday, the Muslim Sabbath, and our host wanted to chat—not about Israel or religion, thankfully, but about what I thought might be an innocuous, neutral subject: Charles Dickens.
“Have you read The Pickwick Papers?” asked the man, leaning on one of the mattresses that hugged each wall in the chairless guest room. He was in his early 50s, bearish and affable, wearing a traditional gray dish-disha robe.
“No, I haven’t,” I replied.
“It’s very good,” he said, going on to explain the plot, including his favorite scenes and dialogue. My friend and I were impressed.
“You know,” he continued, “Dickens hated the Jewish.” (Many native Arabic speakers say “the Jewish” instead of “the Jews.”)
“Yes, it’s clear from his books. Have you read Shakespeare?”
“Yes, but not all of his plays.”
“He also hated the Jewish.”
“Is that so?” I asked.
“Of course! My favorite work of his is The Merchant of Venice,” he said. “It tells the truth about the Jewish.”
He paused for a few seconds. I hoped the pause might allow us to change the subject, to talk about something besides anti-Semitic themes in great literature. And then he continued:
“Have you read Tolstoy?”
By the end of the first year, most of my American friends in the Corps knew I was Jewish. I had also come clean to three of the Jordanian Peace Corps staffers, after sensing trustworthiness and getting to know them well in more social settings. Their reaction had been warm. They had known virtually no Jews and were genuinely interested in learning about Judaism.
But, as I’d been advised, during that first year I hadn’t told any of the locals in my village, including the teachers at my school. I wasn’t afraid of a violent reaction, but I had to live and work there, and by opening up without being absolutely assured of the reception, I put many things in jeopardy: the kids I’d taught, the relationships I’d built, and the standing of the Peace Corps in the village that would host a new volunteer once I left. Also, I wasn’t sure how it would go down when it became known that I had been lying for an entire year. The damage to my professional life, not to mention my personal life, could have been irreparable. I chose silence. I was saddened by the choice, but I knew I would never tell a soul in the village.
As a convert, I don’t feel nostalgic about Christmas—I’ve discovered the magic of Hanukkah