A Secret Jew in Jordan
In the Peace Corps, I hid my Jewish identity. But that didn’t prevent me from experiencing anti-Semitism.
As my second year in the Corps began, I was teaching an eighth-grade English class. Strolling through the rows during an exercise, I stopped next to a student carving a swastika into his desk with a pen. He looked up guiltily as if he had been caught drawing cartoons. I took a piece of chalk and drew a large white swastika on the board, pointing at it repeatedly amid a scattered historical lecture about the Holocaust, World War II, and Hitler’s mustache. I left the room early and believed I had made my point. The next day, I bounded up the stairs to my classroom to find two words scrawled on the door in thick, red marker: Ghurfat Hitler: Hitler’s room. I pushed the door open slowly, and my eyes drifted to the blackboard, which several students had peppered with small white swastikas. I scanned the silent room for perpetrators. Everyone was grinning. I wiped the board clean, shrugged off what appeared to be a prank, and began teaching the lesson as if nothing happened. But when I went home that day, I called our Jordanian security officer and asked for guidance. He told me that to many people in Jordan, Hitler is considered a hero. I said it was wrongheaded history but avoided telling him that the swastikas had bothered me so much because I was Jewish.
I withdrew from social interactions, and the quality of my service in the Peace Corps rapidly deteriorated. I started taking sick days from school. I isolated myself on the weekends and avoided villagers who knocked on my door. I started to turn down invitations. Then the invitations stopped coming.
Situated in the hills, my village afforded sweeping westward views of the Jordan Valley, flat and hot as the bottom of an iron. At night I could see the headlights of cars across the border, winding around roads in Israel. It was around this dreary period of my service that I decided to take a trip there. I wasn’t seeking solace among the company of Jews in particular; I just wanted a break from Jordan, and taking a taxi to the border was the quickest way out of the country. But instead of vacationing, I spent the entire time fretting about what to do once I got back. The Peace Corps requires that volunteers check in upon returning. I sent an email saying I was back in Jordan when I wasn’t yet. Having told so many lies in the past year, did one more untruth matter? In this case, it did. I returned a day after the appointed time and was summoned to the office. Apparently, our security officer contacted officials at the border. I was busted. It was a fitting note to make an exit on. A trip to “Indiana” ended my failed experiment as a secret Jew in Jordan.
I left right after my 25th birthday, about 10 months before my stint was due to end, and have regretted it since. At first I thought this feeling stemmed from not serving out the two-year term, but a more gnawing self-doubt bothered me. I started to think I’d lost touch with that idealistic version of my previous self. Or maybe I was never that idealistic, and the greatest lie I told about myself was to myself. In Jordan, I had this great opportunity, this perfect opportunity, to show a group of decent people who had never met a Jew that Jews could be decent people. I never got to say what I wanted to in the moments when it mattered most, and I never gave the Jordanians in my village a chance to respond because I was too busy holding back, assuming the worst. I should have taken that leap of faith. It could have been beautiful. It could have been terrible. Now I’ll never know.
When I talk about the Peace Corps with the friend who invited me to his village for lunch—and also knew I was Jewish—we return to the Jordanian man, his beloved Dickens, and specifically to his anti-Semitic take on literature. But that’s not all that happened that day. After talking about Tolstoy’s distaste for the Jews, we all went out on the veranda for dessert. We ate kenafah, a Jordanian treat that is a kind of soft cheese between two sweet pastries. We drank Pepsi, pronounced “Bebsi” since “p” is not in the standard Arabic alphabet.
The sun was setting. I took a bite of the dessert and swigged my Bebsi. Our host squeezed beside me on his swing. After sitting for a minute, enjoying the dusk, he put his arm around my shoulders, pulled me close, and smiled.
“Isn’t it great to talk about books?” he asked. “I feel when we talk this way that all the stars are out and I can see every one of them, shining in the sky.”
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