When I was in fifth grade, my great-aunt took me to an Indian jewelry store in Chicago’s West Rogers Park neighborhood and bought me a necklace with a Jewish star pendant.
It had only been three years since we immigrated from what’s now the former Soviet Union, where religious expression was often persecuted. Nobody there would have worn such a necklace. And even in the relatively Jewish part of Chicago where we were living in the 1990s, such expressions were rare. People may have owned jewelry with Stars of David, but they kept the symbols discreetly tucked away.
Not me. I wore my new necklace over my shirt every day, with my parents’ approval. But at that point, even though I knew it was a Jewish star, I didn’t really understand what it meant. I treated my new accessory more as a fashion statement than a symbol of my identity. I didn’t have many Jewish friends and still didn’t understand where Judaism fit into my Soviet heritage. My elementary-school friends just thought I was Russian.
In high school I noticed the symbol on others in a way that I hadn’t before. I met more Russian Jewish immigrant friends, some of whom would also wear a Jewish star around their necks. Around that time, I got a new Star of David as a present from my grandmother—a bling-ier one, with diamonds—and I wore it to show off my newly forming Jewish identity. For the first time, I felt like I was part of the group—a Jewish group—and asserting my identity at a time when teenagers want to know exactly who they are. It was through meeting other Jewish Russian Americans that I started to find more meaning in the necklace.
It felt like many of us were on the same page about why we chose to display the Star of David across our necks: After being raised by parents and grandparents who kept a low profile in the USSR and took on non-Jewish sounding names, we were suddenly encouraged to be proud of being Jewish. Many of us hadn’t had a formal Jewish education, didn’t read Hebrew, and didn’t follow the rules when celebrating the holidays. But a simple way to show who we were was to wear the Star of David—the gaudier the better.
Later in college and after graduation, as my circle expanded, my necklace suddenly became a conversation topic. Sometimes that meant discussing my views on Israeli politics with total strangers. But more often than not it meant other Jews—especially on vacation—would compliment the necklace in conversation as a way to connect. There were times when I was tempted to take it off and instead wear necklaces that were trendy or simply unrelated to my identity, but it never happened. As I learned more about myself and Jewish culture—I knew it had to keep it on.
Not everyone can make such a choice. I read a recent Vanity Fair article by Marie Brenner about Jews living in present-day Paris and saw a quote that I never expected to read:
I went to visit a Jewish family in the Sixth Arrondissement, where life is as assimilated and as privileged as it gets for Jews in Paris. The 18-year-old daughter, a high-school senior making plans to attend university in England, asked me, “Is it true that if I lived in America I could wear a tiny Star of David necklace or a sweatshirt from Technion university?”“
Reading that passage was a not-so-subtle reminder that not everyone feels free to display his or her beliefs or identity—even in 2015, in a city as cosmopolitan as Paris.
These days, I wear yet another Star of David. It’s smaller with a shorter chain that often peeks out from the clothing I wear, so it’s always on display, a talisman of sorts. I’m still not religious, and sometimes I worry that wearing this piece of jewelry sends the wrong signal and makes me look more religious than I really am. Still, it means a lot to me to be able to wear it without fear.
Members of my family have asked me to leave it at home when I’m traveling to predominantly Muslim countries, out of fear that it could spark some sort of conflict. But since I was traveling to areas that weren’t openly hostile to Jews—Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Indonesia, and Turkey—I chose to wear it, as a conversation starter. Most of the time, curious locals not familiar with the six-pointed star just ask me what it means. Maybe I’m naïve in thinking that no one really cares. But after two decades of wearing the star around my neck, and visiting 45 countries, I have yet to experience any kind of hostile reaction.
Nowadays, I often take my necklace for granted and rarely think about why I never take it off. But after reading that Vanity Fair article about Paris, and the young woman there who is correct to be cautious about what she displays around her neck, I believe I wear the star because living in this country I have a larger responsibility to show that I’m free enough to display my Jewishness. It’s a part of my identity that does not need to remain hidden.
I wear the Jewish star because I can, and because as a Jew born in the former Soviet Union, there was once a time where I—like the young woman in Paris today—could not. Sometimes it takes someone else’s lack of freedom to put it into perspective.
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Alina Dizik is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter @dizik.