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Once We Were Free

Mourning the era of American Jewish freedom

Carly Pildis
April 29, 2019
Getty Images
Flowers and signs at a makeshift memorial across from the Chabad of Poway synagogue on April 28, 2019.Getty Images
Getty Images
Flowers and signs at a makeshift memorial across from the Chabad of Poway synagogue on April 28, 2019.Getty Images

My little girl loves synagogue. She asks to go to Tot Shabbat at least three times a week. Given her tendency to run to the bimah and start dancing, we joke that she might one day become a rabbi.

Taking her to synagogue makes me overwhelmingly happy, like I am connected to every woman in my bloodline through space and time—and they are all smiling and proud of me, radiating warmth and understanding. These include my grandmothers, who never met her, and their grandmothers who never met me, all with us, with their hands on her little head.

Ever since the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, there has been one moment where the joy evaporates for me—when my little girl, 2 years old, opens the door and is greeted by the Washington, D.C., police department manning their metal detectors. She doesn’t notice. She can’t remember.

I remember. I remember life before this.

The D.C. police have done a great job, despite my early reservations. They smile. They greet us with a hearty “Shabbat Shalom!” They act like it’s normal that they are there. I thank them for doing their job. I wonder if I am teaching her, a black Jewish girl, the right lessons about interacting with police, and worry if I model it wrong it might get her killed one day. We thank the police for a job well done. They work hard to keep us safe, and I am grateful for it.

But it hurts to see them there. It hurts so much that for a single moment every Saturday I think I won’t be able to bear it. Then I smile. I tell my daughter to say thank you. Just wait for mommy while they check my bag.

This past Saturday, she twirled through the metal detector, showing off her fancy dress. She was so proud of it, made specifically for her by an aunt in Ghana, with beautiful intricate batik pink prints and a full skirt that makes her feel like a princess. The policewoman bent down and told my daughter how beautiful she looked; she beamed back, said thank you and started running full speed for Tot Shabbat.

I’ll never be able to explain to her what has been lost for Jews in America.

This week the Jewish community said our mourning prayers. There is a special service for mourners that we say four times a year, including on Passover. It’s called Yizkor. We didn’t know that this year, by nightfall we would all be mourning. We would be mourning Lori Gilbert Kaye of Poway, California, killed in her own synagogue. Killed six months, to the day, after 11 other Jews were killed in their house of worship—a wound from which our community had barely begun to heal and which has now ripped wide open again.

Now, the whole community is mourning. We have all lost someone. We have all lost ourselves, who we were in America, in a unique and beautiful place in the long history of Jewish suffering. We were free. We were freer than our grandmothers could have ever dreamed. But there is no more lying to ourselves in the night. There is no more hope that Tree of Life was some terrible aberration. We are not safe. Our kids are not safe.

We lived a life that I am now sure my daughter will never know.

I remember a synagogue with unlocked doors. I remember a synagogue where there was no fear. I remember running wild through its halls. I remember being taught that a Jewish little girl could be anything she wanted if she worked hard, and knowing it was true. I remember when conversations about anti-Semitism were about remembering history—not dealing with terrifying realities. When questions about whether we were Jews first or Americans first were ethical dilemmas for a lazy Shabbat afternoon at summer camp, ignored chavruta in favor of a swim—not debated in American politics with stakes I still cannot fathom. I was there. I know there was a time before this. When we were taught how blessed beyond measure we were to be who we were: American Jews. When we listened to the old men at synagogue who had lived through hate, the Holocaust survivors, the Russian refugees, our fathers’ stories of quotas and academic denial. These were stories that we learned so we appreciated who we got to be as American Jews. We sighed sadly at the old men who told us to be ever vigilant, because they would never be as free as us, like the men who had to die in the desert before we reached the Promised Land. America was our Promised Land.

How crushing to learn that they were right all along.

Over drinks and in hushed tones, my brother is skeptical of my surprise. Maybe it was different for boys, he says, but you never got punched in the face and called a kike? There were always swastikas on the playground, he remembers. We had a swastika drawn on our synagogue. We wanted to believe it was better here. That we had found a safe place. It was never safe for us, he says, for any of us. We are from Boston, Carly. It was never safe for our black friends, our Irish friends, our immigrant friends. It was never so good for anybody here—you just wanted to believe it was.

Something in me is irrevocably broken. Maybe we were never real. Maybe this era never happened.

I know some readers never experienced freedom in America. I know there are people who grew up in an America that enslaved their ancestors, an America that brought their community smallpox and genocide, an America that put their grandmothers in internment camps, that deported their parents. An America that stole from them, hurt them, killed them. They ask me: How can you complain? Why should we care that you once knew freedom and lost it, when we have never been free. To those readers: I stand with you unequivocally. I know you never had the America I once did. I will fight beside you to build an America where all of us had the freedom I once had. None of our children should pray behind armed guards. All of us, all of our kids should be safe, prosperous, and free. I want to hear all of your stories, all the ways America hurt you and took freedom from you. But I also want you to understand how it felt to find a safe harbor after thousands of years and build lives and generations there—and then watch it begin to disintegrate before our eyes. All of our voices should be heard. All of us deserve a new era of freedom, prosperity, and safety. I hope what we build in the coming years makes us freer than all of our grandmothers’ wildest dreams. I believe we must come together and fight for the America that seemed so close we could taste it just a few years ago. We must fight for all of us, for every American to have lives so free we can’t even begin to imagine them yet. Hope still lives here, somewhere, even if it feels far away today.

The era where the Jew could consider herself safe here, safer than anywhere else in the rest of the world, has ended. My daughter will grow up with a Judaism under lock and key. Prayer behind armed guards. Jumping out of your skin if a child knocks over a folding chair. No babies out of sight. No hiding behind the synagogue curtains with their best friends, trading chocolates and whispering secrets. Stay close to Mom. Instead of the old man who preaches vigilance, she will have the mom who cries and remembers freedom. How freedom was taken away one Passover, and we don’t know when or if it will ever return. She will never understand what we had.

My little girl’s run from the metal detector to Tot Shabbat passes the Holocaust memorial. Most of the time she blows right past it, excited for Ma Tovu and plushy Torahs and dancing when she is supposed to be sitting. Once in a while she stops to touch the six candelabras. I shiver. I remember that for most of Jewish history violence was normal. We were exceptional. We were lucky. We were blessed. We learned the history so we could appreciate who we were and how far our ancestors had come.

We aren’t so extraordinary. Now we are just another generation of terrified Jews.

Some days, I don’t want to go to synagogue at all. I don’t want to pass those metal detectors and feign normality. I want to go to brunch. Let’s run from this heritage, I think. I am too afraid and I don’t want to be. I don’t want to lose my baby. Let’s buy a Christmas tree and make pork chops and change our names! You can’t, my grandmothers whisper from the pews. From my recipe books. From my soul. This is who you are. We put on our twirling dresses and sparkle shoes. We drive to synagogue. We walk through the metal detectors. We sing our songs, drink our juice and eat challah. We are Jews. And some things never change, even in America.


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Carly Pildis is the Director of Grassroots Organizing for the Jewish Democratic Council of America, and an advocacy professional based in Washington, D.C. Her Twitter feed is @carlypildis, and her website is