After a few years of less than desirable question and answer sessions, I´ve taken the time to compile an answer to some frequently asked questions. This is here for you reading pleasure, and also, to save your Jewish friends some time, and pain, in the future.
1. What´s it like being Jewish in Germany?
It´s hard. Imagine that you work at a company. It´s a nice company. It´s been through some rough patches, but it´s progressive and you feel included in the company culture. You have coworkers who you trust and you are all friends. Everyone at the company wears either red or blue shirts. Most people wear red because their parents´ did, but a few, including you, wear blue. Now imagine one day, you start speaking up in a meeting, but your boss silences and tells you not to, because you wear a blue shirt. She later tells you that it´s now company policy the blue shirts can´t speak in meetings any longer. None of the red shirts say anything, they all go along with it, and you resign yourself to not speaking in meetings any longer. A few weeks later, you´re told blue shirts can´t attend social outings anymore. You start hearing all your friends who wear red shirts calling you a "dirty blue shirt" and talking about how you´re conspiring against them and the company. You and the other blue shirts get together to decide if you should leave, but some think it will pass. You decide to leave, and you leave the other blue shirts behind (including your brother and best friend). You´re at a different company, at which you don´t get paid, and you´re barely surviving, when you hear that your brother and best friend have been locked in the basement of the company. You try to get them out but you can´t, no-one will give you information because you wear a blue shirt. You wait helplessly, hearing that red shirts have started torturing blue-shirts, and even set up a system of slave labor in the basement of your old company, where they work kidnapped blue-shirts until they die or are deemed unfit for labor, in which case they murder them by gassing them and then burning them alive, but not before taking the gold from their teeth and glasses.
It might sound extreme, but this is what happened to my Grandma. Now put yourself in my shoes - if this were your Grandma´s story, how would you feel, leaving everything and everyone you know, and going to work for that company? How would it feel to know your coworker´s grandparents were the ones who demeaned your Grandma until she fled, and murdered your Great Uncle? How would it feel seeing the great stock options (i.e. European Passport and property) they have in the company, since their grandparents got those options 70 years ago, knowing your Grandma was forced to give them up? How would it feel to know they have higher positions because of connections that were forcefully severed from your family line?
That´s how it is to be Jewish in Germany, for me. To be constantly reminded of one of the worst crimes humanity has ever committed, and to be constantly reminded that it was personal.
2. What do Jews do on Christmas?
American Jews usually eat Chinese food. Jews don´t generally celebrate Christmas, as that is a Christian holiday. It´s not sad for Jewish children, as far as I can tell, because Jewish families have their own holidays and traditions, and thus are not missing what Christians would miss if they did not celebrate with their families. Some Jews, like I, celebrate Christmas, because our family is multicultural, meaning we have traditions from multiple cultures. There is no "Jewish Christmas", and if you´re thinking of Hanukkah, please don´t call it that. Hanukkah is not "instead" of Christmas, it is a separate holiday, that sometimes falls around the same time as Christmas. In some regards it draws on similar themes to Christmas, as it is about miracles, and is a festival of light.
3. If your Mom is not Jewish, that means you´re not really Jewish, right?
No. Jewishness is individual. If you feel Jewish, you are. Like any culture or religion, Judaism has many different sects and each sect has nuances. There are some sects which adhere to strict inheritance rules, which follow the maternal line. There is no sect, however, which is more "correct" or "pure" than another. They are simply different, many of them diverging and emerging in 18th century Europe, in response to Jewish Emancipation. I am not orthodox, and thus the matrilineal rule has no bearing on my personal Jewish identity. I like to joke darkly - "it was good enough for Hitler". As an aside - yes, it´s okay for me to joke about Jews, it´s a way to deal with trauma through humor. But you, please don´t make Jew jokes. They are painful, and not just painfully unfunny, when you make them.
4. How can you be Jewish if you don´t go to synagogue?
It´s a common misconception that being Jewish means you belong to a religion. Judaism is as much a culture as a religion. In fact, the concept of religion does not directly correlate to Judaism, and conceptualizing it that way comes from a Christian mindset. The Jewish "religion" is simply the set of spiritual beliefs held by members belonging to Jewish culture. These days, one can identify as Jewish and not identify with the religious teachings of Judaism. It´s called being a secular Jew. In fact, many Christians would identify with this, though they themselves may not realize they are Christian. Perhaps they think of themselves as a-religious, but still see their families every Christmas and Easter. Perhaps they gather round a Christmas Tree, or color eggs, or go to see a Christmas play, but they would never go to Church. These people are Christian, though they never go to Church. They don´t notice because in their countries, Christian is the default, and their own cultures are informed by and intertwined with it. Every German, even Muslim and Jewish ones, are culturally Christian, in a sense, because you cannot extract German culture from Christianity. Now imagine you moved to a country that was majority Muslim, but you still met your family on Christmas and Easter, because it was tradition, but never went to Church. That´s how I can be Jewish and not go to synagogue.
5. Who is the Jewish President?
No-one. There is no Jewish President. There is an Israeli Prime Minister. Here the distinction is very important, as not all Jews are Israeli, and not all Israelis are Jews. Now, you may want to say, "but it´s a Jewish state". Did you know that Costa Rica is a Catholic State? Would you say the Prime Minister of Costa Rica is the Catholic President? Are all Catholics Costa Rican, then? What about England, whose official state religion is Church of England, was Theresa May the President of the Anglicans? Is the Prime Minister of Morocco the Muslim President, are all Muslims then Moroccan? If these other examples struck you as ridiculous, be assured, they are, and so is this question.
6. Why is being anti-Israel anti-Semitic?
Because you are not anti-Saudi-Arabia. You may disagree with some of its policies, but you do not question its right to exist. You may not agree with the concept of a religious state, but you are not anti-England, anti-Costa-Rica, anti-Morocco, anti-Monaco, anti-Denmark, and so on. There are over 40 other countries that have an official state religion, and only one of them is Jewish. I support being critical of political regimes and voicing those criticisms. I have and will continue to be critical of Israel´s policies, the same way I am critical of German policies, and American policies, and you should be as well. However, if you´re against a country´s right to exist, and the only country you feel that way towards is the only Jewish state in the world, it´s pretty self-evident that those feelings are biased. If you´re anti-religious states, then unless you attack Denmark, Costa Rica, and Iran with the same vitriol you use to describe Israel, I call your bluff.
I could go on, but answering these questions is exhausting. Thank you for being interested, I know it comes from a place of curiosity. If you have more questions, there is plenty of writing out there - go do some research! Just give your Jewish friends a break.
About: Mia Szarvas was born in Vermont to an Israeli father and Italian-American mother, raised in California, and currently lives in Bremen, Germany. Her grandmother, Marta, escaped from Poland in August of 1939 with her parents and sister, with whom she set up a new life in Palestine, while the family they left behind perished in the Holocaust. Mia has a degree in Political Ecology from the University of California, Berkeley, and works in tech to create empowerment in unexpected places. She is curious about multiculturalism, languages, feminism, and how our intertwined histories inform the present.
Follow Mia´s art project "Humans Who Inspire" on Instagram @humanswhoinspire. Mia draws portraits of humans who inspire her as a meditation on the multitude of incredible humans working to make the world a better place. She also accepts requests and submissions.
Read more by Mia Szarvas at AVIVA-Berlin:
"I Don´t Want Your Shame" - reflections by Mia Szarvas
Yom HaShoah - reflections by Mia Szarvas
Photo of Mia Szarvas by Elena Sloman