For 168 hours I refused to wear a kippah. For seven days I was not Micha the oleh hadash (new immigrant), but rather Micah the American tourist from Los Angeles. For one week I was, in the eyes of the world around me, not a Jew, but a red-blooded American.
To be clear, this was not an experiment made in jest nor was it an educational exercise. It was quite simply done for my own safety while a friend and I traveled through Europe in August.
Initially, even in my self-imposed hiding, I appreciated a few memorials to the Jews of Europe. I noticed small bronze plaques built into the sidewalks in front of homes that belonged to victims of the Holocaust. I saw that some streets, like Ben-Gurion, were named after prominent Jewish leaders. However, as the week progressed, I became increasingly uncomfortable – and ultimately angered – as a Jew in Europe, and retreated further into the exclusively American persona I had crafted.
The first sting of rage I felt was in the Jewish Quarter in Prague, a popular tourist destination for Jewish and gentile travelers alike. I had quite looked forward to going to Prague, home to a number of museums, synagogues and the alleged birthplace of the Golem.
I cannot pinpoint the exact moment I began to feel upset. Yet, as we toured the synagogue, museum and cemetery, my heart seethed with outrage. Perhaps it was the vegan “Golem cookie shop” operated by a gentile Prague native. Or maybe it was watching people “Ooh and ah” about my people. Whatever it was, the realization that a once-vibrant center of Jewish culture was now a glorified tourist trap hit me like a train.
The prayer books, wedding gowns and kiddush cups that were once used by real people are now sentenced to gather dust in glass museum cases, constantly under the watch of interested but foreign eyes and cameras. I felt as if the corpse of European Jewry was on public display, a tourist attraction of a dead people to be photographed, studied like a zoo animal and profited from by a state that stood silent as Hitler annihilated the residents of this ghost-town museum.
The second sting came after a visit to the Jewish Holocaust memorial in the center of Berlin. With all due credit to the designers, the site is quite well done. For those who don’t know, the memorial is a stone’s throw from Brandenburg Gate and ritzy shopping areas nearby. It would be like putting up a memorial to the genocide of Native Americans or African American slaves in the middle of Times Square.
It was clear that the architects intended to openly admit that the modern German state was literally built on the ashes of the German Jews it systematically exterminated.
To publicly acknowledge the hole left by the Holocaust in the center of modern Berlin is a gesture I appreciated wholeheartedly.
The memorial itself looks like a sea of cut stones of varying shapes and sizes built into a sort of maze with little signage or context. I was not angered by the appearance or location of the memorial.
On the contrary, I found those admirable. It was rather the actions of the people there that set me off. Children were jumping about, competing to see who could reach the tallest stones.
Men and women alike decided this was an appropriate place to stage their next profile photos. They smiled for the camera, posing on what amounted to Jewish graves, using the background as a way to garner extra “likes” on Facebook or Instagram.
The ambivalence was astounding and disturbing. While it seemed that I should say something, I chose to remain silent instead, and let the invisible Jew walk away quietly away, his steps heavy with anger.
The final outrage came from the man at the Brandenburg Gate who held a sign comparing Israelis to the Nazis and alleging a world Zionist conspiracy. Content with changing out Jew for Zionist, antisemitism was on full display in the heart of Berlin, within walking distance of the Holocaust memorial. Obviously this was unsettling, but silence and disguise was the hallmark of my seven-day European adventure.
To be clear, Europe was fun. Prague is full of Jewish history. Its beautiful buildings seen from a paddle-boat at sunset looked like a Renaissance painting. Berlin has magnificent architecture, the stunning Tiergarten that puts Central Park to shame, and an unreal nightlife. However, in terms of personal growth, I believe this European journey enlightened me on what my high school Poland-Israel trip lacked.
In Poland, I learned how the Nazis accomplished their genocide. But it was only in modern-day Europe that I saw its long-term impact. I used to view the Holocaust as simply the culmination of two thousand years of Jewish persecution and more importantly, as another failed attempt to destroy the Jewish people.
Yet, after deep reflection I recognized an ugly truth: Hitler might have lost the war but he succeeded in eliminating the “Jewish problem.”
Europe was once the major center of the Jewish Diaspora. Now, the United States and Israel are the capitals of Jewish life, while Europe is home to but a small smattering of Jews. In short, this trip allowed me to properly frame, process and mourn that profound loss. And it gave me an even greater appreciation for Jewish self-determination of which I am thankful to be a part.
By the end of my vacation, I felt even more confident about my decision not to wear a kippah in Europe. I felt like a relic of the past, an extinct species walking through an old habitat, where the people were content to leave us in museums and in vegan golem cookie shops as our graves become tourist destinations and social media backgrounds. The ghosts of an old Jewish tradition and people linger across Europe as I walked – a kippah-less American caricature and a secret Jew – painfully aware of the long shadow they cast on the cobblestones.
The writer is an author of the Eshel Pledge. He recently immigrated to Israel and lives in Modi’in as he prepares to enlist as a lone soldier in the IDF.