This piece is part of our Wit­ness­ing series, which shares pieces from Israeli authors and authors in Israel, as well as the expe­ri­ences of Jew­ish writ­ers around the globe in the after­math of Octo­ber 7th.

It is crit­i­cal to under­stand his­to­ry not just through the books that will be writ­ten lat­er, but also through the first-hand tes­ti­monies and real-time account­ing of events as they occur. At Jew­ish Book Coun­cil, we under­stand the val­ue of these writ­ten tes­ti­mo­ni­als and of shar­ing these indi­vid­ual expe­ri­ences. It’s more impor­tant now than ever to give space to these voic­es and narratives.

Short­ly after the Octo­ber 7th Hamas attacks in Israel, a mem­ber of my pri­vate Jew­ish Writ­ers’ Face­book group want­ed to know if the war and the rise of anti­semitism made us feel and act more Jew­ish. Had we start­ed wear­ing a Star of David neck­lace, or a kip­pah? Were we going to syn­a­gogue more regularly? 

The response was over­whelm­ing. With­in an hour, fifty-six women said yes! My fel­low Jew­ish writ­ers were using their Hebrew names, putting on their Jew­ish jew­el­ry, and attend­ing vig­ils and protests. 

But smack-dab in the mid­dle of the feed was my com­ment. No, I wrote. I didn’t want to be Jew­ish at all. Judaism meant ter­ror­ism and anti­semitism. It meant war and death. 

And there I was, amongst my own peo­ple – alone. 

I am often alone as a Jew. I live in Kingston, Ontario, which has a small Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty. For most of my French-immer­sion stu­dents and coteach­ers I am the only Jew­ish per­son they know. Usu­al­ly, being Jew­ish feels like a fun fact I share with stu­dents. Madame Lieber­man can write your name in Hebrew! Madame Lieber­man brings apples and hon­ey in Sep­tem­ber to explain the Jew­ish New Year and her mul­ti­ple fall absences! 

This year, being Jew­ish felt like a bur­den. I won­dered how to be a Jew in a non-Jew­ish world in a way that I nev­er had before. 

Fol­low­ing the Octo­ber 7th Hamas attacks, col­leagues reached out with hugs and asked about my fam­i­ly and friends in Israel. My prin­ci­pal let me know it was okay to take time off work if I need­ed it. I appre­ci­at­ed the sup­port, but also braced myself for what I knew was com­ing: reac­tions to Israel’s retal­i­a­tion. Some days I felt like I rep­re­sent­ed all per­se­cut­ed Jews. Oth­er days I felt like the lone sym­bol of Pales­tin­ian oppres­sion. It made me not want to be Jew­ish at all. 

Instead of cel­e­brat­ing Shab­bat and going to syn­a­gogue – my usu­al Jew­ish activ­i­ties – I watched the news and fall­out on social media obses­sive­ly. In Israel one of my cousins was recalled to his tank and was serv­ing in the Golan Heights. More imme­di­ate to my fam­i­ly and I, my son’s best friend had fam­i­ly in Gaza. Their house was bombed, and they were hid­ing in a hos­pi­tal. My heart felt like it was going to break in so many ways. 

Pre­vi­ous­ly I’d been an out­spo­ken crit­ic of the Israeli gov­ern­ment, but this time felt dif­fer­ent, like a betray­al of my Israeli friends and fam­i­ly. I avoid­ed both the pro-Israel and pro-Pales­tin­ian march­es and vig­ils, uncom­fort­able with both, yet equal­ly uncom­fort­able with not voic­ing my beliefs. I believed fierce­ly in both Israel’s right to exist and the need to end the Israeli occu­pa­tion of Pales­tin­ian lands. 

You are not respon­si­ble for all of Israel,” my hus­band, who is not Jew­ish, remind­ed me as we watched Israel bomb Gaza on the news. Their actions aren’t nec­es­sar­i­ly your thoughts or beliefs.” While I knew this on the sur­face, I felt the respon­si­bil­i­ty of Kol yis­rael are­vim zeh bazeh–that all Jews are respon­si­ble for each oth­er. Yet I shud­dered to think of my Cana­di­an col­leagues and friends assum­ing that as a Jew I sup­port­ed the Israeli gov­ern­ment unequivocally. 

I might have want­ed to stop being Jew­ish, but Hanukkah was approach­ing, the one time of the year when non-Jews are typ­i­cal­ly most curi­ous about my reli­gious her­itage. Col­leagues want­ed to know how to spell Hanukkah and to bor­row my class set of drei­dels. Stu­dents asked if I was going to wear my fun velour meno­rah dress and come to their class. I nod­ded and smiled, but most­ly I felt like hid­ing under a rock.

My absten­tion on syn­a­gogue atten­dance only last­ed a few weeks. Pri­or to the attack I had signed up to chant the Haftorah and I didn’t have the heart to can­cel. I dragged myself to syn­a­gogue, unen­thused about singing any­thing about Israel. But, I was glad I went. My rab­bi, Erin Polan­sky, spoke direct­ly to my heart’s bro­ken­ness. She said in this peri­od of dark­ness we should try to reach out to oth­er peo­ple, to be lights unto the world. 

I grasped onto this fierce­ly. I couldn’t stop the rise of anti­semitism or change per­cep­tions of Israel any more than I could cre­ate a des­per­ate­ly need­ed cease­fire or the return of the hostages, but I could be a small light at school. And so dur­ing the dark­ness of November2023 – report card and flu sea­son – I brought in a few small gifts for my colleagues. 

I gave a cof­fee gift card to a friend strug­gling with a dif­fi­cult class, and a bar of choco­late to my prin­ci­pal who cov­ered a short-notice absence. Col­leagues get­ting over colds were thank­ful for box­es of my favorite orange-fla­vored tea. My cowork­ers appre­ci­at­ed these small gifts because they were unex­pect­ed. And, like so many ges­tures of good­will, I felt bet­ter for doing them. 

Dur­ing this time I also received numer­ous kind ges­tures from my stu­dents – not because they had to go to syn­a­gogue and hear it from their rab­bis – but because they were nat­u­ral­ly bright lights. Gabe brought me Star­burst from his Hal­loween stash every day because he heard I liked them. Mol­ly drew me count­less pic­tures and wrote me sweet notes thank­ing me for help­ing her with girl dra­ma. Emi­ly brought me a blue ele­phant bracelet because she knew it was my favorite col­or and my favorite ani­mal, despite me redi­rect­ing her mul­ti­ple times a day to clean up her space and do her work.

Hanukkah came and I put on my velour meno­rah dress and taught the sto­ry of the hol­i­day as a les­son for tol­er­ance and reli­gious free­dom to as many stu­dents as my sched­ule would allow. My stu­dents made con­nec­tions about human rights between Jews being denied their tem­ple in Roman times, and the res­i­den­tial schools forced upon First Nations chil­dren that we were learn­ing about in Social Stud­ies. We played drei­del and ate choco­late coins. When I lit Hanukkah can­dles at my Decem­ber staff meet­ing, sev­er­al cowork­ers thanked me for shar­ing my traditions. 

I felt bet­ter about being Jew­ish. My Judaism wasn’t only about war. It was about send­ing light into the dark­ness, spir­i­tu­al prac­tice, and the fight for human rights. 

Recent­ly I have been prepar­ing for a leave from school to trav­el and write. While I was busy writ­ing notes for the teacher who would fin­ish the year, my stu­dents were mak­ing me a thank you book they pre­sent­ed to me on my last day. The kids wrote that I loved the col­or blue, ele­phants, and danc­ing, and that I wrote books. Almost every stu­dent includ­ed some­thing Jew­ish. They drew Stars of David, sho­fars, and the Hebrew let­ter lamed, the first let­ter of my name. A few even took the time to look up how to write favorite teacher” in Hebrew and copied it onto their page. I was both gob­s­macked and deeply appre­cia­tive of how my stu­dents saw me – as their teacher, but also as a writer, a unique indi­vid­ual, and a Jew. 

This, I learned, is how to be a Jew in a non-Jew­ish world. You fight anti­semitism by being a role mod­el, by shar­ing your tra­di­tions and fun foods. You hold grief and joy at the same time and try to find bal­ance between tragedy and hope. And most­ly you try to be a good human being. 

The views and opin­ions expressed above are those of the author, based on their obser­va­tions and experiences.

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Leanne Lieber­man is the author of five young adult nov­els, includ­ing The Most Dan­ger­ous Thing, Grav­i­ty (Syd­ney Tay­lor Notable), The Book of Trees and Lau­ren Yanof­sky Hates the Holo­caust (Syd­ney Tay­lor Notable and Bank Street Best Book). Her adult fic­tion has been pub­lished in New Quar­ter­ly, Des­cant, Fire­weed, the Antigo­nish Review and Grain. She’s a school­teacher in Kingston, Ontario.