Lately, more people than ever have been staring at my chest. But it's not what you think. They are looking at a necklace hanging from my neck.
When my boyfriend, Josh, handed me a red paper mâche-wrapped little box for my birthday this year, I never would have guessed it was a piece of Judaica. But sure enough, inside the box was a sparkly silver and crystal Jewish star dangling from a chain. Unlike any other I had seen, the star was about one-fifth-inch thick and had hearts cut out along the sides. The face shimmered with a collection of tightly packed clear crystals. I quickly put it on and have seldom taken it off since.
A secular, nonpracticing Jew, Josh does not wear Judaica. Purchasing the necklace for me was therefore as selfless a gift as he could have given. The necklace, he said, represented his support for me working in the Jewish community, and his respect for my willingness to move to a different state in order to continue doing so.
For me, the necklace has become a simultaneous expression of romantic love and religious identity -- a synergy I have never before experienced. I am excited to put it on each day.
I used to believe that wearing a religious symbol implied an unconditional endorsement, like sticking a sports team logo or candidate's bumper sticker on your car. Since a large part of my personal relationship with Judaism occurs internally -- in my head and my heart -- how, I wondered, could I wear a symbol around my neck that publicly announces my religion to everyone else?
Wearing the necklace habitually has been an enlightening exercise; because of it, I have stumbled across many new perspectives. It has also led people to make incorrect assumptions about me -- that I am an Orthodox or traditionally observant Jew, that I am a staunch supporter of Israeli military actions or that I keep strictly kosher. Though pieces of each of the above hold true in the nonsuperlative sense, there are caveats and loopholes to each. Assumptions are dangerous things for anybody to make, but I would be ignorant not to at least recognize that wearing this symbol will lead many people to make them about me.
Wearing a Star of David has also helped me to work on caring less about what other people think of me and not needing external approval as regularly. I do not wish to hide or deny my religious identity, but symbolically wearing it daily on my chest signals me loudly as "other" and potentially as a target for hatred.
When I hesitate about wearing the star, however, I think back to a not-too-distant atrocity -- the Holocaust. Whatever anti-Semitism and resulting paranoia we may be experiencing in this country today, we still possess the freedom to express our religious and cultural identities. There is a big difference between the threat of oppressive violence and the reality of it. While it is only a threat and freedom continues, we have the right, perhaps the obligation, to express our heritage and ourselves.
In a generation from now, I wonder, what will this star around my neck mean to me? What will it mean to the Jewish people? As with most symbols, its meaning will likely change over time.
Gershom Scholem, one of the greatest kabbalistic scholars of this century, wrote in the "Encyclopedia Judaica" that historically, the Star of David has had a proliferation of meanings, many of which have been mystical.
In the 17th century, he writes, alchemists called the Magen David the "shield of David" and they believed the opposing triangles to be an alchemical symbol for the union between the diametrically opposed elements of water and fire. At that same time, kabbalists were calling it the "shield of the [Messiah], the son of David."
Also, according to Ellen Frankel and Betsy Platkin Teutsch in "The Encyclopedia of Jewish Symbols" (Jason Aronson, 1995) the Star of David's geometric symmetry has led "anthropologists [to] claim that the triangle pointing downward represents female sexuality, and the triangle pointing upward, male sexuality; thus, their combination symbolizes unity and harmony."
Interestingly, the Star of David has only taken on the symbolic representation of Jewish identity and the collective Jewish peoplehood in the last 200 years. Before then it had been, among other things, "the insignia of individual families or communities." In fact, according to Frankel and Teutsch, Theodor Herzl chose it as the symbol for the State of Israel because it was widely considered to be a secular symbol.
I have begun to develop my own interpretation of the Star of David. As I wear it today, the open space at the center represents the answers I have yet to find -- the cultural, personal and religious identity I am still forging. The balanced and opposing triangles symbolize my struggle between personal reflection and public promotion.
In the past year I have gone from being single, living in Boston and editing a magazine that speaks to a generation of young adult Jews, to being one-half of a two-person whole, living in New York and traveling as an individual writer on a spiritual and religious journey. When I look at it, the star around my neck reminds me of the many ways in which my personal identities have been modified.
As time moves on and I assume new roles yet again, I am sure new symbolic meaning will continue to unfold.
Jodi Werner is the assistant director of Publications for the Jewish Theological Seminary and former editor of GenerationJ.com. Reprinted From GenerationJ.com, a service of Jewish Family & Life!