Impulse purchase? Buying a Star of David in Nyons



By Patricia Fieldsteel 

NYONS, France — I did something uncharacteristic the last week of 2009; I bought a Star of David to wear around my neck. During the 55 years I lived in New York, I would never have considered such a thing; but now with each year that I’ve lived in a place with no Jews, I’ve become increasingly aware of my Jewishness. Yes, there is a moving and graphic monument to the 28 murdered Jews of Nyons who were deported to extermination factories with the aid of the French police and one or two Nyonsais. None returned. There are three Jews in a nearby town, all childhood survivors of the Shoah, as the Holocaust is called in Europe, but there is no Jewish presence, no Jewish community, not even a bagel —nothing.

So I was astonished to see the small Mogen David displayed amongst the Protestant and Catholic crosses in the window of a local jewelry shop two months ago. In a town with no Jews, who could possibly buy it? Each time I passed by, I stared. The price was 56 euros; plus there would have to be a chain — more than I can afford with the devalued dollar. Then, on what at first appeared to be an impulse, I went in and bought it. When the shop owner (who I’d been told years ago was a “secret Jew”) wrote out my receipt, it was for a croix (cross) and then in parentheses “étoile de David.” I mentioned I’d been surprised to see she was selling one, considering there were no Jews in the area, save my friend in the next town, whom I was certain she knew. Oh, yes, Mme. X had come in several years ago to have her croix repaired, she said, adding, come to think of it, there are no Jews around here. So in French, croix it is. She asked if the croix was for me and did I want to wear it home. I did.

Despite the frigid, windy weather, I left the collar of my coat open, my scarf loose, so I could finger my star as I walked home. After weeks of being sick with flu, I suddenly felt uplifted, almost happy and light. Why? I asked myself. It’s only a silly trinket, an amulet, an extravagant bauble I can’t afford. But something felt settled, something felt right. In my childhood we were Jews who hid, who denied, who were ashamed. With 10 million tortured and assassinated, our “shame” came from not getting into the “right” clubs, schools, neighborhoods or firms. Whenever the word “Jew” was mentioned at home, en famille, it was mentioned sotto voce — like who else could hear save a room full a Jews known also as our immediate family? When we ate “Jewish” food — bagels, brisket, chopped liver, rugelach, babka — we did so only in private.

At the age of 2 or 3, my mother and maternal grandmother took me to a tea salon in the nearby very WASP town of Garden City. I ran in, delightedly looking at the doughnut display, calling out, “Bagels! Bagels!” Immediately, I was hushed. I doubt any of the other customers even knew what a bagel was, but we knew and the message imparted from early on was to be Jewish was something bad, something that made us not as good as other people. I was 10 before I summoned the courage to ask if it was true, that despite going to Christian Science Sunday school and church, we were, in fact, one of “them.”

In school, most children had been brought up to be anti-Semitic. They said Jews weren’t white, they were fat, ugly and greedy, plus they cheated. Of course, I was different, they’d add. Another oft-repeated line was that Hitler should have finished the job. A sentiment I’ve heard more than once over here, along with that all the world’s problems come from the Jews. Jews are hated because we killed Jesus, because we do evil things. A French friend told me I had nothing to worry about, no one would know I’m Jewish because I don’t have a big enough nose. Others friends (from the U.K.) told me the Shoah was just an “ordinary” wartime event and that “The Jews” have blown it up to gain sympathy for themselves, going so far as to get Hollywood (controlled by Jews) to create footage of concentration camps that never existed. The list continues. Of course, many people here are horrified by such ideas, especially Arabs, who know all too well what it feels like to be maligned and maltreated for no reason.

But still, these are social slights — hardly pogroms or a Holocaust. For many centuries, Europeans have tried to annihilate the Jews living within their midst; have tortured and persecuted them, and yet, they haven’t succeeded. The fastest-growing Jewish population in the world today is in Germany.

So why the star? First, I realized all too late how I’d unknowingly resented all those gold crosses people wore around their necks, almost as if they were an affront to anyone who didn’t have the “right” to wear one. Living in a country where the French police deported 76,000 Jews to the camps, with only 2,500 returning, I had an enormous need, without realizing it, to show my presence as a Jew in this town.

Then there’s the matter of my family. My paternal grandparents lit Shabbos candles, yartzeit candles, ate matzah during Passover and fasted on Yom Kippor. They didn’t go to synagogue; there’d been a fight with their shul during the Depression over money. Of course, I knew nothing of any of this until my grandmother told me in secret once I’d started to become observant in my 30s.

My parents made it overwhelmingly clear they were ashamed of my father’s parents. My beloved maternal grandfather, who died quite young, wanted none of my parents’ nonsense. He was fond of saying they were only half Jewish — on their parents’ sides, or that my father was a WASH — White Anglo-Saxon Hebrew. 

My maternal grandmother, his widow, lived to be 99 and was also a Christian Scientist. She always considered herself a proper Bostonian and frequently told me, “In Boston, none of the right people were Jewish.” My mother’s variation was, “It’s not sophisticated to be Jewish anymore, though I’d never deny my Jewish heritage.”

Does this count for anything more than personal anecdotal ephemera? Perhaps, in that we all live in a historical context wherein pogroms and holocausts go on every day. It also emphasizes the importance to raise and educate children to never be ashamed of who or what they are — be it their nationality, skin color, I.Q., physical appearance, religion, sexual orientation, etc. — as well as to respect those of others. When that doesn’t happen, the world is diminished and wars break out.

And what of my Star of David? I continue to finger it at times, securely feeling its six points. Less than a month later, I realize what appeared to be an impulse purchase was in reality quite the opposite.