This article was supposed to be posted later this month. However, the recent events in Pittsburgh have caused me to move up the timeline.
Dillsboro, Indiana is a small town of about 1200 residents roughly an hour outside of Cincinnati. It is rural, conservative, and largely the stereotypical mid-American small town. It is not exactly the place one would expect to light Shabbat candles, welcoming the Jewish sabbath on a Friday night. And yet, here I am doing just that, for Dillsboro, Indiana is where my father lives.
I have been to Dillsboro several time since my father moved there. Each time, I find myself amazed at the dichotomy. On the one hand, there are homes with Confederate flags. On the other, my father is able to openly wear a yarmulke, a Jewish skullcap, all around the town and never fear for his safety. For many residents, he is the only Jewish person they’ve ever met, and while they may not understand Judaism, they genuinely like people and treat them with respect.
It is far from the experience I expected to have as a Jew traveling in “Trump Country.” It has not, however, been universally positive being openly Jewish traveling the world. I tend to be a T-shirt and jeans guy, and having worked in the Jewish community for over a decade, I’ve accumulated quite a variety of Jewish T-shirts, like the one in the featured photo for this article. And I would be lying if I said that I’ve always felt safe wearing them.
It is a hard day and age to be Jewish, although I’m not sure there has ever been an easy one. Anti-Semitism is rampant in Europe if one reads the news, with multiple deadly attacks in the past year. The Anti-Defamation League, the most prominent Jewish civil rights organization, documented a 57% increase in anti-Semitic acts in the United States in 2017, due at least in part to the rhetoric of Donald Trump normalizing hate speech and white supremacy. (Note that anti-Semitism long pre-existed Trump and will unfortunately long out-survive him, but this sharp of a rise is still notable and out of step with recent history.) And this is to say nothing of countries like Iran which have called for the deaths of all Jews, although I have doubts as to whether the Iranian citizenry would all agree with those statements.
So what is it like to travel as a Jew? Largely my experiences have been positive. I associate mainly with other travelers, most of whom tend to be among the most open-minded and accepting people in the world. Travelers tend not to care what background someone has, as long as the person is friendly and will maybe buy a round or two.
The amount of anti-Semitism, however, has been apparent to me. While travelers are wonderful, locals in some places haven’t been as amazing. I’ve been called names I would rather not repeat, and have worried at times for my safety, and made sure to stay on crowded streets. And while I vowed never to hide the fact that I am Jewish, I have taken to only traveling in plain shirts that won’t identify me as a Jew.
Traveling in the American South has been one of the hardest experiences for me from this perspective. Race hostilities are open in many places, from Confederate flags and monuments to political difficulties around civil rights even today. Those things can easily spill into anti-Semitism, as evidenced by the events in Charlottesville. Those who hate minorities and people of color tend to hate Jews as well.
I try to be as kind as I can in these situations. For many, I might be the first Jew they have ever met, and I would prefer that experience to be positive. In that way, maybe more places might end up like Dillsboro.