Wearing the Magen David (‘Star of David’) and Jewish Identity

This essay is based on a talk shared on Yom Kippur 5784 at Reconstructionist Minyan Dorshei Derekh, on the afternoon of Sept. 28, 2023. It is dedicated to the memory of my Akiba Hebrew Academy teacher and treasured friend, Dr. Harold Gorvine, who taught me how to argue with myself.

Last December, I was at a science-fiction convention in Cherry Hill, N.J., a lively event full of writers, readers and Trekkies in costume. In the dealers’ room, I hung out at a bookstand, hoping to promote my novel about an imaginary Jewish state, and I got to talking with a jewelry designer. Her stuff was gorgeous and intense, and I had the feeling that each piece had a story behind it. I told her about my novel, and she, in turn, told me about a personal project. She had made Jewish stars in bronze, and she gave them to every Jew she met on one condition: We had to wear them every day.

Her kavanah (“intention”) was clear. We are living in a period of rapidly increasing antisemitism and wearing that star is a way to assert an identity. In particular, after the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in October 2018, the more we stand together in public, the less isolated we’ll feel.

Well, I thought about it for a while. Then, I said no. Here was my reason at the time. That summer, I’d spent three weeks in Israel and Palestine, much of that time in Nablus in the West Bank. I’d seen Israeli flags fluttering on both sides of bypass roads and in front of settlements. That June on Flag Day, Jews streamed through the Damascus Gate into the Old City of Jerusalem, kicked down grates of shops in the Muslim quarter and pepper-sprayed old women. Wearing that star identified me with the Israeli flag. Of course, more recently, that flag became identified with pro-democracy protests, but let’s face it. The Star of David is associated with the state and its policies. Did I want to carry Israel around my neck?

You won’t be surprised to learn that the six-pointed star is a very old symbol. According to the Encyclopedia Judaica, that star can be found in ancient carvings and manuscripts in every civilization, along with the pentagram, and yes, the swastika. The star became a primary Jewish symbol far later, as a counterpoint to the Christian cross and Islamic crescent. You could call it a kind of “brand.”

The jeweler kept insisting that the star doesn’t look like the one on the Israeli flag. More like the yellow star the Nazis forced Jews to wear. Was that supposed to make me feel better?

I thought it through. Then, I thought some more. At last, I realized that my refusal had little to do with Israel. In fact, I was afraid. Not that I would be attacked on the street, to be honest. And, again, to be honest, I couldn’t be sure where that fear came from.

What do we wear? What do we carry? What do we bear? The jeweler wanted me to wear a Star of David as an answer to antisemitism, as a way to stand together in response to hatred, or even in the memory of Jews who had no choice but to wear a yellow star before they perished in the flames. Why do we assert identity? Do we get a choice in the matter? This brings me to the parashah that we read on Yom Kippur.

In Leviticus 16:6, after sacrificing a bull for his own family’s transgressions, Aaron takes two he-goats, and they stand before the entrance of the tent of meeting. By lot, one is marked as a korban for YHVH, a sin-offering for the Israelites’ transgressions. The second goat is for Azazel and left alive to make expiation — that is, atonement for the Israelites. Aaron lays his hands on that living goat and essentially burdens its head with all of Israel’s transgressions, and then someone sets that goat free in the wilderness. That goat is called the Azazel-goat, though in some commentaries I’ve read, it’s called the “People’s Goat.”

Mysteries abound here. If Aaron had already sacrificed one goat as a sin-offering for our sins, why does he lay those same sins on the other goat? And, most of all, what or who the heck is Azazel?

Falling into the rabbit-hole of the wonderful website, Sefaria, I’m left with more questions than answers. Az means “cut” or “hard.” Ibn Ezra, the 12th-century commentator on the Bible, considers the alef placed between the zayin and other zayin, which forms a kind of picture of a mountain — the one from which the Azazel-goat is cast down. Ibn Eza also gives a hint about the word Azazel: 33. What could he mean by “33”? Do we have to reach the age of 33 to understand Azazel? Or is the answer 33 verses later, in Leviticus Chapter 17:7, which reads: “and that they may offer their sacrifices no more to the goat-demons after whom they stray … ?”

Most sources state that Azazel isn’t a place. It’s a demon. Most intriguing is a Sefaria study sheet with a little picture of a goat that implied that the goat was actually Azazel. Was the scapegoat actually given to itself?

Or I should say “himself?” They’re identified as he-goats, after all. I recently got the chance to get up and personal with goats. Weaver’s Way Co-op has a work shift at the Highlands — a goat-tending shift. I recommend it: three easy hours of work credit. For two Mondays in a row, I led two young goats by their leashes: Max and Knox. They were brothers, mild-tempered. Knox was a little more charismatic, occasionally jumping onto a picnic table. They munched English Ivy together, almost in unison. A mother and her son, Simcha, joined us, and Simcha led a nanny-goat around. She had big horns and a long goatee, and a nasty habit of butting the brothers, mainly Max. I called out: “That’s not fair!” and when the nanny-goat did it again, little Simcha started saying, “That’s not fair!” Of course, it wasn’t fair. I guess, you could say (forgive me) that being butted was Max’s lot in life.

OK, a bad joke, but now, I’ll tell a story — call it a midrash. Long ago, in the land of Israel, there were two goats who were brothers. Their names were Kurban and Azazel. They were happy, even-tempered goats, eating the thistles that grew around the borders of Jerusalem, frolicking through wadis and sleeping curled up against each other through long winter nights. They were always together until the day came when they were led to the High Priest and lots determined who would be sacrificed to YHVH, and who would be sent into the wilderness.

When Kurban was chosen for YHVH and knew that he would face the fire, he said to his brother: “Azazel, you are being set free. But know that you will also be in exile. As long as you live, never forget me — chosen for the fire. Weep for me.”

And Azazel the he-goat wandered. He wandered for 2,000 years. As time went on, Azazel felt the sharp memory of his brother Kurban like a blade between his shoulders. At night, he dreamed of his brother, condemned to fire and smoke. The sins of the living that Azazel himself carried on his head were nothing compared to the memory of his dead brother. Thus, as time passed, Azazel no longer saw where he was wandering. He thought only of that sacrifice, the smoke, the terror of the altar. “Kurban,” he called, “Kurban,” and a time came when Azazel could no longer remember his own name.

The word kurban (in Yiddish pronunciation), or “ritual sacrifice,” to my untrained ear, bears more than a passing resemblance to another word, Hurban. Hurban can best be translated, simply, as “Catastrophe.” It applies to the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem but extends across our long history of disasters, through crusades and expulsions, and ultimately, to what we call the Holocaust. Yet circling back, Holocaust is itself a Greek word for “burnt offering.” I always hated the word Holocaust. It implies that the murder of the Jews of Europe was some kind of sacrifice to God — that the Holocaust is a kind of collective kurban that has the power to define the lives of Jews who have survived.

I know that, growing up, I was fixated on stories about the Holocaust. I projected myself into those stories, contemplating impossible choices, stubbornly defiant and always, always, sacrificed to the flame. I suspect I am not alone. Particularly here in the relative safety of America, how can we help but be haunted by the Holocaust, feel that asserting our own Jewish identity is something that we owe those who are murdered because they are Jews — not only in the death camps but throughout our history, and maybe right now, more than ever? That was what the jeweler meant when she offered me that Jewish star.

The more we stand together in public, the less isolated we’ll feel.

Yet if we are Jews only because people hated Jews enough to murder them, then who are we? Our minds, our hearts, our spirits are a kind of line of defense, and given that position, there is often a kind of willful blindness. I think of the Arab riots in Hebron, when the Jewish community was massacred in 1929. One can trace a clear line of reaction from that massacre to the establishment of Israel’s first religious settlement in the 1970s to Baruch Goldstein’s murders in the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron to the nightmare that is Hebron today. For the sake of the Jewish dead, we refuse to acknowledge our own communal transgressions and triumphs, the complexity of who we are and where we are now — spiritually, ethically, and yes, politically. Can there be a Judaism that is not about the Holocaust and antisemitism, a Judaism of the living?

When I came back to Jewish practices and worship as an adult, I sought a Judaism of the living and found it in many places. I found it at (Reconstructing Judaism) Congregation Mishkan Shalom, and in the creative, subversive worship of the non-Zionist feminist havurah, Fringes; as well as in the revival of Yiddish, not as an act of nostalgia but as an urgent hope that the language has lessons we can use today. I found it in Minyan Dorshei Derekh that is my community now and where I give this d’var on Yom Kippur. At Dorshei Derekh, we know and trust each other enough to talk about tough things like Israel. Zionism, too — the Zionism that draws me again and again to write about Israel — was not intended to be a reaction to destruction. It was a daring challenge: affirming a Jewish life that isn’t about death.

I did ultimately accept the offer of the Jewish star and wore it for a while. Then, I just got out of the habit. I would tell myself that it just didn’t go with whatever outfit I was wearing, but in fact, that six-pointed star hanging around my neck just felt weird. Wearing it felt like I was publicly displaying something endlessly complicated, a part of myself that runs deep to strangers, something I can’t fully explain or even understand.

I wouldn’t have worn the Jewish star in Nablus when I was there that summer. Nablus is a deeply conservative Muslim city and a center of resistance. A month after I left, a cross-factional group of young militants was founded there called The Lion’s Den, and the beautiful Old City where I had wandered freely was repeatedly invaded by the Israeli army. Yet I must also tell this story. My wonderful guide to the city, Naseer Arafat, knew that I was Jewish. I told a few other people — the woman who ran the guesthouse who was studying comparative literature, a girl I’d met by chance in the Old City square who treated me to a dessert called knafa.

I did not reveal my identity to the young men who railed against the Palestinian Authority on the hotel roof deck, nor to the old men Nasser arranged for me to meet, who had led a strike in 1967. Not them. Yet I must say that when I told those few Palestinians that I was a Jew, it was a remarkable experience. I was giving them a gift. I will never forget, never, the moving, complicated conversations that resulted, the curiosity and graciousness and sense of reciprocity as they opened their lives to me in return.

But what if I wear this Jewish star all the time? Can I offer a gift — the gift of this gift and burden of being Jewish — to everyone? I still don’t know. I teach at Community College of Philadelphia, and when I wore that star for a while last year, none of my students mentioned it. Honestly, I suspect that they didn’t know what it was.

I’ll tell one more story. Not long ago, when I was teaching my evening students, suddenly, the lights went out. A sane teacher would have just dismissed class. Not me. My students were as crazy as I was, and they turned on the flashlights on their phones to light the whiteboard as I put boxes around infinitive verbs. Then they took a grammar quiz.

There I was, roaming the room, looking at their answers, giving the papers back, saying, “try again” and all the while thinking: I love these people, I love these people. At one point, I heard myself say: “How many Jewish mothers does it take to screw in a lightbulb?”

Silence. Slowly, I realized what I’d done. One student said, “Do Jews use lightbulbs?” Honestly, on top of everything, I don’t think they’d ever heard a lightbulb joke before. A beat later, I finished. “That’s OK. I’ll sit in the dark.”

That was a pretty obtuse way to out myself as a Jew. Yet there’s a denouement. The following Monday, one very perky student asked me earnestly, “Did you have a good Rosh Hashanah?” She struggled with that word.

I told her that I did have a good Rosh Hashanah. I was not wearing my Star of David necklace at the time, but I plan to wear it when I teach tonight.

The Zionism that draws me again and again to Israel is a daring challenge: affirming a Jewish life that isn’t about death.

Do I want to be branded? The term is offensive in a thousand ways. I think of products, I think of cattle. More disturbing was the report in August of the Palestinian who accused Israeli police of branding him with a Jewish star. The counterclaim was that the image came from bruises when somebody slammed his face against the shoelaces of an arresting officer. Can I bring my living Jewish identity to anyone who sees me? Everything’s around my neck, everything, including Israel. Can I carry that burden? Can I be that People’s Goat? Can I offer this ambivalent and ambiguous thing hanging around my neck like a gift without expecting anything in return?

I will wear the Star of David for as long as I can. If I stop wearing it, I won’t say that it didn’t match my sweater. I’ll know better. If I fall short, well, that’s what we do when we make vows. And next Kol Nidrei, I’ll acknowledge that there are some vows I cannot keep. I’m grateful for these humane rituals, and I carry them with me, too: the knowledge that some things are difficult to bear, and that we need the strength to try.

Postscript: I was at Minyan Dorshei Derekh the morning of Oct, 7, wearing that Star of David. I’ve worn it ever since. Just after the Hamas massacre, one Muslim student asked, with hesitation, if I have family in Israel. I do. And yes, they’re safe. What about his family? I have many Muslim students, though few Palestinians. Since the Gaza war began, the Star of David has been joined by a “Ceasefire Now” button, which sometimes feels like a protective shield. No one mentions the star or the button. I wish they would.

One Response

  1. Thnak you for sharing this story – I wear the star of david around my neck and have for years – but I too struggle with what that means and what am I carrying

    I believe that i wear this to carry the sign that I am a Jew and here I stand here I am – today I wear two one that was my mothers and one that was bought for me by my husband.

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