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Column: Feeling like a stranger in my own country

BY CLAUDIA ISLER

NORFOLK — Despite what I know about the drawbacks, it is my nightly habit to look at my phone for a few minutes before I sleep. I used to just set my alarm and start some soothing thunderstorm sounds to cover the dog’s snores. Now, in the last few minutes of the day, I can’t help but check my news feed for the ways my world is falling apart.

I am guilty of one-sidedness. I am one of the Americans who finds it nearly impossible to see the other side’s point of view. But that’s okay. I don’t mind that people think differently, as long as they leave me alone. As long as I don’t feel intruded upon by the views and beliefs of others. 

That sounds bad, so let me be clear. I am no more offended if I see a woman wearing a hijab than I was by bonnets when I lived in Pennsylvania farm country. A piece of clothing required by the traditions or laws of a person’s religion doesn’t intrude on my existence or on anyone else’s.

I have been trying to find the words, over the last couple of months, to describe how I have been feeling. And I think I found them as I read the scroll on my phone a couple of weeks ago. There was a story on National Public Radio about two brothers with different points of view about the presidential election and American society. I will be honest here: I didn’t read the whole thing. I couldn’t. One brother said that he welcomed Muslim women to the United States, but they would have to “leave the towel” behind. He said they could come and “do their religion” or “beliefs or whatever it is,” but that they would need to adjust accordingly because this country is what it is today “because of Jesus Christ.”

That’s when I stopped reading because my already tight chest tightened to the point of pain, and I moaned to my spouse, “Where can we go? Where can we go?”

I am not a Muslim. I am Jewish. And I feel surrounded, engulfed, drowning. Not long ago I realized that, if I leave my house at all, I cannot go a day without hearing a reference to Jesus or church. If I participate in a community action or protest, a meeting, if I go to the supermarket, walk down the street, it doesn’t matter. Someone will say something, sing something, wish me something. And no one means me any harm. Quite the opposite. 

But what they are not doing is leaving me alone. They are not wearing a different head covering; they are intruding. 

But it’s more than intrusion — it’s exclusion. I have always tried to make my friends understand this, but how can anyone truly understand another’s experience? These moments serve as reminders that despite having been born in America, somehow I am not American. I am outside looking in. No time is this worse, of course, than just after Thanksgiving, when Christmas takes over the American consciousness for both good and ill. But really it has been happening all year and culminates in a flashy red and green, pine-scented light show in December. 

When I was a child, I attended Hebrew school and lamented that Jewish history seemed to consist of nothing but Holocausts. I just didn’t want to hear it. Couldn’t we just celebrate who we are and move on?  Now I go to sleep to images of toppled headstones, the stars of David cracked, stones placed by loved ones scattered in all directions. I wake to hear about swastikas painted, scratched, or even smeared in feces on surfaces belonging to Jewish communities. Buildings evacuated of toddlers because of bomb threats. People being called “dirty Jews” in public spaces. And a commander-in-chief who remains nearly silent on the subject.

So I feel like a stranger in my own country, just as Jews have been made to feel in every country they inhabited in Europe for the last thousand years or so. A lot of what I am experiencing moment to moment is irrational — turning around slowly in the morning to check my house for swastikas, feeling surrounded by Jew-haters, sensing coming danger for the Jews of America community by community — and then I remember that when we go to synagogue, we are always protected by police, because, in fact, the danger is real.


Isler has published five nonfiction books for children and young adults, as well as short stories and interviews. She is the editor of Words + Pictures, an online literary and photography magazine, and she maintains a blog called Isler Ink.


© 2017 Pungo Publishing Co., LLC

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