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My Name was My Mask

March 8, 2020 | by Heather Dean

Like Esther, I hid my Jewish identity and saw the underbelly of anti-Semitism.

Heather Dean is the name I was born with. Naturally, it was the name my teachers and fellow students called me from grade school through college. In fact, having a name like Heather Dean was my ticket to finding out what my fellow university students thought of Israel or of Jews in general. None of them knew that I had eight years of Hebrew school under my belt and could read Hebrew, that I visited Israel twice, or that my family belonged to a local (Conservative) synagogue.

Having a name like Heather Dean meant that one of the students from my dorm felt completely comfortable saying things like “Israel should be turned into a parking lot,” over dinner in the dining hall. That’s when I made a conscious decision: In the interest of knowing more about what other students had to say about Israel and the Jews, it would be unwise to reveal my heritage. Better to let them think they were talking to just any other student.

The mask that was my name revealed more than I wanted to know about the way people thought of the Jews.

Almost no one at my university identified as religious; I knew no one who attended a religious service or house of worship. My roommates included a Catholic, a preacher’s daughter, a Muslim whose family fled Iran in the late 1970s, and a secular Jew. Though I too was secular at the time, she had a very identifiably Jewish name, so for her, there would be no hiding behind a non-Jewish-sounding name like mine. In that whole group, not one of us observed the religion we were born into with any sense of seriousness. It would be another 15 years before I became an observant Jew.

The mask that was my name revealed more than I wanted to know about the way people thought of the Jews.

During my sophomore year at school a friend said something disparaging about Jewish people. Perhaps she was going for a cheap laugh, I don’t really know. Disturbed by her remark, I asked her privately what she had against Jews. “I’ll tell you,” she answered. “When I took tennis lessons before fifth grade, there was a Jewish kid in our group who was all whiney and irritating and basically a spoiled brat. I decided then that I didn’t like Jews.”

And that was that.

Because a 10-year-old Jewish kid behaved the way many kids behave, an entire people was now reviled.

Throughout the generations, common everyday people have made excuses why a minor dust-up results in an intense dislike of all Jews. Taken to the extreme, in the Purim story, Haman is enraged by the actions of one Jew, Mordechai, and his judgment is then projected on the entire Jewish people.

After college, I moved to New York to pursue a career in broadcasting. With such a big Jewish population, there was no reason to hide the fact that I was Jewish, and in an industry filled with Jews I would not have stood out had I said I was Jewish. I didn’t need a mask to hide behind, nor a new name. No one asked, so I never revealed my heritage. At that time, any form of religious observance was completely off my radar. I was completely driven by my career.

The New Age movement was quite popular in the mid-1990’s in New York. There were opportunities to learn, explore and express one’s spirituality and attend lectures and events throughout the city. Marianne Williamson was a top speaker in the New Age set with a big New York City following, and she didn’t hide the fact that she was Jewish. Like mine, her name doesn’t sound Jewish, yet she openly identifies herself as a Jew. Back then I liked that she urged everyone to replace fear with love, but found it very odd that she talked mostly about non-Jewish principles and deities.

After a long illness, my mother passed away in 1995. My career in broadcasting had taken off by then, and my spiritual quest had wings of its own as well. My dip into the New Age pool sunk like a stone – it was all about preaching love, but the ‘preachers’ themselves were less-than-noble. So I began to explore the religion I was born into: Judaism.

I began to frequent the Aish New York center on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Eventually, I signed up for many of their organized trips to Israel. I took on a Jewish name, something I never officially had. My dad didn’t share my enthusiasm about religious Jewish observance, but he was very accepting of my choices and even sponsored the kiddush at Aish NY commemorating my Jewish name.

The mask I wore as Heather Dean served a purpose for the insecure college student that I was long ago; the student who decided not to stand up to the two anti-Semitic students she knew, at a time where anti-Semitic and anti-Israel remarks were rare.

In the Purim narrative, Hadassah hid behind the mask of being just a girl from Shushan, who chose only to reveal her identity as a Jew when the time was right. Having embraced a deeply religious Jewish life for the past twenty years, thankfully I no longer hide my Jewish identity.

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