Recently, my wife Lauren and I vacationed in an up-and-coming, mid-sized city in the Deep South. Traveling from Wilmington, NC and having heard of employment opportunities there, we decided to visit the area and “scope things out.” When we arrived on that warm, sunny day, my wife and I parked our car close to the downtown area, a place hustling and bustling with tourists, shoppers, beach-goers, civil war history buffs, women wearing summer hats, men wearing shorts and sandals, etc. And for a brief moment Lauren—who’s Ashkenazi, and I—a Hebrew-Israelite, thought that in visiting the city, we had landed on a pillar of relaxation and tourism, a place that glorifies the old South, yes, but a place also very friendly to visitors and families…

Fifteen minutes later, reality would sink in.

It’s an interesting experience to live in anonymity with others you know hate you—and that, despite your anonymity. After all, one of the more comforting aspects of visiting a place as a tourist or vacationer is the simple fact of being anonymous—no one there really knows you or what you’re about. As a result, the consequences for how you fit into the social order don’t have the same implications they would if you were closer to home. I’ve noticed this tendency time and time again in my research on Afro-Jewish communities. We black Jews, it seems, tend to exist and thrive in America through various sites of anonymity (which I think tells us as much about America as it does black Jews). But during our vacation my wife and I would experience, all in the span of two or three minutes, what most Jews of color have known and experienced for generations—that there are many places in the world where the rules of visitation and anonymity simply don’t apply. And in those places, “what you’re about” is ultimately irrelevant, because all that matters is conformity. In fact, all that exists is conformity. Let me explain.

As we were walking through the Farmer’s Market held in the main town square every weekend, I noticed some graffiti painted on a metal dumpster by the sidewalk. Now the graffiti, per se, did not disturb me at all. However, what did attract my attention was the one word I could make out…

“J-e-w-s”

That it was just a sign, I know… But something about this sign was disturbingly familiar. It was as if the authors of this sign and the vandals of Kristallnacht all had the same art instructor. The bleeding paint from the top of the “J”… the letters becoming smaller as they approach the “S”… the stylized defamation was textbook Nazi rhetoric.

Yet the closer I walked, the more I saw that “Jews” was only a part of the artist’s message. The sign actually read…

“DEATH to Jews”

–with “DEATH” in larger letters than “Jews.”

I should’ve known what type of person wrote the sign or why it was there, but I was surprised nonetheless. “Are we still fighting this battle?” I thought. “Yes, I know we control the media, and I know we just never came around to the “Jesus Saves” thing, and I’m still trying to figure out how my Zionist cousins have taken over the world…” But this sign, I thought, was not any of those. Rather, it was about Jewish life… and Jewish death. It was a sign about our existence, but it called for our non-existence. What surprised and scared me even more than the message itself was the response of the people who witnessed it, for the sign was not off in some isolated alley, hidden from the views of passersby. It was not scribbled on the wall of an abandoned building, or etched into the paint of a junk-yard automobile. At least under those circumstances, the message might have somehow blended in with other things that should be neglected, forgotten, abandoned and ignored. On the contrary, it was in broad daylight, during work hours, in a metropolitan commercial district, in the middle of a public park, and in a place where I myself saw forty or fifty families—with children—casually walking by it and not giving it a second thought.

And so Lauren and I were presented with a choice: (1)- leave the message alone and live with the comfort of being anonymous Jews, or (2)- do something, but live with the discomfort of visibility.

We chose the latter… After all, there was sitting before us a large sign reading “DEATH to Jews.” And needless to say, we were Jews—whether our vacation permitted us to hide that fact or not. What would it have meant for us, we thought, to remain anonymous in this situation?

Eventually, after informing two local business, three police officers and the local Reform synagogue, we were finally able to get a commitment from the city to have the spray-painted words immediately removed from the town square. And needless to say, my wife and I have reconsidered any employment opportunities in that area.

As I stated earlier, it’s funny how some types of anonymity simply do not matter—regardless of where one finds oneself in life. The irony is that it seemed my wife and I were more anonymous—that is, free to be ourselves—back at home than away. I guess the old saying, “home is where the heart is” has some merit, for the experience made both Lauren and I think strongly about what types of invisibility we maintain for the sake of safety and comfort. More importantly, it made us think about the types of invisible worlds that as black Jews, our children might have to inherit in order to be anonymous—that is, “normal.” It all goes to show that with all the changes that have taken place over the course of the twentieth century, with all the wars fought, lives destroyed and ideologies debunked, we still inhabit a world where simply being human is a dangerous game to play, especially if it demands that you be anonymous in order to exist.