On August 4th, 2009, it will be 65 years since Anne Frank’s hiding place at 263 Prinsengracht in Amsterdam was raided by the Nazis and all of its residents were sent to concentration camps. It’s rare that a year passes when I don’t give some pause to this date, because it was such a big part of my early adolescent imagination, and because then, it was the closest I had come to tragedy.
I spent the summer that I was eleven years old in the attic of our large Victorian house, constructing a hiding place. That was the summer I read the Diary of Anne Frank, Tales from the Secret Annexe, The War Against the Jews, The Devil’s Arithmetic, The Cage, The Upstairs Room...I was a morbid child, and stories about the Holocaust were my first foray into the literature that would turn me into a morbid adult. (Later, I would develop an embarassing fixation on Lurlene McDaniel novels.)
Lately, I’ve been thinking about hiding again, but now, it looks very different. I had a recent revelation about feminism and Judaism when I was growing up–both were nurtured inside the house, but concealed outside of it.
I was raised by my mother and grandmother, and encouraged from a young age to develop and maintain strong opinions and to be resourceful, independent and outspoken. In spite of this empowering space in which I lived, I was also expected to have a boyfriend, to let him pay, to have a date for every dance, to wear makeup, to be “normal.” In other words, to be assertive and bold and smart, but not to the detriment of my social life and relationships, especially my relationships with men. With Judaism, it was the same. In the house, we discussed it and demonstrated our allegiance, but in our publc lives, we lived according to my grandmother’s words: “Don’t be too Jewish, because the goyim don’t like it.”
Of course, there is a context: war, anti-Semitism, fear. My mother graduated high school in 1963, when the atmosphere for the“The Feminine Mystique” was ripe, and women were expected, above all, to obtain an “Mrs.” The takeaway: Don’t push people, don’t step out of line, be who they want you to be; Play the game you’re supposed to play, and you’ll be safe. Generations of oppression results in the sublimation of our true selves. It’s a survival mechanism.
These days, my life is explicitly about not hiding, it is about living my whole identity as a political person: a feminist, anti-racist, Jewish, queer-allied, outspoken woman. I think often of what my mother, who’s been dead for 11 years, would say about her 30 year old, unmarried daughter living in New York City and proclaiming her feminist politics to the blogosphere. There are so many things I can’t know, that are hidden from me, indefinitely.