Written in honor of yesterday’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, but something I think about often.
I grew up in Skokie, Illinois (and still consider it my hometown). I did not know at the time but was informed as an adult (by my wiser older sister) that Skokie had the largest number of Holocaust survivors (at one point in time). In elementary school, I learned about Hanukkah, the miracle of the one-day supply of oil lasting for eight days, and latkes on microfilm. Holocaust survivors came to speak to our classes. (I don’t think I fully comprehended the gravity and significance of all this when I was little, but do now, looking back and am so grateful for these experiences.)
As an added bonus, we got all the Jewish holidays off of school and I got to try Jewish cuisine! My first time trying latkes (potato pancakes) was when my classmate’s mom brought them into our class. My immediate thought was ‘you can eat potatoes with apple sauce?!?!?! This is amazing!’ They are a brilliant combination indeed and are to this day, one of my favorite foods.
In third grade, my family moved to the Northwest Suburbs. I quickly learned things were different and that my experience in Skokie had been very special. The first day I walked into my class, I was the only Asian American in my classroom. (My classmates in Skokie were of diverse cultures and backgrounds, and I was definitely not the only Asian. We may even have been part of the majority.) Jewish holidays were not openly discussed or celebrated. Worse of all, we did not get the Jewish holidays off of school! I sorely missed Skokie, Illinois.
Fast-forward a few years and I got to celebrate my friend from Skokie’s bat mitzvah. Fast-forward a few more years and religion became the focus of my studies in college. I took courses like Introduction to Judaism (where I tried coconut macaroons for the first time and learned about traditions such as Kosher, Jewish burial, and I vaguely remember something about the Passover Haggadah being distributed with Folgers Coffee); Philosophy and Revelation (taught by a Jewish professor who brought in hamantasch, which are pastries shaped like Haman’s hat, for the celebration of Purim); and even tried my hand at Hebrew (one of my favorite classes, taught by a wonderful Jewish professor who also taught Hebrew school to little kids.) For some reason, I felt it important to visit the Hillel House and observe Shabbat with my classmates and professors. Many years after college, I experienced my first Passover Seder in Pasadena, California. I like to think growing up in Skokie influenced these decisions and my interest in Judaism, as did my own religious upbringing, even though I was brought up Christian.
When I went to law school in California, I was surprised to run into Skokie, Illinois in a case from the 70’s about Neo-Nazis wanting to put on a march in Skokie wearing Nazi uniforms, displaying swastikas. Again, Skokie had the largest number of Holocaust survivors. (One in six residents was a survivor or was directly related to one.)¹ Of course, being the person I am, with the morals and background that I do, I thought putting on the march was flat-out wrong—racist, offensive, and it also probably brought back horrendous memories for residents who survived the Holocaust. Basically, it went against every fiber of my being and my moral compass. The Neo-Nazis, represented by the ACLU, won and it was decided that they were able to put on their racist march. I thought this decision was wrong (but that’s probably why Con Law II – First Amendment was not my strongest subject in law school). At the end of the day though, they didn’t carry out their march in Skokie and did so in Chicago instead.
As an adult, I reflect back on all these memories and feel like I was part of something very special, albeit in a small and insignificant way, just for having lived in Skokie and having interacted with the survivors who were actually there on the front lines and lived out a very momentous part of history. I feel very proud to have had brief but very significant interactions with them. Growing up in Skokie, Illinois had a profound impact on my childhood and life and I am ever grateful for all the memorable experiences that ultimately formed and shaped who I am today. I am thankful to have a friend who lives in Skokie and get to visit from time to time. I was very excited when the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie first opened and I look forward to visiting one day (hopefully soon).