In July of 1969, I flew with my fam­i­ly to Israel for the first time. The El Al cap­tain came on the PA sys­tem to announce that an Amer­i­can astro­naut named Neil Arm­strong had just walked on the moon. My sights were set on dis­tant climes, and my sense that any­thing was pos­si­ble was confirmed.

My gen­er­a­tion was prob­a­bly the first to feel utter­ly accept­ed as Amer­i­cans and as Jews. I grew up in Queens with a diverse group of friends from pub­lic school. Sports and com­ic books were our com­mon lan­guage, cement­ing our shared Amer­i­can­ness. There was no ques­tion of my belong­ing. I assumed my pals, regard­less of their eth­nic­i­ty or reli­gion, felt the same way. Those of us who had hyphen­at­ed iden­ti­ties were proud of who we were.

My nov­el, Adam Unre­hearsed, is a com­ing-of-age com­e­dy about a twelve-year-old boy in Flush­ing, New York in the run-up to his bar mitz­vah. The sto­ry is set in 1970 and 1971 — a sem­i­nal moment in Amer­i­can Jew­ry. It was three years after Israel’s light­ning vic­to­ry in the Six-Day War, which sent Amer­i­can Jew­ish pride sky-high, and three years before the Yom Kip­pur War would punc­ture that bal­loon. The Amer­i­can Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty felt so secure, it went pub­lic with its own polit­i­cal cause: sav­ing Sovi­et Jewry.

The nation was divid­ed and in pain over the war in Viet­nam, the shoot­ings at Kent State, and the assas­si­na­tions of Mar­tin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. But our Amer­i­can can-do ethos result­ed in a fusion of lib­er­al and Jew­ish val­ues, a syn­the­sis that seemed invi­o­lable: civ­il rights would deliv­er true equal­i­ty, the War on Pover­ty would raise the poor into the mid­dle class, air and water pol­lu­tion could be reversed, and Jews, who had suf­fered so much as a minor­i­ty, as immi­grants, as vul­ner­a­ble out­siders, would ensure that no one else had to endure such mis­ery. The lib­er­al lead­ers of Jew­ish con­gre­ga­tions and orga­ni­za­tions led the way. Yet those same Amer­i­can Jew­ish insti­tu­tions have often been ridiculed in fic­tion — some­times bril­liant­ly — as an expres­sion of mate­ri­al­is­tic cul­ture with a shal­low and ten­u­ous con­nec­tion to Judaism, or as archa­ic rem­nants of Old Europe. 

I want­ed to tell a sto­ry about a twelve-year-old Jew­ish boy who is not Ortho­dox and who has a pos­i­tive rela­tion­ship with syn­a­gogue life and its satel­lites — Hebrew school, junior con­gre­ga­tion, Zion­ist youth move­ments, and sum­mer camp. Adam Unre­hearsed builds up to Adam Miller’s bar mitz­vah, the one day that Adam’s non-Jew­ish friends — and all of his Jew­ish friends — see him in a Jew­ish con­text. For me as for my pro­tag­o­nist, these frame­works were for­ma­tive. They offered me a pri­vate uni­verse in which I had a sec­ond, secret iden­ti­ty. Even my rebel­lions against them — such as quit­ting the syn­a­gogue youth group to join Young Judaea and launch­ing a rival Hebrew high school — were con­struc­tive. Like Adam, I had my per­son­al multiverse.

Anti­semitism takes hold in part because of igno­rance of Jew­ish his­to­ry and Jew­ish peoplehood.

Adam’s Jew­ish iden­ti­ty evolves through­out the nov­el. He pre­pares dili­gent­ly for his bar mitz­vah under the demand­ing tute­lage of his can­tor, a bois­ter­ous Holo­caust sur­vivor from Roma­nia with great ambi­tions for Adam despite his skin­ny voice.” Adam also takes his first hes­i­tant steps into social activism, and, when he falls in love with act­ing, he stages a school play based on an Elie Wiesel nov­el. Teach­ers begin to reveal to Adam that they, too, are Jew­ish, and the very stu­dents Adam finds most intim­i­dat­ing respond with the great­est fer­vor to the show. 

Adam devel­ops sur­vival anten­nae when school becomes a dan­ger zone, as old friends inex­plic­a­bly fall away and poten­tial new friend­ships emerge. He feels caught off guard when he encoun­ters anti­semitism for the first time, first when he’s ver­bal­ly and phys­i­cal­ly assault­ed, and then when his syn­a­gogue is van­dal­ized. Should he keep these inci­dents in per­spec­tive as unpleas­ant but mar­gin­al phe­nom­e­na, as his father sug­gests, or should he see them as grave dan­gers that must be coun­tered with mil­i­tan­cy, as his old­er broth­er advocates?

When my par­ents warned me to be care­ful about how I behaved in pub­lic, it expressed their mid­dle-class pro­pri­ety, but it also meant that I should be on my best behav­ior in front of non-Jews — that I must nev­er do any­thing to feed the anti­se­mit­ic under­tow. I thought their fears were exag­ger­at­ed, holdovers from Father Coughlin’s anti­se­mit­ic radio tirades dur­ing their child­hoods, or from their own par­ents’ need to defend them­selves bod­i­ly in Rus­sia and Aus­tria and on the rough streets of New York.

Despite the over­whelm­ing accep­tance that Jews have found in Amer­i­can soci­ety, expres­sions of anti­semitism have explod­ed since the Octo­ber 7th mas­sacre of Israelis by Hamas and the sub­se­quent war in Gaza. The ven­omous tone of many anti-Israel protests has been shock­ing; the bla­tant and selec­tive dis­tor­tions, the denial of atroc­i­ties and Jew­ish suf­fer­ing, the replace­ment of crit­i­cism of Israeli pol­i­cy with calls for Israel’s destruction. 

Amer­i­can Jew­ry is per­haps fac­ing anoth­er sem­i­nal moment. But I don’t think today’s anti­semitism is the same as it was in the 1970s. What is sim­i­lar is the feel­ing of being caught off guard, rais­ing old anx­i­eties about which friends we can depend on and which we cannot. 

Anti­semitism takes hold in part because of igno­rance of Jew­ish his­to­ry and Jew­ish peo­ple­hood. The assump­tion that the Jew­ish sto­ry has already been told — that our epic is deeply famil­iar to most Amer­i­cans — turns out to be mis­tak­en. We have to keep telling peo­ple who we are, what we’ve been through, and what we stand for. Fic­tion, unique­ly, allows us to share our inter­nal con­flicts and ques­tions, and resist the temp­ta­tion to replace nuance with slo­gans. To make sure the Amer­i­can Jew­ish expe­ri­ence remains a phe­nom­e­nal suc­cess sto­ry, we need to keep telling our sto­ries in all their complexity.

For 11 years, Don has been co-host of TLV1’s The Promised Pod­cast, where his hilar­i­ous sto­ry­telling about his fam­i­ly and his life in Israel in the What­ta­Coun­try seg­ment has gained him a wide fol­low­ing. The Promised Pod­cast is a week­ly review of pol­i­tics and soci­ety in Israel with more than three mil­lion down­loads. Don’s longer auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal com­ic and mov­ing mono­logues can be heard on his per­for­mance pod­cast, Fut­ter­man’s One-Man Show. Don has been a colum­nist for Haaretz and The Dai­ly Beast and has pub­lished two chil­dren’s books fea­tur­ing his three actu­al kids. He’s also the found­ing Direc­tor of the Israel Cen­ter for Edu­ca­tion­al Inno­va­tion and the Direc­tor of the Mori­ah Fund in Israel. He grew up in Flush­ing, New York, has lived in Boston, San Fran­cis­co, Seat­tle, and Prov­i­dence, and has lived in Israel since 1994.