Los Jews. That was what our neighbors called my family when I was little and lived in the Village of Los Ranchos, New Mexico.  Where the title came from or why it was assigned to us was never made clear to me. I only knew it demarcated us as different from our Catholic neighbors, in the adjacent houses on our rural road in our township, a part of greater Albuquerque.

I already knew we were different, even before I heard the descriptive phrase. Every year, as a child, I was asked to “explain Passover” to my non-Jewish classmates. I had it down:

The Egyptians enslaved us. God told Pharoah to free us. But Pharoah resisted. So he did all these bad things to them. Finally we were freed. So we celebrate.

That was my Cliff Notes version of the Passover story. In the third grade I distributed tiny cups of Kool-Aid and led my class in the ritual “dripping of blood” to symbolize the plagues: “blood, frogs, lice, flies, livestock pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, and the killing of firstborn children,” I said, leading the class in finger dropping red Kool-Aid on paper plates for each plague. Then I handed out pieces of matzo and tiny spoonfuls of “charoset”, the apple and honey mixture that represents the mortar Jews used to build the Pharoah’s. building projects, so we could all make “Hillel sandwiches”.

 “Why are frogs bad?” I remember one little boy asked. “I like frogs.” I could not tell him.

I really didn’t want to be the sole representative of my religion or have to explain all things Jewish. What I wanted back then was to not be Jewish. I had attended church with my friends, twins, Eileen and Elaine Martinez,  and was not permitted to participate in the taking of the sacrament, which looked to me like everyone being given a cookie. “Why can’t I go up and get one?” I asked Mrs. Martinez. “Because you are Jewish,” was all she said.

Being Jewish was complicated and often confusing. Our family were members of B’nai Israel, a synagogue shaped like a circus tent, in Albuquerque. There I attended years of Hebrew school where my sister Melanie and I spun noisemaking graggers and “booed” evil Hamen on Purim, where we watched the ritual unspooling of the Torah on Simcha Torah, and watched filmstrip after filmstrip of bodies being bulldozed into pits and great piles of eyeglasses and shoes of murdered Jews. The message was always there: the most important thing about you is you are a Jew, and people will always want to kill us in terrible ways.
When I was thirteen I had my Bat Mitzvah at B’nai Israel. I was so nervous to stand on the Bema. I read from the Torah and gave a speech about how this was the most important day of my life thus far, and about the beauty and sanctity of Israel, where I had traveled that year with my father. I talked all about what I had learned, how Jews had made the desert bloom and finally had attained a safe harbor in the Jew hating storm of the world.

But the story I really wanted to recount was about how an Israeli girl and I saw a waterspout out the window of a high-rise hotel in Tel Aviv. Nobody seemed to notice it but the two of us and it felt like we had this secret. We alone had witnessed something extraordinary and important— this small and tidy water tornado that popped down from a cloudy in the sky and then popped back up again. It was as if a little dance had been choreographed just for the two of us. Since I did not speak much Hebrew and she apparently did not speak English, we were reduced to pointing and grunting out our amazement. Later, when I toId my father what I had witnessed, he indicated that he thought I might be making it up, which was so hurtful.

 We came back to New Mexico, and I proceeded toward confirmation with my confirmation class. After that ceremony, our Jewishness was all about my sister and her Bat Mitzvah and the requisite Jewish holidays during which we attended at our synagogue. I thought of them in this manner: the happy one—Rosh Hashanah; the sad one, Yom Kippur, and the one in which we ate, Passover. I was now attending middle school at a private girl’s school in Albuquerque, where I no longer had to “explain” Judaism. There were other Jews there and together we formed a little tribe of our own. Those girls. The ones with the holidays and the deep tragedy of the Holocaust in their mutual pasts.

I always felt being Jewish meant being branded as a person with tribal sadness and joy. We were the people who had our own calendar and got to dip apples in honey. But we were also the people who would always be hunted down and hated. In my neighborhood in New Mexico in general, that meant I lived among other tribes- Hispanic people and the many Native American tribal people, who had their own languages, too. They were from Spain, Mexico and Latin America; and pueblos and reservations all around me. Me? I was one of Los Jews.

 We were different from the other tribes, as I understood it. We had a kind of special sadness, marked by the numbers on the arms of some of our elders. We had a mezuzah on our door that told the world: here lives a family of Los Jews. It gave us instant respect tinged with deep victimhood. In Europe, we were hunted down and put in killing camps. We were told that could always happen again. “Next year in Jerusalem”, we chanted after each Passover. There was always this place for us, my father said: Israel.

The one and only fight I ever had with my father was about Israel. “How could we just take the land of people who lived there already?” Jews had made the “desert bloom”, he said, they built a modern country. It was a democracy. Arabs were citizens and served in the Knesset.  But something about it all seemed off to me.

All around me were people with their own tragedies. The Native Americans I knew had narratives about ancestral murder as well. The Navajo had to go on the Long Walk. Their children were taken away and forbidden from speaking their mother tongues. The Latino people I knew were suffering discrimination. Everyone had a tribe and all the tribes were victims in serious ways. But I dared not mention this to my parents. In our house, there was only one group of people on the earth who would always be marked for extermination. Jews. Los Jews. Those ones.

When I met my first boyfriend, Michael Faris, he was a boy from my hood—the Village of Los Ranchos, half Latino and half Lebanese. My parents were so upset that after I left college to come back and move in with him, they excommunicated me from my family for several years, until we broke up.

 During grad school I traveled with my best friend, Julie Eisenberg, to Israel one summer. We took a film class there which was divided into several groups. Julie and I took on the leadership role of our group and we made our little film about propaganda about how great Israel was. We got ahold of some cheery nationalistic footage from “Good Morning, Jerusalem!” that seemed slanted to us. We interviewed people in media. Was the “official version” on state run t.v. slanted?  Were they depicting reality?

 Why we did this I still don’t really know but I suspect it might have been because we were students at the Annenberg School of Communications and were being taught some serious critical thinking skills, about propaganda in media and ways that messaging could be “decoded” for deeper messaging. We also were hanging out in Israel with two friends of ours from Philadelphia, an Ethiopian man named Danny and a Palestinian man named Michael. Traveling around with them and hanging out we were introduced to “another Israel”. Michael’s family home in Bethlehem had been bulldozed. One day, the four of us got tickets to see an outdoor concert in Jerusalem, BB King. On the way we were stopped by police who detained Michael and Danny, but let Julie and I go. We were stopped for some minor traffic infringement, like not using a turning signal properly. But the upshot was Danny and Michael were taken in “for questioning” while Julie and I got to go on to the concert. The police asked us, “how do you know these guys? Why are you with them?”

 “They are our friends,” we said, “from Philadelphia.”  It reminded me of a time when I was stopped by police in Albuquerque with my boyfriend and his homeboys. “Why are you with them?” I’d been asked.

 The world, I was beginning to see, was full of uses and thems. Full of warring tribes. Peoples against other peoples. Nations against other nations. As an anthropology undergrad I had studied tribal peoples the world over. Hate and tribalism was a cultural constant. Often religions lay at the root of these deeply divisions.

 It is many, many years later now, and I have worked as a journalist, an educator, a poet and writer. I became a mother, a wife, and an aunt. Being Jewish has always been central to my identity yet my identity has expanded beyond being it, to incorporate other labels and roles. A feminist.  An environmentalist. A liberal Democrat. A “cis woman”. A poet. Filling out forms I check “white”. I was told I am a “privileged white person” by one of my Latina friends, who spat the phrase out with great hurtful disdain. Everything in life I ever accomplished, was because of my whiteness.

 As I grew older and more sophisticated, I began to see that being Jewish was many things to many people.  But one of them, for me, would always be to be a person who was ready. “Have a bag packed,” my father told me. “Be ready to hide or run.” I hated that identity, as a person marked for a potential death camp, but I couldn’t shake it, it was that ingrained in me. Antisemitism is a sneaky thing. It pops up where you least expect it. That was what I was taught and that is what I have experienced. My father told the story about how when he returned from  WWII and attended college on the G.I Bill. He was denied a place in law school because he was Jewish, he said. An excellent golfer, he was denied entry at certain country clubs. “Be ready.” That phrase has stalked me my whole life.

 His words came rushing back to me on October 7th of last year.  Like so many, I simply could not believe the violent incursion happened; the depravity and horror of the Hamas attack on Israel, at the music festival, Kibbutzim and border regions. I still can’t. The fate of the remaining hostages stalks me. “Here we go again,” I imagine my father uttering, if he were still alive.

I am stunned but not stunned. I had thought my father histrionic when he said to always be ready to run, but he was not. He was correct.

Today, as massive attacks on Gaza continue daily, I see a larger picture too. I cannot comfortably own the retaliatory violence of Israel in this attempt to “root out” Hamas from the larger society in Gaza, murdering over 30,000 Gazans, considering that many humans “collateral damage”. It is impossible not to take the larger human view, because to be Jewish is also to be aware of human suffering. To have compassion.

 An eye for an eye truly does make the whole world blind, in the end. Hamas must be held accountable. The hostages must be returned. Some sort of arrangement must be made for all Palestinians, a people without a proper homeland, forced to live in a gigantic prison camp after discord with Israel turned violent.

I was never comfortable with the identity of victim associated with being Jewish, that brand. Yes, we were victimized in the past. But today, the wholesale destruction of all of Gaza by Israel shifts the narrative. Now we are seen, globally, as victimizers.

I am an American Jew and will not own Netanyahu’s war. Out of sheer dismay and shock, pain and woundedness, the Israelis seemingly attack without compassion, without remorse, without the ethical core I associate with being Jewish.

I am back living in New Mexico again now, and once again, one of Los Jews. But now, by mere association with Israeli policies and this war, I am now seen as a victimizer.  In my mind I am having a posthumous argument with my father. If he were alive, he might excommunicate me again.

Article by Author/s
Elizabeth Cohen
Elizabeth Cohen is a poet, author, activist and writing coach from New Mexico, USA.


  1. I love your strength, your courage, and your compassion. Most of all I love that you know peace is in our ability to learn from our history.
    Eileen Martinez Dubuisson

  2. Doreen Finkelstein Reply

    Thanks Elizabeth. This is a powerful essay and resonates across the water with me here in Australia. I wonder what the new normal will be once the world moves on?

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