I’m Ashkenazi Jewish on both sides of my family. I can trace my family back at least six generations, to places like Bessarabia, which is modern day Moldova, Ukraine, Hungary, Belarus and Soviet Occupied Poland. There is a possibility that I have some Sephardic ancestry from Italy somewhere in there, but it’s complicated - just like all things Jewish.
I grew up in a Jewish community outside of Los Angeles. When I was born, I was given a Hebrew name. I learned Yiddish with my grandmothers and attended Hebrew nursery school. Occasionally, I would attend shul (temple) with my paternal grandmother, and we observed the High Holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), and Hanukkah together. On my maternal side, we were so assimilated that we celebrated Christmas.
I was so ashamed of being Jewish due to internalized (and external) anti-Semitism that I denied my Judaism, and I never had a Bat Mitzvah. I never learned Hebrew and I did everything possible to hide that I was Jewish. I moved to Portland in 2015 and suddenly, I learned about the painful otherness of Jewish people in cities without large Jewish populations. I had always assumed Jews were abundant everywhere, but I learned that I was very wrong and in fact I am the first Jewish person some of my friends have ever met.
In 2016, Donald Trump became president of the US; with his election I decided that now, more than ever, it was necessary for me to be visibly Jewish. I doubled down, made myself visible and began trying to educate my non-Jewish friends on how to be a better ally.
That same year, I signed up to be part of the first ever Team Russia Roller Derby. I qualified to be on the team due to my ancestry, and also because I am married to a Soviet immigrant. Although my wife and I are married, because of Russia’s anti-homosexuality laws, our marriage is not recognized there, so I am unable to get citizenship. I e-mailed the Roller Derby Nations Committee to ask for an exception, and they granted it to me with no questions asked.
Once Team Russia got together for our practices days before the World Cup in 2018, it was clear almost immediately that I stuck out like a sore thumb. Everybody on the team was a joy to work and skate with, but my knowledge of the Russian language is pretty elementary, and I was not born in the USSR, nor Russia. I didn’t have the same experiences as more than half of the team and that made me feel "othered".
After our final game of the weekend against Team Romania, I went to watch Team Israel. Although I personally have no ties to Israel, while I was sitting in the stands, I noticed I was surrounded by people who looked like me. I was also watching people who looked like me and they were playing my favorite sport! I started thinking about how these people likely have similar cultural experiences and it made me long for that connection.
So, I opened up Facebook Messenger and sent a message to Jodi Bon Jodi, who is the co-founder and co-captain of Jewish Roller Derby (and also my 4th cousin!!). It’s sort of a blur at this point, since I can be a little dramatic, but our conversation was probably full of “WE HAVE TO DO THIS!” and “I’M WATCHING PEOPLE PLAY ROLLER DERBY, AND THEY LOOK LIKE ME!!!!”, and that’s when our conversation picked back up about starting Jewish Roller Derby.
Jewish Roller Derby is one of the coolest things I have ever done in my life. We connected with 17 other Jewish people who believed in our dreams to play roller derby as a visibly Jewish team, and we played our first games at Rollercon. Since then, we’ve met and chatted with so many Jewish folks, and we’ve even encouraged people to look deeper into their family history and explore what Judaism means to them!
For my whole life, I’ve wanted to see people who look like me, doing anything other than what American culture has made into a joke or a stereotype. I hope that everyone else who feels the way I do can look at our team and feel proud and inspired. Since the We Are Nation game was scheduled, I've woken up every day thinking about how incredible of an opportunity we’ve been given to skate against Team Indigenous, on roller derby's biggest stage: the WFTDA Championship Tournament.
I feel so lucky to have the support of the roller derby community, and going into my 10th year of the sport, I know that when it’s time to hang up my skates that my time here will not have been wasted. A shanem dank, everybody.
Strong Athletic is helping Jewish Roller Derby and Team Indigenous raise money for skaters and support staff going to the We Are Nation Game. $10 from every shirt sold will go directly to the teams. Check out the three different designs here.
The photo is of Tiggz of Jewish Roller Derby, skating under the arms of Team Indigenous Skaters after their game at RollerCon 2019. The photo is by Tristan King.