Ask A Jew: Is it offensive for non-Jews to wear Jewish symbols?

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By Neal Schindler

I have been given medallions as a present from a step-relative. They are the Chai, Star of David, and Hamsa. I am not Jewish; is it considered offensive for me to wear these symbols?

It’s not easy to know what will be considered offensive by whom and under what circumstances. I can tell you that in my experience, most Jewish people who wear a chai, a Star of David, or both (some folks alternate between the two) see them as identifiers that tell the world: “I am Jewish” (and, presumably, “I am proud of being Jewish”). So for a non-Jew to wear either a Star of David or a chai could, at the very least, end up confusing people and may not communicate what you intend, which I assume is to honor Judaism. At worst you’ll be seen as an insensitive cultural appropriator. I’m not sure how to accurately predict what kind of reaction you’d get, all in all, if you wore the chai and/or the star medallion.

A while back I responded to a reader who was looking to buy a mezuzah. In that column, I wrote:

I recognize that use of mezuzot by non-Jews strikes a goodly number of Jews as cultural and religious appropriation. It doesn’t happen to upset me, but then again, I’m not very religious. Since obviously not all Jews are like me, I’d bear all of this in mind while considering a mezuzah purchase. 

Flickr drawing of Hamsa by Alice Combes

The point being, I’m a somewhat unreliable guide to what will or won’t offend a preponderance of Jews, since I’m nonreligious and thus not especially irked by the appropriation of Jewish religious practices. However, if I were you, I’d probably start by wearing the Hamsa, which is not associated just with Judaism but with numerous traditions and meanings.

If you do decide to wear the chai and/or Star of David medallion, you’ll likely be perceived as Jewish by a decent number of folks. Either piece will probably become a conversation starter soon enough. If you feel comfortable explaining that you’re wearing these symbols to show support for Judaism and Jews, I guess it’s worth trying. But if you find that numerous Jews tell you you’re engaging in religio-cultural appropriation, that may be a sign to just stick to the Hamsa.

About Neal Schindler

A native of Detroit, Neal Schindler has lived in the Pacific Northwest since 2002. He has held staff positions at Seattle Weekly and The Seattle Times and was a freelance writer for Jew-ish.com from 2007 to 2011. Schindler was raised in a Reconstructionist Jewish congregation and is now a member of Spokane's Reform congregation, Emanu-El. He is the director of Spokane Area Jewish Family Services. His interests include movies, Scrabble, and indie rock. He lives with his wife, son, and two cats in West Central Spokane.

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