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May 18, 2023 5:13 pm

Actress Debra Messing Talks About Facing Antisemitism, Hiding Her Jewish Identity Until Learning to Be a ‘Loud and Proud’ Jew


avatar by Shiryn Ghermezian

Debra Messing in 2009. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Jewish actress Debra Messing spoke openly about her Jewish heritage and the antisemitism she and her family faced living in Rhode Island during a recent event in New York City co-hosted by Israeli activist and entrepreneur Noa Tishby and Forward Party Co-Chairman Andrew Yang.

Tishby, who until very recently was Israel’s special envoy for combating antisemitism and the delegitimization of Israel, and Yang, a former presidential candidate, met in March when they both participated in a discussion on HBO’s talk series Real Time With Bill Maher during the “overtime” segment of the show. Together they organized an intimate sit-down dinner and conversation in New York City on May 9 with influential Jewish Americans and Asian American Pacific Islanders to discuss their shared experiences and celebrate each other’s heritages. The evening started off with Messing talking about an unfortunate experience she had as a child.

The Will & Grace star was born in Brooklyn but moved to Rhode Island with her family as a youngster.

“We moved to Rhone Island, next to a farm, and I was one of three Jewish kids in the entire community. And in second grade, I was getting in line, we were all lining up to go to gym, and this little kid came up [to me] and said, ‘get to the back of the line k__ke,'” Messing recalled. She added that the child was then sent to the principal’s office and Messing’s parents were called to the school.

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“A couple of years later, my grandfather was visiting during Halloween and the next day his car had a swastika painted on it,” she said. “And so things happened regularly in this tiny little New England town and I learned that I was an other. And I learned that it was dangerous to be an other.”

Messing was raised observant of Jewish holidays and explained that when she had to stay home from school for Yom Kippur, other kids would taunt her by saying, “why do you get Christmas off? That’s not fair.” The actress then began lying to other children, telling them she was sick every time she had to stay home for a Jewish holiday. “I had decided I am just going to hide,” she explained. “I’m going to hide my identity. I’m gonna try and just blend in because that’s the safest way.”

Messing ended by saying that going to Brandeis University for college was a rude awakening for her because the school is like “Jew U,” she jokingly said. “I was like, what’s going on here? And we had off for Yom Kippur, and everyone talked about Shabbat and all of the sudden I felt seen. And I over the years became proud and decided that I wasn’t going to hide anymore and that I was going to embrace my heritage, and be loud and proud.”

The event was also attended by Rabbi Angela Buchdahl, the first Asian-American rabbi to be ordained, and Nancy Spielberg, who is a writer, award-winning documentary producer and the sister of director Steven Spielberg. Nancy spoke at the table about growing up in Phoenix, Arizona, and having a neighbor who would stand in his backyard and scream “the Spielbergs are dirty Jews” as well as “you Jews, you think you own the world.”

Ken Ohashi, the CEO of the mens fashion brand Brooks Brothers, talked about raising a Jewish-Asian family while author and Yale Law professor Amy Chua described her parents fearing attacks in San Francisco and feeling the need to hide their faces when walking outside so people can’t see that they are Asian.

Tishby told The Algemeiner that the event “wasn’t just about recognizing Jewish American Heritage Month and AAPI Heritage Month. Together, we started a real conversation about hate, discrimination, and how often we feel forced to hide our true selves. But we won’t hide.”

“We are going to be loud and proud, and celebrate our vibrant heritage,” she added.

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