All my life, my American father and my Israeli mother fought with each other: would I be an American Jew or an Israeli Jew?
An American Jew, surely, since I was born in the United States. My father’s family were secular, left-wing Jews of Ukrainian descent who married outside the faith and never talked about religion at home. It was the branch of my family that I knew best.
But my mother made sure I felt Israeli. We spoke Hebrew at home and celebrated Jewish holidays. I grew up with Israeli children’s videos, music, and media, and Israeli identity (and nationalism) was a constant topic of discussion.
I was uncomfortable, I didn’t know how to think about myself.
My American peers also had opinions. I was brown and Jewish, so I thought I was Israeli. Then the tone of the conversation in the United States changed and suddenly it seemed like I had to answer a new question: Was I a “person of color?” Not all Jews are white, but where did I end up? Was I a “Jew of color”? Explain “why I was brown” (my maternal grandparents were from Cochin, in southern India) only complicated things further. “the Jews? In India? But I thought…”
So I decided to manage my complicated identity by not dealing with it. Surely, if I moved, I would eventually find a place where I belonged. RIGHT?
At the age of 24, to try to strike out on my own, I decided to move to Europe.
With my then-husband, I found a remote job and started traveling. First, we traveled for three months to India, where I finally had the opportunity to visit my grandparents’ synagogues in Cochin.
Although I was moved by the beauty of the buildings, I was saddened to see the difference between the well-maintained Paradesi Synagogue, a place of worship for “white Jews” of Sephardic origin, and the closed and less visited synagogues from the darker-skinned Malabari Jewish community. Even within such a small community, we had created a micro-hierarchy of division.
And India, to me, always seemed like a foreign country. It was the answer to the question “Why are you brunette?” “, but that didn’t mean I felt at home there. I felt both included and alienated, just like in the United States.
Later we started moving between different European countries. We spent time first in Germany and then in Cyprus. Then, flying over Greece, we headed north towards the Balkans.
In the Balkans, I found a second home like I had never felt before. The place was, in a way, a perfectly imperfect reflection of my own heart.
The people were European and secular like my father’s family, but the place carried the same smell of the Ottoman Empire that I knew from my childhood trips to Jerusalem with my mother. Burek and bourekas, salep and sachlab… a parallel universe.
Unfortunately, Israel has something else in common with the Balkan countries: a history of tragic and painful conflicts between the populations living there, some of which remain unresolved.
As I traveled the region, learning more and more about the places I visited, two in particular stood out: Bosnia and Kosovo. Both places are home to complex governments, political situations and inter-ethnic tensions.
A particularly moving moment was the visit to the site where the Srebrenica genocide took place in 1995. On a foggy fall morning, my husband and I walked through an empty warehouse – cold, freezing, and silent. In hushed tones, our guide recounted his experiences of the siege of Sarajevo and fighting in the Bosnian army, as we visited the site where more than 8,000 Bosnian men and boys were killed. Although I had not yet visited Auschwitz, I felt the parallels strongly. Unfortunately, the fear of human difference and the atrocities it can cause is all too universal.
As we continued to travel, I also got to know the local Jewish communities in each country we passed through. By talking with members of the declining Jewish populations in Bucharest and Sarajevo, visiting synagogues and Jewish cemeteries, and learning stories I had never heard of before (like that of rescue of Jews during the Holocaust in Albania), I realized how diverse the concept of “Jewish identity” was.
What I saw had a big impact on me and the Balkans became my second home.
Eventually we left the area and settled in the south of Spain, in the city of Seville. But I discovered that I could never really move forward.
My heart had settled in the Balkans and it began to permeate everything I did. My Duolingo app full of Balkan languages, my Kindle e-reader full of Balkan history books. My headphones blasted Romanian house music, Bosnian turbo-folk, and Kosovar rap 24 hours a day. I had become completely obsessed with this place.
I made a tentative attempt to join the local Jewish community in Seville, but quickly gave up. After a brief period of religiosity ten years ago, while I was in college, my relationship with Jewish religious practice had begun to decline.
And then something happened: my husband and I separated. And suddenly I was in Spain. Actually in Spain.
I could no longer hide around the house, listen to my Kosovo pop music and have dance parties with my husband in private. Instead, I had to go out, face reality and make friends.
After years of being almost confined at home due to COVID-19 and immigration issues, I was suddenly part of European society. I started trying to integrate into the expat community in Seville. Of course, this was no small feat. If I had once been afraid of “confusing people” when I was younger, the problem was now a thousand times worse. My identity was even more fragmented.
For a while, I tried to avoid examining my own identity, because I was afraid of how alone it had always made me feel. Everyone else seemed to belong to some sort of clearly defined group. They could come together and feel like they’re part of something. But no matter who I hung out with, it seemed like there would always be some difference between me and me.
I began to feel more and more uncomfortable with my own alienation. So I presented myself as an anti-identitarian leftist. Identity has broken communities; I thought communities should come together. It shouldn’t matter how I identified. RIGHT?
And yet, it was important. It kept coming back. The European men I dated following my separation did their best to approach my Judaism through the lens of what they knew. I’ve heard a lot of references to “Seinfeld.” I received a sincere apology for the events of World War II, which was much appreciated.
There was also a dark side. Drunk men in bars told me about Rothschild conspiracy theories they had heard on YouTube. “Goldberg…wow…you look so rich and powerful!” I had to face the reality of anti-Semitism head-on, and I had to deal with the fact that even though people didn’t hate me because of my Jewish identity, it was definitely a part of me that others didn’t like. noticed. And the truth is that I had always noticed it too.
I started thinking about religious identity again and picked up a copy of the Zohar. Kabbalistic traditions, mysticism, and new age spirituality began to interest me. It was fascinating to think that I could feel a connection to something bigger than myself on a more personal level. I began to realize that perhaps the reason I had always felt “different” had little to do with Judaism, race, or nationality. Maybe it was just about Me.
I have returned to the United States frequently since moving to Spain. My mother has now returned to Israel, with my brother. Soon I will visit them. Having recently spent so much time discovering my own identity, I think I’m ready for the challenge of understanding what, if anything, the Israeli part of my lineage means to me.
So what conclusion did I draw from my trip? It’s okay to be complicated. It’s okay to be weird. And it doesn’t matter if others don’t understand. It’s okay if they ask, “Why are you brown?” » It doesn’t matter if they sometimes make awkward comments. We all do. Most people do the best they can in this complicated and messy world.
But in the end, it’s worth trying to know yourself, trying to define your identity on your own terms. It doesn’t matter if others don’t understand you, it really feels good to get to know yourself.