An anomalous upbringing

Posted by A.

“I am a product of love between two warring peoples,” says BTW, WTF?!?! blog co-creator Shoshana, describing her anomalous upbringing.

Her mother is of Eastern European Jewish ancestry, and her father was from Mecca, Saudi Arabia (where his entire family still lives and practices the Muslim religion). In other words, Shoshana’s mom is a Jew, her dad an Arab.

Because of her heritage, Shoshana can empathize with both Jews and Arabs about land issues, cultural issues and the underlying angst and unrest in the region.

She says her greatest failure to date, however, is not knowing Arabic or Hebrew well enough to communicate with Israelis and Arabs who don’t speak English.

Aleza: Describe your experience growing up in a house with one Jewish parent and one Arab parent.

Shoshana: I was raised Jewish. My mother and father decided before I was born that this is how it would be. We lived next door to my maternal grandparents, who were very involved in my Jewish upbringing. My grandfather was president of our synagogue and spoke and read Hebrew fluently. We grew up in the Conservative movement and kept kosher in the sense that we did not mix milk and meat and we did not eat pork. We observed most holidays, but were not strict Orthodox about anything (except for the milk and meat and no pork thing).

My parents divorced when I was 5, and my older brother and sister and I lived full time with my mom. We attended Jewish day school for the majority of our elementary school years, and then went to the local public schools for junior  high and high school.

A: Why did your parents divorce?

S: There were a multitude of reasons why my parents divorced, but they continued to love each other deep down, I think until his death in 2005.

A: Were any of the reason’s related to their cultural and religious differences?

S: They had a strong connection, one which my strongly Zionist grandfather disapproved of. My dad became more sympathetic to the plight of the PLO and my mom was always a staunch Zionist. Religion didn’t seem to play as much a role as politics.

What I took from all of this political infighting within my family was that there was no clear answer. They are both right. They are both wrong. What we need to look at primarily is the humanity aspect of what’s going on. How does all of this continual warfare and distrust affect their humanity? It is especially important as Jews I believe to tread lightly on issues of humanity.  Jews should be reminded every day of the struggles they have gone through during their history and not subject others to those same kind of treatments.

On the same token, Arabs must recognize that Jews are people who feel they have historical significance to the land as well and don’t necessarily want to snuff Arabs out. There must be concessions on either side, and recognition that both people have deep ties to the land and the biblical references that occupy the land.

After all, we are all cousins, right? Would that make me an inbred cousin? Just kidding. Leave that out.

A: How do you get the two sides to settle down and listen? And who should this message come from?

S: I don’t know. This is why I am not a diplomat or politician. I just write about things.

A: A Stanford scientist found that Arabs and Jews share genes. Do you think there is a significant message to learn from our genetic similarities?

S: I don’t think people who hate each other would recognize that genetic similarities could be bonding. People say the original humans were from Africa. Why such the racism in this country and elsewhere then? Sharing genes doesn’t mean you will understand or love another person. How much did you hate your siblings growing up?

But I do think that the more education people are given the better understanding of the “other” they will have. And understanding leads to acceptance and humanity.

A: Have you been to the Middle East?

S: I have been to Israel once and Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey once. My experience in Israel was fantastic. I developed an intense admiration for the resilience of the Israelis…and the food. I would like to go back and see more of the country. But I felt connected to that place, and I felt like I understood the people and place better than I understood the people and place in Egypt and Turkey.

Saudi Arabia was an incredible experience for me. It was the first time I had met my dad’s side of the family. They were so loving and warm and generous. They are amazing people.

A: How old were you on each of these trips?

S: The Saudi, Egypt, Turkey trip I had just graduated from college, and I was 22 and 23 (I celebrated my birthday in Sharm-al-Sheikh, Egypt.). It was funny that when I was there you could still see the blue and white striped curbs from when the Sinai was Israeli territory. I was 26 when I went to Israel on a press trip with the Jewish Bulletin.

A: Has your point of view on the Middle East conflict changed over the years?

S: My point of view has definitely changed over the years as I have learned more about the world and history. It also had a lot to do with the growth of my relationship with my dad. As I started to see him as more of a person I started to be able to see the Arab plight as valid.

A: What’s your initial reaction to news of a suicide bombing in Israel. Your first reaction. The one you have before you have time to think about it?

S: Stupid fucker, first. Then a close second is, this really needs to end.

A: When you say you sympathize with the plight of the Palestinians, what do you mean specifically?

S: Well, I can understand how they feel like they have been oppressed by the Israelis. There is a great documentary that I showed a class last semester about the way the media portrays the conflict and, especially the American media, does not show the Palestinian side of the story very often. I think we as an American and Western culture have not had much exposure to the daily suffering of Palestinians.

A: Do you blame the Israelis for the oppression felt by the Palestinians?

S: Yes and no. Not the Israelis and in the average Israeli citizen, because there are many Israelis who oppose the occupation and want peace extremely badly. I think it is a culmination of years of poor politics that started way before Israel was even a state. And the politics of WWI and WWII helped bring about regional chaos. Thanks Britain.

A: Do you feel more marginalized as a Jew in America or an Arab in America — or both — or neither?

S: I feel mostly marginalized as a woman with curly hair, actually, if you must know.

A: Have you ever been the victim of any anti-Semitic or anti-Arab sentiment ?

S: Growing up I felt like being Jewish was not a good thing. Once I left Jewish Day school for the jungle that is public school I didn’t advertise my Judaism. I think I felt more comfortable being labeled an Arab rather than a Jew. There were more Arabs/Persians in my school than Jews. Everyone was Christian. There wasn’t any blatant anti-Semitic or anti-Arab slurs or anything pointed at me, but I felt an underlying current of anti-Semitism that got expressed when people said things like “kike” or made negative remarks about Jews.

The anti-Arab sentiment in this country didn’t really seem to take hold until after Sept. 11. And since then I haven’t felt a need to hide my Arab half, I have become much more comfortable in who I am and what I represent. I also understand that people who are fearful are ignorant. And I try to educate people about how Islam is not synonymous with terrorist. Though I have to say that most of the people I interact with are not fearful and ignorant.

I also learned a lot about Judaism from working at the Jewish Bulletin, now the J. Weekly. I learned that there are so many ways to be Jewish and it was OK to be Jewish. That helped put me at peace with my Jewish half. I am so thankful for that. And if I ever move to a place that has a humanistic Judaism congregation I will join it.  I don’t consider myself religious, and I am more on the cusp of Atheism than anything else. But I do consider myself Jewish. Interesting is Judaism in that you can be Jewish and not religious.

All of the discord in the Middle East has mostly turned me off to religion. Also, moving to the Midwest strengthened my dislike and mistrust of organized religion. I don’t like it when people hide behind a God or a Bible. I don’t like black and white answers. I like it when people think. I like it when people empathize. It’s difficult to do when so much in our society is thought and said for us already, but it’s important to make sure that we try to maintain our humanity.