MY PALATE HAS ALWAYS BEEN drawn to the pungent flavors of spice, Kehmoon with lemon, Baharat with cinnamon and of course “ourt” the tamarind sauce with its sweet sourness that rolls my tongue.
I have begun to recognize that lateness, as the Western world calls it, is not a failing on my part but rather a deeply ingrained sense of time as fluid.
These are intergenerational embodiments of my Arab history. These parts of me that are embodied feel closer to my core than even my Jewish identity.
As one who identifies as a Jew of religion (not culture), with a religious practice that is dependent on mood and circumstance, my Jewishness doesn’t feel as deeply ingrained. But my Arabness—I cannot tell where it begins and I end. My heart is pulled through my chest when I hear the Muslim call to prayer. Sitting in a NYC taxi listening to the Quran being chanted in the Chalabi [Aleppo] cantillation that I use when I read Torah surrounds me in an auditory hug.
But to the teachers of the Jewish West that surrounded me in elementary school, Arabs were those people who wanted to steal the “Jewish homeland.” They never knew the Muslim shopkeepers of the early 20th century who went to the Aleppo Rabbis in a panic when the Jewish store owner kept his store open on Shabbat, vowing to never shop there again. Or Jamil Mahfoos, the Muslim school teacher who took my grandfather and his friends, Jewish and Muslim boy scouts of Aleppo, to the European Scout Jamboree in 1937.
In my senior year at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women, I started identifying as Arab first, and Jewish second. Rabbi Zvulun Lieberman was my Rabbi in “Syrian” Brooklyn, and he taught a class at Yeshiva called “Jews of Arab Lands.” In the first week he explained that Arab does not mean Muslim; it means a person who comes from a country that speaks Arabic as its primary language. This was news to me. But my whole body vibrated with recognition.
A few years later, as a recent graduate of Yeshiva’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work, and married with two children, I read a journal article about culturally sensitive social work practice in Arab-American communities. The article described communal structures that value patriarchal systems, distrust psychology, and choose family above the individual. Once again I felt shivers of recognition. My lived experience so closely mimicked the lives of my Arab-American cousins.
And yet, many of the things that are beautiful about my Arabness I walked away from, afraid that they were the cause of the harm I experienced in that word I grew up in. Today I travel under and over a Mobius strip, trying to understand the impact of both my whiteness and my Arabness. The impact of personal, communal and societal harm—where does one begin and one end?
When I was growing up, we made jokes about sending out separate invitations to our Ashkenazi guests. SY invites said 5 pm, Ashkenazi and American invites said 8 Pm. SY time was fluid, as was visiting. You didn’t wait to get invited to the homes of friends and family, you would just stop by, whenever. I grew up knowing that if I needed help there were countless community organizations ready to catch me, no questions asked. In the words of Zev Chafets, the Syrian community has “…the most generous cradle- to-grave mutual-welfare society this side of the Saudi royal family.”
The infrastructure of the SY community is a breathtaking matrix of care. When my mother was diagnosed with cancer, we were comforted and cared for by the community’s cancer center—who not only gave us referrals for doctors but delivered weekly challah and care packages, sent over a reiki practitioner and offered support to our whole family. When she entered hospice, they organized a volunteer community photographer to create family portraits for us and made us blankets with pictures of our mother and all of her grandchildren. Today this blanket rests on my lap as I write these words.
It is hard to walk away from such care but in order to remain I was asked to shut down parts of myself. I was pushed to forgive and forget the childhood abuse I experienced, remain in a loveless marriage to a gay man and ignore the misogyny that tried to prevent me, a woman, not to mention a rabbi, from speaking at my own mother’s funeral. These costs felt too great and yet when I divorced at 30 and moved out of the community, I was faced with a new world. Suddenly I had to actively invite people over weeks in advance, play dates were formalized, start time was strict. The days of people drop- ping by on Saturday afternoon without calling were relegated to the past.
In 2005, 30 years old, eight years married with two children and a masters in social work, I sat across from my therapist on the eve of my divorce: “Esther,” she said, “you got married and had two kids, a boy and a girl, you did everything you were supposed to do, now you can do whatever the heck you want to do.” And in that moment her words gave me permission to discard the community that had kept me stuck. Like my earlier shame over being late, I judged the values of community over independence. I fought for individualism; living in the close knit community with its rampant misogyny left me wanting to find my own path forward. I walked away from the community believing that it was was the collectivist attitudes of my upbringing that brought about harm. Now, I realize, it was not so black and white.
When I was in kindergarten the other kids in the class wouldn’t sit next to me during lunch because I did not have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Instead my mother packed me spanach jiben, a crustless spinach, egg and cheese quiche. After a few shameful weeks I went home and asked for school lunch, fish sticks with ketchup, so that I could fit in. I was only four the first time I chose assimilation over culture.
When the first Syrian Jewish boys came to America in the first decade of the 20th century, they were placed in homes of Ashkenazi Jews who looked at their foreignness and pronounced them not Jewish. Their Arabic tongue and caftan garb were not what a Jew looked like. These young men who came here for opportunity quickly recognized that their way up was through assimilation. Rather than hold on to their Arab ways they quickly Americanized. Without their families and their religious community, without the strict Arab code of separation that permeated Syria and which allowed Jews to live freely amongst their neighbors with clear boundaries between Jews, Christians and Muslims, the melting pot of America permitted them to strip themselves of their identities and become one, E Pluribus Unum. America’s mantra was not only a nationalist one but an individual one. The unspoken value of America is assimilation in order to achieve the “American Dream.” And while the community rabbis pulled us back towards a religious insularity, the American values of assimilation are still absorbed through the communal pores.
The unspoken value of America is assimilation in order to achieve the “American Dream.” And while the community rabbis pulled us back towards a religious insularity, the American values of assimilation are still absorbed through the communal pores.
I am a product of both worlds. My trauma history lives through my eyes, hyperfocusing or blurring my perceptions.
And it is seeing through those fractured eyes towards assimilation that allowed me to embrace the Western ideas of individualism and autonomy which ultimately gave me permission to leave my marriage and become a rabbi. But it is also those eyes that could only see the harm, that leave me lonely in a world that does not value interdependence. My Western mind sees the Syrian community through the lens of codependency, but my Eastern body craves connection.
Today, as my relatives ask when I am coming to visit, I feel the pull of my past, even while my therapist reminds me that I can decline the invitation. They don’t understand my need for separation from the collectivism that requires solidarity above all else. They don’t understand that the scars of my raging abusive father and my silent mother do not disappear in my adulthood. The word “boundaries” is foreign and dangerous. For them, family is everything, no matter the secrets, the shame and the harm. “That was in the past” they say. “Let it go. Don’t stay stuck there. We want you to be happy,” with tears running down their faces”
I can feel their pain. My mind holds compassion but my body scoffs at it. Their desire that I forgive and forget are in direct contradiction to my deeply held values of accountability and repair. But I have to wonder how much of the forgive-and-forget attitude actually comes from the impact of a culture that deemed their Jewish and Middle Eastern identity as inferior.
In those circumstances, how much forgive-and-forget is simply required to survive?
Esther Azar is the second Syrian female rabbi. She spends her time healing, uncovering fractals and creating a theory of everything as she works on her upcoming book exploring trauma, supremacy and how to change the course of the world.