A few months ago, I was sitting with my date at his formal (Australian prom-equivalent) when he asked me the most unanswerable question: “Where is your hometown?” It seemed straight-forward enough, but he didn’t mean “Where were you born?” or “Where did you grow up?” No, he meant “Where are you from?” i.e. where I am indigenous to. You see, my Chinese date could name exactly where in China his family originated from going centuries back. I, on the other hand, have never had such a luxury.
I have been asked this question in many forms previously… “What are you?”… “Where are you from?”… “What’s your background?” While none of these questions are immediately problematic, it has always caused me a huge identity crisis. Let me explain.
I come from a displaced background. I’m a Jew. I can name the subsequent towns and cities my family lived in as a result of exile from historic Israel and Judea, but I can’t pinpoint our origin city on a map. I can’t say I’m from those subsequent towns. My connection to those places is non-existent, and besides, my family was never considered to have “belonged” there. They were othered. They were forced to flee. They were murdered in the Holocaust. But even while living in those towns, I doubt my family would have had an answer to that question either.
I am Middle Eastern-presenting. Not specifically Jewish. I am often mistaken for Arab, or more specifically Lebanese. That being said, however, I am often mistaken for a range of ethnicities, including Italian, Greek, French, Iberian, South American – I was once even asked if I’m Druze! Ethnic ambiguity aside, my unknowingness of my hometown or place of origin has always put a huge damper in my identity.
Despite being an Ashkenazi Jew, I don’t really look it. Due to forced assimilation, many Ashkenazi Jews appear more European than Middle Eastern – I came out an anomaly. In the Ashkenazi community, I have always felt “othered”, with many people often asking me if I was from another Jewish sub-ethnicity, usually Sephardi or Mizrahi (or ignorantly, “Israeli”). While there isn’t anything inherently offensive about this line of questioning, it has caused me to feel isolated from my own community, and feel like an intruder in another.
Looking how I look has also caused me to face anti-Semitism, both on the level of direct hatred for being Jewish, but also on a level more specifically pertaining to Ashkenazi Jewry, where people don’t peg me as such.
I have grown up my entire life in Sydney, Australia. I went to a Jewish day school, I was (and still am) an active member of Jewish youth groups and my synagogue – I haven’t known much outside a Jewish world. However, I still participated in extra-curricular activities outside the Jewish community, which opened my eyes to anti-Semitism. So has university. Members of my baseball team once joked about being Nazis. I went on a camp once where a girl told me I have a big hook nose. One of my ex-boyfriend’s friends told him to be careful around me (while we were still together) because I may steal all of his money. This is typical anti-Semitism which many Jews face on a day-to-day basis. But there is also a unique hatred to Ashkenazi Jews, which I have been exposed to, as someone who doesn’t look Ashkenazi. Unfortunately, part of the territory of being Jewish is constantly being roped into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, whether or not you want to. In instances where I’ve been roped into it and am able to pass for Middle Eastern, whether that be Middle Eastern Jew or Arab, I have been exposed to others, usually people who themselves are removed from The Conflict, refer to Ashkenazi Jews as “white Europeans who colonized the land.” I have always found this offensive and confusing, especially as it further begs the question, where is my hometown? Where am I from? When I am told Ashkenazi Jews are white Europeans, those who are saying that are not talking about me. They’re talking about a warped perception they have of Ashkenazi Jews to which I do not conform. “I’m not talking about Jews like you”, they say to me…
I have grown up in Australia, to where the Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders are indigenous. Like the Jews, they too, have suffered at the hands of colonizers and forced assimilation, many also consequently being white-passing. Like the Jews, many have lost their native language. Sadly, though, there are some ways in which I’m envious. Many (not all) Indigenous Australians still have an idea of where they come from. Many Indigenous Australians can name the clan they come from. Jews can’t, and in this way, I’m envious. Many Aboriginal groups lost their culture, however, and in that regard, I am grateful that that is one thing that has not been lost to the Jews. Anywhere you go in the world, you will see Jews practicing almost identically to each other, demonstrating the strength of and bonds to our culture. Irrespective, no one would question where an Indigenous Australian comes from, no matter his or her skin colour or appearance, so then why does this happen to Jews?
My family was murdered in the Holocaust for not being white. When people tell Ashkenazi Jews to “Go back to Europe,” I find it almost laughable as we only ended up in Europe in the first place as a result of being exiled from our indigenous homeland. We wouldn’t be welcomed “back” to Europe with open arms. But I still can’t name my hometown in historic Israel and Judea. It bugs me to no end that I will never possess that knowledge which seems so integral to my identity and who I am. Without it, I feel a sense of permanent displacement. But then again, my almost four thousand-year-old culture is practiced similarly all around the world. While I may not have a physical place that I can call my homeland (besides a general region, of course), I can always rely on the homeliness of my culture to provide me that closure and sanctuary for my identity and indigeneity. That, is my home.
This personal essay was written by Miriam Itzkowitz.
Original title graphic by Rachel.