Personal Stories


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.

Miriam Itzkowitz (left)

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.

Personal Stories

Societal Standards & the complexity of teen life

Every society has a set of standards to which it is expected that its members will conform. A common occurrence in my life is having that fear inside about what they will think if I am unable to accomplish those standards. This crippling anxiety inside occurs when I sit down and try to relax or when I’m watching a series or a movie. It escalates to the point where nothing makes sense and I have the feeling that whatever I do, it is not going to amount to anything. 

It is common in Indian society for people to have certain expectations and the worst part is that it is always gender related. My mistake in this process is being a progressive-thinking person. I was very open-minded in every aspect, which was not liked by some people. The question which always ran in my mind was, “Why are these few people affecting my mental process?” If I had the answer to that question, everything would have been better, right? Or what if we lived in a society where people just accepted everyone for who they are? Wouldn’t all of us be living in a less toxic, safer and a more inclusive environment by now?

Some quick background: I am going to pursue law, and to do that, one must enroll themselves into CLAT (common law admission test). I applied for CLAT, and another private law college, and during that time, everyone used to say that I would surely get into the private school. That was the first time I felt pressure to show society that I had accomplished something.

The day of the interview came and I became so nervous that my mind went pitch black. I did not answer any of the questions properly. I just shut my laptop and cried. I could not breathe. When I told my parents, my father told me there were so many other options, but the only thing going around my mind was: “How am I supposed to tell people that I did not get into the university?”

As every teenager can relate, it is very hard carrying that burden in the family, especially in my case.

I come from a family where my cousins are either much older than me or way younger, so it only makes sense that I am kind of like the middle child there. I never felt I fit in with either side of the family because I cannot act like my older cousins or my younger ones. But I always wanted to fit into my family somehow. The main reason I was so desperate to fit in was because in school I genuinely did not know if anyone liked me. I only had a handful of people whom I was comfortable with. When the lockdown was imposed, I wanted to reconnect with my peers, but after a while I stopped trying.

I used to envy when my other batch mates would hang out with their groups, and sometimes I even felt lonely and ashamed to tell other people I didn’t have that. I had a complicated high school experience. Although I can’t deny there were happy moments, incidents of bullying always made me feel a hole inside. I thought the feelings I felt were normal, and I never reached out to someone.

I could not move on from the fact that I got rejected from the university and at times I was completely burnt out. I would either sleep, binge watch a series, or have a breakdown about the fact that I did not want to move forward and prepare for my next objective (CLAT). There were sleepless nights where I would have anxiety and stress about what would happen if I did not get into any college. I had to endure all of this just because I put the expectations of society in front of me. I put the unrealistic standards of society (which is pretty normal and generalized to other students as well) in front of me, and it resulted in me having a negative mindset.

There are so many other things as well, starting from how you look to what you wear. Everything is always questioned by people. Especially by your family members. For example, I am a person who strongly believes that makeup is not a necessity for myself. All I want is to feel comfortable in my own skin, but spoiler alert- the others will make sure you don’t. From constantly wearing makeup every time I go out, to eating less than what is necessary to make sure I reduce my weight, this lockdown has been an eye opener to so many things around me. I just realized that at the end of the day, people are always going to judge you for every action and step you take. But it is completely up to you whether you put yourself first, or the expectations of a judgmental society.  

This is my complicated teenage era that I went through and am still going through. But everything to me was a learning process. I feel that because of this I changed myself for the better every day. Now it feels that everything around me is clearer: I have my family and my handful of friends. Numbers do not matter anymore. There were times when I felt like giving up. Times when pushing people away was normal. But one of the biggest mistakes I made was not reaching out to anyone about it. So, if you are reading this, I encourage you to reach out to a person whom you trust and love. Whatever the situation, feelings are yours, you have the right to feel that certain way, and there is nothing stopping you from reaching out.

Written by Ann.

Edited by Miriam Itzkowitz and Tiffany Leveille.

Graphics by Tiffany Leveille.

Personal Stories

The Sound No One Hears

By Layla Rudy

The world today is an amalgam of human experiences, but the one thing every person has in common is the presence of coronavirus in their lives. How it manifests and impacts any one person’s life does differ, but the virus is everywhere.

Having hearing loss, wearing hearing aids, and relying on lip-reading to communicate and understand others, means that the way I experience the world is and will always be different from the norm. With that, the reality we now all live in– the reality of Covid-19, social distancing, and wearing masks– has shifted my already-complex relationship with social settings and interactions.

I rely on lip-reading to understand and communicate with others. If I cannot see a person’s mouth, there’s a strong likelihood that I won’t understand what they’re saying. Nearly every person walking down the street, shopping in supermarkets, and working in a store, is wearing a mask. Their mouths are covered.

The stress of this realization– that is, the realization of my new reality, our new reality in the world today– has been weighing down on me since March. I am constantly reminded of it every time I hook my mask around my ears and pull it over my chin to cover my nose and mouth.

Any time I express this to people, whether it’s my family, my friends, or even a supermarket cashier, their realization is cartoonish. Their eyes widen, and a little ‘Aha!” is practically floating above their head.

Of course, there isn’t much they can do in the next moment. No one can or should risk their health to pull down their mask to accommodate me.

Often, when I explain my dilemma, people respond with, “I saw this ad on Facebook for these clear face masks, so you could just buy those.” Every time, without fail, I explain that me buying those masks doesn’t mean that everyone else will; if I’m wearing one, it doesn’t help me. I would need everyone to wear a clear face mask, and that’s an unrealistic expectation.

As much as this is a lonely experience, the little “Aha!” moment I’ve witnessed when I relay my concerns to others has made me think.

There I was, in a supermarket or at the beach or talking to my neighbor, explaining my ongoing predicament navigating the current, Covid-19 world we live in, and people were listening. Sure, I walked away from them with the same weight on my shoulders, but I also walked away knowing that they– the supermarket cashier, my neighbor, a friend at the beach– would now look at the world a little bit differently than they had before I spoke up.

In light of the continuous influx of antisemitism (both over the course of the past few years and over the past few months), I have struggled with knowing when to speak up and when to sit down.

I am a Sephardic Syrian Jew living in North America; my family came from Syria last century and we’ve been here ever since.  I went to yeshiva and I have lived in a Sephardic Modern Orthodox Jewish community for almost my entire life. I know antisemitism, I have experienced and witnessed antisemitism. I love my Sephardic Jewish heritage, traditions and culture; my Judaism is as intrinsic to me as my hearing loss is.

When I think about the rise of antisemitism, I feel frustrated and angry, but also exhausted. The notion of the fight against antisemitism being an endless one constantly lingers in my thoughts. The only people fighting back are Jews.

Jewish people have been talking about antisemitism. We have been urging others to see what we’ve been seeing and experiencing, and stand up and say something. The silence is loud. I can name a few prominent (non-Jewish) individuals who have spoken out and recognized the imperative need for addressing and dismantling antisemitism. The fact that I can name them off the top of my head, or count them with my fingers, is hard to swallow.

When I tell people about my current dilemma with masks, I feel seen. They listen, and while they cannot walk in my shoes or feel exactly what I feel, they know a little more than they did before. Still, they cannot pull down their masks and risk their– and everyone else’s– health in order to accommodate me and my needs, but knowing they walk away with a little more empathy and understanding of how complex the world is, makes a difference.

The difference with antisemitism is that non-Jews can do more than just listen. Listening to Jewish people is the first step, but they can also pull down their masks and start speaking up, making their mouths– and therefore, their empathy– clear for Jewish people to see. By not doing so, Non-Jews are putting Jewish people at risk.

When I ask my non-Jewish friends to speak out against antisemitism, I am not asking them to spew out the history of Jewish people and antisemitism, nor am I asking them to become professional Judaism experts. It doesn’t take a lot to recognize bigotry and hatred. It doesn’t take a lot to condemn an act of antisemitism or an individual’s antisemitic beliefs. It doesn’t take an expert to recognize and call out antisemitism.

Everyone has to start somewhere. That means, they have to start by listening to Jewish people. I recognize the irony of someone with hearing loss telling people to listen, but it’s the truth.

When I explained to a friend of mine that I was having a hard time understanding people when they wear masks, it took her a second, but her mindset completely shifted. She does know me well, and she knows how to accommodate me in regular social settings, so it didn’t take her long to recognize my predicament and adjust. When another person had joined in our conversation, before I could even respond to whatever they had said, my friend jumped in and motioned for me to explain myself to the person (who then had the realization, as well).

In the past, my friend had listened. She knows my history, my ongoing journey with navigating social, educational and work spaces with hearing loss and a reliance on lip-reading. It took her a second to realize my newer difficulty in our Covid-19 setting, then she adjusted accordingly and gave me the space to inform others. She had listened in the first place, years ago when I started speaking out and explaining how my hearing loss impacts every part of my life.

Most people haven’t been listening to Jewish people in the first place, so how can we expect them to speak up now?

De-centering oneself doesn’t mean losing empathy. It means listening when people have something to say, whether it’s your friend venting about their online classes or your mother talking to you about balancing work and health. It doesn’t mean stepping out of your shoes, because if you’re not Jewish, you don’t know what it’s like to be Jewish; if you’re not hard of hearing, you don’t know what it’s like to live with hearing loss.

Listening is a gateway to empathy. It is a necessary tool to use when interacting with others; it doesn’t mean I can’t tell my friend about my annoyance with my online classes, and it doesn’t mean that my non-Jewish friends can’t express their own fears in relation to antisemitism.

When I tell people about my struggle with others wearing masks, I am not offended by them saying, “oh, I also have a hard time understanding people wearing masks.” When people mention the advertisements for the clear face masks, I don’t roll my eyes or shut them down. Why should I? It shows they’re engaged with my experiences; they see I’m struggling with something and they’re trying to empathize.

It’s so easy to flip that narrative. I could say they’re attempting to belittle my struggle by saying they’re also having a hard time understanding people when they speak; I could roll my eyes at the suggestion for clear face masks as a one-and-done solution to my problem. I don’t. I recognize them trying to bridge a gap and make a connection, empathizing with something that doesn’t directly impact them. It means a lot to me, even if there isn’t much anyone can do except wear masks and follow the rules so we can eventually get out of this difficult situation.

Much like my circumstances, there is no one-and-done solution for antisemitism. People listen to me when I explain my experiences with hearing loss, and not just within the context of the coronavirus pandemic. People are capable of listening, of de-centering themselves while still remaining empathetic. I know it because I’ve witnessed it.

Antisemitism is one part of the Jewish experience. It’s most certainly not the defining part of Judaism or the Jewish experience, but it is a concern that impacts all of us Jews. Jewish people have been speaking out for awhile now, for years, and people haven’t been listening. We aren’t asking for non-Jews to hand us the solution, we’re asking for non-Jews to be part of the solution.

Hatred and bigotry cannot be dismantled alone. It starts with listening and empathy, and that doesn’t take much. Think back to the scenario with my friend: she didn’t offer a solution to my hearing loss and reliance on lip-reading (and I never asked for one), she had listened– both in the past and a few moments before– and did what she could do in her position to allow me to speak and feel more comfortable.

While I cannot expect people to pull down their masks and risk everyone’s health so that I can read their lips, I know I’m being heard when I explain myself.

I cannot expect non-Jews to step out of their own shoes and suddenly know what it’s like to be Jewish, but I need to be heard when I implore them to speak out against antisemitism. So, to any person reading this, Jewish or otherwise: it’s time to start listening to Jewish people. Not listening is being complacent and actively harmful. By not listening to Jewish people, you are putting us at risk.

This article was edited by Amirah Khan.

Personal Stories

Curls & Coils

Hey! It’s Tiffany, creator of In the Write. Below is my story on my naturally curly hair.

I was six years old the first time I had my hair straightened. My older sister used a flat iron to crush all my dark brown curls into long straight strands. She had spent hours parting my hair into what seemed like hundreds of sections, spraying oil and heat protect-ant on each layer, and then running them over with the hot iron. By the time she clamped down on my last curl I was both sweaty and excited. I ran to the mirror to take a look and found a completely different person staring back at me. My usually large and frizzy hair now lay flat and limp, falling all the way down my back. And to the horror of my sister I grabbed a spray bottle and drenched my hair with water, causing my natural curls to quickly bounce back to their original state and destroying all her hard work.

The first time I actually wore my hair straight was in kindergarten. My sister once again had spent nearly two hours parting and ironing, parting and ironing, and parting and ironing my hair. I walked into school and took a seat at the circular table where my name tag had been for more than half a year. I waited for my best friend to arrive in hopes that she would tell me my hair looked great and to stop worrying, but my teacher found me first. I said hi to her as I always did and waited for her to say hi back, but instead she said, “Hi! What’s your name?” She then proceeded to ask me if I was a new student. My teacher hadn’t recognized me.

Throughout the next couple of years in elementary and middle school I would occasionally have my sister fix my hair straight until I was old enough to use the flat iron myself. I never straightened it regularly but each time I wore my hair straight I was treated differently. I’d always get comments about how I looked prettier or that my hair looked better this way. Many people even told me I should wear my hair like that all the time. In seventh grade, a girl who was normally cruel to me said that she “actually liked me now” since my hair was straight. I didn’t understand how my natural hair caused her disdain but I soon grew used to these types of comments and wanted to wear my hair straight more often. I never truly learned how to properly care for my curly hair. I went through phases of wearing bandannas in elementary school, then I sported butchered bangs that were way too short and straggly, and then finally my go to hair style in third through sixth grade: a low frizzy ponytail caked with hairspray. This way I was able to control the frizz a little bit.

Most of the time my hair caused me to be self conscious and I truly struggled with it. It wasn’t until I was in high school that I finally started to figure out how to handle my hair. I didn’t know that you weren’t supposed to wash it everyday or how important product is. I didn’t know about bonnets or gel or deep conditioning. I’m still learning it all and some days I still want to rip my hair out when it won’t cooperate, and that’s exactly why I created this “Curls and Coils” section of the blog. Most people who have curly or coily hair grow up not knowing what the heck to do with this crazy thing growing out of their heads. Fortunately, some of us (not me quite yet) have figured it out, so I am hoping that in the “Curls and Coils” section we can share our hair journeys, stories, tips, tricks, and everything else that comes with having curly hair and maybe we can help some other curly people out too.

Even if you don’t have curly hair you can still read these stories and you’ll likely find some funny ones too. Most of us curly girls and boys have dealt with people throwing wrappers or straws in our hair without us knowing, burning chunks of our hair off from straightening it, or having really, really bad hair days. There’s plenty of other things that likely happened to our hair that we didn’t even know was possible that we simply have to laugh at and move on from. So, I hope you enjoy this section and if you want to share your curly or coily hair story, send me a message and I’d love to share it!

*This post was originally published in January 2020. The “Curls & Coils” section has now been collectively combined into our “Personal Stories” section.

Personal Stories

A Writer’s Calling

By AJ Morton

For almost all my life I’ve known that I was meant to write stories. I’ve always been enchanted by the idea of being able to create an entire fictional world out of a few sheets of paper and some ink. People always laugh when I tell them how I first started writing. When I was in third grade, my parents didn’t allow me to eat candy (remember that little detail; it’ll be important later). One day, I received an assignment from one of my teachers to write a short narrative essay. Third grade me was a master of procrastination and waited until the last day before the assignment was due to start on it. Coincidentally, my parents, who had always practically written my essays for me, decided to leave me home alone for that night. So, I was unable to turn to them for help.

I wanted to do something just to spite them for it, so I stole a candy bar from the jar that was conveniently placed near the computer. This may sound silly, but I owe my entire existence to that candy jar. The moment I ate that candy bar, I wanted more, and continued to eat until the jar was empty (the butt-whipping I got the next morning is a story for another time).But you see, while my parents told me I wasn’t allowed to have candy, what they didn’t tell me was why I wasn’t allowed to have candy, thus leading to the unexpected sugar rush. My mind suddenly started working triple time, and I came up with a story. Vivid details suddenly flooded into my head, and I had to do something with them. So, I wrote them.

Now, the assignment was to write two pages, but by the end of that night I had written twelve pages. And the strange thing that I noticed was that I actually enjoyed doing it. When I turned in the assignment, my teacher was amazed. She said that what I had written was the greatest work she had ever seen (so much so that she was willing to overlook the fact that it ended up having nothing to do with the prompt). It was in that moment that I realized that this was simply what I was meant to do. Speaking bluntly, writing was the only thing I was good at, and the only thing I enjoyed doing. So, I strove to become an author. And lo and behold, nine years later, I did it. In the past month, I’ve written the first of what I hope will be many novels; “The Disciples of Ubiaxus,” my greatest work yet.

What I hope people learn from my story is that everyone has something they can do for the world, and that the universe sometimes has a silly way of reminding them of it. For me it was a school assignment. For a future veterinarian, it might be a bird with a broken wing. For a future doctor, a loved one that has come down with a cold. If there is something you are meant to do, the world has its way of letting you know. All you need to do is answer its call.

This post was originally published in January of 2020.