For my entire life, my American father and Israeli mother had battled between them: Would I be an American Jew or an Israeli Jew?
An American Jew, surely, since I was born in the U.S. My father’s family were secular, left-wing Jews of Ukrainian origin, who married outside the faith and never spoke about religion in the household. They were 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 left uncomfortable, unsure of how to think about myself.
My American peers had opinions, too. I was brown and Jewish and therefore assumed to be Israeli. Then the tone of conversation in the U.S. 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 land? Was I a “Jew of color?” Explaining “why I was brown” (my maternal grandparents were from Cochin, in Southern India) only seemed to complicate things further. “Jews? In India? But I thought…”
So I decided to deal with my complicated identity by not dealing with it. Surely, if I moved away, I’d eventually find somewhere where I belonged. Right?
At the age of 24, in an attempt to strike out on my own, I decided to move to Europe.
Together with my husband at the time, I got a remote job and began traveling. First, we traveled through India for three months, 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-kept Paradesi synagogue, the place of worship of the “White Jews” of Sephardic origin, versus the boarded-up and less visited synagogues of the darker-skinned Malabari Jewish community. Even within such a tiny community, we had created a micro-hierarchy of division.
And India, to me, still felt like a foreign country. It was the answer to the question “Why are you brown?,” but that did not mean I felt at home there. I felt somehow included and alienated at the same time—just as I had in the U.S.
Later, we started moving between various European countries. First we spent time in Germany, then Cyprus. Then, flying over to Greece, we headed northward to the Balkans.
In the Balkans, I found a second home in a way I had never felt before. The place was, somehow, a perfectly imperfect reflection of my own heart.
The people were European and secular like my father’s family, but the place carried that same whiff of the Ottoman Empire I was familiar with from my childhood trips to Jerusalem with my mother. Burek and bourekas, salep and sachlab… a parallel universe.
Unfortunately, Israel has another thing in common with Balkan countries: a history of tragic and painful conflicts between the people who live there, some of which are still unresolved.
As I traveled through the region, learning more and more about the places I visited, two in particular stood out sharply: Bosnia and Kosovo. Both these places are home to complex governments, political situations and inter-ethnic tensions.
One particularly emotional moment included visiting the site where the Srebrenica genocide took place in 1995. On a misty autumn morning, my husband and I walked through an empty warehouse — cold, chilling and silent. In hushed tones, our guide gave us his firsthand account of living through the siege of Sarajevo and fighting in the Bosnian Army, as we toured the site where more than 8000 Bosniak men and boys were killed. Though I had not yet visited Auschwitz, I felt the parallels strongly. Upsettingly, the fear of human difference and the atrocities that fear can provoke is all too universal.
As we continued to travel, I also got to know about the local Jewish communities in each country we passed through. As I spoke with members of the dwindling Jewish populations in Bucharest and Sarajevo, visited synagogues and Jewish cemeteries and learned histories I had never heard about before (such as the rescue of Jews during the Holocaust in Albania), I realized just how diverse the concept of “Jewish identity” really is.
What I saw left a big impact on me, and the Balkans became my home away from home.
Eventually, we left the region and settled in southern Spain, in the city of Seville. But I found that I could never quite move on.
My heart had settled in the Balkans, and it began to permeate into everything I did. My Duolingo app filled up with Balkan languages, my Kindle reader with Balkan history books. My headphones blasted Romanian house music, Bosnian turbo-folk and Kosovar rap music 24 hours a day. I had become utterly obsessed with the place.
I made a feeble attempt to join the local Jewish community in Seville, but soon gave up. After a brief period of religiosity ten years ago, when I was in university, my relationship with Jewish religious practice had begun to wane.
And then something happened: My husband and I separated. And suddenly, I was in Spain. Actually in Spain.
I could no longer hide away in the house, listening to my Kosovo pop music and having dance parties with my husband in private. Instead, I had to go out, face reality, and make some friends.
After years of near-confinement to my home due to COVID-19 and immigration troubles, I was suddenly part of European society. I began trying to integrate into the expatriate community in Seville. This, of course, was no small feat. If I’d once felt self-conscious about “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 shy away from examining my own identity at all, because I was frightened by how alone it had always made me feel. Everyone else seemed to have some kind of clear-cut group they belonged to. They could get together and feel like part of something. But no matter who I hung out with, it seemed, there would always be some way in which I was different.
I began to feel increasingly uncomfortable with my own alienation. So I styled myself as an anti-identitarian leftist. Identity broke communities apart; I thought communities should come together. It shouldn’t matter how I identified. Right?
And yet, it did matter. It kept coming up, over and over. The European men I dated in the wake of my separation tried their best to deal with my Judaism through the prism of what they knew. I heard a lot of “Seinfeld” references. I received a heartfelt apology for the events of World War II, which was much appreciated.
There was a dark side, too. Drunk men at bars told me about the Rothschild conspiracy theories they’d heard on YouTube. “Goldberg… wow… you sound so rich and powerful!” I had to face the reality of antisemitism head on, and I had to grapple with the fact that even if people didn’t hate me because of my Jewish identity, it definitely was a part of me that others noticed. And the truth is, I’d always noticed it, too.
I started to think 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 intriguing to think I might be able to feel a connection with something greater than myself on a more personal level. I started to realize that maybe the reason I’d always felt “different” didn’t really have that much to do with Judaism, race or nationality. Maybe it was just about me.
I have traveled back to the U.S. frequently since moving to Spain. My mother has now returned to Israel, along with my brother. Soon, I will visit them. After spending so much time recently unpacking my own identity, I think I’m up for the challenge of figuring out what, if anything, the Israeli part of my lineage means to me.
So what conclusion have I drawn from my journey? It’s OK to be complicated. It’s OK to be weird. And it’s OK if other people don’t understand. It’s OK if they ask, “Why are you brown?” It’s OK if they make gauche comments sometimes. We all do. Most people are just trying their best in this complicated, messy world.
But ultimately, it’s worth it to try to get to know yourself, to try and define your identity on your own terms. It doesn’t matter if other people don’t get you — it feels really good to get to know yourself.