The Complexity of My Jewish Muslim Identity

I never questioned my background until others started doing it for me.

Growing up, whenever I told people that I’m half-Jewish and half-Muslim, they reacted one of two ways: confusion, as though I was some kind of oddity, or awe, like my existence itself was the key to peace in the Middle East. Then I would have to break the news that my parents are divorced, at which point everyone just got uncomfortable.

My mother is Russian-Jewish, born and raised in the former Soviet Union, while my father was born in Syria and was raised Muslim. I never questioned my background until others started doing it for me; for a while, I had fun exploring the two sides of my family. My parents never bothered trying to assimilate my sister and I into American culture, so I was able to dip my toe into whatever aspect of their lives they brought to the States. My father threw parties where old Arabic festive songs played loudly and my aunts and uncles laughed louder. My grandmother peddled Russian old wives’ tales to stop me from sitting on the radiator. It was like getting a glimpse into their hidden worlds, into the places they were from before they came here.

My parents didn’t practice their respective faiths; my mother came from an atheistic country, and my father was more on and off, having bouts of disillusionment from religion as a whole. Not having any religion pushed on me gave me the freedom to explore what I actually believed in, but my family structure, which is inherently contradictory, provided a more concrete path: If Judaism is matrilineal, and Islam is patrilineal, then somehow I was Jewish and Muslim at the same time. I was fine with that — but I was scared that others wouldn’t be.

I eventually “decided” to align myself with Judaism more — but it was mostly out of practicality. My sister identified more with my father’s side of the family, given that my father was still practicing and took her to the mosque when she was a child. My parents were divorced once I entered middle school, my mother got full custody and I was around my mother’s side of the family more, so I just slowly adapted to thinking of myself as more Jewish. It was also difficult for me to see myself as Syrian or Muslim — or what people think a Syrian-Muslim is supposed to look like, despite the diversity of skin tones in the Middle Eastern and North African diaspora — because I’m white. If I said I was Jewish, people didn’t ask questions, the same way they didn’t ask questions when I was with my mother. But if I said I was Muslim, I got strange looks, the same as when I was standing next to my very tanned, very bearded father.

My interest in Judaism wasn’t only practical or shallow. I purposefully learned more about Judaism, both historically and from a religious angle. I took fellowships in college learning about the Torah. One of my favorite classes to this day was my gender and sexuality in American Jewish history course. I even helped co-found a Jewish club at my school. I still appreciated my Muslim side, but Jewish culture spoke to something inside me. Whether it was the crass, blunt humor from Jewish comedians or the Jewish community’s focus on social justice, I felt something special about learning to belong in my Jewish identity.

Of course, there were hiccups. I didn’t grow up with many of the experiences that were assumed to be universal for all American Jews — I didn’t go to Hebrew school, didn’t have a bat mitzvah and didn’t go to a Jewish summer camp — and there was an alienation that I could never shake, of feeling out of place in my own community. And no matter how much I tried to reconcile being Jewish and Muslim, sometimes my worlds would inevitably clash — like when a new Jewish friend talked about their Birthright trip, and would show me a picture of them in Golan Heights, where my father and his family were ousted from when he was 7. Sure, I was drawn to them because their Star of David necklace looked like one I had, and we could discuss “Curb Your Enthusiasm” episodes we liked. But just as casually they could show me those photos, not knowing that I was thinking of my dad and feeling sick at the thought of being told to leave my home without knowing why at such a young age.

Still, I tried to see my identity less as a conflict and more like a binary. One side of my family spoke Russian, the other side of my family spoke Arabic. I liked Arabic music more than Russian music, but I watched “Broad City”more than “Ramy.” Over the years, the binary became a divide, and I started to feel alienated from some of my family members. I could still talk about music and television with both sides of my family — but how do you speak your mind when one side of the family has been unwillingly affected by conflict in the Middle East for 75 years, and the other side can only acknowledge everything that came after October 7?

Even as things become more complicated rather than simpler as I get older, I find new nuance in my religious identity and my connections with my family in the most unexpected moments. I was recently in an Uber ride with my father and he, as usual, struck up a conversation with the driver, which, as usual, turned into a religious debate that I had to tune out. This time, the conversation devolved into current events.

As we slowed in the Midtown traffic, the driver said, with self-imposed authority, that even if there are Jewish people that say that they’re pro-Palestine, there will always be a part of them that supports what Israel’s government and military is doing, essentially supports the death of the Muslim community. I shrunk into my seat, surrounded by all sides with the fabric of my red puffer jacket. I bit my tongue to distract myself from the conversation.

“Listen,” my dad said, already tired. “I have a lot of Jewish friends, my daughters are even part-Jewish—”

“I’m sorry sir, I’m sure they mean well, but that’s just the truth.”

I raised an eyebrow, but I still didn’t say anything.

“Hey, Baba,” my dad said, turning to me. At that point, he had given up trying to argue that not all Jews wanted to kill Muslims. “Do you want to kill me?”

I stifled back a laugh, then looked up at my dad. Growing up, I never thought I looked like my father, but in that cab I could pick out the similarities with ease. My nose is his, my hair is his, I’m tall like him. There are some things about me that are undeniably Muslim, undeniably Arab — and yet we were still able to joke about this.

“If this guy says I do, then I guess so,” I said with a shrug. He laughed from his belly, and I laughed less at my own joke, but just from hearing the sound.

It was such a small moment that I’m sure he didn’t think it meant anything, but I’ve been laughing about it since. To be acknowledged as Jewish as a point of defending me was touching, and brought me back to all the similarities that the Muslim community and the Jewish community hold. Both the Jewish and Muslim communities have a level of perseverance that has at the least let us live, but at our best, let us thrive. It’s those similarities that helped me see my identity as less of a binary or a conflict in itself, but as a collection of shared qualities that make me who I am. I am Jewish, and that makes me Jewish enough. I am Muslim, and that makes me Muslim enough. I can be both; I am both, and enough all at once.

Ava Sharahy

Ava Sharahy (they/she) is a college senior and one of the 2023-2024 Hey Alma College Writing Fellows. In their free time, they like starting embroidery projects (but never finishing them), and having a love-hate relationship with their home state of New Jersey.

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