Why Are You Shocked That I’m a Syrian Jewish Woman?

I come from a community of intelligent, sharp, fierce and passionate women, who taught me how to care for myself and others.

In the rich immigrant-focused culture of my Syrian Jewish community, stories of sunflower gardens in Damascus, wedding nights in Haifa, and the furns – communal ovens of Aleppo, where women would gather to cook lehme b’agine and ka’ak — are always being told and re-told. I grew up listening to these stories, collecting these stories, archiving them in my heart as the fragments that made up my family, that would continue to make up and inform my family. I was raised and continue to be raised amidst this beauty and love, blessings for marriage, praises to God, and the smell of tamarind and allspice wafting from the kitchen. 

Yet, non-Syrian Jews are shocked when they find out I am Syrian. My bangles rarely give me away. Sometimes it comes up when people ask what high school I went to, turning us to conversations of upbringings and childhood. I answer Yeshivah of Flatbush, bracing myself for their responses. I am asked, “What was it like being one of the only Ashkenazim at Flatbush?” or told, “Flatbush was a good school, before it was overrun by Syrians.” 

People are (appropriately) embarrassed when I share that I am indeed Syrian. Shammi – from Damascus — on my mom’s side, Halebi — Aleppo — on my dad’s. “Oh, I didn’t realize. You’re so smart, I thought you were Ashkenazi.” There is no subtext here. Why does being conceived of as “smart” preclude me from my heritage? 

Sometimes these comments come not from Ashkenazim but from fellow Syrians — men I’ve just met, whom I’ve exchanged a few words with at a party, or wound up with on a date. I am told over and over again that I am different. They think it’s a compliment. But it is a stab in the gut, the heart. I am stripped of my culture, heritage and identity in one blow. 

I am pestered with questions, urging me to share, to tell, to explain how I came to be, why I am like this — as if my life needs justification. How did I become a feminist, liberal progressive in the Syrian community, one that is more known for being conservative, hyper-traditional, and “stuck in the past.” What do my parents think? Why am I not married at 24? Do I plan to marry a Syrian man, to live in Brooklyn? 

I never know what they want from me. What kind of narrative of oppression or isolation, “little dance,” am I meant to spin for them? This is who I am, who I’ve always been, who I’ve been raised to be. 

I know that as I get older, the number of comments will increase, the message will sharpen and my “failures” will be more visible. I don’t want to have to keep exposing this misogyny. I don’t want to be torn apart from Syrian girlhood and womanhood. I want to be, and am, like my Syrian friends and my older cousins and my aunts and grandmother and sisters and mother. I don’t want to be isolated, disinherited, estranged. 

Maybe, instead of telling and viewing Syrian women like me as different, we can reflect on the assumptions we have about Syrian womanhood and what it entails. Can we expand the limited conception we have regarding tradition, autonomy and personhood? 

In a way, it all comes back to those communal ovens. 

Part of the project of the Syrian community (and more broadly, diasporic Jewry) is determining what traditions we cling to, even when our lives look totally different. When we are no longer in the hosh — the courtyard where our families gathered — but in Brooklyn or Deal. When our vernacular is English, when we cook privately, when our daughters have the privileges of education and self-determination. What are the values we glean from our heritage, ancestors, our rich and vibrant culture to ensure its longevity and to keep its shine from dimming? 

The communal ovens challenge the Western hyper-individualistic culture of our surroundings in America and offer us a beautiful model of interdependence, community building and sustaining. No one is alone with their work. We are together — cooking, sharing, arguing, gossipping, caring for each other, braiding each other’s hair, learning and helping to raise and love each other’s children. We are collectively obligated to each other, we sustain each other, and rely on each other. Your need is our need, your hurt is our hurt. These lessons of immense generosity and tzedakah, charity, are values that still permeate our community in such magnificent and lovely ways. 

Some of our most important values focus on the sacrifices we make and are asked to make for each other, for this community. Yet at some point, there are sacrifices that are not worth making if they come at expense of our inner selves or dignity. We have obligations to each other — beautiful and fragile and holy and fraught obligations — but we also have obligations to ourselves. My ancestors shouldn’t be suffocating me, holding me over the open flames of the communal ovens, and I shouldn’t feel an obligation to stifle or repress myself, to compartmentalize and bifurcate until there is nothing left of me but a shadow that fits the allotted space. 

The warmth and generosity in this community fades away when it’s conditional. Our heritage is important, but so are our lives. What might it look like to envision living as a Syrian Jewish woman as living with my ancestors, dead and alive, who embrace me, encourage me, want me to be free and alive and an agent in my own life? 

I may be unmarried and without children, but I am still a Syrian Jewish woman. My academic or professional choices, my political leanings or relationship status, do not and cannot erase the fact that I am and will always be a Syrian Jewish woman. I am a Syrian Jewish woman when I cook mejedra as a weekly staple, experiment with vegetarian alternatives to Syrian dishes, when I pray with my face tucked inside my siddur standing oh-so-still, when I care for and look after my community of friends. My education into Syrian Jewish girlhood isn’t lost on me, taken for granted or forgotten just because I don’t have a husband. Lessons of hospitality, sacrifice and generosity are woven within my heart, and I hope, embodied by who I am. I can read Judith Plaskow and Sara Ahmed and Saba Mahmood and cook and bake and host big, noisy, lovely meals. I will continue stringing cheese in the kitchen with my younger sister, chasing my baby cousins around in the hallways of kenees, synagogue, and bike riding in Deal, knees sticky with sunscreen. 

I’m not unique or special or revolutionary. I’m not a novelty, and calling me such is a disrespect to the women I come from, the women who raised me. I come from a community of intelligent, sharp, fierce and passionate women, who taught me how to care for myself and others. I’m proud of who I am and the community and legacy I come from. I am honored to inherit from this great tradition, not just as a passive recipient, but as an active participant, helping to keep shaping and co-creating what Syrian Jewish culture, tradition and life are.

Esther Levy

Esther (she/her) is a student at Yale Divinity School where she’s working towards a Master’s in Divinity. She plans to work as a chaplain one day and loves crafting, talking about God, and reading feminist theology.

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