Monthly Archives: November 2009

A Tale of Two Identities

I’ve never questioned my Jewish identity. I’ve gone to Jewish schools and summer camps. I have been to Israel and spent my whole life learning about the Holocaust. Observant or not, my life has been surrounded with Judaism. My Jewish identity, like an arm or a leg, was always present, never questioned.

There is another aspect of my identity – which could put my Jewish identity into question. My parents were born in Beirut, Lebanon. They too went to Jewish schools and camps, but in addition to learning about the Holocaust, they learned about Jewish refugees from Arab countries. That is, until they became ones.

In the mid-1950s, approximately 7,000 Jews lived in Beirut. My parents stayed until the 1975 Muslim-Christian civil war. Although the Jews were not directly involved, the tension from the war damaged relations between them and other Lebanese citizens. Much of the fighting occurred in the Jewish quarter in Beirut, damaging homes and synagogues. The street my parents lived on no longer exists. My father’s sister stayed in Lebanon, and he has not seen her or heard from her since.

Being raised in Toronto as a Lebanese Jew did not strike me as odd. Still, I spoke Hebrew, Arabic, and French and my friends only spoke English. Once when I was eight, I was at my friend’s house and she ordered pizza and when she asked what I wanted on my pizza, I replied “zeitoune,” not realizing that it was the Arabic word for olives, and not an English one.

During the Second Lebanon war with Israel in 2006, one of my Jewish friends jokingly asked me, whose side I was on. I was shocked by the question – I supported the Israeli army’s desire to eliminate their terrorist threat, even though it sadly meant that civilians were killed. But it forced me to delve into the question – did being Lebanese mean anything to me?

I cannot reject my Lebanese roots, nor do I want to: they’re an inherent part of who I am. Arabic is more frequently spoken in my house than Hebrew, and we cook Lebanese foods more often than Jewish dishes. But to me, being Lebanese is part of my cultural identity, not my religious one: I will always be Jewish.

These identities were never contradictory. As part of my Jewish upbringing, I was taught to show compassion toward other cultures; to avoid discriminating others just as I never would want to be discriminated against due to an aspect of my identity. I was raised to care, not just about Jews, but about everyone.

My high school taught me to always have a social conscience – we must always remain aware of the plight of others and work to fight it. Instead of the standard 40 hours of required community service, as public high schools demand, we completed 72 hours. Our educators spent countless hours teaching us about the persecution of Jews in the past and present. Through this, we learned to foster our own identities, to strengthen them so they can never be destroyed.

I was never taught to try and separate Zionism and Judaism because my school saw Israel as a their homeland, and a necessary part of the Jewish religion. Many of my teachers were Israelis – they lived in Israel, risking their lives to ensure that Jews around the world were safe and always had a home to go to. It does not bother me that these two identities are so linked, because my Judaism cannot exist without my Zionism.

I’ve always dreamed of going to Beirut one day. I want to see the graves of my great-grandparents. I want to see the store my father used to go to every day after school, where he says they sold the “best ice-cream in the world.” Unfortunately, it looks like this may never happen. Until Lebanon’s conflict with Israel is resolved, I will never be allowed to enter the country of my parents’ birth.

I wonder what it would be like to be Jewish and not Lebanese. It’s a world I cannot imagine, for both are dear to me. But I’ve begun to choose which one is more important to me, and I believe that’s okay – we all have different identities in our lives, and we must choose which ones construct the core of our identity.


How I Feng Shui-ed McGill

In my mind, university is one big IKEA showroom. When you walk in, you’re nervous you won’t be able to find a parking spot or that if you do, it will be a ten minute walk away. When you finally enter, you choose a bare cart that you will fill with meaningful objects. At the first glance, you feel like you’re steeping into someone else’s living room – should I be taking off my shoes? Can I sit on that couch? But if you walk around again, you realize you can use these objects to make yourself a home, a new home.

When I first walked onto my university campus, I was filled with nerves. I’m not really great at changes – I lasted three days at sleepover camp before I called my mom crying to pick me up and before you picture a little girl with pigtails, let me tell you that I was fourteen.

When I graduated high school two years ago, taking a year “on” was very much in. We were encouraging to take a year abroad before we embark on our next school experience. I got swept up in this phase and started yelling at my parents to let me “experience new things” and “become more independent” which no doubt my year abroad would provide me with. Wasn’t the price of knowledge worth the $20,000 tuition program?

Thankfully, I realized I could probably live without this year “on” and still survive (and this realization obviously had nothing to do with my summer love interest, of course). The only problem was that university was starting in just four weeks and I did not have a place at school. The teeny tiny problem was that although McGill had accepted me in April, it was now August and they didn’t really care about some 18 year old girl hysterically complaining she “had to get into McGill because she couldn’t leave her boyfriend.” After five emails to the McGill admissions department to which I was told “it was impossible to reinstate my offer,” and a few frantic phone calls, I got the email that I would always remember – “Should you be interested in the Faculty of Management for September 2007 you must e-mail Admissions within the next two days…” I promise this is a true story – I have copies of these emails!

When I entered my first year at McGill, I had no idea what I wanted to study. I took anything and everything that interested me. The anonymity here intrigued me – I could trip down the stairs and no one would even notice (probably – I haven’t yet tested this theory).

The thing is, professors do care (if you visit them during office hours). And those friends you meet? They’ll stay with you forever, no matter which end of the earth they’re from. It took awhile to get adjusted to the different schedules and intensive courses but now I look forward to every class I have (even Canadian Politics). I love learning from professors who have years of research in their fields.

McGill is a school with over 30,000 students and that can be pretty intimidating. But I’ve already made that first walk around the showroom and I like what I see. And with every step, it feels more and more like home (decorated with IKEA furniture of course).