It is interesting to grow up in an old world family with new world ideas. My childhood dinners were created by eyes looking back at recipes thousands of years old, but also forward toward the wonders the future might bring. I was told from a very young age that I was Jewish, but that was all the information I received from my family. Like many others raised in a non-religious household, by the time I was an adult, the only associations I had with Judaism were my grandparent’s food and language: Molokheya and Judeo-Arabic. What could be more Jewish than that?
I was born in Los Angeles to my Egyptian mother and my Mexican father. It wasn’t a union that my grandparents could have even imagined when they were living in Cairo. But they accepted it, cognizant of the decision they made to raise their daughters as secular Americans. They made that decision after a lifetime of forced travels brought on by their Judaism. From their own modern-day Exodus from Egypt to France (forced upon them by President Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s), to the difficult times in France as they awaited approved passages to America, until they arrived to an Ashkenazi community in Wisconsin who was ready and willing to accept and support Jews….but not Arabs. From Wisconsin they saved everything they could to get someplace warmer and where they could re-invent themselves. So they ended up in Los Angeles, spoke nothing but French outside the house, and put a Christmas tree in the window.
The first time I entered a synagogue was many years after the passing of my grandparents. I was 19 years old, and I had only accepted the invitation extended to me because I was a starving college student and they were offering free food. It was my first religious Jewish experience, and it was the most alien thing I’d ever experienced. It was a confusing surprise that absolutely nothing was familiar: especially the language and the food. But I did feel at home in one very important way; in fact, it is the reason that I did not walk away. My morals resonated with the morals I heard from the bimah. This was all about how to be a good person, which was a discussion that permeated my youth. That kindred simplicity made me look around at Ashkenazi faces and still know that I belonged.