Jewish American Heritage Month

Jewish Family

By Shirley Shani Ben-Zvi ’20

I’m an Israeli-Jewish woman in Georgia. I always say that even though I was born Jewish in Israel, I became an Israeli and a Jewish person only when we moved to the USA. Until that moment, I did not need to notice those parts of my identity – I was part of the dominant group.

Telling our stories and history is the one tradition that all Jewish people - atheists to Orthodox - share. Before we moved to the USA, I didn’t need to tell our stories and maintain our traditions: our whole society did it for me. In fact, most of the work I had to do was figuring out my agnostic way to keep traditions and tell stories that are mostly based in religion.

When we moved to the USA, it took me time to realize I am an Israeli minority within a Jewish minority. As a Jewish woman, I need to be intentional about celebrating our holidays. That intention ranges from putting the dates on our calendar to finding items representing our traditions and telling the stories to our children. I have this in common with most American Jews.

However, my family’s story is not only Jewish. It is Israeli-Jewish. Israeli-born Jews left suits and ties outside our culture – figuratively and literally. We are called Zabar – prickly pear: very direct, sarcastic; some would say rough. We are also Hebrew speakers, which is not the language most American Jews speak in their everyday lives. That part of my identity makes me a minority within a minority. I am even more intentional about this part because while I can find Hanukah candles and matzo in supermarkets in areas with a big Jewish population, I will not find Israeli symbols there.

To engage our children with our culture, we only speak Hebrew when alone. Indeed, our daughters speak Hebrew like Israeli-born children. We mourn together on Israeli Memorial Day and Israeli Holocaust Remembrance Day. We teach Israeli history critically. We discuss Israeli events and politics. We intentionally and openly talk about the differences in cultures. When we moved here, my husband and I knew we were giving up the privilege of feeling like we belong.

We hope that by engaging our daughters so profoundly in our culture, they can feel like they belong in both cultures – American and Israeli. They are ten at the time of this writing. So far, our strategy seems to be working, but please ask me again in ten years.