When I was a child, I had a hard time saying I was American. If pressed, I said I was Californian. Los Angeles, where I grew up among diverse cultures, felt more accessible and familiar than the great expanse of America, with my images of Dick-and-Jane families who were far away from my frames of reference. My world was multicultural—from the intimacy of my home, shared with my Iraqi-Indian Jewish father and Russian-American Jewish mother, to our circles of friends, to my schools.
My Jewishness factored significantly into my struggle with claiming American identity. My neighbor, for example, regularly reminded me that I was not welcome in her house on Christmas Day, though she was happy to be my best friend the other 364 days a year. My early idealism also factored into the equation: even at a young age, I was painfully aware that America had not lived up to its credos. I stopped saying “and justice for all” during the Pledge of Allegiance once I learned about the experience of African Americans.
Discussions with my immigrant father, who appreciated the freedoms he found in this country, forced me to question my distancing from American identity. As I learned about the history of activism in this country, I came to see that the very struggles to realize America’s promise of democracy, liberty, and equality are in fact a quintessential part of what it means to be American. This perspective afforded me a window through which I might comfortably claim being American.
When I traveled to other parts of the world, I realized that I had no choice but to identify as American—both because of personal experiences of feeling foreign and because through the eyes of people of other nationalities, there was little chance I would be mistaken for anything but American.
Still, “American” continues to fall short of representing my cultural identity or even nationality. Even “American Jew” does not fully describe me, because the term conjures up images that reflect only half of me—bagels and lox, Woody Allen, the Holocaust, yarmulkes, and ancestors from Eastern European shtetls. People do not seem to realize that “American Jew” also means chiturni for dinner, a hamsa around the neck to ward off the Evil Eye, a henna party before marriage, and ancestors from Poona, India and Basra, Iraq.
I have hazel-green eyes—“Ashkenazi eyes,” people tell me. These eyes and light skin conceal my Iraqi-Indian heritage, rendering half of me invisible. Before speaking with me about my experience or background, most people presume I am Jewish, and by that they mean Ashkenazi or white. Because I am especially close to my father’s side of the family, it is difficult to have my ethnicity defined by others in a way that does not recognize my Mizrahi identity. People who are dark-skinned or still hold traces of an accent may tire of the question, “Where are you from?” But I would welcome the rare opportunity to round out people’s perceptions of me.
How to cite this page
Jewish Women's Archive. "Ashkenazi Eyes." (Viewed on February 28, 2015) <http://jwa.org/media/ashkenazi-eyes>.