Avoiding Bicultural Schizophrenia

By Shoshana Hebshi-Holt


Originally published May 2003.

Lately I’ve been feeling much like a circus attraction. Not like a dancing elephant or a tiger who jumps through hoops, but more like the bearded lady or the one-eyed monster kept in a separate tent. The freak show, I guess it’s called.

When I tell people my mother is Jewish and my father is Saudi Arabian, their eyes widen in shock and disbelief. “Really?” they say. “Wow.”

It’s mostly the Jewish folks I’ve been meeting through my job at a Jewish newspaper in San Francisco who react strongly, but the strange thing about it is that this is a new phenomenon in my life. For most of my twenty-seven years, people, including myself, have not seemed to care. Probably because I haven’t identified myself as both Arab and Jewish for most of my life. I predominantly considered myself Jewish.

Growing up, I was raised Jewish and practiced Jewish rituals. Arab customs and Islam didn’t enter the picture too often, except for my dad’s feeble attempts to teach my brother, sister and me Arabic. But as I got older, I began to learn more about my father’s heritage. I met his family and learned their customs. My identity became dual.

Now I see myself as a Jewish woman who is also Arab and in touch with the traditions of both cultures. Sure, it’s a rare combination, but I view myself as a normal, American twenty-something who is just as confused about her path in life as her fellow post-college working stiffs. I suppose it’s the newsworthiness that makes everyone so curious about my existence.

Still, I can’t help but answer these inquiring minds by nodding, smiling and then explaining, “Yes, I was raised Jewish. No, my dad’s not Muslim, he’s atheist.” It’s like a broken record. “Oh, and they’re divorced.” This coda sums it all up, and the questioning ceases and silence sets in. New subject?

On the other hand, describing my peculiar upbringing needs more than a cute, ten-second conversation.

I have a sometimes frustrating and sometimes unique perspective on Arab-Jewish relations: I understand and empathize with both sides. They are both wrong and they are both right. But they are so divided, like my parents, that most of them will never understand the other.

My dad recently told me, as we walked through the streets of my San Francisco neighborhood on a chilly spring night, that he was relieved his three children didn’t turn out schizophrenic.

“Schizophrenic?” I asked, wondering why he’d chosen that term. I knew my older brother and sister and I had had a rough childhood adjusting to my parents’ divorce, a stepfather, and my parents’ custody battles, but I had never considered mental illness as a possible result.

“You were in a situation where you kids could go either way,” he said, referring to the possibility of mental instability.

True, I thought. We could have gone crazy with a lack of cohesiveness and stability. But it wasn’t a result of the divorce, but of our lineage.

I went to Jewish day school from kindergarten through fifth grade. I had a Bat Mitzvah (ceremony in which a person accepts the obligations and privileges of an adult Jew). I attended and helped lead my family’s Passover seders and lit the menorah on Hanukkah. I eat blintzes and gefilte fish. But I also love Arabic music. I enjoy belly dancing and smoking sheesha (water pipe or hooka). I’ve been to Intifada celebrations and Arab cultural centers. As easily as I can say shalom, I can also say salaam, the Hebrew and Arabic words for peace.

My husband and I recently threw a party to celebrate my safe return from Intifada-engulfed Israel. We called it the Middle Eastern Feast, and incorporated Arabic and Jewish dishes. The menu blended the Middle East into a culinary harmony, which delighted my guests’ taste buds. I did not explain any of the dishes’ origins. How can anyone say that falafel is Israeli? I had some great falafel in Cairo. And hummus, Lebanese? I consumed pints of it in Israel. If anything can bring unification, it’s food.

Arabs and Jews are cousins, they might hate each other, but they are so closely related that it only makes sense that their practices overlap. My identity is wrapped up in the blending of the two cultures. And it pains me when Arabs or Jews become so polarized in their beliefs that they can’t see the other side. The only way we can get over our petty differences is to realize that we share the common plight of being human.

Recently, a co-worker took me to a dialogue group she regularly attends, in which Palestinians and “lefty” Jews come together to discuss whatever is put on the table. Lately, they’ve been discussing current events. During the meeting I attended, two young women of Palestinian descent relayed their experience of going to an all-Jewish summer camp near Yosemite to speak and meet Jews. Many at the camp embraced the women and asked them a ton of questions. A few were not so welcoming. But the two women had broken down some cultural barriers. They had extinguished some stereotypes. Many of the Jewish kids and counselors had not ever met a Palestinian. The women’s appearance at the camp humanized a faceless battle.

This was the most proactive thing I have ever known anyone to do to help ease Arab-Jewish tensions. Meeting the “enemy” face to face, and understanding that person as a human being who suffers seems so much more powerful than marching with a picket sign and yelling opinions about the Intifada to passersby. Understanding is not created through closed minds. It’s achieved through openness and curiosity.

And these people at the dialogue group were curious. Intrigued by my half-Arab, half-Jewish heritage, they made a special point of having me explain my background. So, even in this circle of those who attempt to break down barriers and stereotypes, I was still an oddity.

I’ve always passed between the two worlds easily, and I am now realizing that others do not have that luxury. It takes consciousness and determination. Those who are willing to do it are inching toward peace and understanding. But it takes time.

Once these cultural barriers become more permeable, I will be able to walk into a room of Jews or Arabs feeling more like a human and much less like a circus freak.



About Shoshana Hebshi-Holt

Shoshana Hebshi-Holt is a writer and editor living in San Francisco.