Culture | A tale of two identities

Coming to terms with being a Lebanese Jew

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: 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. 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. Nonetheless, after questioning my identity, I’ve decided I’ll stick with being both Jewish and Lebanese.