Select Page


We used to visit my father’s parents every Saturday. They lived in an apartment over a bar on Bay Parkway in Bensonhurst Brooklyn —at the time – the 1950’s and 60’s, it was a Syrian Jewish neighborhood. Going to their home was like an excursion to the middle east with aromas from my grandmother’s cooking, my grandfather’s fermenting raisins for his homemade liquor, brass plates decorating the walls, and oriental rugs lining their railroad apartment floors. My grandmother sat in the room closest to the kitchen. When she smiled the gold cap on her front tooth shined, her gold bangle bracelets jingled on both arms, a trademark for Syrian Jewish women at the time. The more bracelets owned the higher your status, but at the time, I just liked the jingle and the shine. She had a lot to be proud of with 8 sons — daughters were not as special, and neither was anyone who wasn’t a Syrian Jew.


Her window overlooked a terrace filled with plants, and the terrace overlooked the subway tracks of the B train. My grandfather sat in the front room overlooking Bay Parkway, he liked watching the activity on this busy avenue. He sat at a bridge table with a deck of cards, a glass of tea, and in the corner of the table was a napkin that covered his dentures. He’d put them in as soon as someone arrived. Once my brother and I caught him before he put his dentures in, we stopped dead in our tracks, frozen, our eyes opened wide, jaws dropped at Grandpa’s ability to remove and replace his teeth.


Saturday evenings after Shabbos were special events as their friends from the neighborhood always visited. Everyone spoke Arabic and I liked listening to the sounds they made as they spoke: the guttural noises sounded like they were clearing their throats. It was funny to think that this was a real language. Some visitors went to see my grandfather and they played backgammon drinking a Syrian form of Uzo that my grandfather made in his homemade distillery in their kitchen. They used little shot glasses encased in filigree silver. I wanted to share in this ritual because the glasses were beautiful, but I wasn’t allowed to drink. What I liked best, however, were the visitors who stayed with my grandmother because they sat in a circle and smoked a water pipe together, passing the hose around after each puff. My mother, a germ-a-phobe, watched with disgust as everyone put the same pipe into their mouths. I liked watching the ritual as it reminded me of cowboy movies where they smoked the peace pipe with Indians, who are now called Native Americans.


While there was a lot to watch with wonder as we visited, it all changed when I was about 6 years old because my grandmother became ill. People still visited, apparently my grandmother was a popular well-liked woman. We didn’t have much to say to each other, as she spoke mostly Arabic, though once she did tell me I needed a girdle. After that, I preferred her speaking Arabic.


One day when we went to visit, she had a nurse looking after her. There were the usual people around, but this one person looked very different. My bold 6-year-old self-marched up to her and proudly said, “You know, I wash my face and hands every day. You should do that too.” She gave me a curious smile and the rest of the family filled the room with nervous laughter. I had never seen anyone with black skin before. I couldn’t understand the laughter, but it made me feel uneasy, and the nurse told me that this was the color of her skin. I don’t remember how the rest of the day went, but when we were leaving and my mother told me to kiss everyone goodbye, I made my rounds, and also kissed the nurse, which again made everyone laugh, much to my confusion.


Everyone was embarrassed by my remark, but I was innocently curious and satisfied with the nurse’s answer that this was her natural skin color. In retrospect, my curiosity was refreshing because there was no judgement on hearing her answer while the nervous laughter of the adults around me hinted at their own embarrassment — my comment touched on their own feelings about different races cultures and religions. Anyone who wasn’t Sephardic were outsiders, especially people who had different color skin.


Over the years I was very conscious of who are “insiders” and who are “outsiders.” We all had relations with people who weren’t Sephardic and there was always a conscious recognition of who was Sephardic, Ashkenazi, or non-Jew. These discussions on who’s who took place while I had trouble figuring out if I was an insider or an outsider. There was a grandiose feeling about being Sephardic and I was always self-effacing because of my vision and learning problems so I was confused as to how I can be Sephardic and feel so insecure and inadequate. In retrospect, if I had to ask that question, I suppose that made me an outsider and I spent many years feeling like a dejected outsider not just in the Sephardic community, but in every aspect of my life until many years later when I was able to take pride in my own individuality.


I look back on this experience with a smile because I love innocent curiosity without judgement that only children seem to possess. Thankfully, the nurse was more amused by me than insulted and this memory was one of the influencing factors in eventually identifying myself not as an insider or outsider, but as a person who seeks. Seeking a place to belong, seeking the truth about people, what is underneath the masks we created in order to survive, and most importantly, who am I? I loved the cultural traditions my family practiced, but I was mystified by the pride found in being a Syrian Jew. Who were these people? What made them laugh, what were they passionate about? I felt more like a curious spectator than a member of the clan.


Sometimes it’s difficult being a seeker and not finding the right answer or a place to belong. I remember an essay in a book called “Everything I needed to know I learned in Kindergarten.” The writer was watching a group of children playing hide and go seek and a child hid under a pile of leaves under his window. He hid so well that no one found him: while the others were sharing the excitement of getting found, this child remained hidden under a pile of leaves. His words to the child were, “Get found, kid.” I think of that often because I feel like I am always looking to find out who I am, what do I need, what do I want? I sometimes envy people in exclusive groups like Syrian Jews or Republicans because they don’t seem to have deep-seeded questions about their identity — they belong somewhere, while I feel like a bumblebee landing on a flower, hanging out for a while, enjoying the nectar before moving on, but as I write this, I remember that the task of a seeker is also to look within.