The post you are about to read is about when I lived in Jordan and hid my Jewish identity. I’ve been trying to write this blog post for the past year. Every time I tried to write a story, I couldn’t get more than a few lines out before I closed my laptop. The organization of this post does not flow, but it presents the various moments throughout the year I felt were worth sharing. The nonsensical and sporadic nature of these events is very telling, in terms of how they were experienced. Reliving these moments in the United States, they seem so distant. I don’t want to bring them into a home where I am free to be who I am. Truth, honor and identity have allowed me to finish: the truth to be who I am, the honor I owe to those who suffered before me, and the identity that I had to hide.
Before I tell the story of the hardest, most challenging and emotional journey of my life, I want to make clear that this post is not meant to stereotype any one people or generalize based on the actions or feelings of some. I am not here to take political stances or sides, sway your opinion or to change your mind — I am just here to tell my story and explain what I have learned.
The Preparation Process
While I was deciding where to study abroad, I researched continents, many countries and numerous cities within them. After finally choosing Amman, Jordan as my destination, I realized that there were many other choices that would be chosen for me. It was through this process that I was first introduced to the notion that during my stay in Jordan, I would have to hide my Judaism.
I listened to the grave warnings I was given and started preparing the process months prior, but, to be honest, nothing could have really prepared me. I couldn’t fully fathom in my mind that this one part of me could be a reason for hatred. For that, I’m thankful to have had the life I’ve lived in the United States, where I have felt safe and protected, openly identifying as a Jew all my years and wherever I have been. Granted, this does not say that I haven’t heard my fair share of anti-Semitic remarks, Holocaust “jokes,” or had pennies thrown at me. It does, however, say, that in all of those instances, I was never afraid to show my religious identity and to be proud of it.
I went to a Jewish day school, Jewish sleep-away camp, had a semester abroad in Israel during high school, a summer abroad in Israel studying Hebrew. I took Hebrew at Colgate University my junior and senior years of high school, was an active participant in Hillel and president of American University Students for Israel, I’ve held Israel advocacy fellowships and participated in a social entrepreneurship program in Israel. These experiences and knowledge have shaped much of who I am today — it was hard to imagine that I would now have to live life as if they hadn’t.
“What religion are you?” she asked.
And so, on my first evening in Jordan, I was asked the question that I had been told I should never be afraid to answer. A question for which my people have suffered for their answers, which I was told would never be made possible again. A question which had a truthful answer… that had to remain secret.
I lowered my eyes and replied, “Christian.”
I was half-paying attention and half-thinking about how hot it was inside the classroom, when I heard my professor say something I was sure I had misheard. I refocused my thoughts back to class, when I heard, “Hamas is not a terrorist organization because they only target Israelis.” I sat frozen in my seat, having flashbacks of the previous summer, of running to bomb shelters — sometimes making it in time and sometimes not (“sometimes not” meant lying down in the middle of a road covering my head, waiting and praying that nothing would fall from the sky to take me from this life). Flashbacks of waiting to hear from loved ones across the country to check that they were safe. Flashbacks of tears I cried at the funerals I had attended, tears that now pooled in my eyes.
I tried to stifle my feelings, knowing that they were not welcome here, but I couldn’t. I raised my hand. I was shaking as my cracked voice came out as a mix of anger and hurt, while I explained to my professor of my time in Israel last summer, as an American citizen, and as a Hamas target. To him, terrorism — or what I should call “freedom fighters” — was justified if it was against the wrong people.
I was sitting in the hangout room, where the students lounged before class, when one of the directors of my program called me into her office. She said she wanted to talk to me about something that she had heard, and wanted to warn me for my own safety. It was only about a month into the semester and I couldn’t fathom what she meant. She told me another host family had found out that the program was hosting a Jewish student and wanted that student, i.e., me, to leave the country. As a host family with the program, they didn’t want to be a part of anything that helped Jews.
Hamas in the Family
Once, my host family had some cousins from Ramallah come to visit for a few days. We sat in the living room drinking tea and eating knaffeh. My Arabic had improved enough at this point that I was able to follow most conversations among the family, but not everything, so when the topic of a cousin in an Israeli prison was raised, I understood the topic, but not the details.
Later that night, when I was with my host sister, I asked her why their cousin was in jail. She said that he had been caught sending money to Hamas for weapons during the previous summer’s war. I’ve thought about that moment hundreds of times since it happened, and even more than a year later, I’m not sure that I have the appropriate words to articulate exactly what I felt. I was living in a house of people who had family send money to the terrorists who had tried to kill me just a few months previously — that was hard to swallow. To my host sister, this was normal, as if helping the war effort. I didn’t tell her how I felt, but instead said I had to go do homework and excused myself for the rest of the evening.
Differences in the Family
I was going to visit a relative of my host family the night Muath Kassabeh, the Jordanian pilot, was murdered by Daesh. I sat talking with the family for a while, but it wasn’t long before the usual question was asked: “Are you Christian?” I had assumed because I was open with my host family and they were hosting a Jew, that meant that their family would be as open too. Before I could open my mouth, however, my host mom cut in. “Yes, she’s Christian.” I do not blame her for protecting her views, which are widely unpopular, but in that moment, I felt ashamed. It had only been a few weeks earlier that she had come into my room and learned the English words of “I love you like my own daughter” so that she could say them to me. Part of my hurt was what felt like her betrayal.
The Jordan I Know
The weekend Muath Kassabah was murdered by Daesh was a dark time in Jordan. No one knew quite what was going to happen next, how Jordan would retaliate, what Daesh would do. I spent most of that weekend inside with my host family, but I did go out to see a friend and waited for a taxi ride home. This is the status I wrote once I got back home to my host family:
“While waiting for a taxi home tonight, a police car passed by me three times. On its third pass, the two officers stopped and asked me what I was doing and where I was going. When I told them I was trying to find a cab home they told me that not many cabs were out due to everything going on and generously offered me a ride (as well as an orange) and told me that ‘during these times we all need to look out for each other.’ This is the Jordan I know.”
هذا هو الأردن بعرف
That same evening, a student who attended American University with me sent me a message saying, “This is the Jordan I know,” with an article attached that described how the Jordanian Parliament had held a moment of silence for the Har-Nof terrorists, and labeled it one of the top anti-Semitic acts in the world of 2014.
He then went on to say, “I don’t understand why any Jew would want to step foot in that country,” and right there I had my confirmation that I was doing the right thing. That all the moments I felt defeated, had to hold my tongue, or was ashamed of my identity were worth it. In the same way that this ignorant student believed he knew all there was to know about the Jordanian people from some awful acts, the Jordanians reacted negatively against Jews and Israelis from other awful acts. In his trying to change my mind, he vindicated everything I had done.
Jordan is the only Arab nation to never have had a Jewish population; the closest thing to Jews that it has known is its relationship with Israel. For a significant element of the country’s population, Israel is the country that kicked them out of their homeland and where most will never be able to return. Given this historical backdrop, I can’t say I blame them for feeling the way they do. The rhetoric that they are taught, from the earliest age, is that their homeland was stolen from them and that Israel is the enemy. In addition, their chances of meeting openly identifying Jews are slim to none, making this rhetoric almost impossible to challenge.
The Holocaust is a part of history, of my history. Growing up, my grandfather told me that I must always be proud to be Jewish — that everything in the world can be taken from me, except that. I wondered what he would think if he knew I had temporarily given up what he held most dear. I wondered if he would see the benefit in what I was doing, if he could see why barriers such as this must be broken down, if he would think I was dishonoring my people, albeit temporarily, giving up what millions of my people were murdered fighting for.
One day like any other day, I was waiting for a cab to go home after university finished — since there is no public transportation in Jordan, I took multiple cabs everyday to get to wherever I was going. I got in the cab and told the driver where I wanted to go. Second semester, my house was out in the suburbs, so there was time for chitchat. We started talking — about where we were from, what was I doing here, where his family was from, etc. Sometimes, when I didn’t understand a word he said, I would repeat it back to him for an explanation. And that’s when something I truly never expected during my time in Jordan happened. Whenever I asked for a word’s meaning, before he gave the explanation, he would say the word in Hebrew. HEBREW. The language I was told never to utter a word of in this country was now being spoken so casually by this cab driver. I was completely in shock and wanted to know more, but was hesitant, because, as with all my actions in Jordan — the most important thing was to ensure that I did not tip anyone off to the fact that I was a Jew.
As the traffic got worse and the conversation carried on, I found the nerve to start speaking in Hebrew. I told him I had family there and had learned from them. This was the most Jewish moment I had during my year — speaking Hebrew with my Palestinian cab driver, Ahmad, in a country where I had to hide my Judaism. Ahmad lived in Israel half of the year and in Jordan the other half, and had family in both. He was one of the lucky few that was allowed back and forth between countries. I told him I would be in Palestine (I never referred to Israel as Israel while in Jordan, always Palestine) this coming summer, as would he. He gave me his phone number and said to call him so that we could meet up and he could introduce me to his family and take care of me “as if you were my own daughter.”
I asked Ahmad to drop me off a few blocks away from my house and only started walking in the correct direction once he had driven off. Even though Ahmad had given me what I so longed for — a way to connect to my Judaism — I did not forget where I was and what could happen. I now believe that his intentions were good and true, but at the time, the idea of someone befriending a Jew seemed impossible and dangerous.
Once I got home, I ran into my host sister’s room and told her all about it. She too was shocked, since the only Hebrew she ever heard was when her cousins from Ramallah visited them. She asked me whether I would call him. I thought I might when I got to Israel, but I never did. Having to hide my religion raised some psychological obstacles for me. I’m not sure I know how to explain it, even now. Even though I love Jordan, loved my experiences there, and loved the people I met, I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to look at the place as other than the country where I can’t be Jewish.
Second semester, my Jordanian host mom was the most devout in the family. She didn’t come from a religious family, but in her 40s, she developed her relationship with G-d and decided to wear the hijab as well as pray five times a day. I was the first Jew she had ever met and I could tell that she was curious. Sometimes, we would be sitting in the kitchen and she’d be cooking dinner and ask what the word for something was in Hebrew and then compare it to Arabic.
I taught her and my host sister how to count to 10 in Hebrew. She asked me how Jews prayed, if we got on the ground like Muslims or not. She asked about the holidays and about stories in the Torah to see if they were similar to the ones she knew in the Quran. My host mom didn’t speak English and I had the hardest time communicating with her, as compared to the rest of the family, because everyone else had some grounding in my language. So these conversations about religion were not easy and many of them took place over quite a span of time. I cherish these moments and hold them dear, not only for my own growth and knowledge of Islam, which she’d taught me, but for our ability to share in each other. These moments forged connections that make you more than just yourself in the other person’s world; rather, you claim a place in the other person’s world.
When I left, my host mom gave me a beautiful copy of the Quran with translations and summary on each page. She said she hoped it would remind me of the time we shared and that, in life, religion is not the only thing that is holy.
My first semester in Jordan, I often felt very resentful that I had to hide my Judaism. I felt that it was so unfair that I was leaving my home, friends, family and everything that I loved and knew in order to learn about a people in a new place. But if my identity was to become public, all I had sacrificed wouldn’t have mattered, for they would no longer see me as ‘ochtee’ (my sister), ‘bintee’ (my daughter) or ‘habebte (my beloved). All they would see of me is a Jew — outsider, occupier, settler, terrorist and enemy.
By second semester, I wouldn’t say this feeling necessarily left me, but I was able to channel it differently. I went to Jordan with the desire to learn about others, but didn’t really take into account about how the reverse was necessary, and they needed to learn from me. I never quite understood how hatred was created and, more importantly, how it drove action. And while the process of stopping hatred or reversing it seems awfully long and dreary, I now understand the roots of this hatred, which is the most important part when analyzing a fully blossomed tree.
Summer in Israel
This past summer in Israel was one of the hardest for me. Granted, there was no physical war, but I had to make peace with myself, with the Israel I thought I knew, the Israel I learned of, and the Israel that is. The first few days I was there, I remember feeling very attacked — and that I had to explain myself to everyone who heard I went to Jordan. It was ironic, knowing that if I had been in Jordan, things would have been the same, but with me identifying with Israel.
I won’t talk too much about my time in Israel this summer because I was blogging during that time, so if you feel so inclined you can go back through and read the most recent posts to get a sense of how I was feeling. I will say that it was a time of uncertainty for me. I was working at the Peres Center for Peace doing peace education, work that I truly believed in, and living in Jaffa. To counter that, I was dating my Palestinian Muslim boyfriend from Jordan who considered Shimon Peres a war criminal and whose family was from Jaffa.
I had hidden so much of myself when I was in Jordan that I decided I would no longer cover the truth. Regardless of the intention or reasoning, hiding part of one’s self — makes you less proud of being that part. Even if you don’t agree with the reasons of why you’re doing it, the very act of hiding yourself inherently makes you believe that there’s something wrong with you — if part of you needs hiding. Israel and my Judaism in general were far too valuable and cherished by me for me to tolerate even the slightest trace of shame in them. My relationships with a lot of the Jordanian and Palestinian friends from that year understandably began to encounter difficulties.
I don’t think they were able to reconcile the feelings for someone they loved and thought they knew with someone they loved who loved something they hated, albeit through no fault of their own, for I was not truly myself when they knew me, or not until I started showing the part of myself that I had to hide — Truth as a Privilege
When I got to Israel last summer, I encountered a lot of questions and curiosity about my time in Jordan. One girl specifically asked me questions in greater detail — about how I had to cover up my Jewish identity and how I dealt with it. I told her that sometimes, if I got bored saying I was Christian, I would switch to a more interesting scenario of “Oh I just found out I have family in Jordan and I came to learn about my heritage and my roots in Islam”. When I told her, she started chastising me, saying “how could you lie?”
Here is maybe one of the most important life lessons I learned during my semester abroad: the ability to be who you are is a privilege, not a right. I was not the only one who had to hide parts of myself in Jordan, for I had many friends who had to conceal their sexual orientation, their participation in the US Army, their parents’ involvement with the government, etc. This post is not to make my experience seem as though I had it better or worse than other people’s experiences of a newly censored life; rather, it is to tell my own. I did not say it to my questioner, but she is incredibly privileged to think that the truth is anyone’s given right.
Being Back in the US
There were many times when I was in Jordan that I asked myself what I was doing there. Between the hidden Jewish identity, sexual harassment, no WiFi and all the other frustrations that come with living in a culture that isn’t your own — even day-to-day activities became difficult. However, I want to make this part very clear so there is no question: I loved my time in Jordan, and probably do more so now looking back then I ever did while I was there. I don’t think I realized what my experience abroad truly gave me until I returned home. Because life abroad was so much less complicated in the way of material things, the relationships meant so much more. I see that now with the friends I made there who have turned into family — and even when I talk about my host family in Jordan and I always seem to forget to use the word “host.”
The reverse culture shock after 15 months away was absolutely real. In the same way that I asked myself many times while in Jordan, “Why am I here?” upon my return to the States I often asked myself “why did I leave?” And it is with that lingering feeling that I have made the decision for the next step in my life. However, that’s not what this post is about and therefore I invite you to await the story.
I will end with this: Jordan has given me more than I could have ever asked for: knowledge, perspective, understanding, friendship, love and truth. However, in order to obtain these things, I had to give up much of myself. Reconciling those two is difficult and I think I now understand: not everything needs to be reconciled.
Much of this post is scrambled with random stories of some of the most memorable moments I have from that year. I think of my host sister with whom I got incredibly close and how we shared our lives in a very intimate way. Then I think of the same host sister who posted Facebook messages inciting stabbings of Israelis and Jews during the past wave of terrorism in Israel. When I confronted her about it, her knowing very well that I’m Jewish, her response was, “I didn’t mean you.”
We don’t get reasoning, explanations or sense — we get these random sporadic moments in our lives that don’t connect. Moments that are now our responsibility to hold and to carry. To discover their meaning and see the various interpretations. Moments that can bring war. Moments that can bring peace. Moments that define us. Or moments that don’t.
If nothing else, I am responsible for finding meaning in these moments and sharing them. For me, there has been no greater honor.