Rachel Wahba

A Long Strange Trip

“What a long strange trip it’s been,” The Grateful Dead’s Truckin’ ” plays in my mind.

My experience as a Jew, personally and politically, continues to be a long strange trip indeed.

Inheriting my parents’ traumatic background as Arab Jews in Muslim lands, our twenty years of statelessness, my fractured life in India and then Japan in Catholic missionary schools bent on conversion, solidified my identity as a Jew.

I first heard the theory “The personal is the political,” articulated in my Women’s Studies course, as an undergraduate psychology major, at San Francisco State. It spoke to me mirroring my experience as a Jew. Girls and women were radicalized to outgrow and counter sexism, to stop apologizing for being female. Some of us who did not previously know we were bi-sexually inclined “gave up men” and took on a lesbian feminist identity to fully embody our politics.

As a Middle-Eastern girl born in India and raised in Japan, threatened with an arranged marriage if I was not serious about my studies in America, you can imagine the sense of liberation Feminism gave me.

Feminism is to women what Zionism is to Jews.

Both have gotten a bad rap because the world is still inherently sexist, and anti-Semitism is not going away anytime soon. The attacks singling out Israel should be obvious to Jews everywhere. The increased anti-Semitic attacks in Europe should freak out Jews everywhere, and a deal made with Iran by Israel’s ally, the United States, with nations renowned for the most heinous crimes against Jews, without Israel’s input, would have been unimaginable a few years ago.

Before I knew the meaning of “political,” I embodied it as a child in Catholic missionary schools. I learned young.

Two experiences encapsulate my many experiences of institutional anti-Semitism:

In third grade my favorite nun held my hand as she looked deeply into my eyes with her beautiful warm brown ones and explained, “Jesus was a Jew, just like you, Racheline, why don’t you accept him as your Lord and Savior?”

I loved her, she was mostly kind to me, even her name, Mother Joan of Arc was romantic.

“But, if he was a Jew why do I have to convert?”

It was hard, painful, to reject her love. She wanted the best for me, conversion, the gift of loving kindness.

In eighth grade I gave an oral book report for history class, on The Third Reich. After a brief discussion spurred by a classmate defending Hitler, and another asking, “if Hitler repented before dying would he end up in Heaven?”

Mother Roberts replied: He was a baptized Catholic, so if he sincerely repented, yes he would. Jews, she said, would never get to heaven. In fact we would be persecuted until we stopped being Jews.

When I finally made it to the United States on Red Cross papers, I lived my first years in America wanting to be accepted as a somewhat different Ashkenazi with a “great tan,” since no one could wrap their heads around my background.

“What? Egyptian and Iraqi? Then you are not Jewish!”

I married a nice Jewish boy, had a baby girl, and my parents and my brother arrived with their immigration papers. We all moved to San Francisco. I finally had my critical mass, my family.

I realized how my family of origin was my “country,” “Jew” was and remains my “nationality.”

In the mid-seventies I blew a job interview when I didn’t dis-identify with Israel. Huckleberry House, one of the several new counseling centers designed specifically for alienated youth in San Francisco, was a perfect fit for me.

The panel of three African American men in their mid to late twenties congratulated me for making it to the final interview, but they had one concern;

“Who do you identify with, the Arabs or the Jews?”

I felt my heart sink. I needed the job. I was now a single mother of a seven year old. I faked a response they saw through.“I can’t divide myself that way, I am both.” The Zionist did not get the job.

Years later after working as a counselor in halfway houses, I landed a position as a therapist in a lesbian and gay counseling center. When I complained of anti-Semitism in the mandated Third World staff meetings I had to attend (“half” of the grant was earmarked for a person of color), I was told that I had to “maximize” what we had in common, rather than “focus on the differences.” I had to leave the Jew outside the door.

As a therapist, I have been asked more than a few times, to why I “had to” wear my Star of David, and on top of it, why not a “smaller” one.

Recently several new people have entered my life. A new friend with whom I experience an uncommon compatibility pleaded, “Could you be less of a Jew?” It was Mother Joan of Arc all over again.

“No” I answered, “but I can be more of a Jew.”

Its not news; unapologetic Jews are asked to step it down, to be “less Jewish, ” and Zionists are not appreciated in the Left.


The Dead’s lyrics rhyme in my head;

“Sometimes the light’s all shinin’ on me

Other times can barely see

Lately it occurs to me what a long, strange trip it’s been”

I always loved that song, now I know why. We keep “Truckin’.” We Jews keep our identity, no matter how mysterious, personal and by default political, this trip called being a Jew is.



About the Author
Rachel Wahba is a San Francisco Bay Area based writer, psychotherapist and the co-founder of Olivia Travel. An Egyptian-Iraqi Jew, Rachel was born in India and grew up stateless in Japan. The many dimensions of her exile and displacement are a constant theme in her professional work as well as her activism as an advisory board member for JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa).
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