I found my Jewish identity in ideological white noise. And by “found,” I’m not talking about a permanent, certain, “this-was-lost-and-now-forever-found” kind of discovery. My Judaism is far from being solidified. It’s only beginning to grow. Imagine looking at an ultrasound and being able to differentiate a baby’s arm from his head- even if the rest of his body parts can’t be made out. Like the body parts of a developing fetus, the different historical, political, religious and educational frequencies belonging to different Jewish communities have been set to identical intensities to form one sound, my surroundings, my identity, my Jewish “white noise.” This ringing noise has always existed inside my ears and heart without much notice. As I’ve grown older, I’ve learned how to question. In many ways, my questioning has granted me a sense of renewal and clearer, yet broader, perspectives. I want to share how learning to question has helped me better understand my history and separate the frequencies of surrounding white noise to form my own noise.
The year is 1922 in the Jewish ghetto of Tehran. Rahim Cohen, my grandfather, is seven years old. He is sitting in the filmy water of a tin washtub. His mother is washing him, equipping him with enough of her stories, childhood memories and dreams to satisfy any starry-eyed child. She tells him her biggest dream: “You’re going to become a doctor one day. You’re going to help people.” And Rahim smiles while sitting in suds.
I’ve been transported back to this washtub every time my grandpa told us his story of becoming a doctor. When my grandpa was 10, his mother died from tuberculosis. Her message of helping others, of bringing honor to his community, never left him. He graduated at the top of his class and did, in fact, become a doctor, specializing in internal medicine. He was denied from the most prestigious medical school in Iran solely because he was Jewish, but he never compromised (or felt like he had to compromise) his faith for success. Aside from managing his own clinic, he treated Jews and non-Jews afflicted with infectious diseases, among them typhoid, in the ghettos of Tehran, often for free.
He made huge contributions to uniting and uplifting his community, but his work never touched upon his society’s deep-rooted anti-Semitism. While anti-Semitism was rising in Europe, two men came into his clinic; one pretended to be sick while the other stabbed and wounded my grandfather. After World War II, my grandfather created a platform to unite Iranian Jews. He organized his Zionist newspaper, Israel, covering cultural and political topics and breaking news for the Iranian Jewish community. Of course, his Zionism and outward Jewish pride made him a top target for harassment and death threats by the Iranian authorities. The threats only pushed him to continue to breathe pride and hope into the Jewish people.
I always had immense pride in my grandfather, even if I couldn’t appreciate his accomplishments or Judaism fully. When I was younger, I couldn’t read the print of his 20-something awards. I didn’t know that in the black and white photograph in our family’s living room my grandfather was shaking the hand of Israel’s prime minister. I was too young to understand the topics being discussed in his newspaper. Anti-semitism always felt like a myth to me. Nonetheless, he taught me the importance of Jewish pride, of having a Jewish education, the importance of loving Israel and keeping Shabbat, and that was good enough for me.
Rahim’s Judaism and Zionism were obligations to his name. As a Cohen, he saw it as his duty to be a proud leader. Consequently, I was taught how much weight and tradition my name held. With the protest of going to synagogue or a school accomplishment, my brother and I were reminded of our legacy: “you’re a Cohen.” Even when I was five or six years old, I entertained myself with highlighters and paper, sticking messages of “I AM PROUD TO BE JEWISH!” and “I LOVE JUDAISM!” and “I AM A COHEN!” around the walls of my dad’s office without much thought. Understanding the source of my grandfather’s Jewish pride and Zionism, and therefore, my Jewish pride and my Zionism, had been brushed over when I was younger. What did pride look or feel like, anyway? Was my name supposed to be a ticket to my pride? The separate frequencies of individual identity, family values and opposition had been combined and hushed.
It’s 1972 in the heart of Tehran. Today is the day of the Munich Massacre. My father, Sina Cohen, is in his neighborhood grocery store. He is at the check-out stand with a case of soda his mother had asked him to buy. The clerk asks him, “Are you having a party?” “Yes, we have guests,” Sina tells him. “You guys are celebrating the killing of the 11 Israeli Olympic athletes too?!” In response, my father leaves the soda behind and goes home.
My father refused to shop at the same store again. Of all the stories he has shared with me about his experiences of anti-Semitism, of being beaten up or made fun of in school, this one story about soda and the massacre has always stood out to me. These kind of acts were encompassed by a culture of discrimination. Iran’s anti-Semitism, more than anything else, forced Iranian Jews to cling to each other and their traditions.
My father left for the United States when he was 16, on the brink of the Iranian Revolution. He went to UCLA and focused on chasing his own American dream, untainted by corrupt government or discrimination. My father sees himself as an American over an Iranian, and more recently, after experiencing issues with organized religion, as a cultural Jew over a religious one. His break from the synagogue was difficult for me to deal with. It introduced a new “frequency” into the mix that contradicted what I had been brought up to believe. Where was my community now? Where did my responsibilities lie? What did my last name mean if it served no use in a synagogue?
In December, I was eating dinner with my family on Pico Boulevard across from a family of recent Iranian immigrants. Even the son and daughter, about five years older than me, had much thicker accents than my father. Eventually, my father began to speak in Farsi to their father. I couldn’t understand what they were talking about, but the other man was very passionate, maybe even a little mad, when he spoke. That night, after dinner, my father explained to me how the Iranian government denied that family the right to leave because they were Jewish, how their son, a brilliant chemistry student at the top of his class, was rejected from universities because of his religion, how the Iranian government threatened to imprison the father for talking back, how the government controlled his business- and yet, how he and his family missed Iran and its culture, how they hated how separated and assimilated American Jews had become. I found it interesting that both of those ideas could coexist. My dad surely felt differently.
By exploring my dad and his generation’s narrative and their confusing cultural exile, another issue surfaced: what does it mean to be a free Jew? Here were two distinct narratives, two distinct frequencies, two sides to assimilation, that would have otherwise gone undifferentiated.
It’s 1977. It’s 4:30 in the morning. My mother is in Ein HaMifratz, a kibbutz in Northern Israel. She is in the top of an orange tree, picking fruits for her morning work. In the afternoon, she will play with Jewish schoolchildren. In the evening, she will sing and have trouble pronouncing the throaty, “ch” noise in all of the songs. When the summer is over, she will extend her trip for two more years.
My mother was born in Renfrew, a small city in Western Scotland, to a Protestant (though fairly nonreligious) family. After high school, she took a trip around Europe, where she ended up in a kibbutz and fell in love with the land of Israel.
She met my father in Los Angeles. She converted to Judaism before they married. Until recently, I had been okay with the implications of conversion. My grandfather always stressed the importance of marrying Jewish. And while I do appreciate how much simpler my identity is with the practicing of one religion, something about conversion no longer sits well with me.
Last year, my cousin, who is much more observant than me, told me I am not halachically a Cohen since my mother wasn’t born a Jew. Hearing that was like hearing a single intensified pitch, separate from the rest of the frequencies. Was I that wrong sound? His comment made me think about the spirit of a Jew. Never had I questioned my Jewish identity. I wanted to know: what does a conversion stand for? What am I the product of?
My name is Kayla Cohen. I was born in Los Angeles. I’ve attended a Jewish day school my whole life. I don’t know how to navigate my way through a siddur or the Talmud or how to wear a talit properly or how to daven the old-school back-and-forth way. I’ve never been to a mimuna. I touch electricity on Shabbat. You could blame it on my Reform elementary school education, or my untraditional background, or the safeguard/assimilationist aggressor that is open America. But time and age’s lagging ability to catch up are the real problems.
There’s this cliche that all Jews know how to ask “why?” I think I only recently discovered the power of “why” when I spent my second semester of my sophomore year of high school studying abroad in Israel. There, I was given the freedom to think for myself and more importantly, the freedom to be confused. I was exposed to narratives I’d never heard of before, not because they were new or unique to Israel and never existed in the white noise of my subconscious, but because the frequencies never drew my attention or pervaded my thoughts back home. Distinct sounds and voices that had previously been meshed together at the same intensity were given their own space to be heard. I, consequently, found myself noticing the ideological white noise of my upbringing that had blurred opposing voices and forcefully shaped my own impressions.
Israel, in all of its messy, intertwining, complicated beauty, revealed itself and larger issues to me. I spent time with my great uncle Yehuda, an orthodox Jew, and his wife, Margalit, a former member of the Irgun. At their Shabbat dinners, I was swept by right-wing ideas of protection and duty. When I watched people cry at the Western Wall, I grew frustrated with myself for not being able to connect to it in the same way. I tried to force meaning through unfamiliar prayers; collective prayer inspired me and made me wish I belonged to a more traditional and orthodox community. When I visited Tel Aviv, individualism inspired me. When I visited under-funded Arab villages, I became pro-compromise. When I sat on a hill overlooking Syria, learning about Eli Cohen, I favored kol-Yisrael. When I visited kibbutzim, I became a socialist. When I spent 4 days in an IDF base in Sde Boker, I became a militarist. When I learned about the Lechi and Irgun, I became a pacifist. When I visited Rachel’s tomb overlooking Tiberias, or Ben Gurion’s home in the Negev, I felt a sense of belonging. In debates, when I watched some of my friends oppose intermarriage, I was confused. I followed the progressives, and then I listened to the conservatives and believed them. When I heard the Hatikva, I became a dreamer. When I visited Tzfat, I felt spiritual. When I hiked across Israel from the Mediterranean to the Kineret, I became a transcendentalist. When I saw a rainbow over the Dead Sea or sang “Hine Matov” underground in a cave that hid Jews during the Roman occupation, I believed in God. When I visited Yad Vashem, I could only reject God. Everything changed every day.
I already knew about people’s stories of being the subject of hate, about hard work and this narrative of opposition and glory, like my grandfather’s, and many other immigrants. I knew what bottom to top perseverance looked like, inherent to both the Jewish and American experience. I had already heard stories of assimilation, of challenge and cultural loss, like my father’s and other Americans, and their Jewish counterparts in Europe, Africa and Israel. I knew the story of the outsider, whether it be the Jew or convert.
I’ve now been exposed to frequencies that sing total free will, or total power in the Divine. I can recognize the difference between coexistence and acceptance or Biblical entitlement, whether it be directed to the issue of borders in Israel or immigration and gay marriage in America. I now know the difference between small or big government. I have learned the word “compassion” goes beyond my grandfather’s name (רחמים) and that people have different takes on it. I know the narrative of the struggling man, whether it be the Jewish immigrant from Iran, or Arab mother in Gaza, or African-American boy. I also know the narrative of success, whether it be my grandfather’s or those who toiled to make the desert bloom. I know there are frequencies of issues and people that can’t be boiled down simply to right or wrong.
Being able to recognize a larger picture has granted me the ability to hear greater frequencies and appreciate the lively collision of so many voices and ideas. I don’t have answers to most of my questions and I’ve accepted the fact that I may not for a long time. As for now, my Jewish identity, to me, means celebrating the range of frequencies I’ve begun to separate and the intensities I’ve begun to play with. From these blurry voices and sounds, eventually, will come a song.