Living abroad entails learning many new systems, norms and assumptions. Adjusting to these can be complex and surprising. Identity often become altered. Yasminah Respes and Sostheng Kituyi (Sos) – two podcasts guests on Living Our Beliefs – have experienced this, and spoke of it openly. Yasminah moved from America to Israel after college, a natural expression of her emerging Orthodox Jewish identity, as it meant going to the Promised Land. Sos moved from Kenya to America ten years ago to see how the democratic system works in America, when working as an investigative journalist became too dangerous.
Minority vs. Majority
The shift between minority or majority status affected the experience for each of them. Yasminah had always been a minority within a minority as a Jew of Color, and while she had never experienced harassment, she reveled in being part of the majority for a change. “I've pretty much always been one of the few Jews where I've lived, until I lived in Israel. And there it’s just amazing because you're just surrounded by Jews, which is awesome.”
That said, being accepted as Jewish in Israel can be difficult. The Orthodox Rabbinate controls who is recognized as Jewish, accepting most Orthodox, but not more liberal denominations such as Conservative and Reform Jews. Coming from a mixed background and raised in a Conservative family, Yasminah took steps to assure recognition for herself and any future children. “I just wanted to be sure that my children would always be accepted. I felt that doing this in Israel was the right decision because no one could take that away.”
Sos had a different experience. Having grown up in a large diverse family of Catholics, Muslims and his own Anglican family, he feels at home in the religiously varied American environment. As a Black Anglican, however, finding a community where he feels comfortable has proven challenging. While the American service is the same, the personal expression is not. Local congregations are mostly white and very restrained in their expression, hemming in his joyous singing and dancing.
Praising or worshipping comes from the heart, and coming from Kenya, people are always smiling. When they sing in church, you feel the joy, you feel the happiness. But now when you go to an Anglican church, like the one I go to [in Boston], everything is done in a very humble way.
Although both Yasminah and Sos are easily identified as People of Color, a deeper understanding of their identity is difficult. Due to cultural assumptions that Jews are white and look a certain way, Yasminah is not easily recognized as Jewish in the U.S., a bias that history belies.
People looking at me, they say: ‘Oh, here is a young woman, darker skin. How can she possibly be Jewish?’ I always think back [to] after the temple was destroyed. Jews, we were dispersed all over, and I always say: ‘Jews, we are everywhere’. Someone who has darker skin could be just as much a Jew as someone with lighter skin.
Yasminah had a more positive experience as a racial minority in Israel, since the presence of Ethiopian Jews reduces the assumption that Jews are white. She reveled in being seen as belonging, even if how she was seen varied. “It was just amazing. [Israelis would] come up and talk to me in Hebrew. And then the Ethiopians would think I'm Ethiopian and they talked to me and I'm Amharic. It was so interesting.”
For Sos, being Black in Kenya was the norm, whereas he is a minority in America. Along with the U.S. history of slavery and ongoing discrimination, this has altered his racial identity. People identify him as Black, but don’t know more until he speaks. Another surprise has been the relationship with African Americans. People in Kenya ask about this relationship. “I say: ‘It's not that easy, even to deal with my own Black African American brothers because they have never been to Africa and they don't know what Africa entails, but they hear stories.” This came as a surprise. Moreover, he thinks Black Americans focus too much on the painful history of slavery and not enough on the opportunities he sees America offering.
Living abroad entails challenges and surprises. It can be a rude surprise to think you will be welcomed as family, only to discover you are viewed as strange. Regardless, the rewards of living in a foreign country are many, and neither guest regrets the move. Each has developed a more nuanced sense of identity and overcome the hurdles with grace.
Thoughts? Send comments and questions to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I look forward to hearing from you! Méli