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The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman


Navigating my Jewish identity in Brooklyn

A self-taken photo of Sasha Kagan. Kagan grew up in a Jewish household in Brooklyn. SASHA KAGAN/THE STATESMAN

Growing up in a Brooklyn neighborhood introduced me to a diverse world different from the Jewish culture at my house. Attending public schools surrounded by peers of contrasting ethnicities made me feel disconnected from my heritage.

I remained the outlier within every friend group, my porcelain skin against their dark olive tones, my frizzy hair contrasting with their perfect coils. Jewish representation was scarce in my schools, and often even tainted — students would rarely refrain from the typical antisemitic comment schematically expressed only around me.  

As a child, my culture was never pushed onto me. I wasn’t educated in my background, and so going to school every day with Hispanic, Arab, African-American and Asian students drove me even farther away from my roots. I was immersed in the cultures I spent my days around, and while I was deprived of Jewish connections, I was grateful to experience diversity.

Many of my good friends were of Arab descent. Being around them every day, I had the privilege of learning how to greet in their language, understand certain mannerisms — such as gestures and phrases — that were exclusive to Arab culture, and discovering religious and cultural traditions.

I was invited into their homes, welcomed with authentic Middle Eastern dishes of spicy chicken and rice infused with cardamom. I partook in hookah lounges, Arab holidays and showed my respect for their religion by fasting alongside them during the month of Ramadan. I became so connected to Islam and Arab culture that I even considered converting to the religion, a thought my parents furiously disavowed.  

The prominent Hispanic presence in my high school introduced me to another world of customs. My best friend was Puerto Rican, as was most of my school, and spending so much time in her home gave me a proper look into Hispanic culture.

I was invited to dinners with her family, which was much larger and louder than my own. Their Spanish music was energetic and brought movement out of you, and paired well with wine and tequila that were often on the table. 

My dynamic with my parents has always been very calm and passive. My parents are loving and supportive, rarely angry and reasonably stern — my house, unlike those of my friends, is usually quiet. 

Despite these diverse cultural experiences, coming home to my grandmother’s authentic Ashkenazi cooking and seeing the Star of David proudly hung on her wall, practicing our very own culture and feeling a sense of belonging reconnected me with my roots. 

It was our little family coming together to celebrate Rosh Hashanah and to host a Yom Kippur dinner after fasting that brought Jewish livelihood into my life. 

I loved the diversity of my school, but I was delighted to come home to something more familiar. Having a dual lifestyle and living on two ends of the spectrum gave me a taste of our world’s lovely cultures. It introduced me to people who had plenty to teach me and welcomed me to ethnic foods and music with speech and behavior I wasn’t used to.

It offered me the chance to get to know our world a little better. However, my Jewish culture and family ultimately made me feel like I belonged and was at home.

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