Where are you from? [Thoughts on inclusion on Pesach, and beyond]
“Where are you from?”
The question hit me like an errant soccer ball to the chest during 7th grade recess. My breath caught in my throat, my heart constricted, and boiling rivers of sweat prickled my skin. My neck and shoulders tensed, and my brain instructed all of the blood to flow down to my extremities — am I running? Am I fighting? Am I freezing?
What is going on here?!?
They asked it with the gentle curiosity of someone who wants to get to know someone new, with genuine openness to conversation, and yet — within me raged this wildly dissonant reaction. Where are you from? Appears to be, on its face, a fairly innocent question. Yet, here I was, fully on alert. In my mind, I was rapidly inquiring into the intent of the questioner —
Why are they asking?
What are they trying to find out about me?
How are they trying to exclude me?
How can I answer this question without revealing any information about who I really am?
This response to “Where are you from?” is common amongst members of groups that have faced discrimination, alienation, and even violence based on their “other”ness according to another group, usually the majority group. If you’ve moved around a lot, if you have an accent, if you are differently abled, if your skin does not look like the majority of people in your town, if in any way you have ever felt like an “other”— you might have encountered this question. As a child, living in three countries before age 10, speaking in heavy accented versions of the local language, I have often felt like an “other” amongst normals. Add on to that living with internal raging fires of four body (mental, spiritual, emotional, physical) un-ease for almost two decades — and you have a lot of reasons to identify as an “other”.
Where are you from? — it is a question I dreaded — and that I still do. It triggers an anxiety response, and it forces me to rapid scan my life to find the answer that would be most acceptable, or least offensive to the person asking. My response ends up being reactive, rather than reflective.
I still deflect the question. I ask back, “what do you mean?” — I ask them to state their intent, or I turn the tables — “where are any of us from?”. I mean, really, how hard would it be for me to reveal where I was born, or where I live. Well, if you — like me — have ever felt unsafe revealing information about who you are, then you understand that it would indeed be very, very hard. This skittishness to answering any question pertaining to the core of a person — is a defensive mechanism — a response to trauma brought on by being treated violently for my “other”ness.
While the question asked “was where are you from?”, the question I heard was, “do you belong here?” or, alternatively, “are you enough?”
Am I enough?
This is a question that will haunt many of us during times of transition, perhaps leading us down some tunnels of thought where the light seems far in the distance. It can range from our questioning our intelligence, to our core belonging in our family or community unit. It can lead us to dwell in misery, and allow doubt to creep into our decisions.
Am I…[insert anything]…enough?
When we believe the answer to this to be “no”, our internal voice tends to follow — and our body reacts, and our ability to make decisions that further us in life is stunted. When we feel “other”ed by the spaces we ˆshouldˆ feel safe in, our confidence plummets. Suddenly, we don’t belong.
Where are you from? — Nowhere.
Earlier this month, I attended a week long conference aimed at Rabbinical students, to have a conversation about the inclusion of community members that are otherwise abled. I was moved to tears by many of the stories — the love of G-d and humanity that radiated from one despite a very challenging disability, the fortitude and perseverance of a 14 year old girl trying to navigate her world as a person with blindness, and the simplicity of the question —
Why not make everyone feel welcome?
Why not allow everyone to belong in our spaces ?
We don’t really have to ask anyone where they’re from. I believe that it is enough for each person to be there, to be loved an accepted in their full effervescent selves.
Even now, embracing more and more of my true self each day, I find myself in moments of feeling like an “other.” Many of those moments, as a now observant Jewish woman, coincide with the rituals, and commandments of holidays — especially those that deal with food and wine. When it is a mitzvah to indulge in food, or abstain from food, depending on the holiday, I carry the mental load of internal conversations with the parts of me still healing from disordered eating. When the Mitzvah is to drink to oblivion — I think about those in our community who struggle with alcoholism.
Do I have to do this? Does this feel safe? What if I don’t do this? Does this mean I don’t count? Do I belong here? Where am I from?
The holidays are commanded with splendor — but for those of us with the experience of “other” — sometimes that splendor is hard to reach, when we are navigating a tunnel of belonging.
Pesach is coming up this weekend. During the Seder, we read The Haggadah. Haggadah means “telling” in Hebrew, and it is a written guide to the Seder, which tells the story of The Children of Israel leaving slavery in Egypt, and being guided by the strong hand of G-d towards freedom .This week I asked my 8th students to reflect on some key themes relating to the Pesach seder — modern day enslavement, freedom, oppression, things that give us hope — and whether it is possible for the world to be truly inclusive. As you can imagine — well informed teens living in this world know that the answer to this question is multi-layered, and complicated. So I tried to make it easier, I asked them to talk about how they could make their Seders more inclusive. I gave them an example -
“Every year, I place an orange on the seder table to honor the experience of marginalized communities within the People of Israel, and I place a cup of water to honor Miriam, and the strong women of the story.”
Some wrote, we can include others by talking about their experiences.
Others said, We can add symbols to our table that trigger conversations about marginalized, oppressed, and non-mentioned communities.
Most agreed, Inclusion is a good thing.
I often wish it was as simple as putting that orange on the seder plate — that its sweet, tangy aroma would magically transform the experiences of the “other” into a shared, communal, belly laugh.
So, if you are reading this heading into Pesach — or Easter, or just heading into a place where you might encounter others — people, and people who are “others” to you — [Zoom counts] — I open the opportunity for you to do the following:
Ask yourself first,
do I feel like I belong?
Do I feel like others feel belonging in this space?
Then, instead of asking, “Where are you from?” to start a conversation, maybe offer-
let us create a story,
one that we tell together,
in this space.
Then, maybe, inquire about favorite memories to get people talking. Eventually, you can ask about that orange.
Let us tell a story this Pesach —
Of freedom, yes —
and also of belonging.