I live on the borderland. My identities crisscross ethnic and cultural boundaries. My passport is stamped with internal landscapes that struggle to coexist. I refuse to establish a hierarchy of importance out of the plurality that is me. Because of this it is difficult for me to create distinct categories and dropdown menus on this, my first website. Especially difficult to slice apart my activist, artistic and academic selves. They spill over, interlap and frankly I can hardly remember life without all three of these forces being at play inside me.
Two early childhood experiences made an activist out of me. The first was being one of three Jewish children in my temporary elementary school in Champaign, Illinois, while my father worked on his graduate degree. The other two students were my young brother and sister and this was in the early 1960s in a working class Irish Catholic neighborhood. I was proud to be asked to explain Hanukkah to the entire school at the age of 9. I was less proud when classmates messed with my hair to uncover the horns that they had been told all Jews grow. This early experience of otherness changed my worldview forever. When I returned to Washington, D.C. the next year JFK was still president, and the civil right movement and the March on Washington resonated deeply. Then JFK was assassinated and I stood in multiracial coalition and took my first ethnographic image with my Brownie camera. This is Pennsylvania Avenue, where my father took all of us to stand all day and sing in the congregation as President Kennedy’s hearse passed by.
Washington was deeply segregated and this was the first time that I stood with black and white people in a packed crowd, singing and crying. I never forgot the power of song, of the sorrow, and of the community that crossed racial lines. This would be the first of many experiences where in one moment everything I thought to be true was transformed. It does not come as conscious knowledge but as internal awakening. It was this moment on the streets of Washington, D.C., that birthed the embedded legacy that serves as the foundation for the resources, the observation and empathy that I bring to all of my activist, academic and artistic fields of inquiry— a blend of resistance, rigor and passion. I found a similar awakening at the beginning of my work years later as a graduate student when I got lost in the Central Bus Station marketplace in Tel Aviv and discovered music by Arab Jews that resonated beyond recordings I had heard in my childhood. Again it was song and an unfamiliar cultural geography. Yet though I had never heard the music up close, it was neither alien nor romantic, it was surprisingly nostalgic for me. It takes getting lost in someone else’s marketplace to reawaken the longing for a place called home amidst the dueling nativities – the disputed territories of identity that we all possess.