INTERVIEWED BY AMELIA ALAM (staff writer)
Hannah Brooks is a Jewish-American teenager who currently lives in Long Island, New York. Read on to learn more about her experience:
What’s your name? How do you culturally/racially/ethnically identify? Tell me a bit more about yourself!
My full name is Hannah Paulina Brooks, but Hannah Brooks is fine. I would identify as Caucasian, but in terms of ethnicity, my ancestors were from Russia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Eastern Europe in general. Culturally, I am Jewish, specifically Ashkenazi Jewish (which is the “type” of Judaism that hails from Eastern Europe as opposed to from the Middle East). I love theatre (and singing and dancing etc.), reading and writing, cooking and baking, doing crossword puzzles, learning about math, and lots of other things.
Where were you born? Where do you live now? Where are your parents or grandparents from?
I was born in New York, which is where I’ve lived my whole life. My dad is from New York too, and my mom is from Maryland. All of my grandparents were born in the U.S., but most of their parents immigrated here from the Eastern European countries I mentioned earlier.
How in touch were you with your Jewish heritage as a kid? Do you have any childhood memories growing up related to your Jewish culture and religion?
I would say I was incredibly in touch with my Jewish heritage as a kid. I went to Hebrew School every Sunday, and, starting in second grade, every Tuesday as well. My family and I celebrated many Jewish holidays together, and they were highlights of my childhood. One of my favorite Jewish memories—which continues to today—is that my parents and I host Seder (the Passover meal/service) every year. I got to help my dad cook for two days leading up to the Seder, go shopping with my mom, learn and sing songs, etc.
Another memory is the “Siddur Ceremony” that I had with my class in Hebrew School. A Siddur is a Jewish prayer book, and we had a ceremony (I think I was 7 or 8) in which we were each presented with a Siddur with personalized covers made by our parents. The ceremony captured the Jewish philosophy of “l’dor vador” (from generation to generation), and was very special and fun to me. One of my parents’ favorite memories of me is the time I came home from Hebrew School and asked, “Does G-d have a wife?” That was apparently a funny one coming from a five-year-old. :)
A less fun memory is hearing my first Holocaust speaker at my temple, and many others after that. From a relatively young age, because of my Judaism, I learned about the horrors that were committed against my people and many other groups.
What some ways are you connected with your religion today? Does it play a role in your daily life?
My religion absolutely plays a role in my daily life today! I think the biggest way is that I have been raised on Jewish values (most of which are just “good person” values, similar to the guiding principles of other religions), which often find their way into how I think or act. I keep kosher, meaning I don’t eat shellfish or pork (among other things), which is my decision. I’m not intensely strict about it, but I feel it connects me to my heritage and I enjoy that piece of culture in my daily life. Certain words and phrases that come from my religion/culture also sneak into my speech. Examples might be “ma nishtanah…” (which begins a chant “why is this night different from all other nights,” but I’ll use it jokingly), “oy vey!” (like “mamma mia!”), or setzensizeich (I don’t think this is how you spell it, but it’s a word in Yiddish I picked up from my grandma which means “sit yourself down!”).
I also met one of my very best friends, who lives in Israel, via a pen pal program in Hebrew School. We’ve known each other for seven years and we are like sisters!
And, like with the last example, there are sad bits, too, such as the Tree of Life shooting that occurred a few years ago. My family and I attended a memorial service when the tragedy occurred, and I was struck by how much hate there is in the world, but also by how powerful the united force of mourners and upstanders is in my community and around the world.
What are some customs/traditions/rituals that your family participates in? Do you have any Jewish holidays you particularly enjoy?
I already mentioned Seder, but Passover is definitely my favorite Jewish holiday. It combines many things I love: cooking with family, getting to see cousins and extended family, telling stories (in particular, the story of the Exodus), singing songs, playing games, etc. My family keeps Shabbat/Shabbos, which means that every Friday night, we light candles, say blessings over wine and challah (braided bread), and eat a Shabbat meal (my mom makes roasted chicken and veggies). Shabbat is usually a time designated for rest, so even if I have homework, my parents and I will set aside Friday dinners as a somewhat sacred time when we can talk, relax, and separate from the busy week for a little while. I also love Purim (when we dress up in costume and tell a very dramatic story of Queen Esther), Sukkot (when we build a tent-like structure outside, gather with friends and family, and eat in the structure), and Hanukkah (when we light candles, play dreidel, eat jelly donuts, and recall the story of the Maccabees). There is often music, food, and family associated with Jewish holidays!
What are some activities you participate in that relate to your culture?
The best example I can give you is that I’m currently a part of an international Jewish teen choir called HaZamir. We sing Jewish choral music, and through the program I’ve met so many wonderful Jewish people my age who share a lot of my interests. It’s really powerful, because it connects me to my roots both through the music we sing and the people I’ve met. As I’ve said a couple times, I also attended Hebrew School up through my Bat Mitzvah (7th grade), and then I went to Hebrew High School (an after-school program for teens) for the three years after that until I was confirmed in 10th grade.
Have you faced any challenges as a Jewish-American in America? Have your Jewish beliefs affected the way people treat/see you? Have you been treated poorly because of your beliefs and religious practices?
Luckily, I have not personally faced any challenges. I live in a town that is about 40% Jewish, so I’m somewhat shielded from the discrimination and hate that many Jewish Americans (and Jews worldwide) have experienced. No one I know of has ever treated me poorly because of my beliefs, but I have certainly heard stories about my parents or grandparents experiencing those types of things.
What are some incorrect assumptions people have made about you, your family, or your religion? Have these caused you or your family problems?
As with the question above, I don’t have any extreme or super upsetting examples. The main thing I can think of is just a pet peeve of mine, which is that people call “Jewish” an ethnicity. For example, they might be talking about ancestry.com results, and say “I’m x-percent Scandinavian, x-percent Japanese, and x-percent Ashkenazi Jewish,” even though there’s no such thing as “Jew-land” or anything like it. It doesn’t matter that much, but it’s always rubbed me a little the wrong way that Judaism is the only religion people think of as an ethnicity.
Why do you think it’s important to share your story or for people to share their cultural stories in general?
I think these things are important because sharing one’s own story leads to other people getting to hear that story, and the more stories that are shared, the more diverse perspectives we each get to hold. I think understanding where everyone comes from is not only really fascinating, but also crucial for creating a better world that is more empathetic and, frankly, more interesting! I’m always excited to hear what someone has to say about their cultural story because swapping stories expands mindsets and teaches us about the world we live in and the people around us.
Is there anything else you would like to say?
Being Jewish is something I’m proud of, as well as an identity that I want to continue to develop over my life. I feel very lucky that I was raised in a manner where my cultural identity isn’t a chore to maintain, but rather, something I hold very close to my heart and has become an integral part of the way I live my life.
Thank you for this opportunity!