Defining Identity

Zahava Sherez, Israel


(Submitted by the author)

Labels, identities and criteria used to define us are helpful for administrative and social purposes, yet I believe they also feed division, tension and oppressions. When I’m asked to check a square in a multiple-choice official form, I scroll down to 'Other', adding the word 'Human' next to it. See, I have a problem: I am Latina, Israeli/Middle Eastern, American, Jewish, white but not really; I speak with an accent that people can’t identify - I am an enigma, an odd bird.

By the time I turned ten, I knew Spanish, some Yiddish, a bit of Russian, Quechua, Hebrew, and some Arabic. I had already experienced violent anti-Semitism and a full-blown war. By the time I was in my mid-thirties, I had lived on three continents, been exposed to multiple cultures, traditions, customs, and behaviors. For years I felt I didn’t belong anywhere. The only solution seemed to be to deny parts of myself and strongly hold onto others. The more I bought into “identity definition”, the more I lost myself.

Human interactions, bigotry, and racial divisions looked to my young and innocent eyes as incredulously stupid and very scary. Since then, I have kept asking questions, determined to understand human nature in general and love versus fear in particular.

As our planet keeps shrinking and technology keeps evolving, social, scientific and political occurrences across the globe become personal. We find ourselves emotionally involved in events happening to some stranger in Mozambique, or Bilbao, or Brooklyn. We are not affected, influenced, or triggered only by our immediate upbringing or cultural background anymore, we are exposed to the human race and all its flavors as never before.

“Love thy neighbor” was easier when we lived in communities of like-minded people. But now multi-culturalism is part of our daily lives, my neighbor may look like the person my parents or my culture urged me to fear, put down or discard. Bias, racism, and multiple oppressions live next door to us, are in our face and inside of us. How do we deal with our own identity and that of others in this changing world where labels divide us but reality brings us together?

In searching and defining my own identity, in continuing to ask the questions that bothered me when I was a child, I have embraced the understanding that our differences are essential to celebrating the human race.

“Step into yourself and you’ll find the Universe”, said Hakuin Zenji, the 18th-century Zen master.

In my life and through my work, I explore personal and collective narratives; I question the limitations and divisions imposed by pre-defined criteria; I listen to others' stories, seeking and finding underlying messages which connect us all; I dive into myself and through that, into others seeking essence.

In having experienced life differently, we each have our own story to tell. Do you know how many amazing stories there are to be told?! We just have to gather and listen.

Image credit: 'Flower Arrangement', by Zahava Sherez, 1993



Submitted by Christopher Flores on Fri, 07/27/2012 - 18:48.

Right on. Thanks for your inspiring and insightful essay. And thanks for allowing me to be part of your creative and social life. You are a truly special person and I am blessed that our paths crossed. Another random connection that seems preordained!

And for those who are wondering ... I was gifted a stone sculpture class by my wife as a 40th birthday present at Studio One in Oakland ... Zahava turned out to be the instructor ... and I am still doing and loving sculpture at Zahava's studio sixteen years later.


Submitted by Beverley ( Hamilton )Calvo on Mon, 06/04/2012 - 20:59.

With a seemingly "bland" genetic "white" heritage, I grew up curious and eager to learn and experience the ethnic complexities of the world without prejudice. I am still trying to learn. Now I have a grandson who will be challenged to embrace his Chinese, Mexican, and Scottish-Canadian heritage while growing up in Germany.

Zahava Sherez has shared her insight as to finding herself and gives me hope that my grandson will find his way as well.

Submitted by Rita Zeinstejer on Mon, 06/04/2012 - 20:39.

wow, WOW, WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOWWWW !!! This is the glorious cousin of mine that Life separated from me when we were both little kids, when little did we know what there was in stock for us both: so much yet to be lived, so much yet to be experienced, so far away from each other.

Until one day WE both decided it was time to get together and share. I celebrate we did so early enough to be able to go on living connected ... if not geographically near, at least virtually near, thanks to the advent of the Internet.

My beloved cousin, the one who is not only a glorious sculptor, but also a talented writer and a wise, most sensitive human being, has helped furnish my own life with her zest, with her wisdom and warmth, as if we had never been separated now long ago.

Despite different upbringings, different locations, different serendipitous circumstances, I feel I've been blessed by having had Zahava so close to me for so long. And I can take pride in saying she's my dear cousin, the one who has so many compelling stories to tell, the one who chose how to construct her own life, step by step.

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