2014 Cole Essay Contest Winning Essays


Identity, by Naomi Benatar

Growing up in Upper Arlington, a suburb in which Jews could not live until the 1950s, I have gotten used to anti-Semitic, anti-Zionist and anti-Israel comments. I have often been the only Jew in my class. I have had the honor and the privilege of demonstrating and defending my faith for as long as I can remember.

In Upper Arlington, I learned the importance of being well educated in my Judaism. If I was not able to explain why I observe Shabbat and keep kosher and miss school for the holidays, how could I expect my classmates and teachers — many of whom had never before met a Jew — to understand why I value and keep these traditions? How could I expect tolerance and respect and flexibility when I didn’t know why I was asking for it?

I am committed to being a life-long Jewish learner. At The Ohio State University, I picture myself going to weekly Parashah (Torah portion) learning sessions at Hillel and Women’s Lunch and Learn at Chabad. I will attend the Conservative minyan (prayer group) on Friday nights. This year, through the Post-Secondary Enrollment Option program, I am taking Hebrew on campus. Next year, I hope to take additional Hebrew classes and to sample courses or lectures through the Melton Center.

I am proud of my heritage, and I am always willing to share my traditions, experiences, and opinions. In middle school, my best friend was an observant Muslim. We came to expect to be treated differently from our classmates — by other kids. But we never prophesized that adults would be bewildered by our relationship. We never imagined that teachers would place us on opposite sides of a room in an attempt to avoid conflict. And we certainly never understood how administrators would have the gall to ask us how we could be friends.

We always explained that, with our parents coming from Lebanon and Israel, we shared a cultural bond. In our homes, we found the same Middle Eastern foods, hand gestures, extended family relationships, and hysterical attempts at English. At school, we were different than our White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant peers. We told our teachers that we got along so perfectly with each other because, if nothing else, we shared the fundamental identity of being members of misunderstood minorities.
For a couple of years, my friend and I contained our conversations to school and boys and music and families and how Middle Easterners are viewed by Middle Westerners. I will always remember the first time that we talked about the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. I am pro-Israel and I assumed that she was pro-Palestine. She asked me to explain my position, and I relayed to her the most unbiased facts I could muster.

This discourse was the first time that I recognized that the lack of progress on this international issue is due to political, rather than rational, arguments. If a couple of middle school girls were able to set aside their strong, virtually inherited, emotions in order to look at the situation objectively, why don’t clever, unbiased diplomats do the same?

On campus, there will be plenty of places for me to hide my Judaism. But I will not shrink into the shadows. Every time that I hear an anti-Semitic or anti-Zionist or anti-Israel comment, I will speak up. With the support of the Columbus Jewish community, I have been fortunate to have received extensive Israel advocacy training. As a college student, I will continue to attend every educational and activism session I possibly can. I will be a Buckeye for Israel.
I will go to both pro-Israel and anti-Israel events. I have always told my friends and classmates that – no matter how much you want to and no matter how hard you try to – the opinions of the anti-Zionist extremists who sponsor Apartheid Week and lobby against Israel will never be changed. But the people who don’t know what to believe and who are bombarded with anti-Zionist rhetoric – those are the people whose opinions can be swayed. Those are the people who can be educated. Those are the people who can choose to relate the pro-Israel message. Those are the people who can support pro-Israel candidates in elections and speak out against economic boycotts of Israeli products and institutions. Those are the people — Jewish and non-Jewish – who should be invited to join Buckeyes for Israel and AIPAC.

I am a musician. I play the piano, cello, a bit of violin and guitar, and I sing. In addition to participating in my high school orchestra and choir, I am honored to have been a founding member and Teen Leader of the Columbus chapter of HaZamir: The International Jewish High School Choir. It is a special feeling to make music with Jewish peers, to be carrying on vocal traditions and texts that have been transmitted from generation to generation. I hope to continue my exploration of Jewish music in college. I will be auditioning for the MeshugaNotes, OSU’s Jewish a cappella choir.

Tikun Olam (repairing the world) is a family activity in my home. Some of my first memories are of volunteering at Safe and Sound — a free day care program for homeless children. Many childhood Sunday mornings were filled with delivering Meals-on-Wheels to appreciative elderly who loved my curly hair and toothless grin. As I grew older, my volunteer activities were balanced between local and Jewish community causes. I worked with Yachad — a program for Jewish Adults with Special Needs — during my Partnership 2000 service year; my friends there taught me unique and important perspectives on life, school, and work. Because of that experience, I’m looking forward to volunteering with Friendship Circle through Chabad.

Last summer, I participated in the whirlwind six day Wexner Service Corps trip to New York to aid with Hurricane Sandy Disaster Relief. We canvassed to alert people of relief services; rebuilt, re-dry walled, re-mudded homes; and prepared a home-cooked meal in a soup kitchen which serves as a restaurant to maintain recipients’ dignity. In conjunction with our work, we studied texts to illuminate Jewish values for charitable giving and behavior. It was one of the most eye-opening, emotional, and gratifying weeks of my life. I plan to continue my Jewish-focused community service work through two programs, run by Hillel, which I learned about through my involvement on the board of the Columbus Jewish Youth Foundation. Starfish works to eradicate adolescent homelessness and PB&JAM raises hunger awareness on campus.

Being a Jew is the most defining element of my identity. Consequently, I am dedicated to living a life where I am consistently involved in Jewish service, learning, prayer, Zionism, Israel advocacy, music, and social life. When I arrive on campus at The Ohio State University, I look forward to continuing to be a passionate and compassionate ambassador for Judaism, Zionism, and Israel.

Nathaniel Keri

How My Culture Solidified My Religion, by Nathaniel Keri

Years ago in Iran, a boy was kicked around in the streets on his way to and from school, just because of his religion. Sometime after that, a Jewish woman tried to escape the clutches of Khomeini’s government and flee the country, leaving everything behind. Unfortunately, she was caught and thrown into prison with her eight-year-old son.

These people are my parents.

My mother and father lived under the extreme intolerance and persecution of Iran in the 80′s. Iran was so bigoted, there was no way to freely express one’s self without risking imprisonment or worse punishment. Hearing these stories as I grew up, I developed an image of Iran in which only the sanctioned message was heard, and everything else was either censored or destroyed. Jews and other members of unapproved religions were ostracized and jailed. To me, these stories of intolerance were not distant, like news reports or historical anecdotes, but were only as far as my mother’s and father’s voices. Their story, even though I didn’t see or experience it first hand, is an inextricable part of who I am.

While my parents rejected the prejudiced philosophies of their old country, they preserved a sharp sense of their Iranian identity. At home, we speak Farsi, we often listen to Persian music, and my mother cooks delicious Iranian foods such as tahdig, a fried rice dish with potatoes. When we share our foods with our American friends, they can taste what our Persian heritage means, and they come back for more.

When they came to the United States, my parents also made a decision, as though to stand up to persecution, to send me to a Jewish school. At my school, I am exposed to many points of view with many different levels of religious observance. Yet, we learn as one. Every day I understand a new perspective, and every day I provide others with mine. This sharing and accepting of diverse perspectives characterizes my identity, and solidifies my appreciation for Jewish culture. No matter when or where in the world I am, I will always be able to reflect upon the values I gained.

However, my education is not the only component of my Jewish identity: the first four years of my life, I was “home-schooled” by my mother and father. English wasn’t even my first language, it was Farsi, the language of Iran. In fact, before I was enrolled into pre-school, Farsi was all I knew. It was no matter, though. Through Farsi, my father taught me basic math (to give me a competitive edge on my other four-year-old classmates), and my mother taught me the principles of Judaism. What Shabbat is and why we keep it, why we don’t eat bacon, and, most importantly, that every week we get to have chulent (or “khaleh-bibi”, in Farsi).

Loving the practice of Judaism is not just due to my being Jewish, but equally because of the unique flavor Iranian customs bring. For example, in addition to cooking up a great fried rice dish, Persians have their own New Year, Norooz, meaning “A New Day”. Similar to a Pesach Seder, we put out seemingly random items such as apples, vinegar, eggs, and quarters onto our kitchen table, each its own symbol for a beautiful concept. However, one part of this Persian New Year’s celebration specifically has stood out and will continue to stand out in my memories for the rest of my life: growing a plate of Sabzeh, green grass. About a month before the New Year, my mother puts out a styrofoam plate of green grass seeds soaked in water on our kitchen counter, letting them grow. When the new year arrives, we take the plate of fully grown grass to a river nearby and throw it in while saying a little prayer for a good year, full of health and happiness. When I was a toddler, I would look forward to this custom all year, eager to throw a plate of grass as far into a river as I could. However, as I grew older and began to understand the symbolism for the customs, throwing the Sabzeh became much more: it became the bedrock of my Judaism.

This knowledge and reverence for Judaism is critical when traversing the battlefields of college campuses, some raging with hatred for Israel. It is not uncommon for anti-Israel rallies to be held on such campuses, attracting hundreds of aggressors. As a Jew, I must be able to defend myself and stand up for my beliefs if ever confronted by such a group. Luckily, thanks to the Persian-style parenting I was raised with and the Jewish day school I learned in, I have experience to look back on and a comfortable plethora of knowledge to help stand my ground. However, in addition to challenges I will face as obvious as this, there is another more treacherous challenge that lays in wait: the gradual drift of losing touch of the religion and culture I hold dear to me today.

My parents made countless sacrifices to put me through school and give me a proper education to help me eventually have the financial security they never had. It is my responsibility to carry on their work and effort by following through, not just with my education, but with my culture and religion as well. The stories my mother and father told me, stories that demonstrate how incredibly important Persian culture and Judaism are to them, deserve to be heard by not just me, but to others who need proof of what Judaism is really worth. It is my duty, for the toil my parents put themselves through to preserve their heritage, to preserve and pass on my own heritage as well. Even at the secular college I will attend, though it may be difficult, I will practice every aspect of Judaism, and all the Persian culture that affects it, not only because I love the religion itself, but because I also have an obligation to carry it on.