On the Outskirts of it All

Lev Katz

photo by Serena Deng

You know that saying about a fork in the road—about how you have to choose only one way and you can't go both? My entire life I have stood at that fork in the road and decided whether or not to go down each path. My mother and father were both born here in the US but my mother’s lineage comes from West Bengal, in India, and my father’s comes from the US. He is Jewish and she is Hindu. They are polar opposites in every sense other than their professions. They're both psychiatrists, and they have been together since college. They waited a long time to have kids and finally had me at 36. They then raised me in an upper-class neighborhood of the Bronx. Everything about me has shaped out to be different. Not only were my parents older but they were two different ethnicities and two different religions. Most of my friends’ parents were still having children and some even went clubbing while my parents were deep into their careers. I grew up around many people of Caribbean descent, mainly Dominican. I had two different babysitters to help take care of me while my parents were at work, both of whom were immigrants—One from Grenada and one from Brazil.  The sizeable Caribbean influence in my life has made me identify with Caribbean culture almost like it is a part of my heritage. I frequently visited my dad’s side of the family on Long Island and my mom's side in New Jersey. My parent’s union was the first of its kind in both of their families, which caused a bit of chaos. It was a bit off at first but everyone eventually got used to it. The next step was then fitting in with everyone else. Everything about me sticks out: my heritage, my upbringing, and my surroundings. Adults might see me as stuck up or not knowing my place in society. Kids might think that I think I'm better than them. My peers see me as coming from a different neighborhood, a different upbringing, a different world. It all came into focus when I started middle school. The majority of my grade was Dominican and didn't live in the same neighborhood as me, and here I was: a rich white kid. That's how everyone seemed to view me. I never felt I came from a rich family but no matter how much I argued the accuracy, that was still my label. I stuck out like a sore thumb and was desperately trying to find myself. Since then, I have found myself (or at least I think I have). I have developed an accepting and reliable set of friends who allowed me to see many different perspectives. I also went to a Jewish Sleepaway Camp where I got to meet other kids who are also Jewish. I did come into some issues there where everyone else was fully Jewish (and even if they were mixed, they certainly were not mixed with anything but white). I was asked if I was really Jewish or if I did the same things as they did at camp (services, traditions, etc).  But, I was called Diego once and now everything's good.  I also spent most of my life in Hebrew school studying for my bar mitzvah. That place also made me stick out like a sore thumb, as I was also the only mixed kid. Conflicting opinions within the Jewish Community sometimes dub me not actually Jewish because I am mixed and my mother is not Jewish. I was even told by one of my Hebrew school teachers that I wasn't actually Jewish. But I got to my bar mitzvah and it was all over. Most of the time, I have not faced scrutiny and when I have, it has been insignificant. But while I didn't face any serious challenges such as racism or anti-Semitism, I still didn't know which path to choose. Was I to completely abandon my Jewish side and immerse myself in Indian culture or was I to completely abandon my Indian Heritage and blend in with my Jewish surroundings? I didn't want to do either and up till now I still don't want to do either. My grandmother, a devout Hindu, helped me realize how Hinduism and Judaism can properly mix. After close to 14 years of not knowing which path to choose, I was finally able to find myself while in quarantine during the coronavirus pandemic. I was able to accept the fact that I am more than one thing. I was able to form the unique religious belief that I have that doesn't follow any specific religion and rather mixes multiple. I was able to bond over similar issues with people with whom I did not think I had many similarities. And I feel comfortable at the place I am now. The only thing I needed was time.