When I was 11 years old, my father sat me down on a broken, four-legged stool that had been in our apartment for years. Facing me, he began to hum the tune of a Tracy Chapman song. As I sat staring at him, I noticed his long dreads and the scar he had from when he was a boy in Jamaica. I prayed the song would never end.
My father’s childhood was different than mine, but I guess that’s why he raised me the way he did—family-oriented and confident. He made sure to bring me back to the place where his life started, not only so he would not forget, but to teach me exactly where my roots come from, and why my curls fall the way they do. I remember the outline of the Blue Mountains, peaceful and untouched, the sunset melting into them. Like the sugar cane water that dripped from our mouths as my siblings and I sat eating on our grandmother’s steps. This image of the Blue Mountains and tall mango trees that my father used to climb as a boy was imprinted in my head, just like my father had hoped it would be.
I think of this time, in the mountains, when I need to remember why I grew up the way I did. Between the Jewish high holiday celebrations and family reunions in Brooklyn, New York, it was easier to say I was Jamaican and Jewish than it was for me to actually believe it.
When I was 16 years old, I traveled to Israel. Being in Israel broadened my outlook on Judaism, but more importantly, it shifted my perception of myself. I discovered that it does not matter if others think I am Jewish or not because my Judaism is personal to me and it is whatever I want it to be. All of the ideas of what a Jew is “supposed” to look like and questions like “Why is your complexion darker than your mother’s?” that I had experienced in the past slowly started to fade away. This awakening imprinted in my brain as the first time I was able not just to say I was Jewish but actually to believe it.
Although my identity is personal to me, the experiences I have had with my family have only added to my process of helping me accept who I am. I will remember the outline of the Blue Mountains in the town where my father grew up in Jamaica. I will remember the old siddur books in my grandfather’s shul that had been held by generations before me. I will remember the taste of the sugarcane water melting on my tongue. But I will also remember the harder times. Because with the marriage of my parents came needed breaks, and with the birth of my siblings came loss. What I learned was that the bad cleared the way for the good, and it gave my family room to grow and reflect, a chance to move on. I know my family isn’t perfect, but neither is the process of accepting who I am.
I remember the smell of the cream that would strip my curls, and make it easier for me to attend my Jewish day school without feeling different. But that was then. Now I walk through the halls of my high school with my curls coiled and alive. I wear my necklace, which declares “Leah,” my Hebrew name.
Now, at the age of 17, it has become easier to let these two parts of my identity—Jamaican and Jewish—become one. I no longer need the validation from others to accept who I am. All of these memories from my childhood, good and bad, have helped shape my understanding of who I am and why my hair falls the way it does.