Essay of the Week: “Muslim, Jewish and American on My Own Terms”

by Zaheer Coovadia

A Muslim dad and a Jewish grandmother: I am stuck between two unstoppable forces.


“Oh, Zaima, I’m so happy you’re doing this,” says Baba with a smile. “You’ll be the first in our family to have a Bar Mitzvah in two generations.”


“No, no son of mine is going to be sent to some indoctrination program for 6 hours every week,” my father says in his commanding and angry voice, grinding his teeth together like a pitbull.


The angry Indian academic versus my stubborn, old Russian Baba, who happens to actually look quite young for her age.


Unfortunately, being 8,000 miles away in South Africa doesn’t help Dad’s campaign: my Baba is with me in New York. “Only Jewish men are men to me,” she says after Mother tries to set her up with a non-Jewish date more than a decade after my grandfather’s death.  


My enrollment at the Forest Hills Jewish Center is not quite an ‘indoctrination program,’ but the classmates’ statements about the “terrible, evil Palestinians” and strange, almost warmongering declarations do frighten me. Do I belong here? I remember my original plan of escape: I’d walk in, announce myself as a Muslim, insult them all, and exit victoriously. Instead, I sit meekly and listen as the second hand goes around the clock.


At the time, I struggled with my competing identities. In high school, I found my own version of the American Dream, but the ambiguity of my complexion kept me a mystery to others:


“You’re Hispanic, right?”


“You’re black?”


“You’re not Russian!”


“I am Russian, in fact, and I can say 3 words masterfully: zhopa, spasibo, and po zhalusta.”


My new friends do not have to go through such identity quizzes. Over time, the popular table becomes too stifling: small and cramped for the son of a Russian mother and South African father. I feel out of place; it climaxes when one kid asks me a simple question: “Zaheer, why are you even at this table?” He’s right, and I move of my own free will.


Perhaps I take cues from my parents’ social independence. Mother never has a church meeting to go to and Dad lives halfway across the world, never having felt comfortable here after 9/11. For now, when the conflict between Muslims and Jews comes up, I don’t immediately pick a side; no one piece lures me more. And, in other scenarios, I extend this openness. I discover this when I enroll in Mouse Design League, an afterschool program where we create technology for those with cerebral palsy, and notice parallels between the disabled and myself; we’re both removed from society in our own ways. Now, I don’t mean to propose a false equivalence: a physical disability is far more different and challenging than being a first generation American, but both clearly present their difficulties in fitting in.


My outside perspective is useful for design as I focus on products that promote independence. Through small inventions like accessible wheelchair-attached wallets or controllers for the disabled, I hope to extend, if just a tiny bit, more freedom.


My identity gives me my freedom. Being diverse means having more history to draw on, but it also means feeling removed from each piece. While a Jewish kid might easily find a Jewish community in Forest Hills, where am I going to find The Society for Jewish Muslim kids with One Parent in South Africa?




For some that answer may sound isolating, but, for me, that removal broadens my perspective when it comes to viewing otherness and accepting differences in others.


My lens is what empowers me. I don’t search for a category or club to fit into: I am American on my own terms.


Zaheer Coovadia, a freshman at Rochester Institute of Technology, is a 2018 graduate of The Baccalaureate School School for Global Education.

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