OUR STORIES | Meet Shahar: Iraqi Polish Israeli Jewish American Immigrant Social Activist Singer Songwriter Lover Human Being


Meet Shahar Eberzon: part musician with an album in the making, part social activist, and part backbone of the growing artist community that is Face Forward  With all these projects, and with legendary Minneapolis stages requesting her presence, she is one to keep an eye on.

However, I don’t care about any of that today. Today I have a different agenda.   

L: I know you’ve had some immigration issues this year, and this kind of gets more to the root of what we are talking about. When did you come to the United States first?
S: I came to the U.S. August 2008, five years ago, but I’ve been away from Israel since I was 17 because I was in Italy for two years.

L: What was the strangest thing about coming here?

S: Um. The passive aggressiveness. Like people’s way of telling they want you to do things is very different than how it is in Israel. And there is small stuff, like walking down the street and someone says hello to you.

L: How is that passive aggressive?

S: No, that’s not passive aggressive, it’s just very different. I remember my mom came here and we were walking in Whole Foods, and somebody just said “Hey, how are you?” and just kept going and my mom was like: “Do you know this person!?”. And I’m like: “No, mom, this is how people interact with each other here; they are like genuinely nice even if they don’t know you”.

L: So you don’t smile at strangers in Israel

S: Not like here.  I feel like here is a lot different in the way that they treat strangers, like common courtesies you know. Or things like four-way stops. Where people just wait. And there is this Minnesotan moment there where nobody knows where to go, because nobody wants to infringe on the other person’s right. That 30 seconds where nobody moves… THAT WOULD NEVER HAPPEN IN ISRAEL

L: Really? What would happen in Israel?

S: Everybody would go! At the same time! You know. We don’t even have four-way stops in Israel! You can’t trust us with that kind of thing.

L: Because people know that just wouldn’t work.

S: NO! It just wouldn’t work.

L: That’s funny.

S: It’s just little things.

L: Your dad is an immigrant to Israel, and your mother was first generation in Israel?

S: Right she was the first one of her sisters to be born in Israel.

L: What was it like for her? If it was that different for you in the United States…I mean your mom is from Iraq so that makes her an Arab Jew? Living in Israel…

S: Well we have to go back with my mom’s story and understand the context.  My grandmother is from an area in Iraq called Jalah. She was a daughter from an educated family. They didn’t have a lot of money, but they had a lot of education, and in Iraq education meant respect. So the way she tells this story is that at 16 this really handsome man came to their house.

L: This is your grandmother in Iraq?

S: Yes. So, he was much older and was really handsome and charming, and he took her hand in marriage, and then they moved to Baghdad. And that person was my grandfather. He was from a family of business-oriented people, so he had a lot of money and he had a lot of really good relationships with the Muslim Iraqis.  He was an Iraqi Jew, but there was a thriving Jewish community in Iraq at that time. My grandmother describes it as a natural union that was happening between a well-educated family and a business-oriented family.  So, he was around 42 years old when he married my grandmother, who was around 16 years old.

L: Dang

S: She loved it because he loved her and took care of her and stuff like that. My grandmother always talks about him as this super charismatic man. He was really popular and really beautiful.

And then in the 50’s the Zionist movement kind of spread over the Arab countries, hand in hand with rising anti-Semitic feelings…Well, hatred towards Jews, more specifically.

Anyway my grandmother’s brother, my great uncle Salim,  was involved with the Jewish Zionists underground. He really wanted to take my grandmother to Israel, but my grandfather refused because he loved Iraq. But, my great grandmother got hooked on this Zionist idea.

L: Ooooooh

S: She wanted my grandmother to come to Israel. So after convincing my grandmother ALOT. My great grandmother asked to host her granddaughter, my aunt, Tammy, for a night. My grandmother didn’t usually let anyone do that, because she was very protective of her children. But she allowed it. And overnight they took the daughter and they went to Israel. So they kidnapped the daughter, and took her to Israel.

L: Your great-grandmother?

S: Yes, she took my aunt to Israel. Eventually, they were convinced to come to Israel because they had no other choice. My grandmother described that transition as something incredibly difficult.  They left all of their things and moved to Israel in 1950. They only brought two suitcases. In Israel they were placed in transitional housing. Which was like a one tiny room apartment where they lived until Uncle Salim had enough money to move them into another house that was also a one-room apartment for five people, eventually turning into nine people. 

L: Did your grandfather stay in Baghdad?

S: No they all went together. They came here from fortune and fame to live in poverty, and they were also Arab. Which means they were constantly discriminated against. And treated as second class citizens. So that, in combination, with the fact they lost everything, made my grandfather really sick.  So I think at that point it marked his deterioration.

He eventually lost his sight, and there was gender role switch. My grandmother became the provider in the house.

In that context, my mother was born. She was was the first child to be born into this family that just moved from Iraq into Israel. It was very difficult times in Israel.  It was difficult to be a Jew, it was difficult to be an Arab Jew it was difficult to be first generation.

L: And what about your father, he immigrated from Poland right?

S: Right, my father comes from a whole different context.  My [paternal] grandmother was in the Holocaust. She passed through five concentration camps.

L: On your father’s side of the family?

S: Yes. Basically all of her family was murdered.  Except for her sister. They managed to stay together through the power of sewing. They were very good sewers. And the Nazi’s needed a lot of them during the war and before that. So that’s how they managed to survive. Then when the war was approaching an end, and the Nazi’s were getting kind of stressed out that they were not going to kill as many Jews as they wanted, they started sending them on death walks. Which meant walking barefoot, in the snow, until you die. And my grandmother found an escape along the way, she grabbed her sister’s arm and they ran away. Towards the end of it, her sister said she can’t keep going anymore. And my grandmother found some old shoes, and put it on her legs and they ran and ran and ran, and they knocked on the doors of Polish villagers and no one wanted to help them. I think the sad part about my grandmother’s story is that I really don’t know a lot about it. Because my father was first generation to Holocaust survivors. This generation tends to not ask a lot of questions.

L: I didn’t know that.

S: Yeah, it’s just because the wound is so deep. They prefer to kind of move on. And that’s a kind of generalization, but that’s kind of recurring theme I’ve been hearing about. So my dad didn’t ask any questions.  And that would have been my job.  If my grandmother was alive now, I would ask her EVERYTHING. But she passed away when I was 4four, sadly. Which I think is one of the biggest…. The biggest..I don’t know, biggest regrets I have in life…That I wasn’t born earlier on.

L: So… I know it’s hard to talk about Immigration within the context of Israel because everyone’s kind of…..

S: Yes?

L: Transient? Everyone’s moving around in the Middle East it’s really hard to even say where you’re from because a lot of the boundaries are recent. But your mom, for example, did she identify as Iraqi or Israeli or Arab?

S: Well the word Arab in Israel unfortunately has very strong negative connotations.  People use that word to curse each other. It is a derogatory term.  So being identified as Arab is not really a thing, unfortunately.  Although! They spoke Arabic at home. My mom speaks Arabic to my grandma when they don’t want us to understand what they are talking about.  

But, there is a HUGE Iraqi pride.  I grew up very early on understanding that I am half Iraqi.  I would say that the three dominant identities my mom’s family is carrying is Israeli, Jewish, Iraqi. Whether they would like to make the connection that Iraq is Arab, they don’t always make that connection, but being Iraqi was always a huge source of pride. Life in Iraq was ALWAYS talked about. Those were my bedtime stories. Every grandchild knows the story of my grandmother’s immigration by heart. EVERYONE. That was a bedtime story.  

I come from a very matriarchal family, and my grandmother is the matriarch.  She has a very strong influence on me.  So I have a very, very strong Iraqi Identity. Very strong.

And I take lots of pride in it because it made me who I am today.  My grandmother’s stories made me who I am today.  The fact that she’s so strong, the fact that she gave it to mother, the fact that my mom instilled it in me.  This power as a woman as a matriarch, that’s something that I carry with me everywhere I go.   

I still feel like there is a lot more room for me to explore my Polish roots.

L: You have connections to these other countries and these other lands, do you feel like Israel is your home? Where is home for you?

S: Ummm, yes. I feel that Israel is my home, but if you would have asked me that question five years ago, I would have told that it’s my only home.  But I feel that in many ways Minneapolis is my home as well, but it took me a really long time to realize it’s okay to have two homes without feeling like you’re betraying your first home.

Israel and I have a very complicated relationship right now and it’s beautiful and it’s disheartening and it’s challenging. Minneapolis is less complicated in some ways…but not others. It’s more complicated in the sense of my immigration situation, it’s more complicated in the sense of work situations, it’s more complicated in the fact that I have a family here: my friends, but I do not have the security of my matriarch, I don’t have the security of my family from back home. Because that’s different, here I’ve learned the hard way to fend for myself, to be independent. Being an immigrant in a new country is constantly getting knocked down and trying to find ways to go up again, it’s a constant struggle.  

I’m telling you this as an immigrant. And, I consider myself a privileged immigrant! Although I didn’t come from a background of money necessarily, I got a full scholarship for higher education. I am at a point of advantage compared to other people, other immigrants. I have status here, I’m not here illegally, and I’m having so many, SOO many challenges, I cannot even imagine how it is for people from different backgrounds. 

L: So you talked about how you have two homes and that can sometimes be a challenge, how do you navigate that?

S: Well, when I say two homes, I was born and I was raised in Israel and my family is there and these are my roots. Here in Minneapolis I found a different home.  The two are not mutually exclusive but they are not the same.  

I’m fortunate to have a family back home that reminds at times when I want to give up here because it’s so hard, that I have to keep going, that I’ve been through so much already that I can’t give up now, and I have that here as well. So these constant reminders, these people around you that remind you of things when you forget, they remind you of who you are when you forget, they remind you of your life vision when you forget. That keeps me going throughout the challenges, but navigating the two is never easy.

There are things that I can do here, things that I can say here.  I am heard here for my political opinion without constantly being teased about it or humiliated about it. Whereas back home when I go and talk about my political opinion, in the past I’ve been shunned publicly. So it’s a false bubble for me here in Minneapolis because people are forgiving and people want to listen and they want to learn and they want to hear your opinion about things whereas when I go back to Israel, that bubble is burst, and I need to learn how to talk to people without triggering them and I need to learn how to not take personally the fact that they are attacking my character because they are scared about what I have to say about the political situation in Israel. I have to learn how to navigate spaces differently. I don’t even sing in Israel, you know, maybe once. These materials that I’m singing about are heavily political and cultural in many ways. I still haven’t had a chance to express them in front of my Israeli friends, to whom I write these songs to begin with.

So, these are definitely two worlds to navigate because in Israel, I’m an Israeli with radical opinions.  I’m categorized as extreme because people disagree with me in Israel, although my opinions are very reasonable.  I’m a peace activist, there’s nothing extreme about this. Whereas here, I am Israeli and Jewish and Iraqi and Polish and a student and an immigrant and a person of color, according to some. So there are new identities that are added to me when I come here that I hadn’t considered before.  In Israel the conversation…I’m sorry I’m taking this to a whole different area…

L: Go Ahead!

S: In Israel, race and ethnicity is different than it is here, so when I got here I was introduced to new ideas about race that were not necessarily part of my identity. Having big hair, having olive skin having an accent, all these things away from Israel are in new light, you know? When I come here, a lot of people ask me if I’m mixed, you know, like what does that mean? So, I’m like yeah I’m mixed. I’m half Iraqi, half Polish, and they’re almost disappointed because they wanted to hear something else, because when they see my big hair, what do they think about?

L: African/African American?

S: Yeah, African American. So, when people ask me: are you mixed? I kinda smile a lil bit, because mixed in Israel is so different than here. So, these two homes are a whole different identity navigation and its always interesting to move from one to another and go back because what makes me different in one place is a whole different story in the other context.

L: I want to ask you the last question on film:

Reporting for this article supported in part by Bush Foundation.