A Minnesota Jew In Kuwait

Judaism has been at the center of my life for as long as I can remember. Growing up in Minnesota, within a tight-knit Jewish community, it seemed that most of my friends were Jewish for the first 18 years of my life. Although I moved away from Minnesota to earn my degree in education, it was easy for me to form strong bonds instantly with the Jewish people that I met in college. When I began to pursue international teaching in 2012, I even frequented the Chabad House in Seoul, South Korea, where I was able to connect with many other Jewish people from across the world.

In 2015, I was hired to teach first grade at an elementary school in Kuwait City, Kuwait. The first thing I told the superintendent was, “I am Jewish; I don’t think I can work here.” He calmly convinced me that there is not a problem with being Jewish in Kuwait, but it’s not something I should consider talking about at school. I was skeptical to move to the Middle East, but after several weeks of conducting my own research, I decided to take the plunge, accept the job, and move to Kuwait.

In Kuwait, Israel is not considered a country; it is referred to as “Occupied Palestine.” I do not agree with the lack of education regarding this topic, however, I also know it is not my place to force my opinions on anyone (I teach 2nd grade, not ‘History of the Middle East’). Judaism is commonly associated with Israel, meaning that there is a large possibility that if I mention Judaism to anybody that I do not know, they may very well assume I am from Israel. There is a massive Palestinian population living in Kuwait, not to mention the one Palestinian student in my class, in addition to several of the Arabic teachers at my school. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one the largest, unresolved controversies that I remain neutral on. As an effect of my impartial stance, I choose to not discuss it. Rather than having an uncomfortable conversation, I nonchalantly nod my head when parents ask if I am Christian. I pretend to get excited when my students ask me about Santa Claus…because sometimes it is just easier to lie.

Despite keeping a large part of my identity a secret at school, I do the opposite when I am with my friends. It did not take me long to make friends I could trust upon moving to Kuwait. After a few weeks of arriving, I began talking very openly about being Jewish. I made numerous Muslim, Christian, religious, and nonreligious friends that welcomed my Jewish identity with open arms. Contrary to the assumptions made by most Americans, Islam is an incredibly open religion that accepts Judaism and Christianity. I found outlets to connect to my identity by teaching other people about my religion. I have conversations with my diverse groups of friends about how small-minded the world we live in can be. We agree with the injustices that exist, knowing that children are rarely given the opportunity to form individual, impartial opinions on global occurrences due to the predisposed educational system and media.

In Kuwait, I can no longer go down the street to attend Chabad services on Shabbat. I cannot have large dinners on Jewish holidays with friends or family. In fact, I am so isolated from Judaism here, that I usually have to be reminded when Jewish Holidays are occurring from social media posts or texts from my family.

Despite all of these things, I truly feel like my Jewish identity has never been stronger. Keeping a large part of my character a secret at school just makes me hold on to it closer. Having genuine conversations with like-minded people across the world has shown me how important it is to connect with people I trust. I learned while living in a country that I never thought I could live in, with people who appear to be the complete opposite of me, that in reality we are all the same.

Although I may not celebrate every Jewish holiday similarly to you, I find ways to celebrate on my own. When my Great Aunt died last year, I prayed with my Muslim friends. On Hanukkah, I skype with my parents at odd hours of the day just to light the menorah. I celebrate on Rosh Hashanah by wishing my friends and family a Happy New Year, and on Yom Kippur, I reflect on the past year. It may be difficult at times to be away, but I know in my heart that when I do return home, no part of my identity will ever feel as though it has been lost. I can still be Jewish while living in a Muslim country.

Editor’s note: For professional reasons, the author has been given anonymity by TC Jewfolk.