Tag Archives: african-american

Carry Me Home: A Testimony of Orly Portal’s Swiria

“I was a witness to a witches’ ceremony” he said. Photo credit: Alexander Kreinzin

In the summer of 2019, I had the most powerful dance experience of my life with Orly Portal‘s Swiria (סוויריה). I didn’t go back the following year because I’d decided to take on becoming a homeroom teacher and Sundays, the days we had the Swiria course from the morning to the afternoon, were required work days at the school. For two years since, I’d been eating my heart out on the regular. I would see the women that I started with progressing, dancing on rooftops or in the forest during lockdown, performing on the stage, fulfilling the dream that I had come for in the first place.

I asked myself “How could I do it?” How could I have taken this away from myself? For what? Was the task I had taken upon myself worth the dream deferred?” (Especially since what was supposed to be a four year journey as a Waldorf high school homeroom teacher came to an abrupt end after its second year–but that’s a topic for another post.)

And then, on Wednesday, October 6th, I entered the studio in Ein Shemer for the first time after a two-year hiatus. I felt the return home. Already, at the beginning of class, during the stretches, I had tears of gratitude in my eyes. What’s most important is that I am here. What’s most important is that I returned. What’s most important is that I have learned my lesson, to never say “no” again to what is good for my entire being. But rather, to always say an enthusiastic yes, with a full heart, no matter what, with faith that the rest will work themselves out.

After that performance in August 2019, I wrote a piece that I never shared publicly. In honor of my return, it is time for it to come to light. At the end, I have a little surprise. There is a hint in the title.

“Lord have mercy on me,” from my solo to Gil Scott-Heron’s “New York is Killing Me” Photo credit: Tomer Shallom

Testimony (Swarriya/Swiria)*

How do I begin to process what Swarriya סוויריה has meant for me? ובאיזו שפה? (–and in which language?)


 זאת המילה שמלווה אותי כל הדרך. (This is the word that carries me along the way.)

In Hebrew there is no satisfactory translation because it misses a cultural significance.

בעברית הפירוש הוא “עדות” אבל באנגלית, בתרבות של הכנסיות האפרו-אמריקאיות המשמעות היא לבוא מול הקהל ולהעיד על איזה נסים נעשה בחייך עלי יד הכוח העליון. לספר איך הגעת לכאן ומען באת. איך רק זכות האמונה ניצלת.

(In English, it carries connotations of the African American church, meaning to come in front of the congregation and “give a testimony” on the miracles done in your life by the higher power. To tell how you got here and where you came from. How only by the power of faith were you saved.)

My story with Swarriya begins over four years ago [2016] when I saw it performed: The Gnawa trance called me to the stage to dance it; the fusion with Gill Scott Heron’s spoken word spoke to my soul—beats of the descendants of slaves from the east meet voice of the descendants of slaves from the west. I wanted to jump on stage and thus begin the obsession. זרע החלום ניטע. (The seed of the dream took root.)

“It’s your rhythm.”

(She told me once at a workshop in Jerusalem.)

“זה הקצב שלך,”

היא אמרה לי פעם בסדנה נדירה בי”ם.

The story of my rhythm spans decades—from being told I couldn’t dance to being told I was born to dance, to recognizing my own rhythm.

She was always too far, too out of reach, but when Swarriya came for reincarnation, I couldn’t resist. With the help of Ella’s faith, I made the pilgrimage to Ein Shemer.

אורלי אמרה פעם, “תעשו מחקר. תראו מאיפה באנו. המקור של ריקוד היה לסיבה הזאת בלבד, להזמין את הרוחות לעזור לנו. כולכן באתן—בין אם ראיתן את סוויריה או לא, בין אם ידעתן או לא—להתחבר לדבר הזה.”

(Orly said once, “Do some research and look where we came from. The origin of dance was for this reason only, to invite the spirits to come help us. All of you came here—whether saw Sawarriya or not whether you know it or not— to connect to this.”)

On April 30th I sprained my ankle. I couldn’t walk for weeks. I couldn’t dance for two months. I never posted about this. I mourned the performance in between physical therapy appointments. I undulated between hope and despair. One month before the show I was told I could dance again. The 2nd rehearsal day that I returned I entered a trance in the last ceremony and felt orgasmic joy surge through my chest and pour out in tears of gratitude. This is a testimony.

“She’s on it,”

Orly said the week before the performance about “New York” and I started messing up what I knew well. The performances were on Thursday and Friday. I was crying from Sunday, Monday I had a panic attack, and cried myself to sleep קניתי רסקיו לפעם הראשונה.  On Tuesday, I called Ella crying.

שוב אלה בעלת אמונה הרגיעה אותי. אין מלווה יותר מסורה. עבודת קודש היא עושה.

(I bought Rescue for the first time. Again, faithful Ella calmed me down. There is no more dedicated accompaniment than her. What she does is holy work.)

On Wednesday, the day before the performance Orly pulled me out to the front with one instruction: “יש לך מצב.” (You’re under a spell.)

אז קיבלתי מצב. (So, I fell under a spell.)

Like a magician, a conductor, a mad puppeteer, she pulled out of me what I didn’t even know I had in me to do. And yet it was what I’d been waiting for my entire life, only I did not believe I was worthy.

I went from a sprained ankle to a solo. This is a testimony.

I lost my voice the night before the show. I drank zaatar tea and prayed and held my lapis lazuli. I coughed half the night. My voice came back. And on Thursday I sang “lord have mercy” with all my might; I sang of being healed. I learned to appreciate every functioning part of my body. This is a testimony.

“I thought you were going to melt and turn into butter,” the old lady said, “I thought you were going to just, poof, disappear.”

“זה נכון, היית אנרגיה טהורה,” אורלי אמרה. (“It’s true, you were pure energy,” Orly said.)

“I tell you: one must still have chaos within oneself to give birth to a dancing star.”

~Thus Spoke Zarathustra

“אדם אשר אין בו כאוס

לא יכול להוליד כוכב רוקד.

יש בך כאוס, יש בך כאוס!

יש. יש. יש.”

I confess, I’d never felt so connected before to the continent that was sometimes too proud of its lineage to take in a bastard of the West. But these slaves who made beats with their chains and transformed them into praise songs, I know these songs; my soul has heard them before; they call me home.

Swarriya is more than Gnawa meets Gil Scott, more than dancing, Moroccan singing, krakebs (qraqeb/garagab) and zills. It’s my story. It’s where all of my parts could finally meet. I danced who I am.

“תודה שראית אותי,” (“Thank you for seeing me,”)

I told her after it was all over.

“איך אפשר שלא?” (“How could I not?”)

אני אסירת תודה אין קץ על המתנה שנקראת “סווירה” מאורלי פורטל האחד ויחידה.

 גבולות של האפשרי נפתחו לי. “אני חדשה כאן.”

I am endlessly grateful for the gift that is called “Swarriya” from the only and only Orly Portal.

The borders of possibility have opened up to me. “I am new here.”

אלף תודות לאלה, שאמונתה הבלתי פוסקת החזיקה אותי מההתחלה ועד הסוף.

כמה ראוי היה לשיר את שבחיך בסוויריה. שיבחתי את שמך מכל ליבי ובאושר עד.

ותודה לשבט הנשים שלי, אחיות הטקס ושותפות במסע לכוהנות.

*[Translations were added for the purposes of this blog post. They are not always 100% accurate–because they cannot be, but aim to convey the essence of the message. Also at the time of writing it, I spelled it “Swarriya” vs. the “Swiria” on the work’s website, but there is no one spelling in English.]

“I entered a trance in the last ceremony and felt orgasmic joy surge through my chest” Photo credit: Gil Volfson
Calligraphy Flourishes Collection | Noun Project

At the “after party,” one of the girls asked me, “Do you know any gospel songs?” If there is a way to end a testimony, then this is it:

Multicultural as the New Multiracial



Being multiracial is about answering the question “Who are you?”, as Marcia Dawkins asked me when we met at a café in Israel.  It was the first time I had ever been asked this question. I answered: 

My instinct is to tell you what I am not, because I have always been fighting being defined. I’m not American. I’m not Israeli. I’m not Russian. I’m not black. I’m not a woman—as in I’m not defined by my status or sex. I’m not a mother, as in I’m not defined by this role. I am nothing; but not in the way of being unimportant. I just want to be. I’m just me. I’m Shoshana.

What I forgot to tell Marcia is that I don’t have the luxury of knowing who I am. When I mentioned these thoughts to my mother she said, “There’s something about U.S. society that makes you choose,” which are the remnants of the “one-drop rule” that refuses to die— a rule of Jim Crow segregation defining an individual with any known African ancestry as black, a form of hypodescent. Mom also told me I do not get to choose not to be black, exclaimed that I am American, and called this paragraph “poppycock!” when I read her my first draft. She has never been asked “What is your eda” (loosely translated as “ethnicity” in Hebrew) and not known the answer. I recently rediscovered a journal entry from 2007 where I wrote, “I have been told and told and told…who to be until I literally, actually don’t know who I am anymore.” Now, I know that because of who I am I don’t know who I am.

Perhaps Mom’s response is one reason why neither she nor I consider ourselves multiracial. My mother has curly hair, but I assume this is the result of history. All I know is that my great-great-grandmother was half Cherokee and half black and my great-great-grandfather was white. In America this ancestry does not allow me to define myself as multiracial. Why?  Because my mixture is not immediate, and allegedly all black people in America have some Native American ancestry. My daughters are another story.  One is multiracial and two are not.  What is interesting is that one of my monoracial daughters is lighter than the mixed one.  We bring these differences, these “what we are nots” to our blended family, though this is not where I take my credibility to discuss the subject. The fact that I even believe I need credibility is perhaps more of the issue.  Though I have never considered myself multiracial, I have always felt as though I am.  I have been taken for multiracial. I find myself drawn to multiracial people in the U.S. and in Israel, where I have lived for nearly half of my life. I even used to wish I were multiracial (at the time my preference was half-French) so that I would have another native tongue and an additional culture to enjoy. Perhaps this is because I share their way of being/ belonging nowhere and everywhere at the same time, of not being wholly of one culture.

In Israel, mixed race is more complex than in America mainly because religion is, simultaneously, more important than race and is race, in the context of Judaism. The Ashkenazi (European Jews)/Mizrachi (Eastern Jews) discourse parallels the American black/white discourse culturally, but due to the shared religion/race of Judaism, multiracial identity in this context is much less poignant. Alternatively, the interaction between Jews of Ethiopian decent and those of European decent is slightly more riddled with discontent. This is due to the influence of American media, and the borrowing of language from the Civil Rights movement and race issues which leave stronger sentiments and scars of racism. Nevertheless, sharing Jewishness is a neutralizing factor. The real disquieting issue in multiracialism in Israel is mixing which crosses religious/racial boundaries—for instance, a Jew marrying a Muslim/Christian Arab or a Druze marrying a Jew.

The mere existence of an American living outside of the American context creates a multicultural experience. When there is an attempt to define an expatriate individual based on local identity categories, an even stronger parallel to the multiracial experience is created. This is the case when Israelis try to define me within a local context. Almost no American would mistake me for multiracial because I do not pass “the comb test” (a test of blackness based on hair texture; my hair would not easily concede to a comb). Because Israelis are not aware of the comb test, I am often assumed to be multiracial. In the Israeli context, there are the assumptions that (a) anyone not a tourist or a student who would come to live in Israel must be Jewish, (b) Ethiopian Jews are the only black Jews, and, therefore, (c) based on my complexion, I must be either a convert or half-Jewish. Aside from the assumption of my half-Jewishness, I am mistaken for various other mixed race combinations and nationalities—anything from Jamaican or Brazilian to Indian or French—which would not happen in America.

Just as in America as a child I was told I “acted white,” I am told in Israel that I fit into the Ashkenazi category because I am American. This is paramount to being told I “pass” into the “white” category, in terms of having an elevated social status. In other words, in Israel, I am culturally white!

Being an extensively acculturated resident of Israel for half of my life has blurred my identity. Sometimes I think in Hebrew, and despite not being Jewish, or even an Israeli citizen, I find myself and am found by Americans and Israelis alike to be culturally more Israeli than American, or experienced as just not American period. (My Egyptian American friend who works at the US Consulate threatens to revoke my US passport for lack of up-to-date American cultural innuendos.) When I was observant of a religious Jewish lifestyle, I was found by some secular Israelis to be “more Jewish” than they considered themselves.

Amongst Israelis, most of my friends in the country are from the former Soviet Union, including my Ukrainian Jewish husband. I have learned intermediate Russian (now Russian words pop into my head when I try to speak French), our kitchen is a mosaic of dishes from the Crimean Peninsula region, I wear a tryzub (the Ukrainian seal) necklace, and identify more with this segment of Israeli society than other groups, including Americans living in Israel, and especially African Americans living in Israel. My next largest category of friends in Israel is either mixed or “black sheep” (no pun intended) defined as not “fitting” into the cultural-racial group they were born into. These include friends who are Ukrainian Togolese (he calls himself a “Black Russian”), African American Israeli, Ukrainian American, Jewish Russian, Egyptian American, Ethiopian Israeli, and Palestinian American who “act white” as defined by their peers, and Russian Israelis who “pass” for native Israeli because they are “dark.”

I am reminded via social networking sites that I am disconnected from issues that concern many of my African American peers in the United States. This is clear in old debates such as the “Why is it hard to find a good black man?”; I tend to be the only voice saying, “Why not look for a good man, period?” Or during discussions of the Trayvon Martin tragedy where I was the only one of my black Facebook friends who did not dedicate a status update to the case. “Honestly,” I responded to another friend’s status, “because I believe it’s a human issue and I don’t normally toot my horn about most of what I find appalling news in this world I hadn’t planned on addressing it at all.” I have felt estranged from blackness, yet simultaneously suffered from it since childhood, mainly from my strongest black feature, my hair.

My identification with the multiracial experience began in childhood as a multicultural individual within the American black/white context. In the United States, the story is so old it feels redundant to even give a small review. There was slavery, there was Jim Crow, there were “Our Kind of People,” there was the Civil Rights Movement, there was desegregation, and there was “re-segregation” (the repolarization of black and white communities and schools), and this is where I come in. My earliest school memories, in an elementary school in Brewton, Alabama, in a relatively racially mixed school, were of the boy who made fun of my “BB buckshots” and the “pots and pans in my kitchen.” These were references to the texture of my hair. This boy was black. I also remember being told that I “spoke white.” Speaking white is a term referred to one speaking grammatically correct English as opposed to African American vernacular English. I ended up having mostly white friends because my black classmates told me that I was not black. To this day, I am still not 100% sure what that means. I just did not fit in culturally. I suffered no such self-consciousness with my white classmates, and this was Alabama. To be fair, during my summers in Buffalo, NY, my cousins told me I “sounded country” so maybe I had accent issues.

Fast forward to high school in Baltimore, MD, in the 1990s. This was a predominately black school and I still “wasn’t black” enough. I was told I didn’t have rhythm and teased for the unfashionable hairstyles with the nappy hair clearly not straightened properly in the back. Though I’d started off closed-minded mainly due to the ignorance of my inexperience, I began listening more to alternative music, defined by my classmates as “white music,” and less to “black music” like the R&B and rap popular amongst my peers.  I was called out for that as well. It was once said of me: “Shoshana doesn’t drink Kool-Aid, she drinks Perrier. She doesn’t eat Oodles of Noodles, she eats Fettuccine Alfredo.” Guilty as charged. So, I was very empathetic when a foreign-educated mixed friend, said “They say I’m not black until they see that I’m smart and then they say, ‘She’s a smart black person.’ Why don’t they make up their minds?” On one hand, she was rejected as “not black” culturally; on the other, blacks wanted to claim her achievements in the name of black prestige. It is but one example of the limbo suffered by the multiracial and multicultural alike.

I am not multiracial, but I was never allowed to feel black enough either. Strangely, when I went natural with my hair and started my locks in 11th grade, I became “too black” or at least too nappy for some. I was called a wannabe Erykah Badu, as Afrocentricism was becoming the new style on the fringes of high school society. But I did not change my hair because I was becoming Afrocentric. I did it because one day while returning from a band trip (I’d found the courage to dance as a flag girl with the marching band— turns out I had rhythm after all), I suddenly remembered that boy from elementary school who made fun of my “buckshots” and realized that I hadn’t permed my hair because I thought it was more beautiful; I did it because I had been teased. I decided to break free, and I have loved my hair ever since despite the loaded message it sometimes sends to others. I have locks simply because they are beautiful and easy—no, I don’t like reggae music. Really.

These experiences with my family, peers, and hair, combined with my indefinite relocation to Israel, contributed to the weakening of my black/African American identity and the strengthening of my “refusing definition/multicultural/citizen of the world” identity. In the United States, historically, multiracial identity—usually biracial identity—has meant having to choose sides: Either pass for white according to the paper bag and comb test or be black according to the one-drop rule. Currently, multiracial identity in America seems to mean simultaneously belonging to two or more groups and yet really belonging to none. It is a debate of being defined and about rejecting definition. Yet, just as race in itself is a social/cultural construct, so are these definitions and the sense of belonging that accompanies them. It’s less about belonging to a color than belonging to a culture.  Paradoxically, as much as I oppose this discourse insisting on defining me, I am caught in it. I have been defining myself as not multiracial when I, very literally, am. We African Americans are multiracial, but we weren’t allowed to be multiracial. Why are we still following the one-drop rule? And why are blacks victimizing other blacks concerning their blackness, knowing we are all mixed anyway? Why?  Because someone in history said that I don’t get to choose. Well, I say that I do. I can choose not to choose.  According to Cassar (2008), “the identity is not several but one, made up of all the elements (which we could call tesserae) that have shaped and continue to shape it” (p. 19). Perhaps this is why I love making collages—I am one.

The core of multiracial identity is blurring identities: simultaneously belonging to multiple categories and yet belonging exclusively to none. Multicultural people share a blurring of identities in a way very similar to those born multiracial, which is why in today’s global village, multicultural may be considered as the new multiracial. Multicultural individuals are loosely defined including, but not restricted to, those who are extensively acculturated expatriates and immigrants; partners in interracial relationships or parents of multiracial children; converts, particularly to Judaism where the lines between religion and race are blurred; individuals whose physical appearance causes them to be mistaken for multiracial or of the “wrong race”; individuals who define themselves as citizens of the world or even individuals who, for whatever reason, do not fit comfortably into the social/cultural/racial category they were born into but mesh well across other social/cultural/racial categories and carry an elusive sense of belonging nowhere and everywhere simultaneously.

This is not an essay about how I am not black or not American. It is about insisting upon the self-determination of my identity and hopefully giving others permission to do the same. In fact, perhaps in all that I have said, I make a stronger claim on my Americanness, for Harper and Walton (2000) have found that “to be ‘American’ is to be in constant search of one’s identity” (p. xxiv). Yet this still makes me cringe, and I get angry when people tell me to “come home.” I am still figuring this out. I embrace my American blackness in dance, jazz, and especially poetry, since I am a poet—these are a few of the many tesserae that I am composed of. Hughes (1995) once declared, “A poet is a human being. Each human being must live within his time, with and for his people, and within the boundaries of his country” (p. 5). But what is my country? Who are my people? Am I of my times? Perhaps telling me to come home is upsetting because I am not American, but I am; I am not Israeli, but I am; I am not black, but I am. It’s not about coordinates. It’s that everywhere I find mosaic people like me, I am home, in my country, with my people…and I defend my nomadic homeland of the heart fiercely.


Cassar, A. (2008). Muzajk: An Exploration in Multilingual Verse. Valletta, Malta: Edizzjoni


Harper, M. S., and Walton, A. (Eds.). (2000). The Vintage Book of African-American

 Poetry. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Hughes, L. (1994). Introduction. In A. Rampersad and D. Roessel (Eds.), The Collected Poems

of Langston Hughes (pp. 3-7). New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.

Originally published: “Multicultural as the New Multiracial,” Mixed Race 3.0: Risk and Reward in the Digital Age, 2015    

Check out the entire Kindle book on Amazon!