Updated: May 2, 2021
Aliyah Date: September 5th, 2018
Made Aliyah from New Jersey
Currently living in Jerusalem
“To be a Jew from an Arabic-speaking family is strange in a community of Jews from Yiddish-speaking backgrounds, but in Israel, I don't experience being the exotic one.”
Peter Moshe Shamah is not your typical American Jew.
Although he was born and raised in New Jersey, he never quite felt at home there. As a kid, he spent a lot of time in Israel visiting relatives and that felt much more like his comfort zone. “Culturally, I feel very much at home here. I actually felt like and was often treated as a foreigner in the US, but here I feel like I’m amongst my people.”
Not only did Shamah not feel at home in the US at large, but he also didn’t feel quite at home in the Jewish community. As a Mizrahi Jew, living in a culture dominated by Ashkenazi Jews, it was challenging to find his place. “To be a Jew from an Arabic-speaking family is strange in a community of Jews from Yiddish-speaking backgrounds, but in Israel, I don't experience being the exotic one.” In Israel, more than 50% of the Jewish population is Mizrahi or Sephardi.
That diversity of Sephardic tradition has provided a space for Shamah to express culture, and re-acclimate himself to his heritage in a way that was impossible for him to do in the US.
He also saw that life in Israel would give him the opportunity to thrive in a way that didn’t feel possible in the US. “My family was in poverty in the US and that led me to seek out a life in Israel that’s significantly higher quality for me.”
Now in Israel, Shamah has access to healthcare and education and doesn’t have to deal with antisemitism. “I feel that I’m not one face in an ocean of millions. In this country it’s not about my status or what family I was born into - I feel like I can have a more positive influence on the world and my people here in Israel.”
That’s exactly what he intends to do. Shamah moved to Israel to be a part of the Jewish Renaissance that he feels is possible here. “I have a strong Jewish identity and believe in my own vision of Zionism, and I felt that moving to Israel would place me at the cultural and historical epicenter of the Jewish people - I wanted to be a part of the progress that we’re making in the world.”
An artist with a vision, Shamah also moved away from his fixation on purely engaging in academia when he arrived in Israel. Being in Israel, getting back in touch with his Middle Eastern roots-inspired new modes of expression and gave him the experiences he needed in order to rededicate himself to his painting, artwork, writing, and other more creative and expressive endeavors. He opened an art association called Studio Shamah, to curate his own art, and also to create a cultural apparatus to help other Olim, and up-and-coming Israeli artists get started in their careers. His own art is deeply influenced by his Middle Eastern heritage, as well as Jewish history and visual traditions as a whole. He designs ketubot (Jewish marriage contracts), calligraphies, Jewish blessings, and more in traditional Sephardi style with a modern twist.
A philosopher and activist at heart, Shamah also paints and creates collages and mixed-media work to make social statements. “On one hand I’m working on traditional Jewish works and on the other hand, I’m working on what is the Jewish condition in the state of Israel and in the world. I want to stimulate this thought in Israelis and my neighbors.” He is currently working on a piece that represents the effects of Coronavirus, both sociologically on his own body, as well the environmental issues we face, and the chaos that’s happened in the country as a consequence, such as the current oil spill plaguing Israel’s coast.
Even though there are challenges to living in Israel, one of the reasons Shamah is here is because he believes in our ability to make an impact.
“Since Israel is a small country, whatever challenges we face, whether personally, as Israelis, or as Olim, we can create political and social movements to effect change and make the quality of life more just.”
One of the things that Shamah developed a love for is Israeli tenacity and stubbornness. “It’s the face of the Israeli common man. It can be used for incredible things. You see it from where we came from and where we are now that this stubbornness has been used to overcome challenge after challenge, and create amazing things in our country. If we put this tool to proper use, there’s no puzzle we can’t solve.”
One of his greatest dreams is to open up an Institute of the Arts somewhere in the North, possibly Tiveria, that can be a place where children with difficult or unstable backgrounds can come study visual arts and literature, offering them a new direction in life.
Peter's advice for future Olim
1. Seek out community. It’s very difficult to be in this country alone, so the community is extremely important here. I know that it’s hard to break out of your shell, and reach out and talk to people from different cultures, especially if there is a language barrier, but if you want to understand each other, you will figure it out.
2. Come to Israel prepared. One of the best things in an immigration process is positive surprises, but one of the most derailing things is negative or bureaucratic surprises down the line, so be as armed as possible.
I strongly advise joining different Facebook groups and reading information that's available online about the housing market, how to pay taxes, cost of living, what it’s like to be in the army, what it means to have dual citizenship.
3. Let go of the cultural expectations of the countries you came from - this is not the USA, France, Russia, South Africa, or any other country. It’s Israel, and it’s important to acclimate yourself to the way people act and express themselves and cultural expectations here. If you do, you can utilize that power for personal progress, communal progress, and progress for the entire country.
4. I always considered myself a city person, but the more I explored the country, the more I fell in love with the small kibbutzim - the unheard and the unseen in the country.
We, as Olim, are often so focused on Tel Aviv and Jerusalem that we forget that there is a whole country in between, South, East, North, and West!
Get out and explore the country, there’s a lot to see!
Shamah has high hopes for the future of Israel and for the Jewish people. “We are all part of the same nation, but we all have our subcultures and that’s a positive thing. I’m grateful that I now have an outlet to express that too.”
Shamah’s forward vision with his work starts with asking the question, “How do we heal, as a nation, and as neighbors, from this point onward? How do we overcome these issues which have become so caustic and ever-present, that they turn us against each other? And ultimately, who are we as Israelis, and what kind of a country do we want to be?”
His answer is simple, “A country of her people, that is for all of her people.”
If you’re involved in the arts and looking to find a platform for your personal expression in Jerusalem, contact Peter Moshe, he is willing to help!
Check out a snapshot of his art gallery: