I am Nelly and I am French, White and Jewish. My husband Abdoulaye (better known for some of you as Jules) is Senegalese, Black and Muslim. We met in Switzerland and came to the U.S. “by accident” in 2006. We have been living in Washington Heights since 2008 with our two girls: Salome (8, going into 4th grade at Hunter) and Samantha (5, going to Kindergarten at Dos Puentes).
Living in Washington Heights is just awesome: the food is delicious (rice and beans, pupusa, tamales …), the fireworks are all night long (for a break just close the window and turn on the A/C), the parks are big, Jews are everywhere and our daughters just pass for Dominicans. Washington Heights is my little paradise (oh, of course I am not on social media and I don’t watch the news, so all is good).
It took me a while to decide to write this because for me, as I said, “all is good.” I guess I am trying to add perspective and love to my life every day to overcome some struggles. This is a part of my experience.
I faced antisemitism in France. My mom always told us: “Don’t say that you are Jewish! Not at school, not to your friends, not to anyone!” So “fortunately” people can’t see that I am Jewish, even my last name “Cominotto” is not (my father was from an Italian-French Catholic family but he was atheist). Several times I was in situation where people were just saying horrible things against the Jews and I was just petrified, not able to say something. That was somehow “normal” for me.
Growing-up and living in Senegal, Jules never faced racism because everybody else is just Black. Even between the tribes and religions I have to say that Senegal is a pretty opened country. It’s only in Switzerland that he started to feel the difference, especially when he was looking for a job.
Coming to New York for us was liberating in several aspects. I am not saying it’s perfect but wearing my Star of David on the subway was a first for me! Jules being able to find a job before he got his working permit was just a dream (he started as a volunteer until he got his permit). And for the first time we were watching a movie with Indian and South Korean stars (Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle—I highly recommend that movie!!). That was just social, racial, religious progress!
But we knew that there was not progress everywhere in the U.S. and that our mixed-race marriage would not be welcomed in every place in the U.S. Speaking of race, in Europe we don’t use the word “race” as it used in the US. There is only one race for women and men and that is the Human Race. Even in NYC, going to restaurants, you can clearly see the social “caste”: who seats you, who takes your order and who cleans your table… I also learned more about the living conditions of the Native Americans. I guess that was my first bitter after-taste.
My second came when Salome started to tell me that she wanted to have straight hair. Ohh sister!!!! I don’t even know where to start with this… let me make you laugh first. I am crazy about natural and organic corporal products. Taking care of black hair with only natural products—that is a frea** process. I have recently learned about the types (Salome is 4C and Samantha is 3C) and the LOC method and tried so many different oils that I could make a “thousand oils” salad dressing, we have so many brushes that I could open a salon, I have so many elastic bands that I could build an anti-seismic bridge between New York and Tokyo! I mean really I think I could get my bachelor’s degree in “Black Hair Maintenance When You Are A White Straight Hair Girl.” I recognize that I still have a lot to learn and I still have a long road ahead of me to get my Ph.D.!!
Seriously, this is almost a daily struggle when I have to tell Salome that her hair is awesome, beautiful, versatile, and straight hair is overrated. Then, I have Samantha who is a big fan, of course, of Frozen and when she pins the long blond braided wig that came with the dress and the tiara, I can’t help just sighing and reminiscing about when she used to love Moana. That being said, Samantha is very comfortable wearing the “afro” style—and I would say Salome is, too. At this point I don’t think they’re taking a stand so much as saying, “Mama don’t get closer with your salad dressing and don’t touch me with this brush!”
The third bitter after-taste came when at school Salome started to learn about slavery. She told me several times: “Mama, you know, a while ago, I could not have been born because you know marriage between Black and White was not possible,” or, “Mama you know, a while ago, I could not have gone to school, because, you know” and then she would show me her skin.
It just broke my heart when she told me that and I was just able to answer: “Oh well, then you are lucky to be born now! So get back to your homework because it’s a privilege to go to school!”
Some days are hard for me because I don’t know what it is like to be judged at first sight by the color of my skin, by my hairdo. But I think we are lucky to be here these days and Washington Heights is our little paradise as we blend here.
Our differences in our family make us strong and I would say we are pretty happy. Besides, celebrating holidays between two religions (ok three, we do have a Christmas tree with a Star of David, and the girls love the chocolate Easter egg hunt… my grand-ma is probably turning over in her grave…) and three countries really helps to keep up the good mood!
Oh and I’ve barely touched on how to raise Jewish-Muslim girls, as it could go on and on and on. When I met Jules and we decided to be together, get married, have kids… I made the jokes that we will have to have a special budget to pay the long hours of psycho-therapies and then he looked at me and said: “You believe in this stuff?” … Oh well. I guess that is just another difference that will make us stronger!