Reclaiming Tzipporah

If you have been paying attention to my online presence the past couple of weeks, you may have noticed that something changed. That’s right, I’m quitting music to become a trapeze-artist!

I’m joking, I’d end up breaking my neck on day one. The news is that I am changing my stage name again! Moving forward, I’ll be performing under the name Tzipporah. For so long, so many of you have known me as Wendy C Johnson, so why would I take on this new name and identity?

Allow me to explain. This name and identity are not new. Tzipporah is my Hebrew name. It translates to “little bird,” and for those who may not be familiar with Abrahamic religious texts, Tzipporah was the daughter of a priest from the ancient Middle Eastern province of Midian named Jethro and she married a figure named Moses. Tzipporah’s husband Moses was the man who is credited with leading my peoples’ ancestors out of slavery in Egypt, at least according to the Old Testament anyway.

Anybody who knows me knows that I am not exactly a devout practicing Jew, so in order for me to fully explain why I’ve made the decision to perform under my Hebrew name moving forward, I need to give a bit of historical context. When Jews, Arabs and other ethnic and ethno-religious groups of Middle Eastern origin (diasporic or otherwise) began to immigrate to the United States en masse, they faced horrible racialized discrimination. Without getting too in depth and repeating the words of many academics, while these communities were considered Caucasian, they were not European and therefore not accepted precisely because they did not neatly fit into Western racial categories. In response, these communities (each on their own behalf) lobbied congress so they could be included as “white” on the US Census and be left the hell alone (which I recognize in itself is a privilege many marginalized communities as well as multiply marginalized Jews have never had). Speaking from a Jewish perspective, part of the price my community paid to be included in this category was that we had to whitewash ourselves and assimilate. We had to culturally amputate ourselves, downplay our heritage, and deny our difference as a part of this bargain which was supposed to keep us safe from persecution. Of course, as history has shown, our place in the Western racial hierarchy has always been conditional and what category we fit into continues to be a matter of debate.

Repeated attacks on Jewish people and spaces over recent years have illuminated how great a threat white supremacy and 21st century fascism is to my community. The current political climate of fear and division within the United States has forced others outside of the Jewish community to see what I as an ethnically Jewish woman who has been racially profiled, orientalized, and physically assaulted on multiple occasions precisely because I cannot pass myself off as white already knew; anti-Semitism is in fact a form of racism, assimilation has done more harm to my community than good and we need to stop because white people in the United States have never and will never truly accept Jews as a part of their culture and communities anyway.

From as far back as I can remember, I and many other young Jews in my generation have been told to downplay our heritage and keep our heads down as a result of our cultural conditioning and the legacy of intergenerational trauma stemming from repeated persecution. I myself have spent way too much time trying to whitewash myself, spent too much time looking in the mirror and hating the texture of my hair, the “exotic” (like, what does that even mean?) features of my face, the olive-brown color of my skin. A mixture of trauma passed down from my ancestors, trauma from extreme bullying at school, and the effects of an unhealthy and chaotic home life caused me to with I could disappear. I wanted to run from everything I was and blend in by being skinny, blonde, and white like everyone else.

I’m tired of running. I’m sick of hiding from myself. Whether I like it or not, Tzipporah has always and will always be an important part of me. My culture and ethnic heritage play an important role in who I am as a musician and how I approach the process and purpose of music making even if I am not always writing Jewish music specifically intended for Jewish audiences. Instead of keeping Tzipporah at arms distance, I am consciously choosing to embrace her for many of the same reasons I now choose to sometimes wear a mitpachat (hair covering for Jewish women). Not out of some sort of spiritual awakening, but as an act of radical self-love, rebellion against white supremacy, and self-acceptance. Choosing Tzipporah means dissimilating and decolonizing my identity as a music-making Jewish woman by visibly marking myself as one. As I am making this transition and taking back this part of myself I have realized that by reclaiming Tzipporah I am, for the first time, writing and creating music as my whole self.

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