Zoe & Brooklyn Brownstone
“Wherever you are in the world, it's important to take your space.”
Season 3 is here! With the theme of celebration in mind, we are pleased to present Zoe & Brooklyn Brownstone, two sisters who recall how they have been celebrating their Jewish heritage and culture proudly since moving to Europe in very different ways. Zoe is a writer and comedian and has introduced her relationship with her identity into her shows and material. Brooklyn is the founder of The Labour Department, a social space for soon-to-be and new parents, currently living in Amsterdam with her husband and son. While they are both proud Jews, we love hearing how they share different perspectives on seemingly similar experiences. We also get to hear some realizations about making sense of their life choices and personality traits, and how they appreciate the gifts of their backgrounds. We were left inspired….. and laughing!
If you’d like to tell us your story or chat about your thoughts on culture, family, and heritage, we always love to chat. Find us on social @rootandseedco and subscribe to our newsletter to never miss a Root & Seed moment.
Hey, my name is Anika Chabra and you're listening to Root & Seed, a podcast about tradition seekers, who are sparked to explore, define, and celebrate their family and cultural identity.
This episode marks the premiere of season three of our podcasts and we are so excited to bring you another set of incredible humans from a diverse set of cultures and to explore their relationship with their heritage and cultural backgrounds. If you haven't had the chance to listen to our first two seasons, we invite you to do so! The stories are just beautiful and the shares are part introspective, part enlightening, and part just plain old fun.
This season, we're getting in the mood for celebration. Our guests are celebrating their background and identities in many forms, from dance to storytelling, to food, all in the spirit of forging, a deeper connection, and a greater awareness. We can't help, but think that we get to benefit from their actions and efforts and feel a real sense of gratitude and being observers to their sheer joy for an expression of their backgrounds.
If you're a follower of our podcast, you will remember that we had siblings, two sisters during our season two finale, both of whom epitomize the theme of honoring one's backgrounds. And you might also remember that we like a good bridge in storytelling.
It's for that reason that we're so excited to present you with two more sisters in our season three premiere. We absolutely love siblings. Why you might ask? As founders of a platform with storytelling at its core, it is so interesting to compare and contrast the similarities and differences in seemingly similar upbringings, and how their lived experiences are recalled and expressed in their choices and lives as adults. And with celebration, feeling more outward, more about sharing with family and your community. This can feel even more pronounced and evident. We love the honest and raw perspectives of today's two guests, who cut through the diplomacy of religion and into the realness of cultural and ethnic pride, celebration, and reflection. Brooklyn and Zoe are Jewish Canadians who moved to Amsterdam just before the pandemic.
Brooklyn is married to a Dutchman and together they're raising their son Max while Brooklyn also runs a successful social space for soon-to-be new parents called The Labor Department.
Zoe is a comedian, and a writer recently acclaimed for a beautiful piece she wrote in “Hey Alma”, about realizing the different perspectives of being Jewish in Europe, in contrast to what she experienced in Toronto. She is now located in London, UK, where we caught up with the two sisters.
They start off by being reflective of the differences that they have found when moving away from their home and how the foundation of their upbringing, along with the contrast they're experiencing now has allowed them to be more outspoken about what they want to bring forward from their culture.
Here they are!
Moving to the Netherlands definitely made me sort of appreciate, and want to celebrate my cultural heritage a lot more. I think a lot of that had to do with also being with a partner who's not Jewish and wanting to share that and sort of create a Jewish home together as much as we could.
And I also think it was due to like the adaptation of his culture, somewhat like bringing Dutch culture into our home, being introduced to the Dutch language, being introduced to Dutch food, yeah, Dutch traditions and trying to blend those in a way that forced me or encouraged me, I guess, to be a little bit more outspoken about the points that I thought were really important for me and my background.
Yeah, that's been a big change for me recently. I wasn't ashamed of being Jewish, but it wasn't something I strongly identified with until I moved to Europe and the Netherlands, of course I've always been a proud Jew. But moving and performing in Amsterdam, all of a sudden felt like it needed to be a part of the conversation for me. I wanted to discover that part of my identity. I also kind of wanted to put that discovery on display for people, which sounds a little, maybe a voyeuristic, but I was asking for it, but I kind of was, because the response from people who have never met Jews or interacted with Jewish people, has been very, interesting and weird and not in a scary way, but just sort of, I've never had that in Toronto being Jewish isn't seen as like sort of special, I think. Wherever you are in the world, it's important to take your space and own your space and whatever that means wherever you belong. I don't know. Don't do it to not be ashamed of that to not hide, hide that away.
It's interesting to go from being sort of like blended in, in this like diverse landscape that sort of is Toronto was trying to ensure when we were growing up a lot more, um, to being in a more culturally unique category and that sort of being a differentiator rather than a point of similarity.
I actually had a really interesting experience at The Labor Department when I was speaking with a woman from Kazakhstan and she told me, I don't know, she'd mentioned her daughter's name and I was like, oh, that sounds Jewish. Are you Jewish? And she was, she said, very quietly. Yes. And I said, oh, me too. And I was super excited. And like, I mean, I'm a loud person in general. And she was like, you're definitely not a European Jew. And that was the first time somebody had been so direct about it
The contrast and experience is real and we love the idea of taking up your space no matter where you are in the world. Zoe has taken up her space in the comedy scene in Europe and has started to use her culture as part of her act there. We think that comedy is such a great way to celebrate your culture, but we were curious about the audience reaction, Zoe shares that next.
At first, I didn't really talk about it in my set and then, actually, a comedian, gave me a nickname at one point, uh, which was “Hipster Anne Frank'' and at first it was like a dig and then I started using it in my act because I was like, actually, this is an opportunity... and, people have a mixed reaction to that. There's an apprehensiveness, am I allowed to laugh at this? But I tend to... I opened with that material and the idea is to sort of tell people like, “these are jokes and you're allowed to laugh at them and it's okay because I'm Jewish and I'm comfortable and I feel safe and so you can laugh''. And that's a really good feeling for me as, as a performer, the not so great feeling that I've had a few on a few occasions is, um, other comedians then appropriating that material and feeling comfortable doing that as well and you know, they're not Jewish, it feels a little sort of like bullying. And you know, you don't want to be the person who'd be like, “Hey, you can't say!” that because comedy is so about not censoring each other. So that's a bit of a gray area, which I'm still sort of navigating…
You've also had a few weird audience reactions!
Yes. I’ve also had weird audience reactions
Where they were a little uncomfortable with, like totally bordering on anti-semitism.
You know, you can hear a laughter of uncomfortableness. You can hear a laughter of excitement and you can hear a really sort of overenthusiastic laughter, which, you know, in a room of 300 people can be really intimidating. When I feel confident, I might be the only Jewish person in the room. Totally! That can be a very scary feeling. But it's also thrilling, you know… to have, I would say hopefully, the majority of the room on my side and hearing a different perspective. That's something I'd never felt before as a comedian back home.
I've never felt a responsibility as an artist to be edgy, political, and carry my story forward.
I really just wanted to make people laugh and make myself laugh. And, the Jewish thing has really just been sort of cherry on the cake for me. Like it's been self-discovery, it's been entertaining. It's gotten me some work and people who may not have been interested in that story before seem to be, you know, asking questions... I think the responsibility aspect only comes into it in terms of how I handle the maybe negative outcomes of some of those. Like, you know, I have had negative feedback on my work before both from Jewish people and non-Jewish people, and I don't feel educated enough in the Talmud or the Bible to speak on it. So I don't, I make it very well known that I'm a Godless Jew. I had a Bat Mitzvah, but I do not speak Hebrew. The political side of that is not really what I'm here for... It's just my experience and anything more than that, I don't feel like I have the authority to speak on. And I feel that asserting that regularly and making sure that's known it's really important because right now, uh, people who have opinions are looked to as experts. And I think those are very different things. Um, Sarah Silverman talks about this a lot on our podcast and people call in and say some pretty vicious stuff to her as a Jew, even when they're Jewish. And so I kind of get a bit scared because of course she has a massive platform and I don't, but, um, that seems like quite the responsibility. And I don't know if I would necessarily want that as an artist because that's not really my goal as a comedian to be a Jewish comedian. I mean, I am a Jewish comedian, but like for that to be my only story.
What an important distinction in the definition of so-called responsibility. And it made us wonder, “What gives her this confidence?” With so many people struggling to sort out their relationship with their cultures and backgrounds in general, it leaves us inspired and grateful for the possibility of the role of, of knowing your roots and making us feel stronger and we're sure of our gifts to the world. Brooklyn expands on that perspective next.
I think that with age and with parenthood and with entrepreneurial-ism and with immigration comes a lot of like truths about who you are and what your identity is and what matters to you. And I think that I've just really clung on to like the anchors that feel right for me through all those big changes and just for some reason, it's always felt really good for me to be a Jew. I've always been really into that part. I'm grateful to be Canadian, but I don't really, I'm not rocking a Canada patch on my backpack…way more than I would be wearing… I wear a Star of David every day, for example, it always sat really well with me. But what that is today could very well be different from what it is tomorrow. There's been different times in my life when spirituality has been important and God has been important, versus just like, you know, a reason to sit around a table on a Friday night with my family. So maybe that's it. Maybe that's where evolution comes from and where it continues to sort of be good for me is that there's so many different ways that I sort of wrapped Judaism into my life at different moments. Um, but it is an evolving relationship and I think it will continue to evolve as I speak more to Max about it. Because that forces you to really have like a little bit of a reality check with yourself, like when I was doing Hanukkah in his daycare, I was like, oh, we'll just bring the Latkes. And my dad was like, "you have to tell the story of Hanukkah” and I was like, oh no, you know, but it's food, that's the story. But you know, there's more to it than that, Yeah, it's, it's just a constant growth and a constant shift and, but it's just always felt really good.
It's so true. Having that sort of North Star to point to, I tell jokes and that's a big Jewish thing, like Jewish comedians and Mel Brooks. And I can point to that and I, I move around a lot. I'm a wanderer, I'm a nomad, that's a big Jewish thing. It's really easy to sort of define, not define my identity, but I have that, I have that in my history and my people's culture as a sort of. This makes sense that I do all of these things because it's a part of my heritage. And, um, and it's scary, but it's sort of comforting to know that, you know, my ancestors and my family do similar things, you know, like Brooklyn is a traveler and like a wanderer.
And we have other family members who live around the world who do the same and, It makes it a lot easier to do the sort of scary life things like moving to Europe or getting up on stage or writing, you know, the fun stuff. But people often look at that and say, “You're crazy! “That's risky”.
And I don't feel that it's risky. I feel it's risky to not do those things, you know, to stand still.
Gosh, that's so well said. We love that through this interview and exchange between sisters, that Zoe flipped the script on the idea of responsibility. We are left feeling that Zoe's sense of responsibility resides squarely and caring for the attributes of her cultural and intergenerational greatness rather than being a spokesperson for her religion.
With that realization in mind, we spoke next about celebration and had the sisters share their most special memories when celebrating their background, part sentimental, part humorous, their stories will leave you longing for an invitation to one of their family celebrations.
My wedding was a massive cultural celebration. We had it in Amsterdam at a former, actually a former church that became a hotel and for many years in many constructions. And it was a civil ceremony, but we definitely broke the glass, we had a massive, massive huppah and we had a Klezmer band come in. So we could do like this epic Hora,, the chairs with Bobby. Yeah. With my grandmother. It was amazing. But also I think what was really cool about that, unlike so many of the other weddings I've been to where those are sort of standard, this was like, I think for half the people there, their first time experiencing any of these things.
So I think it was not only celebrating, you know, you're you're also sharing, which I think is so essential to celebration. And I think that's also been such a big part of how we've been raised as Jews. Our Passover table, for example, has always had people who weren't necessarily Jewish at it, or Hanukkah parties have always had people who, you know, weren't necessarily…..
It's such a part of being Jewish is like, you know, we don't, yeah, we don't do missions. Like we don't go out and try to convert people, but you're welcome to sit at our table. We want to share our stories with you and our food a hundred percent.
My dad is always so serious with tears in his eyes…it's so embarrassing every year, always like “May all those who are hungry, let them come eat at Passover.” You know, he's so emotional about it, cause he's such a big crybaby, but it's true. And that's why when I think about celebration, what immediately comes to my mind is that we have been able to share our cultural celebrations with the most people.
And then another thing that comes to my mind is Max was born on September 15th, 2019. Um, and that was right before Yom Kippur. So I think when he was a few weeks old, I brought him to Shul for Yankee poor, to a Synagogue in Amsterdam that I'm not a member of, but just sort of go-to for the high holidays. It's quite a diverse community. I had been emailing with the Rabbi to let them know that I was hoping to make it. And they actually called us up to the Bimah and wrapped, like a prayer shawl around us and everyone saying a song to him. And it was just this perfect moment for me, with my new baby, just surrounded by strangers, who I had nothing in common with that I knew of other than, you know, this other than our religious cultural backgrounds.
I think another example for us would be, holiday dinners with our grandparents when our Zaida was alive.
There's a lot of singing and a lot of Jewish celebrations and our Zaida was so tone-deaf and sort of also just regular deaf and like hearing him belt out these tunes. And my Bubby they'd been, they'd been divorced for many years. Like just rolling her eyes next to him. And just, there's a hilarity of that and like real sweetness and a tenderness, um, that I, I think. has sort of defined me as an artist and a person that I would never have had with it, those moments. So it's religious, maybe it's rooted in culture and religion, but it's also just become our personalities. You know, we're a big, loud family. We challenge each other. We fight, we use sarcasm to win arguments, but it kind of comes from this place of like gathering and, challenging over food. Some sort of tribal.
Those celebrations have been etched in Brooklyn and Zoe's minds to such a degree that it's become part of the fabric of their lives and identities, just beautiful!
You will remember in Season two, we introduced the Root & Seed conversation, tool questions, and closed each episode by asking our guests a conversation prompt. There's no downloading required. Just go to capture.rootandseed.com and access it through your browser and capture conversations with your loved ones that you can preserve for generations to come. Since we have two sisters, we decided to ask them each a question.
Zoe answers the question, “How does our family give back to the community?”
There's a Jewish saying that I'm going to botch.. botch big time that it, you know “You save one life, you save the world” and in a much less dramatic sense, I think we were raised to practice that. So you do one small deed. You're doing good, I'm ashamed to say this hasn't been the case for me since I was in Toronto where I would volunteer, you spend some time of your week for someone else. And you don't make a big deal out of it. You don't claim credit for it.
Our mom has volunteered and given her time to lots of fashion outlets in Toronto and Canada at large and in the UK, setting the example that you can be a successful person and that's great. But if you're not affecting positive change in your community, then it's all for not.
Then Brooklyn shares her thoughts on what tradition annoyed her most growing up.
There is this tradition at the Passover table where the person leading the Seder has their hands washed. And I always cringe and I still cringe when my dad's hands are washed by his partner because I find it really…sexist!
I think you should get up and go to the sink and I’m bummed my dad's going to find out about my feelings about this over this podcast…but.. had to happen.
He's for sure going to hear it too!
A good test to see if he listens to the whole podcast.
Put this at the end. Yeah, it's a good little unicorn.
A big shout out to and respect to Mr. Brownstone. Besides the fact that you made it to the end of the episode, you and Brooklyn and Zoe's mom have raised some pretty articulate grounded humans. And for that, we are super grateful.
This conversation got us thinking about the ways that we celebrate in the past versus the ways that we celebrate now, when it comes to holidays, festivals, and milestones. Brooklyn and Zoe were fortunate enough to have great role models and try to keep their Jewish and family traditions alive in their own lives now as adults, and especially now that they have moved across the world. We were left with the idea of being choiceful, about traditions that we want to take forward and we thought we'd leave you with a thought to ponder on.
We had so much fun talking to Zoe and Brooklyn that we decided to extend our “stay” in England, by speaking to Sunita next week.
Sunita is a proud founder of a platform called The Jai Jais and speaks to how she was inspired by her own children to start the platform and how she has uncovered that, even though she knows more now than ever, there's still so much to learn about her religion and culture.
Thanks for listening! Root & Seed is hosted by me, Anika Chabra Executive Produced by Jenn Siripong Mandel and Edited by Camille Blais.
Hosted by: Anika Chabra
Brought to you by: Root & Seed
Executive Producer: Jennifer Siripong Mandel
Edited by: Camille Blais
Music credit: Something 'bout July (Instrumental) by RYYZN
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