Ayelet Tsabari: What kind of Jew are you, anyway?

Ayelet Tsabari is an Israeli writer living in Toronto. Her first collection of short stories, The Best Place on Earth, was just published by HarperCollins Canada. Tsabari will be guest editing The Afterword all week.

On a bus in Vancouver, a young man asked where I was from.

“Israel,” I said.

He frowned. “You don’t look Jewish. You look like an Arab.”

What does Jewish look like? I wondered, but said, “My family came from Yemen.”

“So you’re Muslim?”

“No, I’m a Yemeni Jew,” I said, aware that the entire back of the bus was listening to our conversation. “An Arab Jew.”

The guy scrunched his forehead. A dreadlocked man turned in his seat, grinned, and said in a thick Caribbean accent, “Peace, sister.”

The marriage of the words “Arab” and “Jew” often leads to strong reactions. People are delighted or outraged or puzzled. No one seems to know what to make of it. In Israel the term is even more contentious: a Moroccan Jew vehemently argued with me that there was no such thing as an Arab Jew; Jewish was an ethnicity. Others, like author Sami Michael, who immigrated to Israel from Iraq and wrote his first novel in Arabic, proudly identify as Arab Jews. Though I’ve always been fond of the term (which I find romantic and wonderfully controversial), I’m not attached to it. Unlike Sami Michael, I was born and raised in Israel and always felt Israeli first. And being Israeli—in a country where over 20% of the population are Muslim or Christian—extends far beyond Jewishness. It is a mentality, brusque and borderline rude, a tendency (which we share with our neighbours) to speak with our hands; it’s a dark sense of humour, a brutal frankness.

Growing up I knew what I was: Israeli and Jewish by birth, Yemeni and Mizrahi by heritage. Mizrahi (the common term for Arab Jews in Israel) refers to Jews who emigrated from Arab lands. In Israel, Mizrahi make up nearly half of the population, but globally, they are a vast minority, which is why the depiction of Jews in mainstream media is predominantly Ashkenazi (European).

When I moved to Canada at twenty-five, I learned that Canadians knew little of this large and diverse community; to them, Jewish meant delis and lox and matzo ball soup, as exotic to me as a Woody Allen movie. At parties, dipping into a too-garlicky hummus, people asked if I spoke Yiddish. “Do I look like I speak Yiddish?” I said, but the questioners just stared at me, smiles frozen, clearly wondering, What kind of Jew are you, anyway? I explained that my grandmother lived amongst Arabs in a small village near the Saudi border, spoke Arabic in a Yemeni dialect and little Hebrew until the end of her days. She cooked soup yellow with turmeric, spiced with cilantro and chillies, cumin and garlic, fenugreek and lemon. She wouldn’t have known a matzo ball if it hit her in the face.

I discovered that I had little in common with the Jewish community in Vancouver—mostly Canadian, mostly Ashkenazi—and since there were few Israelis in the city, I found myself drawn to the Arab community. I started working as a waitress at Mona’s, a popular Lebanese restaurant and a major Middle Eastern hub. Mona’s hummus tasted like home. We danced to the same beat, cooked with the same ingredients, faced the same challenges taming our stubborn curls and finding a skilled eyebrow threader. I took Arabic lessons from a well-dressed, older Iraqi man who flirted with me shamelessly. I listened to music ranging from Fairuz to Hakim and discovered my inner belly-dancer. Some Israelis find that living abroad strengthens their Jewish identity, an understandable reaction to being far from home and family, holidays and traditions. My years of living in Canada reinforced my Mizrahi self, brought me closer to my Yemeni heritage.

Toni Morrison said, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”Growing up in Israel, I never read a character like me. Mizrahi were poorly represented in literature, which hints at a larger problem: discrimination against Mizrahi was rampant during the country’s early years. Even my school texts offered little in terms of Mizrahi history, so that by the time I graduated I could cite the dates of European immigration to Israel, but knew next to nothing about Yemeni immigration. My literary heroines were often Ashkenazi, fair skinned; my ideal of beauty blonde and blue-eyed.

The portrayal of Jewish experience in Canadian literature was even narrower. In a recent review I read of a novel by a Jewish author, the reviewer asked if there was anything new to be said about the Jewish immigrant experience, and suggested that the Latvian Jewish Diaspora had received the least literary attention. I wondered if he had ever read a book about Ethiopian Jews? Iraqis? Tunisian? Lebanese?

When I was writing The Best Place on Earth, I made it my mission to tell Mizrahi stories, create Jewish heroines whose skin colour ranged from olive to brown, whose hair was curly and whose grandparents spoke Arabic. I created for myself the characters missing from my childhood stories and from the Jewish Canadian narratives. I wrote the book I wanted to read.
(Tags: Arab, Jew)


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