My choice. My identity. My struggle
Reprinted from GenerationJ.com with permission of the author. Visit www.generationj.com.
“Does being Jewish mean being killed?”
I looked into the eyes of this earnest 8-year old girl, then scanned the faces of all the children expectantly looking up at me, waiting for my reply.
In the beat between my student’s question and my answer, I had to figure out how to justify that although being Jewish might someday cost my students their lives, it would be worth all the risk and the pain. I was on. It was up to me to keep them in the flock…
Exactly why do we continue to be Jews, given the tremendous sufferings our people have endured?
And why do I continue to insist on casting my lot with Ashkenazim (Jews originally from Eastern Europe)–a group of people that spits on my ethnic identity and traditions as a Mizrahi (Jews originally from Spain and the Middle East)–the very identity and traditions that tie me to them? Why do I passionately, even obsessively, love and fret about the existence and survival of a state whose administrators sprayed DDT (a poisonous chemical compound normally used on crops and animals, that was also sprayed on many Mizrahi immigrants to Israel between 1948 and 1950, as they were viewed as dirty and diseased, despite contrary evidence) on my family when they entered its gates?
And why do I care about Judaism when the Orthodox denomination in which I was brought up refers to all deity as “he,” omits my sex altogether from lineage counts, enslaves women to men through subordinate marriages, and justifies all such offenses through the pontifications of male rabbis?
They say blood is thicker than water. But every day, I choose my mother’s mikva, ritual bath used in conversion, over her Welsh, Danish, and Scotts-Irish Protestant/Catholic lineage. I could have such an easy life if I took on my matrilineal blood line. And it would be as authentically mine as taking on my Jewish side. I would not be “assimilating;” rather, I would be “reclaiming.” But I pretty much ignore my Christian lineage altogether. Why?
Twelve years ago, when I was 16, Israel began the “who is a Jew” debate concerning conversions; and it became questionable whether I would be recognized as one of the tribe. I was a born, bred, and practicing Orthodox Jew. Though my mother had a perfectly kosher conversion by Orthodox standards, her rabbi happened to have been ordained by the Conservative movement; so, alas, her conversion certificate said “Conservative.” With the rabbi (May his memory be blessed) having passed on to the next life and with no idea of how to contact the other witnesses, my mother, sister, and I suddenly were branded “questionable” Jews.
My head spun at the possibility of not being “really” Jewish. I had been a child prodigy in music but had not seriously pursued the path, because all competitions were on Saturday. I was a talented speaker yet unable to participate in any high school debates, because they also were on Saturday. I could not even consider a career in dance or athletics, though I was strong and coordinated. “Honey,” my parents would caution me over and over again, “just forget it. There is no future for Orthodox Jews in these worlds.”
From age 11 on, I struggled terribly to make it through school. I missed more days than the sickest kid around–hard enough in itself, and I was flunked a number of times for not taking tests on the holy days for which I was absent. When teachers found out about my religious “restrictions,” I also was kicked out of orchestra, demoted from first to last chair flute in band, barred from participating in school musicals…The list goes on. And then to be told I might not be considered a Jew?
I had many conflicting feelings during this time–anger, confusion, more anger … and relief. Relief! To think that I could do whatever I wanted, pursue my dreams without these zillion limitations, eat whatever I wanted, live a life free of Jew-hatred … I believed then that if I had the choice, I would not be a Jew. No way. Support Jews, yes. Be one, no.
But, after thinking it over extensively, I realized that what the State of Israel thought did not make a difference in my life. God knew my mother had had an Orthodox conversion, and I was stuck being a Jew.
Stuck. That is what it felt like at the time.
In addition to all the limitations on my dreams, I had grown up with Jewish self-hatred: I was inferior because we did not celebrate Christmas. Because I did not have blonde hair or blue eyes like my mom or a ski-slope nose like her cousin Patsy. Because it was collectively known that Jews are pushy, loud, obnoxious, stingy, back-stabbing … you know the routine.
On top of all that, being Jewish meant being persecuted: Iraqi government officials hung my great uncle by his thumbs, until his fingers broke. He had been a gifted surgeon but could never practice medicine again. Why? He was a Jew. Iraqi masses tried to wipe out the entire Jewish ghetto and almost reached my father’s house. I almost was not born. Why? They were Jews. The Iraqi government confiscated and nationalized everything from my family and the rest of our collective community. I grew up without things, just second-hand memories, stories, approximations. Why? We were all Jews.
Being a Jew meant being afraid. It meant being taught to draw the shades every night, to run past open windows. I did this because you never knew who knew you were Jewish. You never knew who was watching you, waiting for the opportune moment to strike…
And here I am today: Jew, Jew, Jew. Jewish multicultural educator. Jewish musician. Jewish Sunday school teacher. Jewish writer. What happened?
I came to realize that it was not Judaism I hated. I actually liked being Jewish. And in the Jewish world, fighting against the Ashkenazi steam-roller out to squash us, my aversion was not to being Mizrahi. Time and again, the problem quite simply was that as a Mizrahi Jewish girl and then woman, I faced oppression wherever I turned: Jew-hatred, racism, sexism. Those were what I hated. The issue was not my people, my heritage, or my body. The issue was what was being done to them or with them.
Self-hatred is like depression: rage in a cage. Unlock the chains on this rage, and you have energy, motivation. Direct the energy to where it belongs, and you gain power. With power comes peace and self-love.
For me, being a Mizrahi Jewish feminist is fun. And the fun, as well as the pain, is in the struggle. It’s like a puzzle: Okay, we’re here now, and this stinks. We need to get over there. What tools are obvious? What tools can we create with the scrap metal we have? How can we use these tools to get us where we want to go?
Every day of my life is a challenge on multiple fronts, a spiritual stretch. I would not be who I am today without the gazillion battles I have fought. And I would not want to be anyone else.
The deprivation I experienced in my life as an Orthodox Jew gave me the gift of discipline. I have so much practice at saying no and being on the outside. This practice has helped me feel comfortable in being an individual, has given me tools to go beyond current thoughts and trends. It has helped me have the strength to put the integrity of my spiritual being above and beyond all other matters, regardless of consequence. As such, it has helped me figure out and develop my authentic self.
Must this self be Jewish? Not necessarily. But it is, I am.
I was born a Mizrahi Jewish woman. I actively choose to take on these identities as some of the many ways I insist on defining myself for myself, regardless of who or what is around me, making whatever nonsense demands they are making. Do I risk death? Maybe. Has wehalila, God forbid. But what I do not risk is losing what is most precious to me: my dignity, my honor, my soul.
Three seconds passed. “Being Jewish does not mean being killed,” I replied, “although we do have in our history many stories of persecution. But Jews are a resilient people. We have stood up to the most powerful armies in the world and dared to be who we are. We have a tradition of being strong and proud, even in the face of danger. And we have outlasted all the forces that have tried to destroy us…”
Being Jewish means being free.
(c)1998 by Loolwa Khazzoom.
All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be copied without author’s permission.
Loolwa Khazzoom (https://www.loolwa.com) is an Israel correspondent for the Jewish Telegraph Agency. She also is a freelance writer and has published in periodicals including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times,The Jerusalem Report, Rolling Stone, Marie Claire, and Elle Girl. In addition, she is the editor of The Flying Camel: Essays on Identity by Women of North African and Middle Eastern Jewish Heritage (Seal Press, Winter 2003).