In the United States, what we have come to know as “Jewish” encompasses just one subset of the Jewish people – the Ashkenazim, Jews from Northeastern and parts of Northwestern Europe. There are in fact many distinct Jewish communities from around the world. This essay refers to two such communities: Mizrahi Jews, or Mizrahim, lived in the Middle East and North Africa from the beginning of the Jewish people, four thousand years ago. Sephardic Jews, or Sephardim, are Jews who eventually ended up in Spain and Portugal but were murdered or expelled during the Inquisition of 1492. Those who escaped with their lives settled throughout the Ottoman Empire – encompassing many Mediterranean states – and countries throughout North, Central, and South America.
It was the holy day of Shbu’oth. I traveled up from Eilat to spend it in Jerusalem. I had the option of going to a free Jewish youth hostel in the old city. The hostel managers set up travelers with families, for Shabbath (sabbath) and holidays. But it was hopelessly Ashkenazi. And ultra-orthodox. It was out of the question. I went to a pricey youth hostel in the new city, with the hopes of finding a Mizrahi synagogue and getting invited by someone there for kadous (sabbath blessings).
The youth hostel staff had no idea where to find a Mizrahi synagogue. They referred me to the “Great Synagogue” of Jerusalem, which by “general Jewish” default was Ashkenazi. I left the hostel and begin searching by foot for a synagogue that was Mizrahi.
I bought ice cream from a store with a dark-skinned owner who wore a kippah. I assumed he was Mizrahi and asked about Mizrahi synagogue options. He referred me to the Great Synagogue. “No,” I said, “I want a Mizrahi synagogue.” This man reeked with ethnic shame, unable to fathom a stranger who would prefer anything Mizrahi. He finally told me of a Kurdish synagogue only two blocks away from the youth hostel. I was in luck!
I was very excited. I did not know much about Kurdish Jews. I knew they were close geographically to Iraqi Jews, which is what my family is, but I wondered if their traditions were similar. I couldn’t wait to find out.
Sunset came. I walked to the synagogue in my all-purpose travel dress. I had trouble finding the synagogue, though I had scoped it out during the afternoon. Finally, I found the entrance. There was a separate entrance for women and men. Uh, oh. Not promising…I entered the women’s section and felt disgust. It was a room behind where the men were praying. There were a total of four window holes cut out, with curtains covering the openings.
I shoved one of the curtains aside and sat hanging over the window sill. Any joy I could have gotten from the prayers was clouded over by the rage I felt. I had come all the way to Jerusalem to ensure I would be in the Jewish center for the holy day. I had shelled out money I had been conserving so well, to ensure I could be with other Mizrahi Jews. I had foresaken being set up with a definite place to say kadous. I had foresaken enjoying free food during a time when all stores were closed for the holiday. For what? To be dishonored in this way?
Services ended. Nobody said as much as a hello to me. Nobody invited me anywhere. I asked one of the women if we would be saying kadous in the synagogue. Hint, hint. “No,” she said. Period, end of discussion. I left.
Depressed, I wandered around for a while, then ironically decided to go to the Great Synagogue. I met a friendly, formerly American family along the way, and we sat together during services. We walked back together, and I hoped to be invited for kadous. But it turned out they were staying in the King David Hotel, participating in the hotel-sponsored ceremony. Not for people staying down the street. I gave up and returned to my youth hostel, saying kadous as best as possible over the boxed juice and pita I had gotten from the souk (marketplace) during the afternoon.
A few weeks later, a close Israeli friend arrived from the States, to stay for the summer. I stopped drifting between youth hostels and went to stay with him and his family, for my last 10 days in the country. My friend’s family was Ashkenazi and rather wealthy. They lived in a penthouse outside Tel Aviv. They had a maid. She was Mizrahi.
“My name is ‘Na’ama,'” a woman had said at the open mic of a Mizrahi feminist conference I had just attended, “and I am a maid…I grew up in the ‘hood…I never received the education I deserved…All my life, they said, ‘Na’ama, you can’t. You’re not smart enough. You’re not good enough.’ But I am smart enough, and I am good enough. And I am tired of people telling me ‘You can’t’ just because I did not receive an education. I can. I can…”
Na’ama’s words haunted me as I saw “Tina” mopping floors, ironing shirts, cleaning dishes. I felt strange. I felt split. I felt guilty. How could I talk to her? She was cleaning while I was eating. She was so docile, subservient in her manner, quiet. Broken. What could I say to her? “Hey, sister, we are one, and I am in solidarity with you, even though you’re cleaning the toilet I’m using? Even though I received a Seven Sisters education in the States and grew up in a house several times the size of this penthouse? Even though I’m close friends with the son of your employers and a guest in their house?”
How strange it all was. How very strange. I am Mizrahi. But I did not grow up in the ‘hood. I did not even grow up in the country. Or the region, for that matter. I grew up in a totally different reality, in America, which is only a dream to so many. And as a result of it, I was sitting at the table this woman would scrub…Where was my alliance? With my Ashkenazi friend? With her? Where was my identity? In Israel? In the States?
“This must be what an upper-middle class African-American woman would feel like,” I thought to myself, “if she visited a close WASP friend, only to be faced with an African-American maid scrubbing the floor.” I remembered a workshop a few years ago, where white people and people of color were divided in the room. White people were asked, “How many of your primary experiences with people of color were with individuals who were working for you?” A substantial number of the group raised their hands. I was shocked. But I got it in Israel. And it hit home and really hurt there, because the people doing the working were my people, felt like my family.
The night before I was to leave, my friend and I went out to dinner with my sister and her girlfriend. We wanted to go to a Mizrahi restaurant, and my friend took us to Schoonat HaTikva, an inner city area otherwise known as “the ‘hood.”
The Mizrahi neighborhoods of Israel seem not to be just a source of poverty, but also a source of ethnic pride and activism. As much African-American power has risen from the inner-cities of America, so does Mizrahi power seem to be rising from places like Schoonat HaTikva. Many neighborhood women are going to court, for example, battling the Israeli school system for racist treatment of Mizrahi and Ethiopian students.
I was excited to revisit this ‘hood, especially after hearing so much about it during the Mizrahi feminist conference. “The ‘hood, the ‘hood, the ‘hood…” they kept repeating. I feel that the neighborhood was mine, about me. After dealing with racism my whole life as a Mizrahi, it was a place for my experience, a face to my reality. A visual aid. I too could go “back to the ‘hood,” where the people shared my heritage and reflected my identity…
“If you say so,” my friend said. “I don’t see this neighborhood as mine…” Those damn identity lines again. Yes, my friend was Ashkenazi, but I was American. So who had more claim on the territory, if either of us? With my friend’s comment, I began feeling that perhaps I was presumptuous to stake claims on Schoonat Hatikva. Was it really mine? I had the social, economic, and political advantage of having grown up in a Western society, speaking a Western language, and having received a Western education. Did I have the right to call that neighborhood mine, if I did not grow up there? How would people in the neighborhood feel about my identifying with them? I sat with my questions, as we entered our restaurant of choice.
As we sat down, a party of 20 sat across our table. They were celebrating some occasion and began singing rowdily. The songs were Ashkenazi, yet all the people looked unmistakably Mizrahi. I was not surprised, just sad at this reality – which exists even in the ‘hood. A few minutes later, an older woman began singing a beautiful Mizrahi melody. I felt so happy! My sister and I knew it and began singing along. I sang along not so much because I felt like singing at the moment, but because I wanted to support this woman. I wanted to send the message that it is “cool” to sing these songs, that random people at other tables would join in when you sing them. People at the party table grew uncomfortable with the Mizrahi song. They sang only half-heartedly, while cracking jokes at it. Within one minute, the song faded, and someone introduced an Ashkenazi song. All of a sudden, the table was rowdy and singing whole-heartedly again. I wanted to cry.
It cut me deep inside…Not seeing my reflection anywhere. And in the places I went to see it, finding a shattered reflection, a fading reflection. The woman singing the Mizrahi song was probably in her 50s or 60s. Did the younger people at the table even know the words? This blindness to what we are losing of ourselves hurt, this inability to value our heritage as being worth anything.
The Mizrahim and Sephardim have been able to preserve our heritage for 3,000 years, despite the worst possible circumstances; but now we are losing it in one fell swoop, within a single generation. Since our union with Ashkenazim, we have let down our guard with the people who are supposed to be our allies, our family. But it is these very people who have slowly but surely been eroding what we have kept intact for so long. We are blending with their ways, and we are losing our own. By the time we reassess our lines, it may be too late to save our heritage.
When everything “Jewish” is defined exclusively as “Ashkenazi,” Mizrahim have but two choices, unless we are prepared for a lifetime battle. Either we can Ashkenaziize, or we can forget the whole thing altogether and become secular. After years of hitting my head against the brick wall called the Jewish Establishment, I myself have been heading in this latter direction, drifting farther and farther from organized Jewish life. And I know of so many others who have done the same.
Loolwa Khazzoom (www.loolwa.com) is the editor of Behind the Veil of Silence: Middle Eastern and North African Jewish Women Speak Out, an anthology.