Embracing Mizrahi Heritage

It’s not just about schnitzel anymore, dip into creamy hummus with ful and shakshouka. The shame of not being Ashkenazi is over. Mizrahi Pride is in full swing.

Israel has finally instituted Mizrahi Heritage Day, honoring the cultures of Israeli Mizrahi Jews who fled hostility, misery, and expulsion from Arab lands.  Once pauperized Jewish refugees seen as a threat to Israeli culture, are an integral part of Israel today.

Not only is Mizrahi food, music, language, and mannerisms mainstreamed in today’s Israel, the divide continues to narrow, as more and more young Israelis are mixed Mizrahi and Ashkenazi. A new nation is still forming as Jews from everywhere blend into One People.

The brilliant Dudu Tassa is a shining example of how the new generation is rebirthing the music of Mizrahi refugees. He has revived the music of his ancestors, the famous Kuwaiti Brothers, who were not appreciated except in their own communities and could barely make a living in Israel of the 1950’s and ‘60’s.

This day tells us Israel has embraced its multicultural heritage. This day tells us we no longer have to pretend we are not Iraqi or Moroccan, we no longer have to “pass” as something more acceptable, something other than Arabic and Eastern.

My own Mizrahi identity was a mixed bag in Japan. Life as a stateless Egyptian Iraqi Jew was difficult. Being brown was not easy and when asked by some stranger what kind of gaigin (foreigner) I was, being stateless, I said “Jew.” But when asked “but what nationality,” I felt the shame of being less “White” than even European Jews, who were never White.

I wanted to be Susan Goldberg, American Ashkenazi Jew from New York. It took a long time before I grew to love my own culture, and even as a Diaspora Jew, Israel helped me reclaim my identity.

Coming from a tiny community of Mizrahi and Ashkenazi Jews praying and playing together in our Sephardi synagogue Ohel Shelomo, in Kobe Japan, I was surprised to arrive in America to find my new (Ashkenazi) friends and their parents didn’t know about us. They questioned my Jewishness, how could I be Egyptian and Iraqi and be a Jew? “Oh, so you are an Arab then?”No, I am a Jew. They were confused.

By the time I got to graduate school and my Ashkenazi American professor asked me if my Egyptian and Iraqi parents “left Poland or Russia” for the Middle East and North Africa, I had become a Mizrahi activist. I reminded him where Abraham and Sarah came from.

A Holocaust survivor therapist of mine once lovingly remarked “Ruchela, you are such a Jew, are you sure you don’t know Yiddish?” He could not wrap his head around my heritage. If I was such a Jew, a Zionist from an Arabic culture  made no sense to him. The equivalent of him being a Zionist Jew from a European culture was the obvious counterpart to my story, but it didn’t compute.

The road to integration was rough in Israel. Despite our ancient unfiltered connection to Israel and Judaism, Jews from Arab lands were not considered legit,  in our own Homeland.

Israel wanted us to acculturate to the Ashkenazi norm as quickly as possible.We threatened European hegemony, we made intellectuals like Amos Oz angry for changing the demographic.We were laughed for our Arabic accents, “amulet loving” ways. We were “other” and poor, and adjusting to massive change in a struggling country.

An Israeli friend forgot whom she was talking to once when she complained,  “the Mizrahim ruined Israeli music.” What did we “ruin,” Polish and Russian music?

But our numbers were large, we became the majority Jewish population by the end of the 1960’s, and the blending was inevitable.

Israel’s early days where the national plan was for Mizrahim to develop into Ashkenazim is over.   We share the tent of many colors, spice and sound Israel has incorporated in creating a country for all of us.  It has made the case for Jews. One People from many cultures.

Ashkenazi Israel has acculturated to Mizrahi Israel, and the mix is fantastic. Inshallah, yes, we are all Israel.

About the Author
Rachel Wahba is a San Francisco Bay Area based writer, psychotherapist and the co-founder of Olivia Travel. An Egyptian-Iraqi Jew, Rachel was born in India and grew up stateless in Japan. The many dimensions of her exile and displacement are a constant theme in her professional work as well as her activism as an advisory board member for JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa).
Comments