It’s Mizrahi Heritage Month, the days leading up to November 30. In 2014, the Knesset adopted a law designating November 30 as an annual, national day of commemoration for the 850,000 Jewish refugees who were displaced from Arab countries and Iran in the 20th century. It seems like a pretty niche group of people know or recognize it, but I’m sure with the help of social media, it will spread. And though I want it to be more well-known, I can’t help feeling like the moment it will become more widespread, the following question will arise: Why isn’t there an Ashkenazi Heritage Month?
For those asking the question, for those who inevitably will ask the question, for those who wanted to ask it but were too embarrassed, and even for those who never wanted to ask it, allow me to explain…
Celebrating Mizrahi Heritage Month, remembering Mizrahi experiences is not something everyone feels comfortable doing all year round. For those who do feel comfortable, it may not have always been that way for them, and certainly wasn’t for their parents who left their homes in Yemen, Iran, Iraq, Morocco, etc.
Mizrahi Heritage Month is here because it’s needed.
Growing up as half Yemenite in an Ashkenazi community, and very much looking Yemenite, I felt ashamed. I felt ashamed before my Yemenite grandparents that I wasn’t Yemenite enough for them. I didn’t know their foods as well or couldn’t understand terms of endearment in Arabic, such as “ayouni.”
On the flip side, I felt ashamed I wasn’t Ashkenazi enough, like my friends. My body was a different build, my hair was dark, thick, and curly, and it all felt like such a hassle. Also, half my (great)grandparents were not Holocaust survivors – they had it “easy.” (You can be sure, they didn’t have it easy but as Jewish education seemed to teach, if it wasn’t the Holocaust, it couldn’t have been that bad.)
And, though, I wasn’t Ashkenazi, I wasn’t Yemenite enough for my school either. I didn’t know all the traditions of my Yemenite side. I didn’t know my grandparents’ story, not the personal or the historical one they took part in. Though I tried to connect with my Yemenite side, because my looks would never allow me to fully be Ashkenazi, I never felt like I knew enough about it.
So naturally, I felt ashamed.
It wasn’t until a discussion yesterday with a group of Israelis, within the context of an upcoming program entitled “Reclaiming Identity,” that I realized there was no reason for me to be ashamed. Their stories growing up as Mizrahim in Israel were not so different, and sometimes included more shame and other-ness.
You see, not all our parents shared with us their heritage because they saw that heritage in the same way the majority around us probably wanted us to see it – devoid of substance, both cultural and intellectual. And some of us, whose parents tried to pass it on to us, didn’t want to see it, because, well, life was easier for the majority or the ones in power.
Within this project of “Reclaiming Identity,” I realized I had nothing to be ashamed of for not knowing the history and culture as well as others expected me to because I didn’t have the same opportunities they did. I didn’t live by my Yemenite family, but I also was never exposed to that culture anywhere else.
As an Ashkenazi going to a Jewish day school, you know a lot about your heritage because it’s also taught to you in school. Your history is part of the curriculum, which means you also know what questions to ask your grandparents when you get home, in order to learn more. As a Mizrahi, not only can you forget about learning about it in school, you don’t even know what questions to ask in order to explore it more deeply at home.
As I sat today with the small group of 30-40-year-old Israelis from Yemenite, Moroccan, Persian, and Tunisian backgrounds, I understood this wasn’t something that only transpired in the US. Even Israelis in this younger age bracket experienced feeling ashamed and only learned their histories if they purposely sought it out, post-schooling days. And most of them felt their life was meant to go the Ashkenazi path and to leave behind the heritage of their family.
Until they realized they didn’t need to do this. They could connect with the traditions of their parents and grandparents, but it wouldn’t be easy. They’d need to consciously search for it. To be Mizrahi, means to want to know your history and prove to yourself and to others that your heritage is worth discussing and showing.
So, we need this month, as a reminder that we have what to celebrate, as a way of elevating stories and histories that haven’t been told, and as a booster for taking pride in our identity.
And I’m sorry to be blunt, but Ashkenazim just don’t need this. Their culture and history is thrown in their face from elementary school. Heck, it’s thrown in the face of every Jewish community (at least those living in the US and English-speaking countries) from that age. They don’t need to choose to know about their heritage. They don’t need to search to know about their heritage. And they don’t need to be ashamed to display their heritage. It’s there, always.
What I wish, truly, is that Mizrahi Heritage Month wouldn’t exist. That one’s identity wouldn’t be tied to one month a year and that one’s history wouldn’t be discussed only one day during the year. That our history would be taught from a young age to everyone, because it’s all of our history. That we’d know what questions to ask our grandparents. That we’d take pride in how we looked, dressed, and talked all year round.
Until now, we’ve only been telling half the story and until we’re ready to tell it all, I’ll be celebrating Mizrahi Heritage Month.