Bringing identities into focus: race, gender & religion.
Mizrahi Jews are indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa. They never left the region; they either remained on the land of Babylon until the middle of the 20th century, or they migrated to neighbouring lands, including those now governed by Iran, Syria, Yemen, Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco, and lived there for thousands of years.
Sephardi Jews are those who ended up settling in Spain and Portugal, until the Spanish Inquisition of 1492 and the Portuguese Inquisition shortly thereafter. During these times, the Christian governments either burned Jews alive, forcibly converted them to Christianity, or expelled them. Those who fled settled predominantly throughout the Mediterranean regions of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire, as well as Mexico and South America--countries include Italy, Greece, Turkey, Morocco, Egypt, Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, and Argentina. Smaller groups of Sephardi Jews settled in countries that border the Middle East and Eastern Europe, such as Uzbekistan and Khazakhstan.
Ashkenazi Jews are those who settled throughout Eastern Europe, as well as in Austria and Germany--countries include Russia, Poland, Hungary, Ukraine, and Lithuania.
Ethiopian Jews are descendants of the union between Queen Sheba of Ethiopia and King Solomon of Israel. The community is several thousand years old, dating back to this Biblical time.
Indian and Chinese Jews are descendants of Jews who engaged in trade between the Middle East and East Asia several thousand years ago.
There has been a continuous Jewish presence in the land of Israel. This community did not have the strength to re-establish the nation-state of Israel following the routine explusions; for centuries they simply lived as religious individuals on the land of their ancestors. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Jews migrated from all over the world-either forcibly or voluntarily-to reestablish the modern state of Israel. Others settled in the United States, Canada, Britain or France.
Over the years, Jewish leaders in the West, as well as non-Jewish leaders from countries with Mizrahi, Sephardi, or Ethiopian Jewish communities, have ignored the history and faces of Jews from the Middle East, Africa, South America, Southern Europe and East Asia. As a result, most Jews grow up knowing little or nothing about non-Ashkenazi Jews.
Underneath these layers of invis ibility are the voices of the women from these communities, muffled by yet another form of silencing: sexism.
As a Jewish feminist woman of colour from a mixed-class background, I grew up under all these layers and then some. Born into an Orthodox Jewish family, with an Iraqi father and an American mother, I have observed and learned much about the intersections of race, ethnicity, class, gender, age and religion.
By the time I was a pre-teen, I could sing the Shebbath and weekday evening prayers in the traditional Iraqi tunes. It was rare for a child my age to know these prayers. It was even more unusual that I could sing with the distinct Iraqi pronunciation of every word--something that is difficult even for Iraqi adults to maintain. I knew dozens of Iraqi Shebbath and holy day songs by heart, and I could sing a good portion of the Haggadah (Passover story) in the Iraqi melodies--both in Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic, the traditional language of many Middle Eastern and North African Jews. I loved singing the prayers, and thus came to realize the significance of carrying on this endangered tradition.
While I was growing up, my father, sister and I went to the only Mizrahi/Sephardi synagogue in our area. With few exceptions, my sister and I were the only children and two of the few females who attended. We walked three miles there and three miles back every Shebbath--on Friday night, Saturday morning and Saturday afternoon. If we had been boys, the entire synagogue would have been proud to see children so committed to their heritage. Because we were girls however, neither my sister nor I were allowed to lead the main prayers. After considerable fuss, I was allowed to lead parts of the supplementary prayers--the reason being that those prayers did not really count. I can remember when, once in a blue moon, a boy would come into the synagogue. Even if he knew very little, or if he stumbled and sputtered his way through the prayers, he would be instructed to lead--instead of me. Once, just as I was climbing the steps to the tebah (altar) to lead some prayers, a boy entered the synagogue and I was literally pulled off the bimah to make room for him. There was a communal sigh of relief from the men in the room.
The message was that my knowledge of, and passion for, Iraqi Jewish heritage was irrelevant because I was a girl. My father repeatedly said that this treatment was not fair, yet we kept attending the synagogue. Accordingly, I learned that although this treatment was not fair, it was acceptable.
I learned to live from a place just behind my potential. The fact that I was bursting with the energy to lead, that in my own mind I was planning to resurrect my heritage some day, was considered meaningless. I began to fear my intelligence, creativity and new ideas, knowing the danger of expressing them. The day I turned 12 and a half--bath mouswa age, when a Jewish girl becomes a woman--I was banished to the women's section in the back of the synagogue. I remember that moment explicitly, becoming separated from active participation in the synagogue and being stripped of what little freedom I had.
In contrast to the bar mouswa at 13, a visible ritual rite of passage for a boy marking his entry into his full place in the Jewish community, being confined to the women's section at bath mouswa is a visible ritual of a girl's shrinking place in her community. Coming of age as a woman did not feel like an honour, but a punishment.
From the time I was five years old, my family made a yearly pilgrimage to an Iraqi synagogue so we could chant the high holy day services in our unique tradition. When I was 12, a Moroccan rabbi had replaced the Iraqi rabbi. My family called him the "Ashkenazi Moroccan," referring to how much he had assimilated into Ashkenazi practice. "What is he doing in an Iraqi synagogue anyhow," my parents would mutter, "he's no Iraqi." My family was upset because every year the rabbi led two or three congregants in singing Ashkenazi songs during Hakafoth (a ritual of joyous prayers for the holiday of Sukkoth.) With their booming voices, they drowned out classic Mizrahi songs, replacing them with Ashkenazi-Israeli songs such as "Heveinu Shalom Aleichem." I ached inside, watching the sad faces on the old Iraqi men as they quietly and sadly gave up singing and walked out of the synagogue.
As a young woman, vocally joining in the songs and prayers was my last attempt to assert my presence. Trapped in the back of the synagogue behind a four foot wall with the other women, I hung over the mehisa (the wall separating women and men) and sang Mizrahi songs at the top of my lungs. Unfortunately, my voice was no match for the men up front. In the women's section `the ladies' only showed up on major holidays and at the tail end of Shabbath services. They talked incessantly after arriving. I had to strain my eyes and ears towards the teba to focus on the services. My eyes faced forward into the men's section, where the action happened and the power resided. I belong up there, I thought to myself every time I attended. They should have me up there leading! The women's section never seemed the place to turn; it usually was devoid of prayer.
As we neared Hakafoth during the year I was 14, I drew in my breath in anticipation. The congregation began by singing a few Mizrahi songs, but within minutes, we were bowled over by the new rabbi and a team singing a boisterous round of "Daveed Melech Yisrael." I felt I had to stop the insanity, and I knew I could not stop it alone. For the first time in my life, I stopped facing forward and turned to look behind me.
I was stunned. I suddenly realized the latent potential that had been there all along. One might say that this moment was the awakening of my feminist consciousness. I jumped out of my seat and began marching up and down the aisle of the crowded section, clapping and singing at the top of my lungs, rousing all the women into rowdy Mizrahi song: "Simhoona, simhoona besimhath hatorah...". I chose songs that were easy to follow, with repetitive phrases; all the women jumped right in, and their expressions snapped from boredom into glee. As the women's voices began drowning out the Ashkenazi songs, the men woke up and joined in with us. Pretty soon, we had taken over with Mizrahi songs!
I marched up from the women's section, crossed the mehisa line, climbed the steps onto the teba, and yelled at the rabbi, "There are at least ten Ashkenazi synagogues down this street alone. If you want to sing Ashkenazi songs, then go to one of those synagogues. This is an Iraqi synagogue, and it's the only one we have!"
I marched back down the steps into the women's section. Then, all hell broke loose; everyone started yelling at each other. I had brought to the surface tensions which had been growing over the past few years: What direction would the synagogue go in? Would it `adapt' (assimilate) to the `modern' (Ashkenazi) ways, or would it remain Iraqi in language and culture? In spite of my bold actions, the resistors did not win that day. After arguments ensued, the new rabbi and his supporters gathered into the room off to the side of the sanctuary. Most of the congregation followed. They began to dance with the Torah (Bible), an act strictly forbidden by Iraqi practice out of care not to drop the holy object. As my parents and I left that day, I heard one of the voices from behind us. "And don't come back."
Since then, I have not forgotten the voices from behind. As an educator and community leader on Jewish multiculturalism, I have spoken about the struggles of Mizrahi and Sephardi girls and women.
In spite of the educational groundwork being laid, I still find myself having to choose: Do I want to go to an Ashkenazi synagogue, where women can participate, or do I want to go to a Mizrahi synagogue, where I have to sit in the back? For many years, I refused to go to a Mizrahi synagogue; it felt wrong to be shut out. But my craving for my culture has reached a point of desperation and I recently attended a Mizrahi synagogue for the first time in six years.
Until there are a significant number of Mizrahi/Sephardi communities that encourage girls and women to participate to the fullest of their potential, I will traverse between worlds, offering pieces of one to the other. Wherever I go, I carry with me the voices from behind.
Three years ago, Loolwa Khazzoom created the first public egalitarian Mizrahi/Sephardi services in the San Francisco Bay area. As well as leading these services, she was asked to be the first female hazan (cantor) for a new egalitarian Sephardi synagogue being established in Seattle. She is also working towards publishing an anthology of writings by Middle Eastern and North African Jewish women.